For the Year of Mercy, the diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana is introducing a new mobile confessional to help bring people back to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Made from a donated and converted ambulance, the confessional on wheels will officially begin service Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception and the beginning of the year Pope Francis has declared a “Jubilee of Mercy.”
“During the Year of Mercy we want to bring the sacrament to areas where people otherwise might not be able to get to confession,” said Father Michael Champagne, the priest behind the project.
“As the pope was saying, we have to smell like sheep. These days it’s more like leaving the one to go after the 99,” he said.
In the spirit of the New Evangelization, some of the goals of the endeavor are to make the Sacrament of Reconciliation more visible and more accessible — to put in people’s mind the “realization of the Catholic faith,” Father Champagne said.
Father Champagne sees the mobile confessional — and the Sacrament of Reconciliation — as a steppingstone to bringing people back into the churches. “In the confessional we can do a great deal of good to instruct them and get them back on track after many years.”
The plan is for the confessional to be present at about one event per week, making appearances at places such as shopping malls, schools, spiritual retreats and university homecomings.
Even more so, the traveling confessional is intended to be used to minister to people who otherwise might not be able to get to confession, in places such as housing projects, prisons and homeless shelters. In response to Pope Francis’ call to go out to the peripheries, the hope is that this “spiritual care unit” will be able to make the Sacrament of Reconciliation accessible to those who may not be able to go to the churches, said Father Champagne. “This is for those who are on the peripheries of the diocese.”
Father Champagne said that the goal is to reach out, especially to those in prison, the poor and in hospice. “You have to go to where they’re at. You have to go to their house where they’re dying, to the prisons. And then they want to go to church, because they were grateful for the presence of the Church on their turf.”
According to Father Champagne, Dec. 8, is a meaningful date for the official debut of the mobile confessional. The beginning of the Year of Mercy, it also marks the 50th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council, which Father Champagne said was about “making the great mystery of God’s mercy accessible to all peoples.”
Since the United States is consecrated to the Immaculate Conception, the feast of the Immaculate Conception is also fitting: “Our Lady is the most perfectly redeemed. Mary can extend mercy because she knows it so well,” Father Champagne said.
Fitted out with rosaries, Bibles, holy water and prayer cards, the converted ambulance also has a kneeler with the option for anonymity if desired, just like any regular confessional. The outside has a large image of Jesus as the Divine Mercy, with the Latin phrase Misericordiae Vultus (“the Face of Mercy”), the title of Pope Francis’ bull of Indiction declaring the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. Other phrases, such as “sacred heart,” “field hospital,” and part of John 20:23, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,” also adorn the outside.
Since the space is only designed to hold one priest and one penitent at a time, Father Champagne admits that they are limited if they should end up with crowds. But he says that they will just do what they have always done and adjust accordingly, possibly setting up additional confessional booths around the outside if needed. “We’ll hear confessions as long as we’re able,” he said.
If it’s successful, Father Champagne thinks it would be great to add more to the fleet, perhaps having one per diocese.
Bishop Michael Jarrell is very supportive of the endeavor, recently blessing the confessional in preparation for its travel.
“The whole idea is just to help reach out to our Catholics, to know the joy of God’s mercy,” said Father Champagne. “To share the joy of repentance.”
Hannah M. Brockhaus writes from Missouri.