Last month, our family gathered at the dinner table with an honored guest: our dear priest friend, Fr. Al, who is 94 years old. As usual, I hung on his every word.
“Every morning, as soon as I wake up, I thank the Lord…” Fr. Al said, and then paused briefly. I waited for him to finish the sentence with something like, for the chance to live another day.
But that wasn’t what he said. Instead, he ended the sentence with three words I didn’t expect: “…for the sacraments.”
My heart swelled at the idea that, every single morning, after more than 60 years of priesthood, Fr. Al’s first thought is thanksgiving for the sacraments.
Day in and day out, this gratitude permeates his ministry. He has devoted his life to helping people receive the sacraments, going to great lengths to draw people back to them so that lives can be transformed by this supernatural gift.
A Soul’s Resurrection
Many years ago, Fr. Al was a hospital chaplain. Each morning after saying Mass, he used to visit the hospital to administer the sacraments to patients. He had almost 100 Communion calls every morning.
One day, the hospital called him to visit a woman who was in critical condition. She was about 80 years old and was listed as Catholic. When he arrived at her room, however, she denied that she was Catholic and said she did not want any prayers.
Soon after, the woman’s family members called Fr. Al and explained that she had been raised Catholic. They asked him for any help he could give her. Even a doctor asked him to visit her because she was in such bad shape.
He tried again—and again. Every time, her response was angry and explosive.
“Get out of here!!” she would yell. He couldn’t enter her room without her screaming at him.
Fr. Al realized that the only way he would break down this wall was with more prayer. So he started enlisting prayer warriors. He asked several cloistered convents to pray, and even called the principals of several Catholic schools to ask them to get the children praying for this special intention.
He stayed away from her room for a while in order to allow time for the prayers to work on her soul. Then, one Tuesday morning, he felt compelled to stop by her room again. On the way, he prayed to be able to reach her.
This time, he made it into her room without her screaming.
“You must be suffering a lot,” he said.
“Yeah,” she replied.
“I’m a Catholic priest,” he said. “You’re Catholic, aren’t you?”
“I used to be…I lost it,” she replied.
“You can’t lose your faith,” Fr. Al said. “If you did, I’d have to re-baptize you.” He told her about the good thief and other people in Scripture who turned their lives around, and then said that he could give her all the help she could receive at this time.
“Everything—the most important things on this earth, I can give to you,” he said. Then he offered to hear her confession and to help her through it.
With Fr. Al’s guidance, the woman made a confession. Then he gave her Communion and the apostolic blessing. Afterward, the woman who had screamed at him to get away from her was crying tears of joy that she was forgiven, that she had reconciled with Jesus. She had been away from the Church for 62 years.
She looked and acted like a completely different person from the one Fr. Al had first encountered. It was a resurrection of her soul.
Later that day, the woman died. Fr. Al firmly believes she received everything God wanted to give her that day.
A Battle for Souls
While this woman’s initial reaction to Fr. Al was extreme, it is not unusual for people to feel distaste or contempt for confession. We are in a battle for our souls, and the sacrament of reconciliation wins souls back to Jesus in an avalanche of grace. No wonder the enemy tries so hard to tempt us away from going.
In the years before he died, St. John Vianney used to get up between midnight and 2 a.m. each day and hear confessions for up to seven hours before he said morning Mass. Then, after a meager breakfast, he would hear more confessions throughout the morning, afternoon, and evening, spending a total of 12-18 hours a day in the confessional.
He had an endless line of penitents, many traveling from great distances to see him. Yet still, he had to practically push certain people into the confessional when they refused to go. Through the gift of prophecy, he knew with a glance when a person was resistant to the sacrament and needed extra help to return to its graces.
Once, a man named Pére Rochette came to Ars seeking healing for his crippled son, as told in Leon Cristiani’s book, St. John Vianney: The Village Priest Who Fought God’s Battles. He wanted a cure for his son, but did not respond when St. John Vianney invited him into the confessional.
The saint beckoned him a second time.
Rochette grudgingly came forward, but complained, “I really don’t feel like it.”
“Begin!” the saint answered.
And so, Rochette relented, fell on his knees, and attempted to say how long it had been since his last confession.
“It’s been 10 years…”
“Or perhaps a little more,” replied the priest, who was known for his ability to read souls.
“Still a little more…” said the priest.
Finally, Rochette was ready. “Yes, since the great Jubilee of 1826.”
“Now we’ve got it! If we try hard enough, we can remember!” the saint said.
Rochette, weeping, made his confession, and later received Communion.
After that confession, Rochette received the healing that he sought for his son. The boy left Ars without crutches. And Rochette received another healing as well—one that he had not sought. It was the healing of his own soul.
All it took was one confession to bring both physical and spiritual healing. One confession will unleash heaven’s graces, now and for eternity.
I know this, and yet I still have to fight myself to get there sometimes. I’m tired. I’m busy. As Rochette said, “I really don’t feel like it.” But then, when I get there, everything else falls away. I bow my head, and I feel the grace rush over me like a waterfall as I listen to the priest’s words:
God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
With those words, I am free. Everything in my past is washed clean.
It is an unparalleled gift, this grace that comes with one confession. With every confession. The power of one confession is the very power of Jesus Himself.
I pray that, like Fr. Al, I will always be grateful for it, and for all the sacraments, every single day, from the moment I wake up.
In the words of St. Paul: “Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift!” (2 Cor 9:15)