Priests: Penitents grateful for extended opportunities

| March 10, 2016 | 0 Comments

To fuel up for his 4-5 a.m. shift during 24 Hours for the Lord at the Cathedral of St. Paul, Father Tom McDonough stopped at a gas station for coffee March 5, telling the people inside he’d be at the St. Paul church hearing confessions. While acknowledging he probably wouldn’t see them in the confession line, he said they were intrigued that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ co-cathedrals were opening their doors for a full day for people to receive the sacrament of reconciliation.

As one of about 80 priests participating at the Cathedral and the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, Father McDonough, who often assists at the Cathedral and other parishes, said he felt like he was part of something special during Pope Francis’ Year of Mercy, and he had a sense that penitents did, too, noting that many expressed their appreciation afterward.

“People were grateful,” Father McDonough said. “If priests are there, people will come.”

A priest hears a confession at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis March 4 at the start of 24 Hours for the Lord. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

A priest hears a confession at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis March 4 at the start of 24 Hours for the Lord. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Father John Ubel, the Cathedral’s rector who was appointed a missionary of mercy by Pope Francis, also said many people thanked him for being there to hear their confessions.

“What came across to me is the old ‘Field of Dreams’: ‘Build it, and they will come,’ and I think it’s a message that when we’re generous with offering opportunities for mercy and forgiveness, people respond,” Father Ubel said. He estimated that 1,250 people came for the sacrament over the 24 hours.

Father Ubel, who was a confessor for about eight of the 24 hours, said confessors were busy at the Cathedral until midnight. For his 4 a.m. shift March 5, he considered but ultimately decided against bringing reading material. He wouldn’t have needed it anyway, due to the steady flow of people. Many of the priests who signed up for an hour ended up staying for two or three, he added, while others, including Archbishop Bernard Hebda, the archdiocese’s apostolic administrator, “jumped in” for an hour. Bishop Andrew Cozzens also participated.

“It’s the best kind of ‘tired’ that there is, knowing that you’re helping people in this way,” Father Ubel said. “I just thought it was a very successful initiative and endeavor.”

Father Ubel said Cathedral employees took shifts so that the event was staffed at all times. And parishioners provided “wonderful hospitality” with soup and sandwiches for priests in the sacristy, along with creating laminated cards with the priests’ names and the languages they spoke as a guide for penitents.

At the Basilica, Father Nathaniel Meyers, who helped coordinate the event, estimated that several hundred people came for confession. He said Father Joseph Williams brought a busload of his parishioners from St. Stephen in Minneapolis.

“It’s always a privilege to be able to hear confessions, and it certainly was nice to be able to go assist people outside of my own parish to be a part of the larger mission of the Church through this particular sacrament,” said Father Meyers, who heard confessions at both the Basilica and Cathedral.

Father Ubel said he’d like to see 24 Hours for the Lord, or some version of it, offered every year. When Pope Francis announced the Year of Mercy, he asked for 24 Hours for the Lord to be held in every diocese worldwide. While it has been held since 2014 in Rome, this is the first time the event has taken place in the United States. Father Meyers agreed with Father Ubel, suggesting such an event take place at the deanery level in order to reach more people.

“The idea of the event wasn’t really to have it be a one-and-done thing and then wait till next year,” said Father Meyers, pastor of St. Francis Xavier in Buffalo. “We offered it for these 24 hours as a reminder — to make sure that people understand that God’s love [and] God’s mercy is available in the sacrament whenever they need it . . . whether at our parish or a neighboring parish, but to know that the sacrament is always there for us.”

Missionary of mercy comes with special role

According to Father John Ubel, rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul and missionary of mercy named by Pope Francis for the Year of Mercy, all missionaries have been given permission in the name of the Holy Father to remit Church penalties, or excommunication, incurred by several sins, including:

• Desecration of the Eucharist
• An act of physical violence against the pope, which Father Ubel noted as unlikely
• Violation of the sacramental seal of the confessional

Father Ubel said the main purpose of the missionaries of mercy is being “visible signs of reconciliation and mercy to the people of God.”

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