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Returning to Sacrament of Penance Begins with First Step

Guest Opinion in the Catholic Standard (Sept. 6, 1990)

Msgr. William J. Awalt (Special to the Standard)

I have been encouraged to suggest a few more thoughts regarding the recent survey on the frequency, or rather, the infrequency of reception of the Sacrament of Penance, also called Reconciliation or Confession.

From letters and comments based on the first reflection (Catholic Standard, July 26), I would like to investigate those hesitantly expressed to me.

If a long period of time has passed since a person’s last confession, or if some hidden sin of which he or she is downright ashamed has occurred, then the penitent might ask, “How do I start?”  Furthermore, he or she would question, “How do I proceed to make my confession?”

First of all, prayer is an absolute necessity.  As we have no doubt all heard, the shortest prayer is “Help!”  Afterwards, a simple announcement of our problem would be in order.  “How do I begin, Father?”  “Would you help me?”  “I forget, I don’t know my prayers….”  “I don’t know what to say or how to say it.”

From a long and privileged ministry of offering the sacrament, I can say that these are most consoling and gratifying words for any confessor to hear.  Why?  Listening to these or similar words, the confessor discerns from the penitent both a real need, perhaps urgent, and a genuine contrition.

The priest is overjoyed to assist with what might be called a non-routine confession.  (I say this reverently.)  Because of the possible gravity of the penitent’s sins and their long hungering for God’s healing grace, the priest knows that these confessions may be far more imperative and important than the usual or more routine confessions.

As a petition, we all need to pray, “Help!” of God and to ask the confessor’s assistance.

Harking back to the first set of reflections on confession, we have to realize that Christ is the one present.  He is listening and saying, as He did in the first reading of the 18th Sunday of the liturgical year, “Come… Come… Come.”

Similarly, there is the quotation from the Gospel.  “Come to me you who labor and are burdened and I will refresh you.”  No matter how we ultimately get ro confession, it is always at God’s invitation.  It is not so much our idea as our response to the God who calls us.

I would ask readers to strengthen their faith in the presence of Christ in the sacrament; He is the one who is receiving, healing and forgiving us.  It may happen that penitents consider a priest too young or another too old.  But age or personality should not be the determining factors in going to confession.

The sacrament is more than the reception of some profound, hopefully competent, advice.  And even a young priest is going to be hard to shock, especially if he reads the newspapers.  We are not so much seeking him as we are coming to Christ.

From the confessor’s point of view, Paul’s words to Timothy are apropos, “Let no one look down on you because of your youth” (1 Timothy 4-12).  Of course, if a confessor is older, it is true that he understands the full weight of life’s trials.

If we need complicated advice, then it is best that we schedule an appointment for counseling outside confession.  In the sacrament, any priest, by virtue of his ordination, can make the healing, forgiveness, and comfort of Christ present to us in the Sacrament of Penance.  I suppose that all of us at some time or another have experienced a fear or at least an uneasiness going to confession.  Perhaps this has arisen from an unfortunate past experience.

One element of this anxiety or hesitancy can be attributed to the concern, “What is my confessor going to think?”  Sound familiar?  “All this time I have been away, I have done such and such.  I have been a good parishioner; what if he recognizes who I am?  I am so ashamed.

One of the best solutions I know to this dilemma came my way several decades ago.  It is in the form of a short piece on what a soldier’s confessor thinks of him.  I re-examine it from time to time when I wonder what my confessor thinks of me or when I want to comfort a penitent.


“What will the priest think when he hears the load that I have to tell?”

“He’ll think how unworthy I am of such a privilege as this.  To be able to send this man out walking on air, forever freed of this burden that he’s been carrying.

“He’ll think what a time this lad must have had getting up the courage to come to confession.  What a grand, strong faith he’s got or he wouldn’t be here.

“He’ll think would I have had the guts to go to confession if I were in his shoes.

