I’m a Catholic Kid Who Lied in Confession. Maybe You Are Too.
This is dedicated to all Catholic kids who confessed to sins they didn’t commit.
“Do you remember confession?” I send the text to my brother on a Saturday while the kids eat donuts in the kitchen. “I’m not being weird; I’m trying to write an essay.”
“I do,” he says adding, “I don’t remember what I said, but I stole a lot of candy back then. I’m pretty sure I included that when I confessed.” Imagining my brother shoving handfuls of penny candy into pant pockets and running for the door when the teenager behind the counter turns to help another customer makes sense. My brother was the sort of kid teachers didn’t want in their class. The one bullies beat up because he fearlessly shouted, “Your mother is a whore.” I was sure he had plenty to confess even at the innocent age of nine. My brother was the type of kid confession was created for.
I, on the other hand, was quiet — mouse-like. Bringing home perfect grades and following every rule, defined my childhood. If my brother was the stereotypical problem child, I was the good one. Confession did not come so easily to me.
“I remember confession,” my husband says as he ushers the youngest toward the front door for baseball practice.
“Was your priest old?” I ask.
“Weren’t they all.”
Mine was ancient, his skin etched with lines so deep one fall might wreck his fragile body, shattering his brittle bones upon impact. We sat face to face in a small confessional at the back of the church. In the present, my husband calls me brave. In the past, I did not have a choice. Maybe if I had, I would have chosen to hide behind the thin, dark wooden latticed screen separating myself from the man of God waiting to cast judgment and issue forgiveness in the form of prayer, a handful of Our Fathers sprinkled with a smattering of Hail Mary’s. My husband sat behind the screen, a protective membrane dividing him from the wondering eyes of the priest. I’m sure it took some of the pressure off.
I confessed for the first time on a Tuesday in a month I can’t recall. Unlike the day of my First Holy Communion, I am unable to remember what the weather was like. There was no celebration for confessing your sins. Reconciliation did not offer the white eyelet dress purchased on sale at a fancy department store, a cake with a yellow cross occupying 75% to 80% of the real estate, or a party with ten and twenty dollar bills stashed in money-holders disguised as greeting cards. Perhaps sharing sin and seeking absolution did not hold the glamour or weight of consuming the body of Christ from a golden chalice or being absolved from Original Sin in front of family so you might avoid the ambiguous realm of Purgatory in the event that you died as a baby, but it was just as necessary a step in the sacramental climb toward life as a Catholic adult.
Confession happens in the church basement with a geriatric priest named Tom. It is where I learn to lie with expedience pulling fabricated fragments of twisted truths, so I have something, anything to say. I’m not claiming that I hadn’t lied before, just that I never did so with such measured and targeted intent. In my first formal quest for absolution, I figure out how to cull lies from thin air when the Lord and his Earthly robed representatives require me to.
Staring at the burgundy and gold brocade curtains that separate the small confessional from the rest of the church, I shift in my chair. “My child, what sins do you have to confess?” The twisted arthritic knuckles of Father Tom’s hands as he runs them along the silk fabric around his neck remind me of the knots my grandfather ties on weekends to anchor our boat to the wooden dock so it doesn’t slip away while we eat lunch, and he and my grandmother sip martinis. I am also aware of having seen those same hands before. The nuns at my Parochial school wave a smaller version of Father Tom’s disfigured hands when they see us on the walk home from school, their habited heads visible through the windows of the blue hatchback we call the nun mobile. I find myself wondering if knotted knuckles are necessary to serve God in his heavenly house.
Beads of sweat pill up on my forehead. Wiping my hands on my plaid uniform skirt, praying Father can’t see, I wonder what to say. I’m the good kid, the one who doesn’t get in trouble. My grades are high, my sins not worth mention. “I swore at my brother.” We fight a lot, but I’m sure it is he who swore at me screaming a string of expletives I didn’t understand and my grandparents couldn’t hear. In claiming the sin as my own, I created a sin — the lie. I will come to know it well.
“I was mean to my friend. I had envious thoughts. Jealousy is a sin, right Father Tom?” He nods. Equal parts over-achiever and people pleaser, I find myself unable to stop. Father’s pauses and reassuring smile goad me on. The adrenaline rush of creating imaginary sins is addicting. Later, I will understand the true meaning and weight of Catholic guilt as I grapple with my own, a result of creating sins to satisfy God, to atone for being human. But for now, I am fully invested and Father Tom leans closer to me. “I pushed a kid on the playground.” I’ve never done such a thing. Doesn’t matter. He rubs at one of the gnarly knuckles with his thumb. Wondering if they hurt, I continue. Soon, I have confessed to my sins, my brothers, and maybe a few things I caught on the nightly news while doing homework on the living room rug. Finally calm, finally emptied, finally exhausted — I slump back against the wooden chair.
Father Tom speaks as I allow my body to calm, my respiration to return to normal, “Dear child, God does not turn his back on us when we sin. Instead, he loves us even more for our ability to openly confess and ask for absolution. Please say three Hail Marys and four Our Fathers, and I will see you back here next week.” Perhaps, I think, Our Fathers mean more given the uneven distribution of prayer. I never knew God’s forgiveness could be so simple and so complicated.
As I leave the dim light of the confessional and allow my eyes to adjust to the sun streaming in through the stained-glass windows, I sit in one of the pews aware of the hardwood beneath me. Next week, I think, I have to do this all over again. I get on my knees and offer up my absolution, whispering the words to the Hail Mary and Our Father against the plaster walls of the empty church. When I finish, I stand up and walk out into the sunlit afternoon wondering what my first sin will be. There are only seven more days until my next confession. I will spend them creating an interesting life steeped in sins I’ll never actually commit. Apparently, that’s what good Catholic children do.