One of the things that always made me extremely uncomfortable growing up Catholic was going to confession. This is highly ironic when you consider the off-the-wall, bare-your-soul, authoritarian group I accidentally got involved in in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but nevertheless it’s true.
I trace the source of my discomfort back to the day my second grade Catholic school teacher made us rehearse with her for our upcoming first experience with the sacrament of penance. When my turn came up I got up from the pew at St. Christopher’s Church in Midlothian, Illinois, went into the booth, and there she was, sitting on the fully-lit priest’s side, grading papers—with no screen separating us!
This was not what I had expected. For me, confessing sins was like going to the bathroom; I needed a stall, preferably with high walls and a door that locked. Not that I had a lot of experience communicating in that environment, but at eight years of age privacy was becoming an issue for me in a number of areas.
I slowly descended to the kneeler, suddenly unsure of the expectations.
“Go ahead,” she said firmly, not even looking up as she startled me out of my state of shock. “Give your confession.”
I have no idea what I said, but I couldn’t get out of there fast enough, and that more-or-less set the tone for all my subsequent visits to the confessional. I wish my experience had been more like Bob Newhart‘s:
Growing up in Chicago the best time to go to confession was during the Notre Dame-SMU game. You could tell that priest anything. “I just killed my family…” “Well, don’t do it again my son…” and you could hear the game on in the background.
[Bob Newhart, Commencement Address, The Catholic University of America, May 17, 1997.]
While this may not be a particular example of it, I’ve heard a lot of confessional humor from Newhart that I can actually relate to, and which has occasionally helped nourish the odd (but thoroughly explainable) fascination I have with the subject. Since then I’ve come across another autobiographical source who, like Newhart, came from a previous generation, and who, also like Newhart, apparently went to confession a lot more frequently than I did. Ed Stivender writes:
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been one week since my last confession…” My confessions were pretty much the same since grade school—disobedience, lying—though lately I had discovered the dangerous joy of impure thoughts. After I cataloged my usual, I paused, and the priest said:
“Is there anything else?”
“Well…yes, there is.” I paused and gulped and continued. “Is it a sin to not believe in God?”
“Well, my son, that depends on whether your disbelief is a result of culpable or inculpable ignorance. If you’ve never heard of God—say, you’re on an island in the South Pacific not visited by missionaries—it’s no sin, but if you have heard about God, you surely would believe in Him, else where would all our blessings come from but God, the unmoved mover? Surely you don’t disbelieve in God, else why would you be here today?”
“Yes, Father, but I have to be in a debate to prove the nonexistence of God. And I want to win, but I don’t want to sin. Winning without sinning, is it possible to do that?”
He chuckled, perhaps at the unintentional rhyme of it. “Oh, my son, taking part in a school activity is never a sin. Do you know what ‘mental reservation’ is?”
In fact I did. “Isn’t that when a prisoner of the Communist Chinese betrays his God and country in words, but in his heart stays faithful under torture?” There had been a lot of talk about the GI’s that had been captured in Korea and cracked under the pressure of cruel interrogation.
“Yes, that’s one example. As long as you keep the mental reservation that God exists in your heart, you won’t be in danger of sin.”
“But what if I win?”
“No need to worry about that. Is your teacher a priest?”
“Yes.” But he’s a jerk, I mentally reserved.
“Then I’m sure he won’t let you win, and you have nothing to worry about.”
[Ed Stivender, Still Catholic After All These Fears, (Little Rock, AR, USA: August House Publishers, Inc., 1995), 167-168.]
I don’t know how large his parish was, but I think Ed Stivender may have blown his penitent anonymity by divulging so many details. Just a thought.