1945 – In Connecticut, almost six years of age, I was being ‘trained’ to be a good Roman Catholic boy. One part of that training was studying the Latin necessary to serve mass as an altar boy. Another part was to ‘go to confession’ and recite my sins to a priest sitting in a little darkened booth. Evidently, he had some clout in God circles and could ‘absolve us of our sins’ and make it alright with God, who of course, knew all about each one of our sins long before we listed them for the priest. One of the mysteries of Roman Catholicism, at least to me, was … why did we have to recite our sins to a person in the first place? But Hey! Just do these things, and that’ll make everything OK.
In some way or another, going to confession became a weekly activity, almost a requirement … if one wanted to receive Holy Communion on Sunday morning (a person couldn’t dare sully the Holy Host by taking the communion wafer while having unforgiven sins). My most serious sins were pretty tame stuff … arguing with my younger sister, not doing certain chores around the house, telling a lie to one of my parents, etc. This weekly visit created a problem, however. There were some weeks, believe it or not, during which I had done nothing wrong or sinful, but found myself in a line of people waiting for their turns in the confessional. The words spoken to initiate a confession are “Bless me Father, for I have sinned.” Looking back from an advantage point of more than seven decades … for those sin-free weeks, I might have said “Bless me Father, for I have NOT sinned this week, not one, not even a little one. Bye-bye.” But no, I didn’t have the courage to pull off that one. Instead … I lied … selected a few minor sins, confessed them, received the forgiveness, got the required penance (usually five or ten ‘Our Fathers’ and an equal number of Hail Marys), said “Thank you, Father” and left the confessional booth. The final step would be a visit to the altar railing, saying the required penance prayers, and with that a person would be in excellent spiritual shape, be pleasing to God, and be ready to re-enter society.
With small variations, this was the routine I followed for five or six years, but less frequently as years passed, and finally stopping entirely when I separated myself from the Roman Catholic church just before my thirteenth birthday (the subject of a separate essay).
The whole confession thing was a bit baffling to me, even during those years when I believed strongly in the god that was presented to us. Mentioned before, this god was supposed to know everything we did or thought … every second of every day. Why then, go see a priest? Saying prayers to this god was supposed to be a heart-warming, joyous thing. Why then, use prayers as punishment? While I had a number of questions regarding the mechanics of this sin-forgiving, I do not remember delving deeply into the subject and could, in fact, see some value in the confessional process. I could see an advantage for people to talk with a priest and still maintain anonymity, since face-to-face confessions rarely happened. As an added bonus, the priest could never repeat anything which transpired during the confession and was sworn to secrecy. Further, for some persons, merely saying the words aloud allowed them to ‘get it off their chest’, ‘make a clean sweep of things’, and ‘get a fresh start on life’, with all the good feelings that go with all those clichés and a ‘clean slate’ … a comforting thing.
At age thirteen, I left the church. Now, at age twenty-one, I had started my life way out west in Arizona, and returned to Connecticut briefly for my younger sister’s wedding. I was part of the wedding party. What was that about? Of course, in our formal clothing we would all look our very best. The wedding would take place in a Roman Catholic Church. Everyone in the wedding party was Catholic (except me, you’ll see) and would go to confession and receive Holy Communion. To me, that was the tricky part of what it was all about.
After a brief wedding rehearsal at the church, the wedding party members moved toward the back of the church, and sat down in pews near the confessional booth. The confessional was a three-cubicle construction. The center, occupied by a priest hearing confessions, and two outer booths where confessors knelt for their individual turn with the priest. All the wedding party sat waiting near the confessional except me. Each person would be receiving the Holy Sacrament of Communion as part of the wedding ceremony the following day. I sat near, but not next to the others. My mother then asked “Aren’t you going to confession?” I said “No, but it’s OK.” She obviously had a view quite different from mine. With a clearly murderous look she said, “Go sit down and say your confession.” Me? I was just trying to keep the peace, wanting Phyllis’s wedding to be splendid and untroubled. So … I said (to myself only), “The little old lady (my mother) is completely out of her mind, but now is not the time to deal with that problem.” I sat next to my cousin. After blessing myself, I said softly, “Hey Man, I forgot how to do this confession thing. Clue me in. How does it start?” With a strange, questioning look, he said “Oh, it starts with ‘Bless me Father, for I have sinned’ …” and he went on for another phrase or two, until I stopped him. “OK, I think I have it.” Spent a minute or two trying to review the words before my cousin’s turn came up. Soon however, he disappeared into one of the confessional compartments, which meant … I was next.
With such brief rehearsal, I was truly unprepared for this. The curtain of one side of the confessional opened as one of the bridesmaids left and walked toward the front altar. Now it was my turn. Into that side I went, pulling the curtain closed. In the quiet confines of the booth, and all too soon, I could hear the sliding privacy panel being operated on the other side of the confessional, telling me my cousin was done with his confession. Next, I heard the sliding panel between the priest and me being moved by the priest to the ‘open’ position. So I began with “Bless me Father, for I have sinned,” but when I got to the part where I say “It has been ____ weeks since my last confession”, for some ungodly reason (a small wordplay there), I could not lie to the anonymous man on the other side of the screened opening. I said “It has been eight years since my last confession.” Before I could slur my way past that, he said, “Eight years?” … with emphasis on the word ‘years’. I said, “Yes Father, these are my sins” … and I paused for just a moment …
Note to Readers: You know there was no way I was going to enumerate eight years’ worth of all my religious transgressions, feeling that all the accumulated sins could be much more efficiently considered as a collection rather than individually.
… then continued with “Father, I have done almost everything you can think of … at least twice, except murder, I have never killed anyone.” And I left it at that. The priest took longer than I thought was appropriate, but he said “Are you truly sorry for your sins?” Of course I said, “Yes Father”, and thought I might be getting off easy … fingers crossed and all that. He said quietly “If you are not sorry now, you will be.” He delivered my penance which was … to recite 50, that is … fifty, five oh, rosaries. Having never heard of penance that severe, I believe I recovered rather well, saying “Thank You, Father” and finished the confession ritual with that prayer known as an Act of Contrition … “Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee …” which had lain dormant and in isolation way back in a brain cell somewhere and evidently had been ready for release at a moment’s notice during that eight-year lapse. Finishing that prayer signaled I was free to leave and do the final steps on my own.
The next stop was the front altar railing where my cousin was kneeling and saying his few prayers. I knelt alongside. He leaned slightly toward me, half-whispering from the side of his mouth, “What’d you get?” I said “Life … I got a life sentence … 50 Rosaries.” My cousin couldn’t stop himself from laughing, despite the fact that doing so in God’s House was sort of a no-no at the time.
Thinking about 50 rosaries, which penance I had never heard before or since, I decided well-intentioned bribery was not completely out of line. Since I no longer believed in any of this stuff, my choice of a small bribe seemed to be enough penance. I pushed a folded-up dollar bill through the little slot in the votive candle box and didn’t light any of the candles, figuring that sacrifice would cover it. Do you think it did?
Tucson, Arizona 2/25/2016