During the two-day meeting between Benedict XVI and the young people who flocked to Loreto by the hundreds of thousands from Italy and from many other countries, something happened that was unexpected in terms of its intensity and breadth: mass participation in the sacrament of confession.
Between Saturday, September 1, and Sunday, September 2, in the large open plain beneath the town and the shrine of the Virgin Mary, 350 priests heard confessions nonstop from two o'clock in the afternoon until seven in the morning, besieged by twelve thousand young people seeking forgiveness.
But even before the pope's arrival, the rite of penance had been part of the preparations for many of the young people attending the event. Almost all of the pilgrimage venues on the way to Loreto included opportunities for sacramental confession. Such was the case with the abbey in Fiastra, which at times became one giant confessional. Such was the case with the shrine of Canoscio, in the Apennine mountains. Each time, there were dozens and dozens of priests all administering the sacrament at the same time.
This was not an absolute novelty. Great numbers of young people also confessed at the World Youth Day events held in Rome in 2000: 120,000 in three days, in the immense stadium of pagan Rome, the Circus Maximus, which had been transformed into an open-air confessional.
But what seemed at first like a flash in the pan turned out to be a lasting trend. And it is a growing one, especially at shrines and at large gatherings. Of course, the percentage of young Catholics who go to confession is still small. In Loreto, they were less than five percent of those present. But a trend reversal is underway, considering that reception of the sacrament had almost died out some years ago.
Besides, the symbolism speaks louder than the numbers here. The sight of so many young people confessing out of their own free will, during a religious event and before the eyes of all, transmits the message that confession is no longer a sacrament in disuse, but is once again returning into practice and favor.
Benedict XVI resolutely encourages this revival of confession, especially among the young. It was his idea to dedicate an entire afternoon, on the Thursday before Holy Week last year, to the celebration of the sacrament of penance in St. Peter's, coming to the basilica himself to celebrate the rite, to preach and hear confessions.