Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
A few weeks ago I was in Boston and heard a priest give a great speech about the power of confession. However, at one point he made a comment that confused me: He made a joking reference to the fact that priests don’t like to have too much time to catch up on reading while in the confessional, implying that there are periods when no one comes.
A priest reading in the confessional? I couldn’t imagine such a thing. The main problem I’ve seen priests have with this sacrament is crowd control. Our parish offers the sacrament of reconciliation six days a week, and I’ve never seen fewer than 25 people there, though double that number is not uncommon. And the Holy Week confessions are something to behold: There are usually three days of penance services where about 10 priests come to hear confessions, and each night hundreds of people attend. Even with 10 priests, the lines wrap all around the building, and they usually have to start turning people away around 11 PM so that the priests aren’t there all night.
Mass attendance is great, too. Our parish has two Masses every weekday, and each one usually has about 100 people in attendance, an even mix of men and women—and there are three other parishes within a 10-minute drive that also have Mass every weekday. On the weekend, thousands of people flock to the church. The building capacity is 1,200 people and it’s hard to find a seat for any of the Sunday services. Also, our diocese has more than 40 men studying for the priesthood, many women discerning religious life, and the amazing Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist are working to build a convent here.
What’s most inspiring about all of this is that it’s happening in the unlikeliest of places: The Diocese of Austin.
Austin is firmly within the Protestant South, where the Catholic Church has traditionally been regarded with a mix of apathy and disdain. My grandfather, who grew up in this area, remembers that Catholics were forbidden by law to be school teachers when he was a child. Even as late as the mid-20th century, Catholicism was widely seen as a superstitious, idolatrous belief system practiced mostly by the local Mexican immigrants, and there were so few priests that many of the areas outside Austin city limits didn’t have a Mass every weekend.
On top of that, Austin is a secular, politically liberal university town. Mentioning that you support traditional marriage or the sanctity of human life would not go over well in most circles, while advocating for the rights of gay pets would be fine. (In a recent election we had not one, but two homeless transvestites run for mayor. Neither came in last.)
This is not a diocese where you’d expect orthodox Catholicism to stand a chance, and yet it’s thriving. Many of our parishes have standing-room-only Masses, our lines for confession are long, our RCIA teams are busy, our Eucharistic adoration chapels are packed. I share this as encouragement to those of you who are in dioceses where the Catholic faith seems to be in decline. Periods of contraction may be inevitable, especially in areas that were impacted by the abuse scandals, but all it takes is a few dedicated, holy people to bring it back. I hope that our diocese can serve as inspiration to others; because if the Church can flourish here, it can flourish anywhere.