“He’ll think I’ll bet it’s his mother’s prayer that obtained the grace for him.  She’s probably been making novenas for this  for months.

“He’ll think this should call for celebration.  Didn’t Christ say, “There will be more joy in in heaven over one sinner who does penance than over the ninety-nine who need not repent?

“He’ll think that for the chance to hear this confession  I would wait a lifetime.  Thanks be to God.”

The Mingling of Water & Wine

Notes from the Pastor [4]

(Please note this is an archival post that is decades old.  Msgr. Awalt passed away a number of years ago.)

Let us consider a drop of water.  I have already mentioned blessing yourself with water as you enter the church.  Sometimes the Penitential Rite is conducted with the sprinkling of water upon the congregation, again reminding them of both baptism and as we beseech God for mercy and forgiveness.  Mercy does not mean just forgiveness; rather is is also asking for God’s help and presence in our lives– in living out the vocation He has given us.

While many drops are scattered in the sprinkling, there is a single drop of water placed into the wine of the chalice just prior to the offertory prayer.  The drop of water in the wine along with the bread will be consecrated into the body and blood of Christ.  The drop of water is symbolic of our union with the person of Jesus (His presence) at Mass as we go to the Father.  The prayer used at the mingling of water and wine is pregnant with meaning:  “Through the mystery of this water and wine may we share in the divinity of Christ who humbles himself to share in our humanity.”

What an incredible journey for this little drop of water… what a journey for us as we approach the Father through Christ!

William J. Awalt

The Use of Incense

Notes from the Pastor [3]

(Please note this is an archival post that is decades old.  Msgr. Awalt passed away a number of years ago.)

Incense is composed of granules that when ignited by fire from burning charcoal give off a pleasant odor, along with smoke.  The prayer that is said when it is used on solemn occasions gives insight into why it is used.  “May our prayer arise to you (God) with a pleasing fragrance.”  Our prayer comes from lifting up our minds and hearts to God.  The rising smoke reminds us of this.  The sweet fragrance tells us of God’s and the acceptance of our prayers.  The use of incense has taken on the added sign of honor for what and who is incensed.  It may be the corpse at funerals, the Gospel book at Mass, the host in the Blessed Sacrament, or the people at Mass.  Incensing reminds us of the honor and dignity of those who are incensed.  “You are a chosen race, a people set part, a royal priesthood.”  Incense reminds us of who we are– the delight we give the Lord with our prayer rising to His throne.

William J. Awalt


The Signing Before the Gospel

Notes from the Pastor [2]

(Please note this is an archival post that is decades old.  Msgr. Awalt passed away a number of years ago.)

A visitor to a Catholic church recently asked about the gesture made by the congregation and the celebrant prior to the proclamation of the Gospel.  What is it?  The gesture is the sign of the cross made with the thumb on the forehead, the lips and the heart.  Following the Gospel announcement, it is preceded by the people’s response:  “Glory to You, O Lord.”  It recognizes God’s presence in the reading of Scripture.  Made thoughtfully upon the forehead, the gesture means that we want to know the Word of God.  When made on the lips, we indicate that we will proclaim the Word of God.  Finally gestured over our hearts, it means that we will love the Word of God.  The cross reminds us that sometimes to know. to proclaim and to love what we believe will entail a cost.  It entails the Cross.  The Cross also reminds us of the ultimate and enduring triumph of Christ.  (It would help for us to look over the readings prior to Mass, and of course, to be on time to listen so that we can truly know, proclaim and love what we hear.)

William J. Awalt

The Blessing on Entering a Church

Notes from the Pastor [1]

(Please note this is an archival post that is decades old.  Msgr. Awalt passed away a number of years ago.)

One of the first gestures you should make on entering the church is to dip your hand into the holy water and reverently bless yourself in the sign of the cross and with the appropriate words:  “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This is to remind us of our Baptism as we enter our Father’s house to sing His praises in the Eucharist through His Son, Jesus Christ, moved by the Holy Spirit.  Our baptism is our gateway to the Eucharist.  We receive Christ himself that He may strengthen the grace that we received in Baptism and provide us with the help and His companionship that we need in our journey to our Father’s house in heaven.

