Pastoral outreach for the great Jubilee

Author: Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua

A Shepherd Tends His Flock

Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua
Archbishop of Philadelphia, USA

Like a shepherd he feeds his flock and gathers the lambs in his arms, holding them carefully close to his heart, leading them home.

These words from the hymn embracing pastoral references to the Good Shepherd could be used to express the tenderness and an all-embracing effort developed by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to focus on the themes for the third year of preparation for the Great Jubilee Year 2000: reconciliation and the sacrament of Penance.

A specially-designed approach was developed to reach out to those who had neglected the sacrament of Penance and had become estranged from the Church for whatever reason.

This archdiocesan-wide, five-phased programme resulted in a most successful and wonderful joy-filled Reconciliation Weekend on 19 and 20 March of this year, which brought joy—often commingled with tears—to over 100,000 individual penitents, families, the priests and the entire faithful of the Archdiocese.

The reaction of confessors to the many penitents who returned to the Church after many, many years frequently described as an experience of joy comparable only to the day of their ordination. The experience suggests a sharing of the details of the five-phased programme which might be of spiritual profit to others.

The five phases were interrelated and provided a continuing catechesis and spiritual reflection beginning with a renewed appreciation of the symbol of our Redemption—the Cross.

In the first phase, a special Cross of Reconciliation was fashioned out of olive wood from the Holy Land, imbedded with a relic of the True Cross, then blessed by our Holy Father in May 1998. This Cross made its journey of 41 weeks throughout the 41 regions or clusters of parishes in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia where it was venerated in prayer services attended by the faithful from parishes in each of the clusters. The devotion of the faithful to this sacred symbol of our Redemption touched the hearts and souls of tens of thousands of the faithful. It was a common experience to witness old and young coming forth to kiss and touch the Cross, to pause in prayer and reflection, perhaps to cry, always recognizing God's infinite love for them, even with their failings; to thank Jesus for his sacrifice and perhaps to beseech him for the grace of returning to the practice of the faith.

A second phase was built into the period of preparation to assist those individuals who might be thinking of returning to the sacraments or returning to the Church. It was felt that some would need a way of consulting with a priest about their personal problems or misgivings, or their personal reasons for their alienation. It was also felt that the best approach for these individuals would be to establish a toll-free phone line which would be available to them and which would guarantee confidentiality and protect their anonymity throughout their discussions.

Over 150 priests volunteered to answer the special phone line. Special arrangements were made to secure a phone line which would remind the caller of his or her Catholic background: 1-877-BLESS ME. This toll-free phone line was initiated in November 1998.

A special binder was developed which provided the priests with suggestions and material to answer a variety of personal matters and topics, such as abortion, AIDS, contraception, drug and alcohol abuse, homosexuality, pornography, etc. The binder provided a handy reference to answer these and other subjects from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and other reference libraries. Every caller was advised of Reconciliation Weekend to be held on 19-20 March 1999. A great number of questions focused on the topic of annulments and arrangements were often made right over the phone for the party to consult personally with other specially trained priests or with the Metropolitan Tribunal. The positive effect of this approach was immediately reflected in individuals who approached the sacrament of Penance.

The special phone line was broadly advertised through the media, including TV, radio, billboards, etc. The response was phenomenal. As many as 100 calls were received each day at the height of the programme. The response of the priests staffing the line on a volunteer basis was overwhelmingly positive. The sacrifice of their free time was a gratifying experience. The line continues to this day with over 18,000 calls received during the past six months. The decision was made to extend the use of this line indefinitely.

Many people of other Christian churches and other faiths have also made use of the line to make inquiries about the Church's position or to seek advice on spiritual problems and the spiritual life. It was made clear that absolution from sins could not be made over the phone. Subsequent to Reconciliation Weekend, the BLESS ME line was augmented with a special connection to the archdiocesan Website as The response to this approach has been equally, if not more, phenomenal. Again volunteer priests are preparing answers to the questions received on the Website. To date, over 1,450 inquiries in the two-month period have been registered.

