I didn't make it in time for Massand I honestly wasn't in a rush for it anywayso the church is mostly empty save for the few waiting in line for the confessional. This church has a row of them in the back, great wooden things that for all their gilding and ornate carvings still look like fancy outhouses. Only one is open at the moment, so I take a seat at the backmost pew with all the other repentant sinners.
One would think that the holy sacrament of Reconciliation would be handled with a bit more gravity, but it seems that it has gone the way of the restaurantgo to the counter, place your order, and if your food hasn't come within two minutes you've earned the right to cross your arms, tap your foot, and look at the server with venom in your eyes. In no time at all it's my turn, and I stride into the empty confessional with a great deal more confidence than I actually possess.
When I shut the door behind me, I can no longer hear the rain on the windows or the obnoxious squeaking of wet shoes; there is only soft, wooden silence. I revel in it for a few moments too long and the priest hidden on the other side of the latticed window clears his throat.
"Oh, I'm sorry. Um
Forgive me Father, for I have sinned," I repeat by rote, though I'm not quite sure why it still falls from my mouth so easily. "It has been twenty years since my last confession."
"That's quite a long time, my child." And it is, but I hadn't expected him to be quite so blunt about it.
"My last confession was my first, Father."
I am one of the last in a line of devoted Irish and Italian Catholics. It is really no wonder that my great-grandmother's Judaism failed to survive through her daughter and granddaughter to get to me; even she had converted during the twilight years of her sanity. It was difficult not to, in the face of such stereotypical fervor. However, the years and generations had taken their toll. My mother had lapsed, and my father could have been called an atheist if he had cared enough to even disbelieve, but I was a good Catholic girl, and had been certain that if nothing else, that fact would never change.
We had spent the better part of the last few months in our Tuesday night catechism classes learning about Communionhow and when we would receive it, what we would say, and how, exactly, a wafer that felt and tasted like Styrofoam was literally the body of the Savior. That last lesson never quite stuck; transubstantiation is a difficult concept to explain to adults, let alone children, and my classmates and I had quickly discovered how easy it was to derail the teacher with questions on the subject. It wasn't quite as good as asking what was so Virgin about the Virgin Maryshe would turn red and sputter if that happened, and even if only a few of us understood why, we found it hysterical. Still, any question on the subject could kill about fifteen minutes of class time without fail.
They had promised us pretty clothes and parties in return for performing this rite, which to us mattered much more than receiving the body and blood of our Lord, an act that still smacked of cannibalism to us. What they had failed to mention in great detail was that a few days prior to this blessed event, we would have to confess our sins. If we wanted to receive the Eucharist, we would have to cleanse our filthy eight-year-old souls first.
And so on a quiet weekday afternoon, I dragged my rather unwilling mother to the church. I knew what to expect, I thought. I'd seen it in movies, how people would go into those giant wardrobes and tell the priest what they'd done wrong so that God could forgive them and everyone could move on with their lives. The teacher had taught us what to say, and had reviewed all the prayers we could possibly receive as penance. I was prepared; I even knew which sins I would tell him: horrible enough that the priest would believe me, but not so bad that he'd think I was a rotten child.
Either I had been oblivious or they had never made this announcement during class, but instead of going up the stone steps into the church itself, my mother led me downstairs to the oratory where they commonly held Mass in Spanish. Unlike the church upstairs, the oratory was small and carpeted, with a relatively low ceiling. The altar was made of wood, not marble, and the few windows that dotted the plain plywood walls were paned with frosted, uncolored glass. Most glaringly, there were no confessionals in the back. Instead, next to the altar on the dais, a chair and a child-sized prie-dieu stood purposefully. It was only when my mother deposited me in one of the front pews with the rest of my class before taking her own seat in the back that I understood: we would not be making these confessions privately. They were going to put us onstage, and what was meant to be between you, God, and the priest would be between you, God, the priest, your classmates, your teacher, and your mother, who would probably still be able to hear you from the very back, even if she did manage to doze off.
