BALTIMORE –– Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, challenged his brother bishops to undergo their own conversion and renewal.

dolanNew York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, gives his president’s address at the opening session of the bishops’ annual fall meeting in Baltimore Nov. 12. (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)One characteristic of this renewal is the sacrament of penance, Cardinal Dolan said.

“This is the sacrament of the new evangelization, for as Pope Benedict reminds us, ‘We cannot speak about the new evangelization without the sincere desire to conversion,'” Cardinal Dolan said during his presidential address on the opening day of the bishops’ Nov. 12-15 fall general assembly in Baltimore.

“I know I risk the criticism –– I can hear it now: ‘With all the controversies and urgent matters for the church right now, Dolan spoke of conversion of heart through the sacrament of penance. Can you believe it?’ To which I reply, ‘You better believe it!’ First things first!”

Cardinal Dolan said, “We cannot engage culture unless we let him (Jesus) first engage us, we cannot dialogue with others unless we first dialogue with him, and we cannot challenge unless we first allow him to challenge us.”

He noted that during the recent series of “ad limina” visits with Pope Benedict, the pope told the bishops, “As with all spiritual crises, whether of individuals or communities, we know that the ultimate answer can only be born of a searching, critical and ongoing self-assessment and conversion in the light of Christ’s truth.”

The recently concluded world Synod of Bishops echoed the papal message, Cardinal Dolan said. In the synod’s closing message, the bishops declared, “We firmly believe that we must convert ourselves above all to the power of Jesus Christ who alone can make all things new, above all our poor existence. With humility we recognize that the poverty and weaknesses of Jesus’ disciples, especially of his ministers, weigh on the very credibility of the mission.”

Reconciliation “brings us sacramentally into contact with Jesus, who calls us to conversion of heart, and allows us to answer his invitation to repentance — a repentance from within that can then transform the world without,” Cardinal Dolan said.

“What an irony that despite the call of the Second Vatican Council for a renewal of the sacrament of penance, what we got instead was its near disappearance.”

Cardinal Dolan said, “The answer to the question ‘What’s wrong with the world? What’s wrong with the church? is not politics, the economy, secularism, sectarianism, globalization or global warming … none of these, as significant as they are.” He quoted author G.K. Chesterton, who wrote, “The answer to the question ‘What’s wrong with the world?’ is just two words: ‘I am.'”

“Most of all,” Cardinal Dolan added, “we work at giving our people good examples of humble, repentant pastors, aware of our personal and corporate sins, constantly responding to the call of Jesus to interior conversion.”

He said, “We need the sacrament of penance because we are profoundly sorry for our faults, failures and our sins, serious obstacles to the new evangelization. But then we stand forgiven, resolute to return to the work entrusted to us — as evangelizers of the Gospel of mercy.”

The next day the bishops were to vote on a statement encouraging Catholics to consider Lent 2013 as an opportunity to return to regular celebration of the sacrament of reconciliation. The statement highlights the connection the pope has made between confession and the new evangelization during the Year of Faith.

Cardinal Dolan said the work of the USCCB in the coming year would include “reflections on re-embracing Friday as a particular day of penance, including the possible reinstitution of abstinence on all Fridays of the year, not just during Lent.”

“Our pastoral plan offers numerous resources for catechesis on the sacrament of penance, and the manifold graces that come to us from the frequent use of confession,” he said. Next June, he added, the U.S. bishops will have a special assembly to pray and reflect on their mission, including “our witness to personal conversion in Jesus Christ” and to the new evangelization.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Vatican nuncio to the United States, echoed Cardinal Dolan’s call in his own remarks to the U.S. bishops immediately following those of the cardinal.

Noting that there have been some clergy who “out of weaknesses have brought great pain to others,” Archbishop Vigano reminded the bishops, “We must continually undergo conversion ourselves … so people have faith and confidence in us.”