It was and I assume still is, an important part of the Catholic Church ritual. In the small chance, someone is not familiar with it, it was something that had to be done in a specific way before you could receive Holy Communion at Mass on Sunday. It was something we, as kids, did on Saturday afternoons in our church, St. Bernards, on 14th Street where we normally went to Sunday service. And it was what it sounds like: you had to verbally confess the sins you had committed that week to a Priest. There were two Confessional boxes on either side of the main entrance to the church. They were high wooden structures with two compartments. The one you, as a worthless sinner went into had a bench to kneel on. The Priest, in the other compartment, got a seat and I would not have been surprised if it had a wet bar in there as well. Confessions usually started around 4PM ensuring the Priest had plenty of time to get back to cocktail hour at the Rectory. We would arrive early and sit in a pew waiting for the Priest’s arrival. When he entered the church, he disappeared into his side of the box, closed the door and awaited the first heathen. It mattered what Priest you got too; you see how it worked was you told him your sins, and depending on the severity or the number of them, he would assign you a number of prayers to say to cleanse your soul, say for instance ten Hail Marys or five Our Fathers. Some Priests were brutal and you would be mumbling prayers for hours afterward; others, the good ones, probably didn’t listen anyway and let you off easy.
So, the Priest went in, then you followed. You closed the door, knelt down in the darkness and waited. At first, nothing happened. Then you heard the sound of a panel being slid back. You could faintly make out the figure on the other side of an old dented screen. And for me, it was the exact same script every time.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”
“Yes, my son? And how have you sinned?”
My answer was always the same as well. Since I lived such a sheltered and uneventful life, I could only come up with:
“I lied, and I disobeyed my Mother and Father”.
Years later, when I had some really juicy doozies to confess I still went with those two sure-fire hits. Let’s face it, those were pretty low ball. What kid didn’t lie and disobey his Mother and Father; heck that’s what being a kid demanded. Invariably the Priest would say:
“You shouldn’t lie my son, and you shouldn’t disobey your Mother and Father”
Ok, so scintillating conversation it wasn’t, but it was evidently necessary.
“That will be ten Hail Marys”
“Thank you, Father”.
And then I got the hell out of that sweltering box as fast as I could.
Returning to the pew to do my penance, every once in awhile I would be entertained by hearing the Priest exclaim:
“You did what?!”
After the next sinner had gone in. He evidently had a much more interesting life than I did.
Of course, as a teenager, I stopped going, both to Mass and Confession. I remember one incident that confirmed I had made the right choice.
Years later, my friend Mike and I were attending the St. Gennaro Feast downtown, an annual celebration of one’s faith in God and one’s love of a sausage, pepper and onion sandwich. The church, of course, was open for Confessions and on a lark, we decided it might be fun to go in. That gives you an idea of our sense of humor. It was either that or shoot a water gun at a clown’s open mouth in order to get the balloon on his head to pop. I went first and stuck to the tried and true. As the Priest couldn’t see that I was a college-aged guy, my sins still worked. He decided how many prayers I had to say, I said yea right, be seeing you and got out of there. Not much had changed. I went out to the street to smoke a cigarette as Mike took his turn.
When he emerged, it was clear something was wrong; his face was flushed and he was obviously disturbed.
“What the hell happened?” I asked.
At first he just shook his head, not wanting to talk about it, but eventually, I wore him down and found out what happened. He must have said something like he disrespected a girl or something like that; totally benign and knowing Mike probably not anything that made it to the category of “sin”. But I guess this Priest was a little desperate for details.
“Did you touch her?” he had apparently asked.
“Did you feel her in a sinful way; her body…did you touch her body?”
Ok game over, Mike decided and left the pervert to speak to an empty box. I didn’t blame him one bit for being disturbed by the event. Hell, I am surprised he didn’t punch the jerk right through the screen!
Screw this shit, we decided. The next time we confess to someone it will be each other, a loved one, or a family member but not a damned Priest. Let them get their jollies somewhere else (and unfortunately, many of them evidently did).
I don’t go to churches much anymore, maybe an occasional wedding or a funeral (same difference) but the last time I was in one I felt uneasy. At first, I put it down to just being in unfamiliar surroundings but it was something more than that; I felt like I was being watched. I looked around and saw the expected: stain glass windows, statues, candles and then my eyes came to rest on the Confessional box.
They still stood there, like depraved sentinels, dark and foreboding, patiently waiting for the next poor deluded dope who thought he needed to mindlessly recite prayers in order to be considered good in God’s eyes again. I, at that moment, had this fantasy of grabbing an ax from somewhere and chopping the damned thing to splinters. If I had, I have no doubt I would have heard the cheers from kids for miles around.
But instead, when it was time to leave, I simply walked out and avoiding looking at it again. Leaving the holy darkness behind, I walked out into the clear sunshine of a rational day.
Some parts of your childhood are better left in the darkness, where they belong.