Fallen away Catholics are being invited to “come home” this Lent through a worldwide initiative led by Pope Francis, which points to confession as a primary way to experience God's merciful embrace.
“So often, people are afraid to come back to church or to the Sacrament of Reconciliation for they feel that, since they have been gone for so long, there is no way back,” said Father Geno Sylva, English language official for the Vatican's New Evangelization council.
“This initiative is to let people know that it is never too late and there is always a way back,” he told CNA.
“24 Hours for the Lord” is a yearly event set for the fourth Friday and Saturday of Lent which began in 2014 under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization.
Taking place on Mar. 13-14, this year's theme is “God rich in mercy” (Eph. 2:4) which, Fr. Sylva observed, “is such an important theme of our Holy Father.”
In his 2015 message for Lent, Pope Francis expressed his hope that the Church, “also at the diocesan level,” would observe 24-hour initiative, saying it “is meant to be a sign of this need for prayer.”
The event will begin on the evening of the fourth Friday of Lent with a penance service presided over by Pope Francis in Saint Peter's Basilica. Following the service in the Vatican, Churches throughout Rome will remain open for 24 hours to give pilgrims the opportunity to go to Confession and take part in Eucharistic Adoration.
Fr. Sylva recalled one of the iconic images of Pope Francis during the 2014 penance service for “24 Hours for the Lord,” in which the Pope surprised one of the priests by approaching him for confession before hearing confessions himself.
“There’s something to be said for joining with our Holy Father, joining as a universal Church, in such a prayer experience,” Fr. Sylva said.
He then told of his own experience in 2014 hearing confessions at the church of Saint Agnes in Agony, one of three churches in open Rome throughout the night.
“It was so incredibly moving and inspiring just how many people had come back to the sacrament for the first time many decades,” he said. “When I asked them why they came back, so many of them said they came back because Pope Francis had invited and asked them to. And he had indeed during the Angelus the Sunday before.”
The inspiration for “24 Hours for Prayer” came from the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization, during which the question of placing“the sacrament of reconciliation once again at the center of pastoral life” came to the surface, Fr. Sylva explained.
While parishes in Rome will be open overnight, Churches elsewhere are invited to adapt the initiative to their local situations and needs. Acknowledging that “every parish has a different history and unique culture,” Fr. Sylva said, “The pastor and the community are simply to invite people to come home.”
For those taking part in this year's event in Rome or elsewhere in the world, especially those who have been away from the Sacraments for a long time, organizers have prepared pastoral aids in Italian, English, Spanish, French and Polish. The English edition can be purchased at the Catholic Publishing Company and is available worldwide.
“There are many different moments and steps in the new evangelization,” Fr. Geno said. “The 24 Hours for the Lord allows the Church the opportunity to demonstrate the great harmony of these moments: We invite, we welcome, we catechize and God forgives.”
Additional information on the “24 Hours for Prayer” can be found at the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization's website, www.novaevangelizatio.va.