The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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April 14, 2000 Issue
Jubilee 2000
Open Wide the Doors

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned

Reconciliation services can help to ease many people back into confession

Ninth in a series

By Eileen Marx

Going to confession can be scary for people who haven't participated in the Sacrament of Reconciliation in a long time. For some, approaching the sacrament through a parish communal reconciliation service makes it less daunting.

Fr. Vincent Gartland, pastor of St. Ann Parish in Lawrenceville, N.J., and the minister to priests for the Diocese of Trenton, keeps that in mind, so reconciliation services in his parish involve a lot of preparation and participation.

"If it's done well, people will come back," he said. "I don't think anybody likes to go to confession and talk about how they've failed, but during that encounter, if I've brought God's love and forgiveness to that person, then I feel it's been a positive experience."

During this Jubilee Year, Pope John Paul has called Catholics to reconciliation as a way to build a better world community.

Mercy Sr. Beth Dempsey, pastoral assistant at St. Ann's, noted the empowering nature of reconciliation.

"What's wonderful about a communal penance service is that people learn their own need for reconciliation in the midst of community," she said. "They see 'my neighbor needs reconciliation and so do I.' They realize that seeking God's forgiveness is not something we do in isolation. After celebrating as a community, a person is often moved to say, 'I need to talk to a priest one on one.' "

Gary Maccaroni, also a pastoral assistant in the parish, notes that often there is resistance to going to confession.

"People might say, 'I don't need the sacrament; I can pray to God on a mountain top anytime I want to ask for forgiveness.' That's true, but how often do we go to the mountain top? If the opportunity isn't offered, there' a tendency to keep it in our heads. We believe that God is made present through signs and symbols. The celebration of the sacrament connects the individual to the communal life of the church."

St. Ann has communal reconciliation services in Advent and Lent because traditionally those are the seasons when people are drawn back to the church. But the pastoral team believes one of the best opportunities for encouraging people to receive the sacrament of reconciliation is when parents bring their children for the sacraments of First Reconciliation and First Eucharist.

"The preparation for the children begins with their first year of formal education, but the parent education piece is the most important part," Fr. Gartland said. "First Reconciliation is more than standing there and watching your child receive the sacrament. It's a challenge to the adult community to participate in the celebration of the sacrament."

Sister of St. Joseph Carol Heffner, St. Ann's religious education director, sees First Reconciliation as a chance for outreach.

"Parent meetings are opportunities for evangelization. Many parents have been away from the church, but when it's time for their child to receive a sacrament, they want to return. They realize the importance of passing on rituals and the sacraments to their children," she said. "But there's a lot of fear in returning. The meetings are aimed at overcoming their fears and making it easier to come back to church."

Fr. Gartland noted the human depths touched by reconciliation.

"I believe the need to be forgiven is a basic human need for survival," he said. "We have to learn to be a forgiving people. We believe that God is always ready to forgive us; we simply need to ask for that forgiveness. It's incumbent on the church to help people get in touch with that forgiveness through our atmosphere and our attitude."

Sr. Heffner noted that sometimes a step must be taken before people actually want to go to confession.

"There are a number of parish programs whose ministry is to welcome back Catholics who have left the church," she said. "I attended one of these meetings and the priest began by saying, 'I know people are estranged; I know there have been very real hurts.' And then he apologized in the name of the church for all the past hurts and invited the people to come home to their church. You could see the effect it had on everyone there. It was very powerful and healing."

What makes for a positive sacramental encounter so that a person will continue to experience the forgiving Jesus at work in their life?

"A good sacramental encounter means that a sense of hope has been restored," said Maccaroni. "It's the ability to move forward with enthusiasm again."

"It means that I've prayed well and there is a oneness, a closeness with God," said Sr. Dempsey.

"For me, a good celebration of the sacrament means that I've accepted that not only has God forgiven me, but I've forgiven myself - and that's often the more difficult of the two," said Sr. Heffner.

(Marx lives in Lawrenceville and works in public relations for the Trenton Diocese. She has written Renew 2000 family materials. The Compass carried her family life column until she stopped writing it.)

-- Next: Reconciling marriages

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