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Westminster priest thinks outside the box as coronavirus closes the confessional

WESTMINSTER — Gina Abel loaded her five children and her husband in their car on March 18 headed to a nearby drive through, but this time her family was in search of forgiveness rather than some burgers and fries.

Amid the current coronavirus pandemic that is keeping most people at home and 6 feet apart to prevent the spread of the virus, St. John Church in Westminster has launched a creative solution to deliver the sacrament of reconciliation. Call it curbside confession.

Father Mark Bialek, the pastor of St. John, said he got the idea from Father Scott Holmer, pastor at St. Edward the Confessor in Bowie, who held confessions in his church’s parking lot last weekend.

“There is a heightened sense of people being scared when there’s a lot of uncertainty and people want to feel close. People want to feel reconciled with God at this point,” Father Bialek said, explaining the importance of hearing confessions during this unsettled time.

Father Bialek and his staff set up the “confessional” outside the suburban church using a chair and even a confessional screen with a kneeler. As cars lined up in the parking lot, a speaker played Gregorian chants to give the confessor some auditory privacy and also to set the mood.

Father Bialek said about 50 cars showed up and he heard about 80 confessions all while keeping 6 feet away from the confessors. Family members stayed in the car while one by one they availed themselves of confession.

Following the advice of Maryland’s governor and health experts, Baltimore Archbishop William Lori decided on March 14 that the archdiocese would no longer celebrate Masses in the physical presence of the faithful. Instead, the archdiocese is broadcasting Masses through a variety of media.

Since then, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has updated the guidance on the safe number of people at public gatherings. On March 19, he lowered the number to no more than 10 people, ruling out most church functions, including traditional confession.

Indoor church activities have been severely limited during the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy St. John Church)

While Father Bialek said he will adjust depending on the latest guidance from the governor or Archbishop Lori, he plans to hold more curbside confessions on Saturday afternoon from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday morning from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Other parishes, including St. Francis De Sales in Abingdon, are also planning outdoor confessions.

Kenn DeMoll, the youth minister at St. John, help direct traffic as people arrived for confessions at St. John, but he wasn’t surprised by the turnout, considering the lack of public Masses and most people aren’t receiving communion.

“Confession is one of the only sacraments that’s available right now,” said DeMoll, a parishioner of St. Peter the Apostle in Libertytown. “I think it’s good for people to see that their parishes aren’t abandoning them during this time.”

The coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has been steadily spreading in Maryland, causing officials to urge people to stay at home and avoid non-essential travel. On March 19, Maryland reported more than 100 cases, including its first death – a man in his 60s from Prince George’s County.

“For a lot of us, for the first time, we’re starting to realize that we’re mortal creatures. We’re not going to live forever,” DeMoll said. “And that has a way of getting us to think a little bit differently about life about what’s important, about decisions we shouldn’t have made.

Abel, a stay-at-home mother who homeschools her children, said the curbside confession was especially important for her family because it was the first her youngest child Julia was able to experience with her family.

“It was very humbling. It really strikes our family how dedicated our priests have been during this time to try to bring the sacraments to our parish,” said Abel, a parishioner of St. John.

Abel, whose husband is a doctor, said she appreciated and respected that Baltimore Archbishop Lori suspended public Masses to protect the health of the faithful. But she also appreciated Father Bialek’s willingness to come up with creative solutions – or as he likes to say “to think outside the box.”

It’s a not so subtle reference to the four walls of his church building that’s not getting a lot of use at the moment.

“Not being able to receive the Eucharist is challenging,” Abel said. “So to be able to go and receive the grace of the sacrament to help us during these challenging times, it was really a blessing.”

For more on the Archdiocese of Baltimore response to the coronavirus, click here

Email Tim Swift at tswift@catholicreview.org

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