by Jill Ragar Esfeld
LEAWOOD — At Church of the Nativity here it’s known as “Confessions and Cocktails.”
That may sound like the title of a scandalous, tell-all novel. But in reality, it’s one of many terms used to christen a new tradition catching on throughout the Catholic community during Lent.
“Spill and Fill,” “Repentance and Repast,” “Fess Up and Pig Out” — whatever you call it, the practice involves receiving the sacrament of reconciliation in community and spending time in fellowship afterwards by sharing a meal.
And maybe a cocktail.
“This will be the sixth year,” said Maggie Neustadt, who organizes the event at Church of the Nativity. “It started out with a group of five moms; we all had kindergartners that were enrolled in Nativity at the same time.
“None of us really knew each other.”
The numbers have grown each year since.
“It is like an event that people don’t want to miss,” said Lyn Petro, one of the original five. “Maggie sends out the evite and everyone responds immediately
“It’s just a celebration of friendship and faith we all really enjoy.”
Neustadt converted to Catholicism 12 years ago. When she went through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, she liked the communal aspect of the program.
“It was very empowering to be part of a group of people who were going through something together,” she said
There is safety in numbers and, for some, the sacrament of reconciliation can be a bit daunting.
“It is a little agonizing,” admitted Neustadt. “You’re having to articulate some of your shortcomings.”
Understanding this, Neustadt sent an email to a few of the moms she’d met and asked a question.
“Would it be sacrilegious,” she wrote, “if I said let’s all go to confession and then have some socialization afterwards?”
The women thought it was a great idea. And so does Church of Nativity pastor Father Francis Hund.
“I think receiving God’s mercy is an occasion to celebrate,” he said. “What a great moment to be gifted with God’s love.
“And just as in the parable of the prodigal son, we throw the feast to celebrate God’s gift of welcome and forgiveness.”
Church of the Nativity, like parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, offers the sacrament every Wednesday evening during Lent.
“Confession is only from six to seven [o’clock],” said Neustadt. “So, it’s early enough [that] we can go to dinner.”
The women go on their own to confession during the allotted time, then meet for drinks and dinner at a nearby restaurant where Neustadt has made reservations.
“It’s beautiful to stand in line with one of my friends in front of me and one of my friends behind me, to share that quiet sort of contemplative time when we’re exercising our faith together,” said Neustadt.
Petro admits the new tradition has brought some women back to the confessional, including herself.
She’s grateful for the event reminding her to receive the sacrament . . . and so much more.
“I think it’s a really good reminder for all of us how important it is not only to ask for forgiveness for our sins and shortcomings, but also to understand we need to be forgiving toward each other,” she said.
Indeed, the tradition has unified the group of mothers outside the confessional and beyond Lent.
One of the moms is currently fighting cancer and the “Confessions and Cocktails” group has rallied behind her.
“She’s in the midst of a really powerful struggle,” said Neustadt. “Every Monday morning, this same group gets together after we drop our kids off at school and prays the rosary for our friend.”
“It all comes back to us being friends and having kids the same age,” said Petro. “But, also, it has to do with being part of a faith community and wanting to support each other.”
Neustadt has also found talking about “Confessions and Cocktails” with her non-Catholic friends has given her an opportunity to evangelize.
“Protestants have this skewed perception of reconciliation,” she said. “They think it is just going and asking to be forgiven so you can leave and do the same thing over again.
“So, it’s given me an opportunity to talk about it to non-Catholics or even non-practicing Catholics — to really show them this is a part of our vibrant community.”
As a convert, Neustadt said she cherishes the sacrament.
“I think there is nothing more powerful,” she said, “than having a priest lay his hands on you and say, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ, I forgive you.’
“It’s unlike anything else you get anywhere else.”
This group of moms is setting a good example for their children as well.
“I think it’s cool for our kids to see,” said Neustadt. “They ask, ‘Where are you going tonight, Mom?’ And I say, ‘I’m going to confession with my girlfriends.’
“I think that sets a great example.”
At the celebration after the sacrament, the group is elated with the love they feel for their God and one another.
Talk is nonstop, and sometimes includes light teasing about the faith practice they’ve just shared.
“We do talk about confession, too,” said Petro. “Sometimes we joke around: ‘I was in there for a long time. I’m sure you all were wondering what was going on with me.’”
But, mostly, it’s an atmosphere of celebration.
“It’s a good time during Lent to feel renewed,” said Petro.
Father Hund sees in their gathering an illustration of Pope Francis’ call for accompaniment.
“Pope Francis uses that understanding of accompaniment often in his writings,” said Father Hund, “and it is an encouragement to us as disciples to accompany one another.
“I think this is a beautiful example of accompanying each other and receiving that greatness of God’s mercy.”