Ash Wednesday is a really busy day for all of us priests because "God's magnet" draws them to Church for ashes. It's incredible year after year, and regardless of why they are there, the point is they are actually there. And God's grace, compassion, and mercy reaches all of them in different ways.
Ash Wednesday 2020 was an extraordinary day, and God's compassion and mercy were poured out in ways I have never experienced as a priest.
As with every parish, we had Masses and Services for Ashes from early morning until late at night. I was at the early Mass helping, and I celebrated the 12:05 pm Mass. Afterwards, I went to my rooms at the parish and was going to catch up on some desk work before going back later in the afternoon for ashes and Mass.
I sat down at my desk, and quickly this message began coming into my mind: "Go hear confessions." I ignored it, and went on with the desk work. "Go hear confessions" kept coming back. After a while I went to get a Parish Bulletin to see if we had confessions on Ash Wednesday afternoon. We did not.
Back to my desk, but this message kept coming: "Go hear confessions."
Finally, since I couldn't get anything else done, I made up a small sign that said: "Confessions 1:30 pm to 4:30 pm." I picked up a spiritual book to read and went over to Church. Since Ash services were continuing all afternoon, I put on my alb and stole, and went to Our Lady's Chapel where we have a free standing confessional--for anonymous and face to face confessions.
I sat down and picked up my book since I thought no one would be coming. And that's when the Holy Spirit went to work.
Within five minutes a person came to confession who had been away almost 30 years. I was astounded at such a sincere and humble confession. I asked the person how they got here. The person responded that they had come "to get the ashes," and on the way out saw my small sign. The Holy Spirit took hold of this person and brought them to confession.
And then, one after another, for three hours the Holy Spirit brought so many people--all who had been away from confession for 10 years or longer. One after another. I was spellbound at the grace and action of the Holy Spirit who had obviously called all of these people to receive ashes, and then in a marvelous way, "hijacked" them to confession.
Grace upon grace flowed all three hours. I was so humbled by God's incredible compassion and mercy to these people, and humbled to be an instrument of Jesus' welcoming forgiveness.
These graces were poured out for three full hours. I never picked up my book because they never stopped coming. Miracles of God's limitless love and mercy took place in one long continuum of grace.
Not a single person came who had been to confession recently. All had been away for at least a year or more.
And then at 4:35 pm, the long line of God's grace and mercy ended. No one else came.
I went back to my residence and directly to the chapel where I sat before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and lifted up prayers of praise and gratitude for the miracles of grace which I had witnessed over those hours. I sat there for a long time in disbelief, which is the human reaction. But then I realized this entire afternoon was in God's plan for all of those people, and this was his day to show his love through compassion, and his mercy through forgiveness.
I urge my brother priests to love the Sacrament of Reconciliation. You never know when at an unexpected moment, the Holy Spirit will prompt you: "Go and hear confessions."
As Pope Francis has reminded us, "The Name of God is Mercy."