It’s good for the soul!
I waited for my turn to kneel in the dark box, divided by an opaque screen, sinner on one side, priest on the other. The goal: Confess to the silhouette of a man who had the authority to forgive me and grant me absolution.
I detected a weird acoustical effect. I could hear the people in front of me confessing their sins!
I looked up. A sign explained I stood in the line for the hearing impaired. My younger brother had the misfortune of being in line before me.
To quote George Bailey in the film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” This is a very interesting situation!
Age 12, I entertained the whispered persuasions of a demon on my left shoulder and an angel on my right.
Demon: “Go ahead and listen in! No one has to know. This could be juicy. Believe me, you can find ways to use this information to your advantage.”
Angel: “The confidentiality of the Sacrament of Reconcilliation must never be violated. If you listen to your brother confess his sin you will have an even bigger sin you will have to confess in just a few seconds.”
The angel’s logic won the day. I can’t remember how. I may have put my index fingers to my ears. I might have softly sung a hymn to distract myself.
Whatever the case, this fading memory earns a place on my list, published for the first time here, of “My top 7 most awkward scenes confessing sins to Catholic priests.”
Scenes like an old family movie
So what got me thinking about this?
A group discussion about the fourth of what is called “The 12 steps,” to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
I realized I used to do this on a regular basis. We called it Confession. It often felt awkward and usually felt good.
I remembered how cleansed and light I felt walking out of the Roman Catholic confessional. This sounds weird, but I loved going to Confession.
That’s past tense because I’m no longer a practicing Catholic. I don’t go to Confession these days, at least not the way I used to, with the convenience of walking to a bank with regular hours and tellers ready to do no-nonsense business without remembering my name. Nostalgic scenes from confessions gone by flooded my brain. I accessed a dusty, old VHS home movie and shoved it into the VCR of my brain to play.
The other six scenes I saw:
Scene 2: The CCD teacher who thought she was Muhammad Ali
Unlike many of the Catholic kids in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, my brother and I attended public schools. In other words, we were borderline Protestants. This meant we didn’t get the teachings of the Church pounded into us before recess.
Instead, we had to go to something called CCD. Don’t ask me what that stood for. It might have been Corrupted Catholic Delinquents. A big part of CCD was preparing your practically pagan heart for your First Communion. That joyous occasion had a somber prerequisite: scaring you to your First Confession.
My family went to Mass every Sunday as all Catholics are required to do, but we church-hopped around the many parishes in a central Wisconsin community so ethnically Polish my Dad said we should change our Irish name to O’Keefeski to avoid racial discrimination.
Church “rules” said you had to take CCD at parish church geographically closest to your place of residence. For me, that meant a church founded in 1896 called St. Bronislava.
Even Catholic historians don’t know about Saint Bronislava, mainly because this poor Polish girl from the 13th century never made it to sainthood.
The pope named Bronislava “Blessed,” the last step before Sainthood. Being “Blessed” without making “Saint” is like being named runner-up in the Miss America pageant. In a few hundred years, only a few of your biggest fans remember you, recalling your great attitude.
At age 16, in the year 1219, Bronislava entered a convent outside Krakow. For 15 auster years, she lived in a “cell” with “dirt floors,” no heat during the brutally cold Polish winters and no contact with the outside world.
That should have been a clue this wasn’t going to be easy.
For starters, I had to memorize four prayers:
- The Our Father
- The Hail Mary
- The Glory Be
- The Act of Contrition
Our teacher was a husky “lay volunteer” who could have put the fear of God into Karl Marx and kept Bronislava voluntarily in her cell the rest of her life. A few weeks before the big day, I recited my first three prayers in front of the class but choked on “The Act of Contrition.”
I will never forget these encouraging, motivating words:
“You better have that memorized by next week or I’m going to box your ears.”
That week, I was haunted by nightmares of being a boxing ring with a woman, blood pouring from my lobes as the referee counted backwards from 10.
I memorized that prayer and had a gloriously contrite First Confession.
Scene 3: The penitents I timed with my watch.
