During my first four years in the priestly ministry (1974-78) I was a chaplain at Siena College near Albany, New York, and all the students went home around December 17, after final exams. Thus there was no compelling reason for me to remain on campus, and for all my years at Siena I was recruited to serve on confession duty for the week before Christmas at two of our downtown shrine churches in New England: New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island. I spent two years at each location. New Bedford was busy enough, but Providence was the Atlanta Airport of lost sinners.
I should explain a few things here. First of all, the Franciscans, like some other religious orders, operated non-territorial service churches in the heart of major metropolitan centers. In these churches Mass was offered frequently throughout the day and confession was available at all times, along with parlor counseling and an information center. Our Manhattan shrine church had a 2 AM printers’ Mass early on Sundays after all the city’s papers were bundled and hit the streets. I seem to remember that in New Bedford there was a 1:15 AM Sunday Mass, possibly to coincide with the closing of the bars. I can’t recall exactly why, but one of the insomniac friars was regularly assigned to it.
In the 1970’s, when the tradition of confession was very strong, the desire to confess before Christmas brought huge throngs of shoppers and business folks to these centers, as the friars had a generally well-deserved reputation as both competent and caring confessors. These friary communities were staffed by dozens of veterans of ministry to the city and the confessional. For me, as a very new priest, it was a great opportunity to learn from them during coffee breaks in the schedule and late at night when the guardian unlocked the holy water closet in the rec room. The Christmas communities in these friaries were also graced with friars in graduate studies, Advent mercenaries like myself who were not quite used to our shrine church confessional schedules—two hours on and two hours off, starting at 6 AM.
One of them, a very witty Irishman, woke up at 5:55 AM for his 6 AM shift in the box. He jumped out of bed, threw on his habit, and raced to the lower church (the shrines generally have upper and lower churches and confessionals.) He threw open the sliding door of the confessional to hear his first confession, and an individual laid out an enormous trail of wrong-doing. When he finally completed his confession, my friend blurted out, “Lordy, my good man, I haven’t even had my coffee yet!” Humor aside, the confessional ministry of such churches is a remarkable phenomenon of the mid-twentieth century, and I am glad I had a chance to catch the tail end of it in my lifetime. (I visited our Manhattan and Boston sites recently, and while a confessor or two is still available on call, the shrines seem to have shifted direction to social outreach, evidently the greater demand today.)
It was a three or four-hour bus ride from Albany to New Bedford or Providence. The two competing bus lines then running that route were Almeida and Peter Pan. I have no idea if they are still in existence today. As soon as I would arrive, my name went up on the confessional board and I got my “Father Visitor” name plate to slide in the confessional door. I had heard confessions before, assisting in penance services in parishes near Siena College, and the occasional student, of course, but nothing prepares you for the shrine church experience. First of all, there is the physical experience of at least eight hours (spaced out, of course) in a totally dark box.
The religious/psychological experience, of course, is rather intense. Given the press of the holidays, many of the penitents were not making the “devotional” confession, but rather, they were reviewing long periods of time in their lives, with the emphasis upon the things that shamed them, troubled them, or put them at odds with their understanding of Church morality. They wanted to settle their hearts in the hope of having an oasis of the Christmas peace that all the Christmas cards were promising them.
From the confessor’s side, there were frustrations—at least for me—in the knowledge that their sinful and/or troubled trajectories were probably not going to be meaningfully changed by some instant wisdom on my part. Absolution, of course, imparts divine favor and genuine forgiveness, but as St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, grace builds on nature, too, and in their confessional honesty these folks were sharing their flawed natures, pain that cried out for much more than I could give them that moment.
It was a great advantage, though, to hear confessions under a corporate umbrella, so to speak. I was able to tell them that this very church has some wonderful priest-counselors, and I was able to give them names of friends whose competence was beyond question. I think the most rewarding thing about the confessional experience was the profound home that maybe this shot-in-the-dark moment of intense piety would be the beginning of a journey to health. It is no accident that our shrine churches all sheltered AA groups, for example. (Which reminds me: how I wished the inventor of the confessional had given some thought to an air-freshening system. Some sins announce themselves upon arrival.)
I had some funny experiences myself. The one that lingers with me was an impatient woman who was also pretty deaf. When I slid my little door open to her side, she was talking to herself out loud, complaining about me and how I was taking too long with the other penitent. I gently called out that I was ready, but she didn’t hear me, and the longer she didn’t hear me, her remarks about my fitness for the ministry became more and more pointed. Finally, I was able to get her attention—I think I hit the wall with my Franciscan sandal—and she pleasantly proceeded with business.
And, it was true that I worked in cities that were, uh, mobbed up. So let’s just say that yes, the Tony Soprano--Pauly Walnuts--Johnny Sacks—Christopher Moltisani folks made Christmas confession like everybody else. I was at a bit of a loss about appropriate penances, but they all seemed used to three Hail Mary’s and there were limits to my theological creativity and my nerve.
As I said, I could pretty much count on eight hours of steady confessional work. This does not include my assignments to the daily Mass schedule, the St. Anthony Novena, and the Tuesday Charismatic Mass (which was known to run well past 10 PM.) On Christmas Eve my temporary guardian would buy me an airline ticket home for the 25th and roll off a crisp hundred-dollar bill for me to take my parents to dinner. There are many worse ways to spend Christmas.
Have a wonderful Christmas Eve yourselves!