Odd how the word “confession” has changed in meaning over the course of my life.
Growing up in the Catholic religion, Confession was one of the seven holy sacraments. Like Matrimony and Extreme Unction, I didn’t understand its meaning much beyond that. In the second grade at Bishop Kelley School, we studied, practiced and prepared for our first Confession, which would be followed shortly after by our First Holy Communion. Two big events in the life of a small child!
I don’t know if the nuns neglected to tell me about tone of voice, or if I had simply failed to register that instruction in my effort to memorize the “script.” I was shy, and terrified of speaking in public to the point where I was often completely unable to form words. This was important! I didn’t want to mess it up. I practiced and practiced.
Finally, the day came when we all walked in a single file line from our classroom down the hall, out the front door, across the street, and into the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. We each genuflected toward the altar, then positioned ourselves in the pew adjacent to the confessional booth. When it came my turn, I crossed the aisle, pulled back the green velvet curtain, and knelt onto the padded brown leather kneeler.
I heard Father slide the screen open. Was it time? I waited. “Are you there?” he asked quietly. Yes, I was there. I was ready! Filled with excitement at this big event, my shyness disappeared, and I started talking, just as I’d practiced:
“BLESS ME, FATHER, FOR I HAVE SINNED…”
“Whoa…whoa…shhhh….SHHHHH…Hey! Quiet! Whisper!” came the voice of the priest from behind the screen. I didn’t know – or I’d forgotten, in my enthusiasm – that I was supposed to whisper. And, though I knew my lines perfectly when I arrived, that reprimand drove them right out of my mind. From that point on, he had to coax every word from me.
“This…” he said, and I whispered, “this…”
One word at a time, we got through the introduction. I’ll bet he hated to even broach the subject of sins, but somehow we got through it. We had talked about that in class already, with “disobeyed my parents” being the default sin for seven-year-olds. He assigned me my penance, gave me his blessing, and sent me on my way.
By the time I reached eighth grade, I’d learned how to play the system. No way was I going to tell the priest that I harbored lustful thoughts about Paul McCartney…or any of the Beatles. My relationship with the Beatles was not the priest’s business! I would not admit to disrespecting Sister Aloysius, either. Many of the conversations my friends and I were having were also not things I wanted to bring up in the confessional.
So, I’d start out with the usual, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been two weeks since my last confession. I have no sins to confess.” Then, like an after-thought, I’d jump in there with, “Oh! Oh, yeah…I lied once.” The lie, of course, was the “I have no sins” line. At the age of thirteen, I thought, I guess, that I could cheat my way into heaven!