In a campaign to bring Catholics back to the Sacrament of Penance late last year, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia started a confession hotline for people who have not confessed their sins recently and who have questions or misgivings on the subject.
The hotline is one of a number of programs in Philadelphia to prepare Catholics for the new millennium, and to refamiliarise them - or, for many Catholics, to introduce them - to a Sacrament which has fallen out of regular use.
In the first days of the hotline, the chancery, which is staffed by archdiocesan priests, was flooded with calls.
"We're flabbergasted at the number of calls on the very first day," Monsignor Charles V. Devlin, Archdiocesan Vicar for Renewal and Evangelisation, told the Catholic Standard & Times, Philadelphia's archdiocesan newspaper.
On 16 November 1998, the first day the hotline was in operation, about 120 calls came in. Catholics seeking courage or special counsel on how to return to the Sacrament have been able to ring a telephone number between 8am and 8pm until 19 March 1999.
"The priests were very faithful in taking time with each call," said Msgr Devlin on 17 November. "Today the calls are coming in every couple of minutes, on two lines and three lines. It's a fantastic response. It shows we've hit on something here."
The anonymous, confidential hotline is sponsored by the Archdiocesan Office for Renewal and Evangelisation and staffed by priests from the archdiocese. More than 120 have volunteered to answer calls.
"There may be someone who has been married and divorced or has some type of marriage complication ... There could be someone who has had an abortion [or has] a question about his or her moral life or about confession itself - 'Why do we go to confession? Will the priest yell at me?'" said Msgr Devlin.
One call could allay apprehensions for those who "have been alienated and have reservations about coming back to the Church for whatever reasons," he added.
The archdiocese dubbed 19-20 March 1999 "Reconciliation Weekend," during which confessions were heard from 7 to 9pm Friday and from 10am to 4pm Saturday in 80 churches designated as "millennium reconciliation churches."
The hotline, as indicated, is one part of a major effort by the Philadelphia Archdiocese to bring people back to the Church. Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua officially launched a media campaign on 24 November to bring Catholics back using radio and TV ads and bill-boards.
Confession is "the normal channel which the Lord has provided for the forgiveness of sins," Msgr Devlin told the archdiocesan newspaper. "Christ gave his apostles the power to forgive sins on the first Easter Sunday evening, and that power is passed on through the priesthood. It's his chief method for reconciling people to his Father."
He added, "This is going to be a time of millennium grace. No one should stay away from the opportunity of receiving the Sacrament of Penance, regardless of whatever sin they may have found themselves in."
The purpose of the campaign and the hope of Church officials "is to guide people gently back to the sacraments, to offer them this special opportunity of grace," said Msgr Devlin.
From Catholic News Service (CNS) and 'Challenge', a Canadian religious monthly.