March 30, 2007

‘Welcome home’: Priests, laity sing praises of returning to reconciliation

People wait in line for confession on March 25 at Holy Rosary Church in Indianapolis.

People wait in line for confession on March 25 at Holy Rosary Church in Indianapolis.

By Sean Gallagher

(Listen to the reporter read this story)

Like many Catholics today, Father Bill Williams once struggled with the sacrament of reconciliation.

Even in his early years as a college seminarian, he remained away from it.

Then one night, something happened.

He heard a priest give a presentation on confession during a retreat.

“I got up and walked out on the talk,” said Father Williams. “I went back to my room and I started

reading. I kept getting up and started writing down my sins on a piece of paper, [but] I’d think, ‘This is stupid,’ and I’d go back to reading.

“It’s not that I didn’t believe in the sacrament. It was that I believed, at that point in time, that it had been so long and I was too far gone,” he said, “and I was certain that if I went into that confessional the priest was going to tell me I was the worst person on the face of the earth, and there was no way I could ever be a priest and to forget it.”

After “wrestling with the Lord” for a while that night, Father Williams finally went to the priest whose talk he had walked out on and made a sacramental confession.

“The first thing he said to me, which is what I say to people now that come to me who have been [away] from the sacrament for a long time, was ‘Welcome home.’ ”

Now, as the chaplain at Father Thomas Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis, Father Williams offers confession three Fridays a month.

Priests in other schools and parishes in the archdiocese also make the sacrament available on a frequent basis.

However, they’re finding it sometimes takes a while for people to regularly take advantage of this opportunity.

Msgr. Joseph F. Schaedel, archdiocesan vicar general and pastor of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish in Indianapolis, said confession started to be offered for half an hour before each Mass in the parish about eight years ago, but that it took a couple of years before many of his parishioners started making use of the sacrament on a regular basis.

Now, he says on average about 75 people go to confession each week.

Msgr. Schaedel said he thinks the change has happened, in part, simply because of the convenience of having it immediately before each Mass, what he calls “one-stop shopping.”

He and the associate pastors who have served at Holy Rosary also talk about the sacrament on a regular basis in their homilies.

“I think we have found that the best approach is to talk about the fact that we’re all sinners and we all need God’s mercy, and God’s waiting for us in this sacrament,” Msgr. Schaedel said. “I think preaching hell and fire and brimstone and so on—you’re not going to get anywhere with that.”

When Father Williams first offered regular confession at Scecina in the fall of 2005, he sat alone in a makeshift confessional next to his office.

“For the first month, I sat in there and nobody came,” he said. “Then finally, one week I had two or three that came. The next week it probably doubled.

“There have been Fridays [now] that I’ve heard confessions from 11 in the morning until 3:30 in the afternoon. I’ve had to write passes for them to go back to class.”

Depending on the level of their other commitments, priests who serve as high school chaplains might try to make time like Father Williams to offer confession on a frequent basis.

Msgr. Schaedel noted that for his and other similar parishes, it’s easier to offer confession on a regular basis because two priests are on its pastoral staff. Therefore, he understands why other parishes that either have only one priest or share a priest with one or more parishes have confession less often.

Still, Msgr. Schaedel appreciates hearing confession frequently and wishes that other priests could do so, too.

“It makes me realize that no form of life, married or unmarried, is perfect,” he said. “And also, in a general way, it kind of gives me some ideas on what … I should be preaching about.

“What are the everyday struggles and temptations and problems that people are facing? It gives you a much greater appreciation for where people are coming from in their lives.”

Priests in the archdiocese that regularly hear confessions noted that those who come to them on a weekly, biweekly or monthly basis aren’t really that much different than most other Catholics.

“Every walk of life has representation in the confessional,” said Father Gregory Bramlage, who hears confession before each Mass at St. Nicholas Parish in Ripley County, where he serves as pastor.

“They all line up along the wall. And so people can see what kind of folks are going in. They see it’s the farmers. They see it’s the businessmen. … They see it’s the little children,” he said, “so I think people see themselves in the folks who line up against that wall and pretty soon, they’re up against the wall and they’re coming in to confession as well.”

But Father Bramlage also has his fair share of penitents who have been away from the sacrament for a long time.

Like Father Williams, Father Bramlage knows what it’s like to be in their place. At one time, he hadn’t gone to confession in years.

When he finally returned to the sacrament, he didn’t know what to do. The priest who heard his confession, though, gave him some help.

“He said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll help you,’ ” said Father Bramlage. “And so that’s what I say. I say, ‘I’ll walk you through it.’ … They don’t know what to say, so we just help everyone through.”

Mark Ford, a member of Holy Rosary Parish, used to go to confession less often. But since joining the parish eight years ago, it has become a regular and fruitful part of his life.

“It’s kind of like anything else, if you don’t use it, you lose it,” he said. “And so by not going that often, you kind of get out of the practice. When I started going to Holy Rosary, it was just amazing how frequently the sacrament was offered here.”

Ford said that, for him, a primary motivation to go to regular confession is to experience the healing that comes with it.

“You feel healed, especially when you’ve really messed up and you’re walking around with all this guilt,” he said. “To hear those words of absolution, ‘Your sins are forgiven, go in peace,’ you do feel that peace.”

When Father Williams returned to the sacrament of reconciliation, he encountered the mercy of God.

“When it happened, I knew then that truly it was Christ who was at work,” he said. “It was amazing, and I think that that impact is what has driven me to encourage so many others to go to confession.

“This is truly the greatest way, other than through the Eucharist, to experience the love and the mercy of God,” Father Williams said. “That, then, should motivate us to go and should motivate us to come out of [it] with the grace of that sacrament to be better and more faithful Christians. That can be nothing [but] a positive experience, and not a negative one.” †

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