Last Monday evening I welcomed the parents of our children who will be receiving the sacraments of Reconciliation and First Eucharist this year to a meeting laying out our expectations and anticipation regarding the preparation of their children for Reconciliation. I stressed that this is an exceptional year of blessing for their families, for it brings the experience of Christ ever closer to their children. I shared that when I was growing up we often were fearful of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which we called confession and later penance. I remember the experience of my first confession - not what actually was said - but the entry into the darkened "box" with the little night light to give some reassurance, the priest behind the screen (he was gentle), and the physical sigh of relief when it was over. I assured them that we strive to make sure that this experience is not the one their children will encounter, but rather one of gladness and joy.
Pope Francis the other day said in a talk that the confessional is "not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord's mercy motivates us to do better". He has had much to say on the matter in his first six months in the Chair of Peter, a great deal of it by way of his "tweets". Just on Wednesday he tweeted "God's forgiveness is greater than any sin". On the 19th of September he tweeted "we are all sinners, but we experience the joy of God's forgiveness and we walk forward trusting in his mercy".
In this Year of Faith, our Diocesan Church is encouraging the Sacrament of Reconciliation by way of Regional communal celebrations. A series of articles were published in the diocesan newspaper and sent to the parishes as inserts in the bulletins (loads of paper expended). We were encouraged to preach on this great gift and encourage our people to attend one of the celebrations. In our parish we did something different for us, we sent a postcard to every registered family (1,200) informing them of the four services in the area and telling them to mark their calendars. We also encouraged them to celebrate the Sacrament when scheduled on Saturdays. But despite our efforts, our response is small - minimal, in fact. Our region, population wise, is one of the largest in the diocese, and yet the attendance at the first two Penance services was underwhelming (maybe 55 at the first and about 60 last evening at the second). There were thirteen priests available - I heard four confessions. Granted, there is much rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner than over those who have no need to repent. Maybe the next two (the next two Monday's) will bring out the crowds.
My concern is not "filling the church" to make a show, but rather the reality that people today have lost a sense of sin, of remembering what Pope Francis again pointed out on May 22nd "To live according to the Gospel is to fight against selfishness. The Gospel is forgiveness and peace; it is love that comes from God." We have lulled ourselves into thinking that this sacrament is irrelevant to our every day lives. As Church, we have a tremendous amount of catechesis to do, witness to bear, and ministry and love to present in our lives of Faith, so that everyone will understand Pope Francis' tweet of August 25 "Don't be afraid to ask God for forgiveness. He never tires of forgiving us. God is pure mercy."