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March 1, 2009

St. Mary’s 24 hours of grace Lake Forest parish hears confessions ‘all night long’

By Father Matt Gamber, SJ


Father Michael McGovern, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Lake Forest, has come up with a successful set of ingredients to help jump start Lent at his parish and among Catholics in the northern part of the archdiocese. He said he mixes together one parish church, the Ten Commandments and at least 13 priests to create the sacramental sustenance known as “24 Hours of Grace.”

“24 Hours of Grace” at St. Mary’s means the church is open for a full day, with priests hearing confessions round the clock — morning, noon and night.

This was the third consecutive year that McGovern made his parish a place to jump start a penitential and spiritually fruitful Lent.

McGovern assembled a roster of priests who were available starting at 9 a.m. after the morning Mass on Feb. 27 to administer continuously the sacrament until after the 8 a.m. Mass on Saturday, Feb. 28. It all took place in the parish church. Opportunities for face-to-face as well as the anonymous confessions were offered.

In past years more than 350 people have come during the 24 hour period to celebrate the sacrament, Mc- Govern said.

This event also included eucharistic adoration throughout the whole experience. People were welcome to come by the parish church anytime to pray, McGovern said, even if they didn’t plan to go to confession. But the green lights were lit over the confessional and a priest was available even for simply spiritual conversation if that is what was desired.

Priestly interest

McGovern said he has had no problem assembling this year’s team of confessors. “Priests love having the chance to do something together that concerns their priesthood,” McGovern said, “This is not just one more committee meeting to attend, this is their priesthood coming alive.”

Father James Presta, rector of St. Joseph Seminary at Loyola University participated in the first two “24 Hours” by taking the early morning shift between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m.

“It’s great to be with other priests engaged in the same sacramental experience,” Presta said, “There’s a fraternal bond, linked with the sacrament that we experience as we take our place for another shift or another priest comes to relieve us. It’s a powerful experience to keep the chain of grace going for a whole day.” He also said he had a steady flow of penitents even in the dark hours of the morning.

The Archdiocese of Chicago held its own “24 Hours of Grace” for the Jubilee Year to welcome people back to the sacrament. McGovern said the idea to hold one during Lent came to him a few years ago when he was thinking of ways to promote reconciliation and to get the penitential season off to a good start for his parishioners. He covered many hours throughout the day, and was usually joined by two and sometimes three priests also hearing confessions at the same time.

“One year I heard confessions for 17 hours and when I finished I thought this must have been what St. John Vianney felt like every day,” McGovern said, referring to the patron saint of parish priests from small-town France who was so popular that they routed a special train to his parish so people specifically could go to him for confession.

Traditions held

A regular tradition of 24 Hours of Grace is the use of purple priests’ confessional stoles that were blessed in 2006 for the program’s first year by Pope Benedict at the Vatican and brought back to St. Mary’s by special delivery.

McGovern said that he prepared a simple booklet to help people to examine their consciences before going to their confession. The booklet had instructions on how to celebrate the sacrament and the various prayers such as the act of contrition were also included.

McGovern also provided snacks at the back of the church and plenty of hot coffee, especially for those priests on the midnight shift to keep them “alert and absolving.”

Beth Barger, 48, a mother of four and parishioner of St. Mary’s says that “24 Hours” has become a Lenten family tradition. “It helps us start Lent with a clean slate; it’s the best way to start Lent. I make visits to the church throughout the whole 24 hours,” she said, and everyone in the family also goes at some point.”

Barger said her husband, a retired Navy physician and a recent convert to Catholicism is still striving to better understand the sacrament of reconciliation but that the 24 Hours of Grace at the parish has helped her to help him in his education.

“It is a time of searching your soul and preparing for Lent,” she said, “I explain that anytime you can go to visit the Blessed Sacrament and then go to confession, you are going to experience how God is merciful and you will be one-to-one with God.”