Having just been ordained last May, the Rev. Corey Bassett-Tirrell has been looking forward to celebrating his first Lenten season as a priest at Chelmsford Catholic Collaborative, home of the St. Mary and St. John the Evangelist parishes in Chelmsford and North Chelmsford, respectively.
But with growing concern over the coronavirus outbreak, the Archdiocese of Boston suspended all daily and weekend Masses on March 14. How then, would Bassett-Tirrell and the Rev. Brian Mahoney continue offering the Sacrament of Reconciliation — especially during Lent, when the confession schedule is normally increased from one to three times a week through Easter to handle demand?
“For clergy, as well as laypeople,” Bassett-Tirrell said, “we’ve got to be creative and think outside the box.”
Right away, Bassett-Tirrell, Mahoney, and the Rev. Arnold Colletti began livestreaming daily Masses and devotions from St. Mary.
Following the lead of the Rev. Scott Holmer of St. Edward the Confessor Catholic Church in Bowie, Md., Bassett-Tirrell and the collaborative’s faith formation staff, business manager, and communications team then organized their first drive-through confessions on March 18 in the parking lot of St. Mary Church, 25 North Road.
He said the practice will continue, weather permitting, every Wednesday from 4 to 6 p.m. for the foreseeable future since “workers at places of worship” are considered essential employees under Governor Charlie Baker’s stay-at-home advisory, which lasts until at least April 7.
The new format was announced in an e-newsletter and posted on the ChelmsfordCatholic.org home page.
In the parking lot, staff members set up cones to direct and properly space out cars, so that confessions remain private. “As we are still required to abide by social distancing, we ask that you remain IN YOUR CAR,” the announcement said. “Our priests will be close enough [to] hear your confession, yet remain at a safe distance to avoid the spread of illness.”
At the first drive-through confessions March 18, the church staff created several signs to capture the attention of passers-by. One showing three coffee cups of incrementally large sizes was accompanied by the message, “Absolution is granted for sins big and small.”
Another, depicting a line crossing out a fast-food order of french fries, said, “We are out of fries, but forgiveness is free.”
A third proclaimed, “Today’s specials: Breakfast: confession. Lunch: confession. Dinner: confession. All specials come with a side of absolution.”
“I heard 17 confessions, which was 16 more than the previous Wednesday night inside the church confessional,” said Bassett-Tirrell, noting that the previous week was “oddly” slow. “Two people even said they had been away from the church for a very long time, and found this was less intimidating than going into a confessional.”
Bassett-Tirrell acknowledged that social distancing and other restrictions are uncomfortable, but urged respect and obedience to the directives by civil authorities and the archdiocese for the health and safety of the community at large. Instead of focusing on anxiety-producing losses, he encourages using this copious family time to “build the domestic church at home” by praying or watching Mass on a device together.
“As a parish, we want to remain as connected as we can, and the grace of all this is using technology to its full potential to make people know we haven’t forgotten about them,” Bassett-Tirrell said. “I want people to have hope. Because while we are separated physically right now, we are not separated by prayer.”
Cindy Cantrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.