Observing ‘Ash Thursday,’ encouraging reconciliation

Fr. Kneemiller

By Fr. Bill Kneemiller

The week of Ash Wednesday was a busy one, as I tried to get out to three or four bases from Kandahar. Since I couldn’t get to every place on Ash Wednesday, I called my Thursday service “Ash Thursday.” 

At the flight line for the Black Hawk helicopter, I checked in with the flight desk that had pushed me back a couple of hours on a later flight. I mentioned that I was trying to cover Ash Wednesday services. A baggage handler, a young Army specialist, mentioned: “Oh I’m a Special Occasion Catholic.” I wish I could have gone to the Mass.” I told her I could give her the ashes if she had a few minutes after the flight baggage was loaded.

So, I was able to do a short Ash Wednesday service on the flight line with the specialist and another airman who was Catholic. We had a few minutes to talk so I encouraged them to attend Mass more frequently than for “special occasions.” I mentioned that at the Saturday night Mass we have a large Filipino choir that loves to sing. These are some of the best times with the soldiers here, and there are always sparks of faith to fan.

“The Rucksack is pure gold”


I finished each Mass during the first few days of Lent with the “rucksack talk.” It’s a talk I’ve given before and the response after Masses ranges from encouragement to amazement. 

I start with a backpack close at hand: “Today after Mass I’ll offer reconciliation or confession. Some of you may want to go as a routine matter; maybe it’s been a few months or more since your last reconciliation.

“But some of you may have a big, old nasty sin from way back. And you’ve carried this heavy burden — 50 pounds, 100 pounds — everywhere you go — to the chow hall, even at night, it’s there next to you.” At this point I hoist up a large backpack that weighs me down; the soldiers know from long marches the weight of a nasty rucksack.

I add, “But what keeps you from simply sitting down for a few minutes and giving that burden to Jesus? Go ahead and shout it out!” The answers come: “Shame, embarrassment, fear, pride.”

“But the worst reason to not go comes from Revelation, Chapter 12: ‘The accuser of our brothers is cast out.’ Who is cast out from heaven? The devil, and he is the accuser of sins who pushes us down and makes us feel we are not worthy to be forgiven. But Christ always lifts us up. So that’s the contrast between darkness and light, shame or mercy, bondage or freedom!”

I conclude: “I know what it is like to be away from the sacrament for some years and then to realize that I was carrying a nasty old burden from the past. Also, I know the humility needed to say ‘Father, can you hear my confession?”’

(Fr. Kneemiller is a priest of the Diocese of Davenport who is serving as a chaplain in the Army Reserves in Afghanistan.)

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