Mass didn't start until 12:10 p.m. yesterday, but Susan Topper made sure to get to the Baltimore Basilica before noon.
The Pasadena woman, a retired state police officer, joined the line outside the confessional and waited for the light above the curtain to turn green.
"It makes me feel closer to God," Topper said after Mass at the historic church. "When you do penance, if you really pray intently, you really do feel a sense of relief, that God forgives your sins and you can start anew."
It is an experience that the Roman Catholic Church wants more of its members to have. With only one in four American Catholics making it to confession at least once a year, the Archdiocese of Baltimore is launching a campaign to promote the sacrament and to make it more available to a busy faithful.
"Throughout history, this has been a vehicle of Christ's forgiveness," Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien said before celebrating yesterday's Ash Wednesday Mass at the basilica. "The last 30 years or so, it's fallen off in practice.
"I don't think we emphasize it enough. I think there's a loss of a sense of sin. We see the problems we're facing in the world today, in our own country, and - call them what you want - it's greed, it's sin."
Called "The Light Is On For You," the campaign coincides with Lent, the season of penitence, fasting and prayer that begins with Ash Wednesday and continues until Easter.
Beginning next week, churches throughout the archdiocese will open their doors from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays for those who wish to take part in what is formally the sacrament of Reconciliation.
In a ritual that Catholics trace to Jesus, the penitent confesses his or her sins to a priest, who may grant absolution. The penitent makes an Act of Contrition, a prayer acknowledging his or her sins, expressing regret and resolving to do better.
The church directs Catholics to confess serious sins at least once a year, but actual participation has declined in recent decades.
In a survey last year by the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate at Georgetown University, more than half of American Catholics agreed that going to confession and performing acts of contrition and penance reconciles one to God, but nearly two-thirds said they could be good Catholics without observing the sacrament at least annually.
Still, there is an apparent revival in interest among younger Catholics. While those born before 1943 are most likely to go to confession at least once a year, those born in 1982 or later come next. Those findings match the observations of the Rev. Austin Murphy.
"Among young Catholics, there's more of an upsurge in participation in the sacraments and all those sort of traditional things that our grandparents were more into, and the generation in between really didn't have much contact with that," said Murphy, the Catholic chaplain at Towson University. "For the college-aged students now, it seems to be very important for them."
The campaign is modeled on an effort launched in 2007 by the Archdiocese of Washington and repeated last year. Priests there reported increases in participation both years.
"It got to the point that as we heard confessions for the hour and a half, there were no breaks, there were that many people coming," said the Rev. Ronald A. Potts, pastor of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in La Plata, which is in the Washington archdiocese.
"Giving people an opportunity to come in the middle of the week proved to us something very important: that the old way of doing things just on Saturday wasn't enough."
The Baltimore campaign is to be advertised on billboards and buses, and in newspapers, radio and television. Monsignor Art Valenzano is hopeful it will reach Catholics who have been away.
Valenzano, pastor of St. John Church in Westminster, quotes St. John Vienne, a 19th-century French priest who would hear confession for hours each day.
"He would talk about how every now and then, he'd catch a 'big fish' - someone who's been away from the sacrament for a long time and feels like they have committed the unforgivable sin," he said.
"And what the sacrament is about is saying, you know, 'Jesus is all about forgiveness and the church is about forgiveness and that forgiveness is healing. And it's possible to be reinstated again. You can come home.'
"I'm hoping that this will bring people back. I hope we get some big fish."
See Ash Wednesday video at baltimore