William J. Awalt

More About St. Ann Church

St. Ann Catholic Church
4001 Yuma St NW, Washington, DC 20016

palm sunday st ann 03-25-2018-24

It is remarkable how the layout of St. Ann Church was envisioned.  As you enter the church from the Wisconsin Street door, the first thing that catches the eye is the altar.  Here is where the summit and source of of our Catholic faith meet.  Here we see the prominent place given to what re-presents where Christ’s death-resurrection is actualized.

Behind the altar and above it comes into our vision the tabernacle.  There, consecrated hosts are kept for distribution to the sick who cannot attend services.  That presence has also led to the practice of adoration of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament that is growing across our country .

Above the altar and tabernacle is the large crucifix that shows us the price for our redemption.  While Christ suffers no more, we are reminded of what Christ did to show us the gravity of sin and the measure of His love as represented in the figure on the Cross.

But our vision should not end on a sad note.  High above the altar is the image of the triumphant Christ, the Lamb of God, who carries the banner of victory because He has conquered sin and death.

Along with the saints and angels, we and all creation come together in this beautiful church as our voices at prayer join the heavenly chorus in giving praise to God.

The city of Washington is famous for the monumental beauty of its architecture, the natural beauty of its parks and waterways and the man-made beauty found in its many museums and public buildings.  Often lost among this catalogue of the city’s treasures are her churches.  As befits a national capitol, especially that of a nation dedicated to the freedom of religion, many faiths have graced her skyline with spires, steeples and minarets.

Even among the smaller churches and houses of worship in the city and its environs, there are unexpected gems, symbols of the faith and devotion of the congregations that built them and worship there.  One such jewel is the parish church of St. Ann on Wisconsin Avenue’s Tenley Circle.  Looking to the outside, St. Ann is an impressive modern Gothic style building, calling to mind the churches of late-medieval Northern Italy.  Within,  the visitor perceives a breathtaking combination of architecture and decoration uncomplicated in form, and yet unmistakable in design.  Through combination of stone and glass, light and air, magnificence and simplicity are as one.  This is not merely a place of worship, but a place of communion for God with His people.

William J. Awalt 

The Construction of St. Ann Church

St. Ann Catholic Church
4001 Yuma St NW, Washington, DC 20016


It might be of interest to know that the architect of the present church was Henry D. Dagit.  The first church of St. Ann’s was built of wood in 1898.  The second church was built of stone in 1903.  There was an interim church made of stone which now serves as the parish hall built in 1938.  The present church was built under the pastorate of Msgr. Henry D. Collins.  It was built of stone in 1948.  The third church was renovated after Vatican II when the main altar was moved down to the present position.  Marble saved at that time was used to erect a support for the tabernacle.  The baptistry, originally in the confessional room, was moved out and a wall was built behind it so that it would be near the main altar.  This shows the the connection of Baptism as the gateway to the Eucharist.  Given its present position, it also dovetails with funerals that are brought in the Yuma Street door and the words used in the service, referring to Baptism and our hope at funerals.  The pulpit (ambo) was moved slightly away from the wall to its present position.  The celebrant’s chair was repositioned to the side of the altar.  This was done under the pastorate of Msgr. William H. Awalt.

The beautiful stained-glass windows of St. Ann Church are among the main attractions.  These windows were designed by the internationally renowned stained-glass artist, Marguerite Gaudin, and manufactured at the Willet Stained Glass Studios in Philadelphia.  Some of Miss Gaudin’s notable works include windows in New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the entire fenestration in the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, facade windows for St. Anselm’s Meguro Church, Tokyo, Japan, and one of the largest stained-glass installations of 30,000 square feet for the Museum of Science in New York City.

William J. Awalt