Pope Francis, in his Message for Lent 2015, pleads: “Dear brothers and sisters, how greatly I desire that all those places where the Church is present, especially our parishes and our communities, may become islands of mercy in the midst of the sea of indifference!”
I live at the La Salette Shrine in Attleboro, MA. As I was sitting at the supper table recently, it occurred to me that I can testify to the fact that our Shrine and the hundreds of La Salette Missionary priests, brother and sisters who have served here – over the past 62 years and counting – have been a true “island of mercy”. We are living examples of the hope which Pope Francis expresses so well.
Our Charism of Reconciliation
Our charism (or gift) as consecrated La Salette religious is reconciliation which includes the reconciliation of sinners. One important aspect of this charism is, for the priests of our community, to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation – or as my mother would describe it, “Going to Confession.”
From the very inception of our Shrine in 1953, we have offered sometimes extensive hours of availability for celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Our old-time members mention that they remember confessions being available from 8am to 6pm, five days a week. Others remember their three-hour sessions each day. Someone described our ministry as “celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation with everybody else’s parishioners”; that is, the Church at large in our area and beyond.
At table recently I asked one priest, now 85 years old, how many people came to Reconciliation in his 1pm-2pm session. He said that he and two other priests in that hour celebrated with 42 people. Note that, as has been our custom for many years, after each hour of celebrating, we list how many people we have served. This past year we celebrated with over 42,000 people, some coming back to active practice of their faith after 30 or even 50 years of being away form the Church. What a privilege we have to be true “islands of mercy” for these fellow Catholics.
Touching Minds and Hearts
We meet and celebrate with people of many ethnic backgrounds, including English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian. Some appropriately ask if they can say their “Act of Contrition” in their native language. If we are able, we will respond by giving them absolution in their own language as well.
Often after their confession, people will thank us for being available to celebrate with them. One person mentioned to me that she thought it was nice that I didn’t speed through the absolution but said it slowly and with feeling. I always do my best to be present and compassionate.
I asked some of our priests what people have said to them about their feelings about celebrating the Sacrament with us at the Attleboro Shrine. They said:
• your presence and availability
• your compassion for me
• the option to be anonymous (we offer the options of confessing either face-to-face or behind the screen)
• a choice of confessors and the many languages they speak
• teh advantage that I don’t know your priests personally
• you listen very well
• I’m not rushed and can ask questions
Not many people know that we also celebrate with many priests from around the area at almost any time of the day. We have a buzzer system and the priest on duty is always available for priests in our area. Often these priests, after their celebration, thank us directly for being here and doing this with them. That too is a great privilege of our ministry of reconciliation.
Why do we offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation so often?
Again, I asked our priests why we continue this long tradition of offering the Sacrament for so many hours a day. They answered:
• This is wonderfully fulfilling for me as a priest
• By doing this, we express well our charism of reconciliation
• It's a wonderful compliment to all the other services we offer here – daily and weekend Masses, regular healing services for English, Spanish and Portuguese pilgrims, and our many other programs and retreat offerings and services
• A wonderful opportunity for us to accompany others and offer them compassion and mercy on their journey of faith
• This is a real source and opportunity for evangelizing and welcoming people back home to our family of faith.
In this year of Consecrated Life, we are choosing to respond to Pope Francis and his frequent reminder that we are to be compassionate and merciful people as a Church. Our Shrine is offering two special days of availability for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. On the last Friday and Saturday of March – March 27-28 – we will be available for the Sacrament of Reconciliation from 7AM-7PM, as we have done in our early days as a Shrine.
God clothes us with goodness and mercy
It all that we do as Church, it’s important to remember that it is God who is in charge, God who leads us, God who saves us. We are but servants who walk together on the road back to the Father. As Pope Francis also reminds us: “Christians are those who let God clothe them with goodness and mercy, with Christ, so as to become, like Christ, servants of God and others... It is my prayerful hope that this Lent will prove spiritually fruitful for each believer and every ecclesial community.” To this we should all answer a soulful, “Amen!”