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Repairs and Resolutions

January 1, 2009

Repairs and Resolutions

New Year's is the traditional time for resolutions. Some are made lightly and quickly forgotten, while others are well thought through and often do more good than is commonly believed. Like most priests, I am regularly asked after Christmas to offer suggestions for New Year's resolutions; and my response is always the same. Moreover, when possible, I like to tell two little stories to explain the response and perhaps make it a bit more compelling. Let me begin with the stories.

In the fourth-grade classroom of my parish school some 67 years ago, there was a rather elaborate Christmas crڈche that stood in a corner on a large cotton-covered table and boasted an impressive stable with a straw roof and a colorful set of plaster statues, some of which stood a foot high. One day, shortly before Christmas, a tall, ungainly boy rushed past the crڈche and knocked one of the plaster shepherds to the ground. The result was a shepherd without a shoulder and an arm, but for the rest not too badly damaged. The boy apologized profusely, and the Sister who taught the class calmed him immediately. It was an accident, she observed, and accidents will happen.

The next day another boy came to class to share with all of us what he termed "great news." In a toystore where he bought the components for model planes, there were also crڈches on sale, he reported, and one of them matched the crڈche in our classroom perfectly. Moreover, the enterprising boy had learned from one of the toystore clerks that individual statues from the crڈche were available to be bought for a price that the youngster characterized as "not too bad." Thus, he proposed that we take up a collection and buy a new shepherd. All agreed enthusiastically—except Sister. She had taken the broken shepherd to the school janitor, she announced, and he had glued the shoulder and arm back onto the statue. The glue was drying and, in due course, Sister assured us, the shepherd would reclaim his place in the crڈche.

'It's actually a blessing," Sister observed, "that we have a broken and repaired shepherd in our crڈche. For it reminds us at Christmastime that we are all in a sense broken. We don't always tell the truth. We often daydream at Mass when we should be speaking to the Lord. We may even take things that aren't ours. And about this," she added, "we should not be at all surprised. In one of his Epistles, St. John, the Beloved Disciple of the Lord, wrote that if we say we have never sinned, we are liars. No one is perfect. In all lives there is a certain amount of breakage, as much as we wish there were not." "But we can be repaired," Sister proclaimed with considerable emotion in her ordinarily very restrained voice, "and we all know how. The Lord, Who forgave St. Peter, St. Thomas and many others arranged that we be forgiven in a way that leaves no doubt about the forgiveness as long as we are truly sorry for what we have done. This is, of course, Confession, the Sacrament of Penance. That's where we get forgiven. That's where we get repaired. That's where we restore our friendship with the Son of God, Who came on earth at Christmastime to save us from our sins. Our shepherd was broken, but he is being repaired. Soon he will be back in the crڈche close to the Newborn King." "The same is true of us," Sister continued. "When we sin, we need to get ourselves repaired as soon as possible. No waiting. No hesitation. No embarrassment. You just go to Confession and put yourself back in the embrace of the Lord Who loves you and yearns to forgive you—and me too—whenever we need it." The next day the shepherd was restored to his corner of the crڈche. We inspected him carefully to try to see where the shoulder and arm had been attached. No one could be sure. The janitor had done a splendid job.

More than 30 years later, I was in charge of a parish in a troubled, inner-city neighborhood. At Christmastime, a committee of men and women set up the parish crڈche with remarkable speed and care. Poinsettia plants were put in place, straw was added to the stable floor, the angel's wing was straightened out, and I was invited to come to see the final product. I congratulated the committee most enthusiastically but wondered where the Magi were. "Do you wait until the Epiphany to put them out?" I inquired. "No," the Chair of the Parish Council replied. "Two of the Magi were badly damaged three years ago. Their heads were broken off when we were repacking the crڈche. We don't use them anymore." "Could we have them repaired?" I asked. "We tried," a committee member responded. "But the glue would never hold. The heads are too heavy. The only thing that works is duct tape, and that looks terrible."

I told them about the broken shepherd of my childhood and wondered if they would reconsider the duct-tape approach. There was little enthusiasm for the suggestion. Nonetheless, on New Year's Day, as I made my way to the altar for the parish Mass at noon, I noticed that there were in the crڈche three Magi, two with heads attached with duct tape and, frankly, not looking at all bad, at least to me. After the Gospel, I put into my pocket the notes that I had prepared for the homily and went over to the crڈche to speak from there. Once again, I told the story of the broken shepherd in my parish school and all of a sudden found myself repeating the lesson about brokenness and sinfulness that I had heard many years before from a wise and devout religious woman.

'Like the Magi here in our crڈche," I said, "we are all in a sense broken. For we are all sinners—some more, others less, but all without exception. We therefore need to be repaired. We need to have our sins wiped away by an all-loving God, Who wishes nothing so much as to forgive our faults and failings and keep us ever in His embrace. That is why the Divine Savior gave us Confession, the Sacrament of Penance that repairs all damage resulting from sin if we are sorry for the wrong we have done and anxious not to repeat it." I took a breath and pushed on. "Promise me," I pleaded, "that you will get to Confession here or in another church before next Sunday." Then, on the spur of the moment, without having intended to say anything of the sort, I added, "And promise me too that you will do this every New Year's as long as you live, whether you are in serious need of Confession or not." The congregation was virtually 100 percent African-American. All of a sudden, promises were being made out loud on every side. As I returned to the altar, I could not have been more delighted.

Some months later, I was given a new priestly assignment. On my last Sunday in the parish, a "goodbye" reception was held in the school hall. The Chair of the Parish Council presented me with a beautiful violet stole, the kind that priests wear in the confessional. "It's for a shepherd who likes to repair broken Magis," he remarked with a wink, "and makes great New Year's resolutions for them too." After that, I have had only one New Year's resolution to propose. Nor do I expect that I will ever have another.

Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York

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