A third phase of preparation consisted of seeking volunteers from each of the parishes to visit each of the 434,000 homes within the Archdiocese and to deliver personally a letter of invitation from the Cardinal Archbishop to participate in Reconciliation Weekend. These "home visitors" were asked to deliver this special invitation and a packet of catechetical material specially created for those who have been away fromthe sacraments. To promote a sense of unity within the Archdiocese and as an impetus for the promotion of enthusiasm in this evangelization effort, a special "kick off" Commissioning Ceremony was arranged for mid-January. Approximately 5,500 persons attended a most inspiring ceremony at the University of Villanova Pavilion. Each person attending the ceremony received a personal and formal invitation from the Cardinal Archbishop. The programme consisted of welcoming remarks, a procession and enthronement of the Cross of Reconciliation, thus tying in the previous phases of preparation. This was followed by an excerpt video presentation, on two giant screens, of remarks from the homily of His Holiness John Paul II during his visit to San Antonio, Texas, 18 September 1987. The next part of the ceremony focused on the role of the home visitor and the commissioning of the home visitors. One individual from each of the six vicariates was chosen to represent the other "visitors" present, either in the hall or at home. Each was invested with a special model of the Cross of Reconciliation by the Cardinal. As each of the six received the Cross all others from that vicariate invested themselves. This ceremony was followed by the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and the blessing of the entire congregation. The ceremony had a most profound spiritual impact on the participants. Many were moved to tears of joy as they accepted this newly-found responsibility and the newly-found realization that they were fulfilling a personal commitment to the Gospel and the new evangelization.

A total of over 11,000 home visitors were involved. Subsequent to the formal ceremony of commissioning, similar ceremonies were arranged at many of the home parishes of the participants, thus creating a local catechetical moment at many of the parishes and expanding the enthusiasm.

The visitation of homes within the Archdiocese and the delivery of Reconciliation Packets comprised the fourth phase and took place from mid-January to the beginning of March 1999. The Reconciliation Packets contained the following:

—the letter of invitation from the Cardinal asking each parishioner to become an agent of reconciliation extending the invitation to participate in the sacrament of Reconciliation, especially to those who have been "away from the Church";

—a colourful picture of the painting of the prodigal son by Murillo with the Scripture account on the reverse side;

—a colourful catechetical brochure on the sacrament of Reconciliation written in a popular style;

—an examination of conscience to assist those who had not been to the sacrament in recent years and needed help with the format and prayers for confession.

During all phases the promotion of Reconciliation Weekend continued to be promoted through means of the BLESS ME phone line and the media. During the final days of preparation a most effective and personal appeal was made by the Cardinal on radio and television

The culmination of all these archdiocesan efforts was reached in the celebrations of Reconciliation Weekend, 19 and 20 March 1999. Arrangements were made for confessions and penance services to be held in 81 selected Millennium Reconciliation Churches, where individual confessions were heard. A common prayer penance service was created by our Archdiocesan Office for Worship and used in all of the parish Churches selected.

It should be noted that on that weekend confessions were heard only at the Millennium Churches, thereby underscoring the uniqueness of the occasion This did not preclude the hearing of confessions in other churches as long as the times did not conflict with the times of confessions in the Millennium Churches. This also permitted the creation of a "pool" of confessors who could be assigned to the selected Churches on the basis of area population and geographical convenience. I and my Auxiliary Bishops joined approximately 1,100 priests, including diocesan and religious-order priests, active and retired, who made ourselves available for assignment. In addition to these churches, five "downtown" churches also scheduled confessions at hours more appropriate to workers in the centre city section of Philadelphia.

Parishes were encouraged not to schedule any events that would compete or interfere with confessions in the Millennium Churches. Catholic high-school and grade-school students were encouraged to receive the sacrament at special school-arranged services and to encourage their parents to attend one of the scheduled services. The confessions of the students were not included, as such, in the total number of confessions heard on the weekend.

At each of the Millennium Churches confessions were heard on Friday evening, 19 March, from 7.00 p.m. to 9.00 p.m., and on Saturday, 20 March, from 10.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m. The penance service introduced both sessions.

As the weekend approached, a sense of anticipation and excitement filled the entire Catholic community and spilled over to the people of the entire city. The opportunity for returning to the Church and of receiving the sacraments captured the attention and the admiration of thousands, including the public media, which gave extensive coverage throughout the area.

It is impossible to chronicle the thousands of stories of joy which came to individuals and to families as a conservative estimate of 100,000 took advantage of the opportunity. Families embraced at the return of a loved one. Tears of joy were apparent everywhere. It was not uncommon for the priests to welcome back to the Church many thousands of persons who had been "away" for 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 and even 60 years. Nor did the spiritual joy of those who came "back" exceed the joy of the priests themselves. The success of Reconciliation Weekend was truly the work of the Holy Spirit whose powerful grace brought together all segments of the Church—Bishops, priests, religious and laity—in this unique millennium endeavour.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
12 May 1999, page 9

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