Thursday, March 30, 2017

"A Pastoral Priority" – For Lent, "The Light Is On"... or Is It?

Along with Friday fish-fries, the weekly Stations and giving up something (or doing something more), recent years have brought a new tradition of Lent: the Pope going into overdrive to plug his favorite sacrament.

Yet even as The World's Most Coveted Pitchman again devoted the better part of a week this month (and amid the high exposure of his election anniversary, at that) to another round of all-Confession, all-the-time messaging – topped as usual by taking his own turn as a penitent during the season's annual penance service in St Peter's – in at least a hefty chunk of the trenches, the takeup on that call is still running strangely thin, above all in terms of its widespread availability.

After reprising his broader invite to "our Father's mercy" during the week around the Vatican's rite, Papa Bergoglio returned to chiding the world's pastors over doing their part, using his mid-month talk to a training-course for confessors to remind that easy access to the box or Reconciliation Room "is a pastoral priority" – and urging that, in their parishes, "please, do not let there be those signs that say, 'Confessions only on Monday and Wednesday at such-and-such a time.'

"One [hears confessions] whenever one is asked," Francis said, asking that "if you are there [in church] praying, stay with the confessional open, which is the open heart of God."

While the most recent figures report that nearly half the US' Catholic population "never" partakes of the sacrament, on a coast-to-coast anecdotal level, two other realities help flesh out the nuances of the scene. For starters, it's broadly become the case that the standard timeframe inherited from another age – namely, only one dedicated hour (or, these days, often 30 to 45 minutes) on a Saturday afternoon – simply isn't the "sweet spot" it once might've been in terms of the convenience of the faithful. On the flip-side, however, ask practically any pastor who's added scheduled availability on weeknights, elsewhere on the weekends – or even, especially in major cities, during workday lunch-hours or quitting time – and pretty much as a rule, the lines show up in short order. (And on a lesser, but still notable front, while the words "or by appointment" are a universal add-on to Confession times, most of us are still looking to meet someone who's actually done so.)

Of course, this time of year sees an attempted remedy with the time-honored patchwork of parish penance services on a lone Lenten weeknight. Given the habits of the modern faithful, though – lives either spent "parish-hopping" due to family or job schedules or, as is mostly the case, participating less than weekly for any number of reasons – for all their good intentions, even these efforts can easily get lost in the mix beyond the proverbial "choir."

Along these lines, then, it's worth recalling that as the "Death of Confession" storyline doesn't fully hold water, for its most prominent counter-evidence, this year brings a major milestone.

The longest-running major initiative of its kind, these 40 Days mark the tenth anniversary of Washington's launch of "The Light is On For You" – the annual push that, now held in tandem with the diocese of Arlington, sees every church in the capital metro area open for Reconciliation from 6.30-8pm every Wednesday of Lent. In subsequent years, Cardinal Donald Wuerl's relayed that some 80 percent of the DC presbyterate sought for the move to become an ongoing diocese-wide custom, noting that "in many parishes each successive Wednesday brought more people to church for reconciliation, and in some cases during Wednesday of Holy Week priests heard confessions for three, four or five hours." What's more, diocesan officials there even recall receiving unbidden thank-you calls from people who randomly came across word of the effort, and felt great about taking up the invite after years adrift.

While several other dioceses have picked up the weekly "Light" format – among others, the churches of the 2 million-member Boston archdiocese hold it every Lenten Monday – the season's end brings another style of major local Confess-a-thon: New York's Reconciliation Monday, held at the start of every Holy Week, which sees each of the 700-plus sites across the archdiocese and the dioceses of Brooklyn and Rockville Centre open with priests at the ready from 3-9pm. Covering an area with over 5.5 million Catholics in the nation's largest statistical area, the Gotham event likewise takes place in Advent, on the Monday before Christmas.

In case one's missing the obvious: do you notice how every place that has an hour on Saturday afternoon isn't being mentioned here?

Again, much as the shape and timing is adapted by place, in an age when the church's target audience is broadly dispersed and equally difficult to reach, despite the differences, these full-scale local initiatives haven't merely succeeded, but become widely anticipated – and, hence, you're reading about 'em – for two critical reasons: first, a consistency that allows a precise day and time to be easily taken to memory, an instinctive act of recall which only grows over several years of it... and most of all, the commitment across not just one local church, but several dioceses in the same media market, which helps the joint spread of paid advertising (transit ads, TV spots, etc.; one example seen above at the Mets' ballpark) and drumming up free "blanket" coverage on the effort by mainstream press, whose circulation almost always spreads across several sets of diocesan lines.

On the latter point, when the topic's Confession, you can always bank on a boatload of public interest (lest anyone forgot, look at all the "Live at 11" ratchet The Indult racked up). Adding to that is the unique reality (read: boon) of a moment when any release from official channels which begins with: "Responding to the call of Pope Francis..." is de facto catnip for local newsrooms – and just about everyone else. In any case, this is the kind of coordination for which dioceses were made, and when it's handled at that macro level, the amount of planning and resources it entails is a relative drop in the bucket considering the likely result.

Lastly, as ever, no riff on the box can come without recalling the first challenge of communicating Penance: namely, acknowledging and easing the intimidation factor that – especially for folks who've been away from the sacrament, and quite possibly the pews at large, for a long stretch – is more prevalent, and often deeply-felt, than tends to be addressed, and which remains the foremost inhibition of all. Yet even that's no overpowering hurdle; for a Pope who's fond of sharing – or, perhaps, reassuring – that the Confessional "isn't a torture chamber" atop giving voice to a widely-felt sense of welcome, all that remains is amplifying the message where it needs to be heard most.

Long story short: if Lent's a time to get one's own priorities straight, that's all the more the case for ecclesial life writ large. And when it comes to a matter that, even more than a simple "priority," is arguably the most pressing pastoral emergency the nation's largest religious body faces, it's not that taking action has failed... it's that, across much of the map, it still just hasn't been tried.