In honor of the new pope, I am going to tell you a good Catholic story from way back when I lived in Boston and still had “good Catholic” parents trying to raise me to be a “good Catholic girl.”
I was seven, which (in case you don’t know) is the official age at which one receives the sacraments of Eucharist and Reconciliation—otherwise known as the First Confession and the First Holy Communion.
We spent a lot of time preparing for First Communion. I remember practicing my prayers every night—preparing for whatever penance the priest might require of me for my seven-year-old sins:
“Oh, my Father, I am heartily sorry for my sins with all my heart. In failing to do good and choosing to do wrong, I have sinned against thee who art so loving…”
“Our Father who art in Heaven…”
“Hail, Mary, Full of Grace! The Lord is with thee…”
“Glory be to the Father, the son, and the Holy Ghost…”
We had classes to prepare us for the big event. We practiced at Catholic school: walking up and down the aisle, receiving phony Eucharist. I remember having to make the very serious decision about whether to accept the Body of Christ traditionally by having the priest place the wafer directly on the tongue or being “modern” and accepting it by handing and putting it on my own tongue to dissolve (I chose the latter, a rebel at seven).
I spent a lot of time thinking about what sins I would confess to the priest. I was seven; it’s not like I had a lot to confess. Think back to that age: unless you were a sociopath, you weren’t really running around committing too many sins. I was pretty sure I’d confess to saying something mean to my sister because that likely happened—although I couldn’t recall the specifics. I had to ask if the priest would require detail (he wouldn’t).
The adults explained to us how the whole confession thing would go: line up, proceed down the aisle, wait your turn, examine your conscience the whole time. When it’s your turn, enter the confessional booth. The priest will be in the booth next door. We practiced in the empty booth: “Forgive me father for I have sinned. This is my first confession. I was mean to my sister.” But the imaginary priest didn’t say anything back. The adults told us what he would say, though. They explained he would assign us penance for our sins. They gave us examples: 7 Hail Mary’s, 5 Our Fathers, 1 Glory Be, and of course the Act of Contrition. We’d leave the booth and hit our knees at the altar and pray for forgiveness. We’d do our penance. We practiced: “…with thy help, I firmly intend to sin no more and to keep away from all that leads me to sin…”. After this our souls would be clean, and we’d be ready to receive the Body of Christ. We practiced, holding our hands just right, pretending to put Styrofoam-like wafers on our tongues. We were reminded not to chew: “You wouldn’t chomp down on the leg of Jesus, would you?” (I’m still disturbed by that imagery)
And then we were ready. On the big day, we arrived at church all dressed up—girls looking like little brides in frilly white dresses and veils. We marched down the aisle of the Church. I’m not gonna lie: seven-year-old me was nervous about tripping. I’ve always been a clutz.
Turns out I wasn’t the one to do something embarrassing. That honor went to another little girl whose name, I think, was Kathleen (let’s just go with that). She was ahead of me in line for the confessional booth. I was watching the other little boys and girls go in and come out, heading to the altar for their penance. I wondered what sins they’d committed. Then, little Kathleen went in. Hardly a second later there was a piercing scream, and she came tumbling out of the confessional, crying, and fell to the floor. That terrified everyone! I mean, what the heck happened to her in there? Was she possessed by a demon??
No, she was just a scared little girl. If you’ve never been in an old-school confessional booth (I know a lot of time nowadays, people just sit down face-to-face with a priest), let me explain: There are two doors (ours had doors anyway; some have curtains), side-by-side. You walk in one side and shut the door behind you. It’s dark. And a little creepy, especially if you’re seven. Those suckers were built for privacy, so it’s really quiet. You can’t hear much from the outside. Which is also creepy, especially if you’re seven. In the wall separating the two booths, there’s a screen. You can’t really see through it. The screen is protected by a little door. So when the little door opens from the priest’s side, you can start your confession. Through the screen. To the priest who you can’t see.
You know what’s really, really creepy to seven-year-old kids: disembodied voices. Which is what sent little Kathleen careening out of that booth as if the devil himself were on the other side.
I didn’t want to go in after that. But I did. It was creepy, but I didn’t scream. I think I confessed to telling a lie because that seemed like a good one. I was rewarded with absolution. I did my penance. I earned a rosary and a prayer book, so I could continue being a good Catholic girl.