A Traveling Confessional
Fr. Michael Champagne, CJC, is recognized as the priest behind the traveling confessional—an old ambulance revamped to literally meet the faith-filled wherever they gather. Editor Elizabeth Herzing interviews Fr. Champagne about how he and his community strive to live a life of contemplata aliis tradere, like Mary, a handing on to others the fruits of their contemplation. The Community of Jesus Crucified are missionaries who pursue contemplative union with Jesus Crucified through prayer and apostolic work.
q. How have you met Pope Francis’ admonition to “take the Church into the streets”?
a. The late Fr. Jerome Frey, CJC, founded the Community of Jesus Crucified in 1980. It was canonically erected in the Diocese of Lafayette, LA in 1986. Fr. Frey, worked as a missionary in New Guinea, and brought a missionary charism to CJC. Although the main focus of the CJC is redemptive suffering, the community also takes seriously the concerns of our Holy Fathers. Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi and St. John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptoris Missio both highlight the Church’s role in evangelization. Evangelization addresses three groups of people: those who haven’t heard the gospel, those who have heard the gospel and are experiencing ongoing spiritual development, and those who no longer identify as Catholic and/or don’t participate in the sacraments. The New Evangelization is especially directed at this latter, ever-growing group. Our evangelization projects attempt to convey the same gospel of Christ but with renewed zeal and credibility, using new means of delivery.
In August 2015, to commemorate the 1765 arrival of the Acadians from Nova Scotia and the 250th anniversary of our local parish in St. Martinville, LA, St. Martin de Tours, a thirty-seven-mile eucharistic boat procession took place on the Bayou Teche following the same order as a foot procession: A bell boat led the way, followed by a boat carrying a large thurible for incense, one carrying the Blessed Sacrament and one carrying a large statue of Our Lady of the Assumption. A Eucharist boat was fitted with a special altar, canopy, and kneeler for adorers. More than fifty boats joined in the journey. A French Mass was held in Leonville, and the procession, stopped at several churches along the way for rosary and benediction. Some 2,000 people followed or gathered at the various stops for prayer and adoration and nearly 200 confessions were heard along the way. This has become an annual event.
In the 1990s I served as a hospital chaplain and was frequently present in the emergency room when ambulances arrived. This sparked the idea for a mobile unit that serves the spiritual needs of people on their own turf—The idea was to offer a place of refuge and provide the sacrament of reconciliation.
When Pope Francis announced the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy in March 2015, I decided the time was right. I found a used ambulance online, a donor bought it, and we remodeled the interior to serve as a mobile confessional. We personalized it with multilingual decals and refer to it as a Spiritual Care Unit (SCU). We recently added a second mobile confessional unit, an old U-Haul trailer. This is called the Church-Haul. It is equipped with its own generator, lights, air conditioner and heat. It is especially useful in offering confessions at nursing homes, since wheelchairs can easily be rolled in and out.
In November 2016 we held what we called Marathon of the Word. In the public square, we read, [in its entirety] from a Bible that had been blessed by the Pope. The eighty-eight hour event was streamed live. More than 260 lectors served as readers, including Catholics and non-Catholics. The SCU mobile confessional was on hand and available for anyone who wanted to participate in reconciliation. Many participants went on to add regular Bible readings to their daily schedule. The event is scheduled again in 2018 to honor Divine Mercy Sunday, and commemorate the Diocese of Lafayette’s centenary.
Other new evangelization events include a monthly Catholic Film Fest held on the banks of the Bayou Teche accompanied by free popcorn and confessions. Also, Mercy Fest, an all-day event which includes church choirs, talks, and an outdoor Mass is held for Divine Mercy Sunday.
q. How have the efforts made a positive impact?
a. Secularism has created both a challenge and an opportunity for the Church. All people suffer and look for meaning, and hope in dark times. The Church alone possesses the answer in its fullness: Jesus Christ. These unconventional evangelization initiatives are successful [in part] because they bring answers to the world’s questions into the public arena. Remember, Jesus himself spent a lot of time on the road, getting close to the people. This is what Pope Francis means by his call to go out to the peripheries.
The Church has become too sedentary; its role is to act as a missionary, encountering people where they are. I also attribute our success to teamwork. The SCU runs with a team of religious brothers or sisters, who engage the people on the outside while I hear confessions on the inside. The team offers holy cards to those who pass by and answer questions, while also extending an invitation to participate in the sacrament. Non-Catholics are invited to come in for a simple blessing. If there is a line, an examination of conscience is distributed, and the group is led to recite the Divine Mercy Chaplet. As a result, many are given access to the sacrament and they are prepared to receive it when they enter the SCU.
q. What is the reach of your efforts?
a. By the end of June 2017 we had traveled 8,115 miles and heard 4,066 confessions. We’ve spent about 424 hours in the SCU hearing confessions. The unit made 180 stops throughout the Diocese of Lafayette at health clubs, festivals, family reunions, grocery stores, places of business, parking lots, and other locations.
As a priest, I have a number of responsibilities, so my time is limited. Currently, now that the Jubilee of Mercy is over, I average one stop a week in the SCU. Previously, I went out two to three times a week. As a result of the Mercy Fest, the St. Teresa Center for the Works of Mercy was opened in St. Martinville, LA. The center feeds nearly 200 persons and provides groceries for more than 100 families weekly. A
“At my alma mater, I saw thirty to forty students and faculty members stand in line for confession. I knew these people did not frequent the sacrament. Yet they were willing to wait! This was an opportunity they likely would have ignored, under normal circumstances. This proves [to me] that God ordained this ambulance to draw more souls near to his heart.”
—Br. John Joseph, n.CJC, a novice
For more information about the Community of Jesus Crucified visit: jesuscrucified.net;
Email Fr. Champagne at: email@example.com.
Follow New Evangelization activities at fetedieuduteche.org.