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November 21, 2011

St. Anthony of the Desert was a wealthy landowner in the third century. Upon walking into church one day when he was 34, he heard Jesus’ words proclaimed: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19.21).

Anthony took those words literally. He gave away some of the family estate and sold the rest, giving the proceeds to the poor. He spent his remaining 57 years in the desert, living a life of asceticism and prayer, counselling people and inspiring the development of monasticism.

Anthony is but one example of how the Church is revitalized when the demands of the Gospel are presented in all their rigour.

Today perhaps we are afraid of scaring people off by presenting the Gospel as a challenge. Yet, when we look at our soft society, we see many people eager for a challenge. They run marathons, hire personal trainers to demand that they stress their bodies to the limit and assume added responsibilities in the workplace as much for the challenge as for the extra pay. There is a “market” for a hard, difficult life.

One misconception about the Second Vatican Council is that it made life easier for Catholics. It’s true that the council was followed by a reduction in the number of obligatory days of fast or abstinence, Saturday evening Masses were permitted, Mass was no longer celebrated in a difficult, archaic language and other Church disciplines were made less onerous.

However, a central council teaching was the universal call to holiness. The laity, in particular, were no longer to be satisfied with obeying the Ten Commandments and precepts of the Church. The council stated that all the faithful “are invited and obliged to holiness and the perfection of their own state of life.” We are all called to the “pursuit of perfect love” and “the spirit of evangelical poverty” (Constitution on the Church, 42).

The clearest evidence that few have taken up this call is the small numbers who frequent the sacrament of Confession. We labour under the illusion that this sacrament exists primarily to forgive mortal sins.

In fact, Confession is a positive sacrament that not only forgives sins, but also fills us with grace to avoid future sins and live out our love of God and neighbour. In Confession, we examine our lives and resolve to take actions to avoid especially those sins that are habitual.

The call to holiness means accepting the challenge of the confessional. This sacrament will bear little fruit if we only receive it once or twice a year. There is no shame in admitting the Christian life is difficult and that in order to live it well we need to make frequent use of Confession throughout the year.