Father Kelly, the priest who would be hearing our confessions that day, was speaking from the altar, but every word died somewhere between my ears and my brain. As soon as he sat in the heavy wooden chair, my class was instructed to stand and one by one we were herded like cattle and made to kneel on the prie-dieu. The very first of us to go was a boy who routinely bullied the other students in class, and I held my breath to listen and see if he would confess to this sin. In his wavering, quiet voice, he told Father Kelly that he had lied to his teacher, had hit his friend, and had broken his older brother's GameBoy on purpose because he was jealous. There was no mention of the stuttering girl he had driven to tears the Tuesday before when she failed to recite the Lord's Prayer properly. Even though the teacher had punished him and had reassured her that God wouldn't send her to Hell for mangling the words, I wasn't sure that the girl completely believed her. Yet I listened as he lied to the priest and told him that he had confessed everything. He was told to say a Hail Mary and a Glory Be, and the line shifted up once as he left the dais and took his seat at the pews to pray.
It's funny how time goes as fast as slow as it wants in stressful situations. It took what seemed like hours to get through even half of our line of juvenile penitents, but began to speed up alarmingly the closer it got to me. Each time it became shorter, my legs moved as if through sand, and my feet refused to lift high enough to avoid scraping the floor. My heart beat in my throat like a reckless metronome, and the fluttering in my stomach was not of butterflies, but of great birds who would without a doubt rip through me in an effort to fly away from that tiny, suffocating room.
Three classmates were ahead of me, and I began to rock on my heels until the teacher gently pushed me down by my shoulders. Two classmates, and I froze until the teacher tapped at the middle of my back. One classmate, and I looked back at my mother with wild eyes, so sure that she would come and save me, only to find her flipping through the hymnal without any indication she was actually reading it. And then there was only me.
I stepped onto the platform as though I were stepping onto the gallows. The act of kneeling on the plush bottom of the prie-dieu took ages, and for a time I just stayed there and imagined the sets of eyes fixed upon me. I did not move. I did not breathe.
It wasn't until Father Kelly placed his hand on my shoulder that I looked up towards him. He smiled broadly, so that his entire face seemed to gather around his haint-blue eyes. "Don't worry about them," he said, referring to my class. "They can't hear you; it's only you and me here."
Even if his voice was soft and kind, he was lying, and I was sure he knew that. We had all heard every single confession that went before ours. I didn't want my own sins to be broadcast throughout the entire oratory, and wondered briefly if I could simply choose not to speak. But I also knew that this was not going to end until I confessed as well, so I reluctantly rested my elbows on the plank that crossed in front of me, and folded my hands together.
I can't quite remember word-for-word what I told the priest, but it wasn't what I had planned during the ride to the church. I'm certain, however, that it was the truth: that I routinely hit my little brother, that I felt jealous of my baby sister, that I constantly lied to my mother about school, that I hated my cousin and could not forgive her, that I committed numerous sins every day because I was eight and that's what children were supposed to do. More than anything, I remember feeling truly sorry for what I had done, but to this day I could not tell you if it was out of contrition or simple humiliation. What I can tell you is that I'd never felt more alone inside my own soul.
Father Kelly absolved me, and sent me to go say a Hail Mary and the Lord's Prayer for my penance. I leapt up as though the prie-dieu was burning beneath me, and stepped down from the platform with such little grace that I almost tripped. I ignored my class and the prompting of my teacher, and went to the back of the oratory where my mother sat. She said nothing as I curled up next to her, and I knew that she understood when there were no demands to get my feet of the pew or to fix my dress.
We had gone home in absolute silence after that, and a few days later I received Communion. I wore a beautiful white dress with a veil, and my grandparents had thrown a party afterwards. My gifts included a rosary with a pewter crucifix dangling from a row of pearl beads, and it hangs in my room to this day even though I've never used to count prayers. And in spite of the fact that I continued with my religious education and had even been Confirmed, I have never made another confession.
The priest on the other side of the confessional clears his throat, breaking me out of my memories.
"I suppose," I say slowly, "I suppose that's where I should start."
"Pardon?" he says back. Have I really been silent for so long that he's forgotten what I said?
"My first confession. I never said my penance; I was too busy being afraid."