The 40 days before Easter are called Lent. During that time, every church in my town had a ritual called “The Stations of the Cross” in which the priest circled the inside of the church, stopping to say prayers at each station. As this happened, other priests manned their confessional boxes (most churches had several) waiting to hear sins. Everyone was expected to go forward.
One night I was so bored I made a game of it, clocking with my watch how long each person spent in the confessional. Amazingly, my mother had the longest Confession of anyone that evening, clocking in at 5 minutes, 15 seconds, making me wonder what the heck she had to say in there.
My mother’s sister believed Brevity is the Soul of Wit. She had the shortest Confession, only 57 seconds.
Scene 4: The priest I startled out of his siesta.
The stereotypical image of Confession is the confessional box, where the sinner and the priest are separated by a screen, giving the faithful supposed anonymity.
As I attended Marquette, a Jesuit university, big changes swept through the church, including the option of walking around the screen to confess your sins face-to-face with the priest.
I mustered up the courage to give it a shot one day between classes. I entered the confessional, took a deep breath, and walked past the screen trembling like the Cowardly Lion meeting the Wizard of Oz.
A priest in his 70s slumped in his chair, chin at his chest, snoozing. It must have been a slow day at the office. I didn’t know what to do.
Finally, I forced a cough. He bolted upright, blinked his eyes, and heard my Confession as if nothing strange had happened.
Scene 5: The priest who said “no big deal”
As alluded to before, I liked the feeling of floating like an unburdened butterfly after confessing my sins. In college, I went to Confession once a week, sometimes more, leaving me searching at times for good sins to confess.
I always came up with something. One time a priest had the audacity to tell me, “You’re being too hard on yourself.”
He didn’t give me 10 Hail Marys for my penance, nor a single Our Father.
Instead, he said, “Just keep doing what you’re doing and try to have some fun.”
I felt ripped off.
Scene 6: The Mike Wallace of investigative priests
To graduate, I needed theology credits. I took “The Letters of Paul,” a class taught by a brilliant, Yale-educated Jesuit priest. It changed my life forever. Father Bill became my mentor and my confessor, meeting me and my wife at the altar years later. He heard my sins at the Jesuit Residence, a mysterious, moldy smelling place most students never saw the inside of.
When the same priest hears your stuff week after week he starts to pick up on patterns. But Father Bill didn’t just hear my sins. He asked follow-up questions. When I was vague or opaque, he probed for details, not in a prurient way, but in an attempt to cut through the B.S. and get to the heart of the matter.
“What exactly do you mean when you say you (fill in the blank)?”
“Why do you think this is an ongoing problem for you?”
Is there anything else you’re not telling me?
At times, I felt like those poor schmucks on “60 Minutes” being interrogated by Mike Wallace, only I knew this was good for me.
Scene 7: My Dad’s concern about eternal timing
My senior year I prepared for a semester abroad or, as my Dad liked to say, “your semester studying broads.”
Back then, flying over the ocean on a jet plane was a big deal. Crashes weren’t exactly common but they did happen.
Two weeks before departing, Dad approached me looking uncharacteristically solemn. He pulled me aside and spoke in something approaching a whisper, another oddity.
“I’m not telling you what to do,” he said, telling me what to do. “But if it were me getting on that plane, I’d make sure I went to Confession first.”
For a minute, I didn’t get it. Then I realized Dad was raised on the old Baltimore Catechism, which taught there were three types of sins: venial, mortal and cardinal. The way he once explained it:
- If you die with unconfessed venial (minor) sin you made it to heaven, but by the skin of your teeth.
- If you had unconfessed mortal sins (like missing Mass) on your soul, you have to serve your time in a holding pen called Purgatory before getting promoted to the Big League.
- If you have cardinal sin you’re heading South for spring training and staying there forever.
“It seems what you’re saying, then, Dad is it’s a matter of timing,” I said. “The best thing to happen is to go to Confession and get run over and killed by a truck as I’m crossing the street. That way, I have no sin on my soul when my number is called and I non-stop ticket to heaven.”
He gave me this look that said: “Son, you’ve got it.”