When I think of the time of the pandemic, I see it as a time of surprises, one rich in missionary activity. This year, in which I celebrated my 25th anniversary of ordination, the Lord allowed me to rediscover the grace of the sacrament of Penance.
Last March, the St. John Paul II Shrine in Washington, where I work as chaplain, was closed to the public. For two months, I said mass, streamed online, in the empty church. At a certain point, I asked to go and visit those sick with the coronavirus but it wasn’t possible. After a few weeks, the management of the shrine asked me to hear confessions in the parking lot. Essentially, we organized a “drive-in” confession service. Little by little, more and more people began to come for confession. Given that the churches where people usually went for confession were closed, we became a much sought-after place.
When I was in Portugal, there was a church in the center of the city where everyone went to confession. An old priest, Fr. Angelo, spent almost the entire day inside the confessional. I always admired his example of priestly life that is totally dedicated to such an important ministry, just like I have always admired the great priest confessors: St. John Vianney, St. Padre Pio, St. Leopold. I have always tried to be generous with the time I dedicated to confession. However, in twenty-five years of priesthood, I had never had the opportunity to dedicate almost the whole day to this sacrament. Listening to the confession of sins, giving advice, and absolving people, one truly discovers how great the mercy of God is! Especially in this time of pandemic, the need to discover the paternity of the Lord has increased greatly in people. Many times, the line of cars and waiting people didn’t allow me to go deeply into the dialogue that I had begun with the penitent. So, I also began to receive people that were asking for spiritual direction or for some advice. This allowed me to meet many men and women and to begin a more stable relationship with them. The hours that I spend in the confessional allow me to truly enter into the drama of the salvation of God at work in the world. Evil and the devil are able to disfigure the human face, but the mercy of God the Father has the power to bring back to life that which had been buried.
At the end of the day, the exhaustion from contact with human misery made me grow in the desire to pray for the people that I had met, to entrust their sins, burdens, difficulties, and problems to the hearts of Jesus and Mary. The confessional increases my desire to pray at all times. It is a place where we can truly help our brothers and sisters to rediscover hope, especially in this moment of confusion. In the confessional, I was able to see how the events that we are living are used by God to bring His children home.
This year truly helped me to learn that mission is not only doing what one imagines would be more useful, but it is an obedience to the voice of God that speaks to us through the circumstances.
José Cortes is chaplain of the National Shrine of St. John Paul II, in Washington, DC. Above, him leading a Way of the Cross