I’m part of a relatively small parish in Arkansas, and there is only one other Catholic church in our county. We are share a priest with that congregation.
And this year during Lent, like countless other parishes across the country, my parish will hold a penance service.
If we are lucky, our pastor will be able to get a priest from a parish, 30-60 miles away, to come and set up a makeshift confessional in an office or classroom. Even with an extra priest or two, the lines for confession will be long: ten or twenty sinners deep.
But if this year’s penance service is like recent ones, Fr. Joseph will be our sole confessor. One year, my 10 year old son and I waited in line for two hours.
When I attend one of these penance services, even as I wait my turn to unburden myself of my sins, I am often tempted to complain (at least inwardly) about the wait, about my tired feet and my aching back.
However, since becoming Catholic 18 years ago, I have not only grown in my appreciation for the tremendous blessing of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I have also come to appreciate these penance services and the long lines that are an inevitable part of them.
Here are some of the blessings I have discovered of a long line for confession:
1) More time to pray!
I try to go to reconciliation often, and I always try to be well prepared for my confession. I go through an examination of conscience. I make check list. I pray. But during a particularly long wait a couple of years ago, it occurred to me that I could use that time do even more.
As I stood in line, I had time to pray for my pastor. I asked the Holy Spirit to give him wisdom. I also prayed a prayer of surrender, of trust. I tend to think the grace of the sacrament is dependent on my ability to make a good confession, to remember everything and to articulate myself well. And to a certain degree that is true. A well thought out, thorough confession is certainly better than a poorly prepared confession.
Still, in the end, all grace is a gift: a gift I must receive in faith. So, as I waited my turn, I entrusted my confession to Jesus, knowing that He would guide me and that God would be merciful no matter how imperfect my effort.
2) Solidarity with other penitents
When I wait in line at a penance service, I am always moved by the sight of so many people seeking forgiveness and healing. We are all there, waiting together, to receive the same beautiful gift.
I love to see old people, 20-somethings, young children, families, and everyone in between waiting (and waiting and waiting) to lay their sins before God.
Confession is always powerful, but there is something exceptional about so many different people gathered together in one place to confess their sins and to receive God’s healing mercy.
3) A humbling sense of gratitude
When I am tempted to grumble inwardly about the line for confession, I think about people who don’t have the freedom or the opportunity to go to confession. Would Catholics living under oppressive regimes or in war-torn regions complain about a 45 minute wait time?
Not only that, a long line is proof that God is working in the hearts of His people. It means souls are coming to him in droves. How grateful I should be to wait behind so many other penitents!
4) Time to read some those pamphlets and fliers in the back of the church
While waiting in line a couple of years ago, I picked up a handout in the back of the church called Father’s Love Letter. It’s beautiful. I might never have noticed it if I hadn’t had all that extra time on my hands.
5) It’s a pre-penance
Maybe I’ve made it sound as if all my wait time has become a spiritual exercise in gratitude and surrender. Ummmm, not entirely. I still struggle not to grumble to myself.
But if nothing else, waiting in a long line for confession gives me something to offer up, and it gives me a chance to practice patience.
* * *
I am extremely grateful for the sacrament of reconciliation. Since my conversion in 1999, I have loved confession, though, like most sinners, I often dread it and sometimes even put if off.
Standing in line, while unpleasant at the time, has only added to my appreciation for this sacrament and has helped me realize all the more what a blessing it is to be able to go to a priest and lay my sins before God—no matter how long it takes.