Priests offer outdoor confessions in time of 'social distancing'

BRAINTREE -- In a Lenten season of "social distancing," when Masses have been suspended and civic authorities are urging people to stay home to avoid spreading the COVID-19 virus, priests are looking for creative ways to minister the sacraments to their parishioners. A few in the archdiocese have been trying a new way of offering the Sacrament of Reconciliation: creating an outdoor "confessional" with a "drive-through" or "walk-up" setup.

The idea seems to have originated from Father Scott Holmer, pastor of St. Edward the Confessor Parish in Bowie, Maryland. A Catholic News Service article dated March 18 reported that Father Holmer had heard confessions in the church parking lot, with penitents staying in their cars and speaking to him through the window while he remained outside, maintaining a safe distance of several feet. This way, penitents would not have to touch the same surfaces in the confessional or be in close proximity to the confessor or others waiting their turn.

"We thought that this (was) a safe way in which lines could be created without putting anyone (in) danger," Father Steven Clemence, the pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Marlborough, said in a March 19 interview.

Father Clemence offered the Sacrament of Reconciliation outdoors on March 18-20.

"I think it's very important, in this moment more than ever, for us to be doing what God called us to do to be the instruments of mercy, to be the servants of God, to be these missionaries," he said.

He pointed out that people were still leaving their homes to pick up material goods.

"We thought it's also important for them to be (spiritually) nourished, to receive God's mercy, to receive the graces that God wants to give them," Father Clemence said.

At Our Lady Comforter of the Afflicted Parish in Waltham, the pastor, Father James DiPerri, and the parochial vicar, Father Francis Pham, heard outdoor confessions in the afternoon of March 21 and the morning of March 22.

Father DiPerri said they got the idea from talking with other priests considering similar alternatives.

"We're fortunate at Our Lady's, we have a very big parking lot with a big driveway, so it's situated to encourage that type of creative pastoral outreach," Father DiPerri said.

Father Corey Bassett-Tirrell, parochial vicar of the Chelmsford Catholic Collaborative, heard his first "drive-through confessions" in the parking lot of St. Mary Church on March 18. Members of the faith-formation team put up signs and directed traffic for him.

Speaking to The Pilot on March 23, Father Bassett-Tirrell said he sees this as "keeping in line with what the Church has always done, and that's going out and meeting the people in their needs in the most trying times."

The information about the outdoor confessional went out less than 24 hours before it was set up, yet there was a sizable turnout the first day. Father Bassett-Tirrell credited the parish's pastor, Father Brian Mahoney, and their communications coordinator, Christine Trznadel, for already having put the technology in place to notify parishioners that confessions would be heard this way.

"Communication is key," he said.

Father Bassett-Tirrell said a couple of people expressed to him that they had only recently come back to the Church, and that they thought this method of hearing confessions was a "less intimidating way" to begin receiving the sacrament again.

"It was at that moment that I said, 'Yes, we're doing the right thing,'" Father Bassett-Tirrell said.