At one level, what follows is an amusing anecdote about childhood. At another, it tells you all you need to know about religion at ground zero, away from the ponderances of theologians.
When I was a child, I went to St. Philip Neri School, the beginning of 12 years of Catholic education. For the most part, it was an excellent education, sometimes in ways no one there could have predicted, or would have acknowledged. I’ve long since stopped being a Catholic, but I miss some of the trappings of the church.
I’m thinking particularly of Confession, the sacrament. Even as early as the first grade, we children were marched to the church next door every Friday morning to confess our sins. It’s a ritual that, on balance, is a good thing in a general way, a kind of cleansing of the spirit, a renewal and a chance to start over repeated frequently enough to have a continuing effect. That’s the positive side of it. The negative side is that some people used its recurring absolution as a clean slate on which to write more transgressions; think Mafia, for example, or Mussolini or Franco. Of course, you could circumvent the need for regular redemption with good timing. It’s said that Constantine put off baptism and confession until his deathbed, realizing that as emperor of Rome there was no way he could avoid any number of sins per diem.
At the other end of the spectrum were we children. Our problem was that there was nothing to confess half the time. Disobedience, yes, there was always that, but it felt a bit repetitious after the first dozen or so times. There were always “impure thoughts,” but, honestly, at the age of seven or eight, we had no idea what they were, except that they had something to do with girls and boys. I suspect it was the priests who heard our confessions that needed to meditate on that more than we did, at least until the sixth grade or thereabouts. So, we made up fictitious lists of sins. The priests must have thought we already had one foot in hell to hear all the things we did in a week.
Of course, it was not always so. I remember one Friday morning in the third or fourth grade when, as we marched across the playground to church, my best friend told me he had something terrible to confess, and he hoped he could be forgiven. The day before, he had been accosted on the way home by a public-school boy, a bit older and larger than he was. It happened, in that curious way that beggars belief, that he had a fork with him, who knows why. As the older boy lunged at him, my friend struck out with the fork. It stuck, and drew blood, albeit not much. The older boy’s eyes got huge, and he pulled out the fork, threw it on the ground and ran away, crying. My friend was sure there was major time in purgatory in store for him, if not hell itself.
Well, as it happened, as we lined up in front of the confessional to wait our turn, in came Monsignor Busald. He was the pastor in the parish, which at the time ran to four or five other priests, any of whom could have been hearing confessions that day. But no, it was Busald.
He was ancient, a bit crabby, and no longer given to keeping up appearances. He reserved the daily 5:30 AM masses for himself, and he was the only priest in the parish who would make the altar boy go in the back to get more wine in the middle of mass. He was also hard of hearing, and like many such people, talked more loudly than necessary.
And so, it came about that when my friend entered the confessional, full of trepidation, we heard everything.
“Mumble, mumble, mumble…”
“What? Speak up, boy!”
“Monsignor, I stabbed a boy with a fork!”
Outside the confessional, it was all we could do to stifle our laughter, while the good sister whose name is lost in the mists of time, our teacher, turned crimson with embarrassment.
There was an uncomfortably long span of silence. Then, the monsignor:
“Was he Catholic?”
“No, Monsignor, he was protestant.”
Another awkward silence.
“Well, that’s all right then. Next!”