Students and parishioners flocked to Saint Thomas of Villanova Church on Feb.2 and Feb. 3 to participate in Campus Ministry’s Festival of Forgiveness. The church was open for 20 hours, beginning with prayer on Tuesday night and ending with Mass on Wednesday evening. Eucharistic Adoration and the Sacrament of Reconciliation were available for Catholics, and all were invited to engage in private prayer.
The festival was part of an important year in the Catholic Church’s history. In March of 2015, Pope Francis announced a Year of Mercy. Every 25 years, the Church observes a jubilee and encourages people to renew their faith. This tradition dates back to Hebrew scripture. Because Pope Francis’s Year of Mercy is outside of the 25-year cycle, it is considered an extraordinary jubilee. The last extraordinary jubilees were held in 1983 and 1933. The pope announced this celebration in hopes of pulling people back to the Church.
“I am confident that the whole Church, which is in need of mercy for we are sinners, will be able to find in this Jubilee the joy of rediscovering and rendering fruitful God’s mercy, with which we are all called to give comfort to every man and every woman of our time,” Pope Francis said in his announcement. “Do not forget that God forgives all, and God forgives always.”
To spread the Church’s new initiative, the pope asked every diocese to offer 24 hours of Reconciliation. Campus Ministry adapted this idea to the University’s schedule and organized a 20-hour event that they called The Festival of Forgiveness.
Preparation for the festival began in November 2015. Campus Ministry advertised the event to Villanova students, parishioners in the local community, and students from Cabrini College. Father Tom McCarthy O.S.A. spoke at every Mass on Jan. 30 and 31, personally inviting churchgoers to attend the festival for at least five minutes.
Although no official records were kept, about 200 students attended the night prayer session, and a steady stream of people were coming and going for the entire event.
Father McCarthy was one of 14 priests who took turns hearing confessions at the 20 hour event.
“It was exhausting, but every priest thought that it was worth it,” McCarthy said. “We were ecstatic about being involved and encountering the Villanova community.”
Although the festival incorporated many Catholic traditions, such as Adoration and Reconciliation, all were encouraged to attend. Students from any faith background could write down prayer intentions or talk to the Augustinian priests. Father McCarthy hoped the festival would reach Catholics who are struggling with their faith.
“The focus of the Year of Mercy is those who are members of the church and have fallen away because they have felt they aren’t good enough,” Father McCarthy said. “They feel that because they have sinned they are no good. Some ministers in the church have pushed people away, but Pope Francis and Jesus have said to welcome everyone in. I hope the festival welcomes home those who feel hurt and alienated by their own church.”
Jordan Pieper, co-founder and coordinator of the Catholic Student Association, made sure that at least one person was in the church at all times. This semester, CSA became the University’s first Catholic student union. It aims to teach students of all spiritual beliefs about Catholicism. Pieper said that part of the festival’s purpose was to address misconceptions about the Catholic Church, which is sometimes perceived as exclusive or judgmental.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about the Church that need to be cleared up,” Pieper said. “Our God is a God of mercy, and our God is a God of love.”
Throughout the festival, Campus Ministry emphasized unity. Participants were reminded to pray not only for themselves, but also for the intentions of others. The church was decorated with 250 candles. Students were encouraged to light a candle before they left to represent the continuation of their prayers through other students.
The festival represents just one part of Pope Francis’s Year of Mercy. The papacy will be sending out “Missionaries of Mercy,” priests who have the authority to absolve even the gravest sins. The church will be using the Gospel of Luke during weekend liturgies. Luke’s gospel is known for its stories about God’s mercy. Pope Francis has also called for greater dialogue between Catholics, Jews, and Muslims.
Pope Francis’s extraordinary jubilee will end on Nov. 20, 2016, but Father McCarthy wants The Festival of Forgiveness to become a Villanova tradition.
“The best advertisement is the students,” McCarthy said. “When students spread the word to their friends, that’s how traditions are started.”