by María Morera Johnson
I went to drive-thru confession.
Had I made an effort, I could have made other arrangements, but I admit the creative outside-the-box allure of this opportunity attracted me. I wonder, and am even hopeful, that the novelty of this solution has attracted people who might not have been to the sacrament in a long time.
I admitted as much to the priest, who shrugged and invited me to get started. A line was forming behind me.
There was nothing different about the sacramental experience. I mean, besides the obvious point that I controlled my A/C in my car while he sat under a tent in his clerics and stole in the heat and humidity of the Gulf of Mexico. Everyone else was starting Happy Hour at home. We were sharing a different kind of happy hour.
It was a traditional confession, and when it was all over, I received absolution after expressing my sincere contrition and resolve to sin no more.
Nevertheless, I’m certain I’ll be back for confession before this Lent is over. When I’ll trust this good man of God or one of his brother-priests will be available with a smile, ready to be the gentle face of Christ, the powerful agent of mercy that is a gift to us through our priests and this powerful sacrament.
Social media buzzes with opposing opinions about this solution to provide the sacrament of reconciliation, especially to large congregations.
My own pastor dismissed the possibility, but understandably so. We are a small parish in a rural part of southern Alabama. Most of us have his cell phone. He doesn’t have a posted hour of Confessions on Saturday afternoons because he is available, formally, 15 minutes before Mass every day, but actually, anytime we ask. Now, during the closures of public masses and locally imposed social distancing, he’s happy to sit in the garden by the church, at an appropriate distance from the penitent.
That, however, is not a practical solution for the typical parish in many urban and suburban settings. Many large parishes operate with one or two priests and rely on parish reconciliation nights with visiting priests to offer the sacrament on a large-scale in order to serve their parish and community, especially during Lent. Frankly, with that availability gone during this pandemic, the drive-thru confessional opens up the availability of the sacrament in an efficient way.
The stalwart faithful, those who don’t need a little nudge to seek the sacrament, will figure out a way to make an appointment.
Local options may vary
Similar approaches are growing. I noted one priest on social media volunteered to hear confessions through the storm door at the rectory, separating him from the penitents. Another priest suggested confession at his office window.
Rumors are circulated of phone calls and virtual confession through apps, too. That, of course, is not allowed in any situation.
The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation requires the presence of both the priest and the penitent. Any virtual setting compromises the seal of the sacrament and eliminates the tangible experience of Christ’s mercy through the presence of the priest. Spread that message, please.
Nevertheless, the lack of a practical solution to the inaccessibility of confession places souls in peril. We truly need the grace from the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Pope Francis noted that in this unusual time, it is wise to confess our sins to God and he has encouraged bishops to allow the use of general absolution for large groups under the understood requirement to seek a proper confession when it becomes available.
Suddenly the idea of a drive-thru confession during a pandemic ceases to be neither a kitschy or trendy thing — it becomes a heroic act for both penitent and priest.
Through the years, I’ve seen priests offer confessions in various places under usual and unusual circumstances: in airports, on park benches, at picnics and field days, and by the ocean on a field trip with teenagers. Somehow, sitting under a tent or an awning in a parking lot doesn’t sound exceptional at all. It’s not that different from those reconciliation nights where space is a premium and confessions are heard in spare rooms and cafeterias.
Perhaps, we should be referring to what’s going on in church parking lots across the country — where God’s merciful grace is pouring down — as, quite simply, confession. The drive-thru part is just incidental.
María Morera Johnson is an award-winning, and best-selling author of My Badass Book of Saints and Super Girls and Halos. Her new book, Our Lady of Charity: How a Cuban Devotion to Mary Helped Me Grow in Faith and Love, is a spiritual memoir. Johnson is an international speaker, retreat leader, and contributor to various Catholic publications. Learn more at MariaMJohnson.com.
Pictured: Fr. Stephan Vrazel, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, Mobile, Alabama.
Photo courtesy of María Morera Johnson, used with permission.