- The Washington Times
Thursday, April 2, 2020

The cars stream into the parking lot of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan — repentant motorists seeking absolution.

“They drive into our parking lot and they come up to the priest, who is seated there and maintaining the expected distancing,” said Father James Conlon. “And then the priest hears confession in a regular way and gives them the penance.”

Father Conlon says some — abiding by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s ban on meetings in indoor spaces — just walk up and ask to receive confession.

“I often refer to our community as a web of relationships centered around Christ,” he said, “and we don’t have that in a physical sense right now.”

Inventive methods of confession — formally called the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the Roman Catholic Church — are popping up across the country amid the coronavirus pandemic, which temporarily has halted traditional worship and religious services across the country.

At Saint John the Baptist in Draper, Utah, Father Stephen M. Tilley parks his Jeep Wrangler in a lot to hear confessions.

At St. Edward the Confessor in Bowie, Maryland, Father Scott Holmer also hears confessions, sometimes behind a makeshift partition, seated on a chair near a road. Social distance is maintained, and parishioners are able to receive at least one of the sacraments in their vehicles.

“In general, I’d say, ‘Yeah, no,’ if someone tried to do this on a normal basis because the Church expects that confessions should be in a church and a proper place,” said Father Andrew Menke, director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Divine Worship. “But as long as they’re able to speak to each in person and maintain all the recommendations … from a Catholic perspective, it works.”

So the drive-by confessions proceed.

At St. Francis in Ann Arbor, Father Conlon does not offer a partition, so confession must be face-to-face. Listing sins to a priest behind a grill in a confessional is still practiced by about half his parish, Father Conlon says, noting that the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 no longer require such anonymity.

“Oh, people will have to get over that,” Father Conlon said. “Their desire to receive absolution and reconciliation has to be stronger than their desire for anonymity.”

In Utah, Father Tilley has set up orange cones around his Jeep in the parking lot of his campus after some of the early-adopter penitent came too close to his Jeep. He says he’s had non-Catholics pull up, as well.

“Everyone has a wound right now,” he said, referring to the high school seniors who won’t finish their year as they had dreamed or the worker just laid off. “I’m just there to talk.”

With coronavirus cases increasing and isolation measures becoming more stringent, there’s no telling when Mass will return to normal. Some groups comprising lay people have circulated an online petition calling for bishops to demand that governors declare religious services as “essential” or that social distancing protocols be eased to reinstate the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, currently on hold in many dioceses for fear of the highly contagious virus.

“God willing, this is a relatively short problem,” said Father Menke, who noted such strictures have been implemented and embraced by church leaders. “Most bishops are trying to do what they can to protect people.”

But, he added, if the coronavirus-related measures remain in force for 18 months, the willingness to distribute and receive the sacraments will change.

Father Tilley says diocesan rules currently allow him to perform two sacraments — funerals and reconciliation. Just this week, he postponed a wedding. He’s looking to find ways to open the church for adoration, but fears he’ll break the 10-person rule recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s actually rather difficult [for priests, too],” Father Tilley said. “Right now, I don’t think most priests are on a spiritual retreat.”

He says his day bounces between making phone calls, opening and closing the church for a few hours for mid-day prayers and the food pantry, and doing what he calls the “meet me at the Jeep” confessions.

“It’s a wound because we’re naturally a people of communion,” he said.

But it’s not the first time the church has responded to a public health crisis. During the Spanish flu epidemic a century ago, churches were shuttered, too.

“Online has been a great blessing,” said Father Conlon, who live-broadcasts three Masses each weekend. “They didn’t have that in 1918.”

Nor did they have drive-through confessionals. But the Holy Spirit moves in new ways — even on four wheels.

• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at cvondracek@washingtontimes.com.

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