|Written by Michael Fones|
|Monday, 02 April 2007 11:23|
I just returned from a Lent full of parish missions in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Washington. All four were wonderful experiences for me, partly because they all involved hearing many, many confessions. I easily heard well over one hundred-fifty confessions. That number, however, pales in comparison to what happened at St. Thomas More Newman Center in Tucson, AZ, home of the Dominican community to which I'm assigned.
Last Thursday night the Catholic community at the University of Arizona held what I would call "Confessapalooza." What else would you call fourteen confessors, 300+ penitents, a twelve-piece praise band and a Mexican dinner held in the parish hall? Taking the story of the prodigal son as a model, the Newman staff decided to emphasize the joyous response to the surprise of forgiveness, and the aspect of the celebratory feast that the Father holds for his reprobate child.
Now, perhaps having 300 penitents at a communal penance service is the norm at your parish, but in the past at Newman, they've typically had about 50 or so, including the children preparing for first (and sometimes, last) confession. What was different about this year's? First of all, the season of Lent was intentionally approached as a community-wide event, and commenced the season with a community-wide retreat. The Dominican friars who are the clerics at the Center carefully prepared their preaching throughout Lent to focus on various aspects of forgiveness, and the communal penance service was consistently mentioned in their preaching. By the time the day arrived, there was a real sense of anticipation in the community.
The community gathered at 5:30 p.m. for an authentic Mexican fiesta, followed by a communal penance service that began at 7 p.m. After a liturgy of the word, preaching, and examination of conscience, the priests stood in the sanctuary and other parts of the church while penitents came and confessed while the remainder of the congregation, led by a very talented group of college students sang. Three times the singing was interrupted by a testimony on the experience of going to confession prepared in advance by two undergraduates and a graduate student - who gave her testimony in Spanish.
Fr. Bartholomew Hutcherson, O.P., the pastor of St. Thomas More, said that priests who participated in the event walked away amazed - and at least one copied aspects of it for the communal penance service in his own parish, while other priests spoke of how powerful the service was.
Fr. Bartholomew told me that a number of parishioners who had not received the sacrament for extended periods spoke to him of their renewed appreciation for the sacrament, and it was such a powerful experience for the community that people are asking to have communal penance services more often than just Advent and Lent!
The penance service lasted less than 90 minutes, and almost all the people present took part in an individual confession!
One of the talks I gave for each mission focused on the sacrament of reconciliation, and I, too, heard confessions of people who had been away from the sacrament for decades. I think it just goes to show that if we speak of the importance of this sacrament, and make it readily available, we may very well be surprised at how many Catholics will take advantage of this experience of the Lord's love for us.