Both second-grade classes were lined up along the side wall in the back of the church. Several nuns stood nearby, watching over us and offering whispered suggestions and reassuring looks. It was our First Confession, and we were all nervous. Each time the line lurched forward, I realized another soul had been bleached clean, but I also knew I was that much closer to entering the Confessional myself. I secretly prayed that I would be kidnapped by the Russian army in the next ten minutes, sucked up into a tornado, or at least stricken with some illness that would temporarily paralyze my vocal cords. As usual, my prayers went unanswered.
We’d practiced the Confession ritual on a school day during the previous week. Each student got the chance to enter the booth and kneel down while Sister described exactly what would happen. However, the rehearsal didn’t take place under actual game conditions. The priest’s compartment was unoccupied. The lights were on. It all seemed, if not comfortable, at least something less than terrifying, like touring an empty courtroom or seeing an old dentist’s chair for sale at a flea market.
But now it was Saturday morning. We didn’t know which of the three priests was hearing Confession, but we all knew which one we hoped it wouldn’t be. Father Cobo was the scariest of the group. He was rumored to be a hundred and sixty-five years old. I was sure he had already died three or four times, but kept getting sent back to Earth because the saints in Heaven were afraid of him. His voice made my eyelashes hurt. He could describe the agony of Hell in such detail that every time he opened his mouth, I heard the sizzle of burning flesh. He even rattled our teacher, Sister Bernard, and she was pretty intimidating herself; Sister could send a wild dog into cardiac arrest with just a hard stare.
As the line continued to shorten, I wondered which side of the confessional I would end up in. At some point the news had traveled back that it was not Father Cobo, but one of the younger priests. As a result, the ceiling of the church seemed suddenly higher, the air sweeter, and the stained glass windows more beautiful. I was about to receive my second of the Holy Sacraments, and while I couldn’t say that I was looking forward to it, I did feel a decreased level of dread. (The first sacrament, Baptism, had happened when I was just six weeks old, so my memory of it was somewhat sketchy. But I had made it through the ordeal of being dunked in holy water; talking to a priest through a small window couldn’t be any worse.)
Now at the front of the line, I felt Sister nudge me toward the compartment on the right side. I opened the door, entered, and tried to adjust my eyes to the darkness. When I heard the panel slide open, I pressed my hands flat together in front of me, and began to speak.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession. These are my sins.”
Without waiting for a response, I rattled off my memorized inventory list — the arguments with my brother, the times I disobeyed my parents, the nights I had fallen asleep without saying my prayers — and then mumbled something about the bra commercial. Just then, I heard the panel sliding again. I didn’t realize it, but the first time I heard the sliding sound, it was the priest listening to the person on the other side. So when he turned to me and opened my panel, I thought he was closing it. Had he been so shocked by my sins? Was it the sheer number of times I hadn’t eaten my vegetables? God had given me this throat that wouldn’t accommodate green beans, and now I was going to hell because of it. No. Wait. It must have been the bra commercial. Had I said shapelier out loud? I always thought that word sounded bad. But no, even if I had just said it in my mind, that would have been enough. Now the phrase “cross your heart and hope to die” took on a new and ominous meaning, one filled with irony and despair. This darkened booth was to be my doorway to Heaven, my path to salvation, and I had already blown it.
“Well?” a voice said. “Go on.”
It was the priest. I didn’t know this at the time, but he was waiting for me to start telling him my sins. I thought he had already heard them, had closed the panel in disgust, and was now telling me to leave.
“Please. Go on.”
He sounded serious, as though he really wanted me to get out. I stood, opened the door, and started to fumble my way into the bright sunlight. The priest bellowed.
“Where are you going?”
Everyone on the line looked right at me. I stood halfway out of the confessional, my hand on the doorknob, my body frozen in uncertainty. I was poised, hanging by the thinnest of threads, about to drop into the fires of Hell. Then my teacher came over and guided me back into the booth.
I started over. I told the priest about the vegetables and the times I talked back to my parents. And I explained how sometimes I wanted to say “Shut up” to my brother, but I didn’t because he would bite me in the leg. I mentioned eating meat on a Friday and forgetting to pray a few nights over Christmas vacation. Then I blurted out something about the bra commercial. And I waited.
In a low, flat voice, he told me to say the Hail Mary and the Our Father as my penance. He said something incoherent after that, and then a hurried blessing in Latin. I’ve always had this tendency to turn off the sound in my head when I’m nervous, and I did it even then. I couldn’t hear the priest clearly, but the panel slid closed before I could ask him to repeat what he’d said. I emerged into the sunlight once again, and once again was unsure what to do. Sister was still busy herding my classmates into the Confessional, so I walked to the front of the church, knelt on the smooth marble step in front of the altar, and recited both prayers three times each. Then I said them again, twice, just to cover my spotty memory.
My one and only First Confession was over. It hadn’t gone the way I’d imagined it would. It was awkward, and even more frightening than it should have been. Still, it could have been worse. I might have gotten kidnapped by the Russian army, or carried away by a tornado, or stricken with some illness that left me unable to speak. And then there was the worst possibility of all: Father Cobo could have been hearing Confession that day. I wonder if he’s retired yet, and how he celebrated his two-hundredth birthday.
* * * * *
My intent in writing this post was not to condemn Catholicism, or even to find fault with it. I wanted simply to illustrate what First Confession was like for me as a young boy growing up in the early 1960s. But at some point I realized that although these memories may not represent those of most people who went through the same experience, my version of events is also not unique. In fact, the more I’ve thought and read about it, and the more I’ve studied the comments I’ve received, the more convinced I am that there was something very wrong with the entire process. A seven-year-old, almost without exception, is incapable of understanding concepts such as salvation, damnation, incarnation, absolution, crucifixion, and resurrection. Further, I’m convinced that to tell children they were born sinners, that they’ve been accumulating additional sin through their actions, words, and even thoughts, and that any sense of doubt or even momentary questioning of their religious training is the result of the devil working inside their minds — these are, themselves, some of the greatest sins I can imagine.
I’ve tried to convey information from a certain perspective, and I’ve tried to do so with clarity and humor. But I have to tell you, I can see no clear justification for the idea that little boys and girls are still being placed inside dark boxes and told to spill their guts to total strangers who claim to represent a loving God. Further, to teach those children about a divine plan that may have them facing everlasting punishment for following the very nature with which they were created — there can’t be anything humorous about that.
At the same time, I know there are millions of people for whom the Catholic Church and its teachings are an important source of moral guidance and truth. For many, it’s the only source. Some of my most cherished relationships are with family members and friends who feel that way. While the wall of religion may continue to separate us, I hope this post and the previous one will help slide open a panel in that wall, and will spark a discussion that allows us to hear each other with a little more understanding.