My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
On Monday, Dec. 12, here in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois we will have an "Evening of Repentance and Prayer for Those Harmed in the Church," in which we will ask God's healing for those who have been harmed in the church, express our repentance for those sins, and seek God's mercy and forgiveness.
I will preside at this prayer service at 7 p.m. on Dec. 12 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Sixth and Lawrence Streets in Springfield. Simultaneously, identical services will be held in each of the six other deaneries, or districts of the diocese, to accommodate those from outlying areas:
In the Alton Deanery, at St. Boniface Church in Edwardsville;
In the Decatur Deanery, at Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Church in Mt. Zion;
In the Effingham Deanery, at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Teutopolis;
In the Jacksonville Deanery, at Our Saviour Church in Jacksonville;
In the Litchfield Deanery, at St. Agnes Church in Hillsboro;
In the Quincy Deanery, at Blessed Sacrament Church in Quincy.
The title chosen for our evening of repentance and prayer was given much thought and reflection. In calling this an "Evening of Repentance and Prayer for Those Harmed in the Church," the preposition "in" is important. People may be harmed in the church by her sinful and imperfect agents, but people are never harmed by the church, which is the holy means of our salvation.
Our great Holy Father, Blessed John Paul II, helped us to understand this distinction in asking forgiveness for the sons and daughters of the church — not for the church, per se, for she is the holy bride of Christ. This was the heart of Blessed John Paul II's plans for the Great Jubilee of 2000: that the church cleanse its historical conscience at the end of the second millennium, in preparation for a new springtime of evangelization in the third. Similarly, it is my prayerful hope that we can have a new springtime of evangelization in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, but in preparation for this we must first cleanse our historical conscience.
I see this evening of repentance and prayer as my desire, while I am still near the beginning of my pastoral ministry as bishop of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, to express our repentance and seek God's pardon for the sins of the past, that his grace may bring us healing for the faith to flourish in the future.
I am not the first bishop of Springfield to express such repentance and prayer for pardon. In his Pastoral Letter on Reconciliation, issued Feb. 10, 2008, the Most Reverend George J. Lucas, now Archbishop of Omaha, wrote, "I want to ask forgiveness for the offenses caused by any representatives of the church, and I want to call all members of our diocese to a renewed effort at reconciliation in our families, our parishes and our communities."
It is in that same spirit that I express repentance for the sins of the members of the church who have harmed others. Sometimes these harms were evil in themselves, such as the sins of racism and the sexual abuse of minors, as well as other forms of unchastity. At other times, the harms may have been done in the context of actions that were in themselves not sinful and may even have been necessary for pastoral or economic reasons, such as the closing of a church or school, but nevertheless were done in a way that was insensitive to the feelings of those who would be affected.
Therefore we pray for all those who have been harmed, that with God's grace they may be able to forgive, since it is through forgiveness of those who have harmed them that they will begin to experience God's healing and come to a place of peace in their relationships with God and with others. We pray for those who have perpetrated harm and have sinned against others, that they may recognize how they have hurt God, their victims and others who have been offended by their actions, and that God may administer justice tempered by his Divine Mercy.
Our repentance this month is not a Lenten penance, but an Advent preparation for the rebirth of a Christmas spirit in the church, a spirit that can celebrate anew the joy of Christian faith with the innocence of a small child. Dec. 12 is also the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In the image of our Blessed Mother that miraculously appeared on the cloak of Juan Diego, the Virgin Mary is depicted as being pregnant. As such, we join in Mary's joyful expectation and anticipation of the birth of her Son, that the presence of Jesus and His love may grow in our world, in our hearts, in our minds, in our words and in our deeds.
May God give us this grace. Amen.