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
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
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
"A good sacramental encounter means that a sense of hope has been
restored," said Maccaroni. "It's the ability to move forward with
"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
(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
-- Next: Reconciling marriages