In this time of Advent, we are looking toward the Second Coming of our Lord, even as we prepare for the celebration of His First coming at Christmas time. There are many ways that we celebrate, prepare ourselves during Advent. Many of my friends have started an Advent Reflection blog or facebook page, each day reflecting on the daily readings at Mass, or in one case, reflecting on different readings from the Bible, but with the same themes as what we as Catholics read and reflect on. I have a college alumni who is not Catholic, but started doing an Advent Reflection last year. He says it is one of the most refreshing and uplifting exercises he has done in his Christian life.
One of our traditions is to have a Penance Service during Advent and another one during Lent. Usually as soon as possible at the beginning of each season. This years Advent Penance Service was on the first Monday of Advent. We had 16 priests from our vicariate come to hear confessions and give absolution for those confessed sins. The church was packed! Standing room only. Since it was not a Mass, and Father Mark didn't really need my help on anything, I got to sit with my wife in the pews (not a common occurrence in our parish, since I am usually on the altar assisting with the Mass). There was an opening song, a Scripture reading, a short homily and then a community penitential rite, the introduction of the priests and then GENERAL CHAOS ensues.
I say general chaos, because no matter how well the staff prepares the areas where the priests will hear confessions, or how orderly the lines are taped out on the floor, people just crowd to be the first in any line so they don't have to be there too much longer (I would hope it is because they want to get reconciled with God quickly before it's too late, but the cynic comes out in me). We do have certain priests who are very well thought of and considered very good confessors. Their lines fill up even before the service starts, they are usually placed in the choir room and the meditation chapel, so the lines run along the side walls of the church and the line does not impede the actual service proceedings.
As I reflect on how our penance service went, I am struck by a few things.
1: There are so many who coming, wanting to be cleansed and reconciled with God and his people, I wonder where they are during the rest of the year when we have regular reconciliation on Saturday mornings, or by appointment if they can't make it then. I realize that Church Law says that one is supposed to confess at least once a year, but I can tell you from personal experience it is needed more often than that.
2: If we had another priest on staff here at our parish (we only have the one, and he works a lot), I can't help but think that we would be able to better serve our community with those sacraments that only a priest can provide. (we deacons can only do so much you know).
3: When it was my turn to go to reconciliation, I went to a priest with whom I had never confess to before. He is a convert to Catholicism, coming to us from the Anglican Tradition, so when he was ordained a Catholic priest, he became one of the few MARRIED priests we have here in our diocese. It was a truly different experience to talk to a married priest, one who had, in all likelihood, gone through the same experiences that I have gone through in my married life. Does this mean that I am in favor of getting rid of the celibacy discipline for priests? Absolutely not! An unmarried man can put all of his energies into ministry, not having to worry about pleasing a wife or running a household (these are Paul's words, not mine).
So the lines started to form, and my wife and I helped with directing the penitents to awaiting priests. I felt a sense of joy; joy that so many people were there to find peace and absolution and resolving not to continue in the walk of sin. May your Advent be a blessed season as you look towards the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.