Pope Francis with UND delegation
Recently, Pope Francis greeted a delegation from the University of Notre Dame. He offered the following exhortation to his guests, but more broadly, to be received by Catholic colleges and universities everywhere. He said:
In my Exhortation on the Joy of the Gospel, I stressed the missionary dimension of Christian discipleship, which needs to be evident in the lives of individuals and in the workings of each of the Church’s institutions. This commitment to “missionary discipleship” ought to be reflected in a special way in Catholic universities, which by their very nature are committed to demonstrating the harmony of faith and reason and the relevance of the Christian message for a full and authentically human life.
This “missionary discipleship” is the impetus for Saint Joseph’s College Theology blog, which arose out of the desire on the part of the faculty for the Online Theology Programs to foster intellectual engagement among each other and in the wider arena of the Church in which our students and graduates live out their vocation of discipleship in many and various ways, such as religious educators, pastoral associates, hospital chaplains, college professors, campus ministers, just to name a few. The topics discussed in this blog reflect the varied interests of the bloggers, and so the topic of our inaugural blog on this Ash Wednesday is Confession.
The Medicine of Confession
It is thanks to the medicine of Confession
that the experience of sin does not degenerate into despair.
Augustine, Sermon 82
It is fitting that a blog’s debut on Ash Wednesday be devoted to Confession. It may, however, seem odd that a college sponsored blog kick off with sin. After all, in the ever increasing competitive market, many universities are clamoring to attract students by highlighting the warts-free ideal. It goes something like this: You, prospective student, are terrific. We, the college for you, are terrific. Together, we are perfect.
Maybe so, but since this is a blog of Catholic theology, sin and redemption are foremost in our minds. Catholics – theologians or otherwise – view those they encounter as souls in need of salvation. That is to say we see others and ourselves as possessing an immortal soul and that human actions are for the good or the ill of others, not just here and now, but eternally. When a teacher of Catholic theology remembers that core truth and teaches in sincerity and with humility and joy – all the while sensitive to the diverse needs and backgrounds of his or her students—the extraordinary happens. The student who doesn’t “feel” terrific and may be on the brink of despair, experiences something wonderful: hope. For Catholic students, the Sacrament of Reconciliation may seem like a wonderful starting point, for in the confessional, “hope springs eternal,” as the saying goes.
After my son made his First Confession at age seven, he ran to me and blurted out, “Mom, I feel like I have never sinned in my entire life.” While we are reluctant to speak of “feelings” in relation to faith—as feelings come and go–what he really was conveying was an experience of grace that involved his entire being. When not even ten minutes later he started fighting with his brother, I was tempted to say, “So, do you remember now what it feels like to sin?” Of course, I bit my tongue and refrained from sharing the proverbial parental “gotcha.” It was well I did keep silent because that initial grace of the confessional stayed with him, and later when the experience of sin became more profound as one matures and grows, Confession was a home to which he could return, a respite from the crushing weight of sin and guilt, and a place of hope from which to set out on the path of True North again and again.
Patricia Ireland is the Director of Theology Programs for Saint Joseph’s College Online.