Friday, April 04, 2014

Occasions of sin


Good lapsed Catholic that I am, I faithfully peruse Commonweal magazine whenever I'm ensconced in the college library, a habit that goes back to my young transitional years when I would have thought of myself as a liberal Catholic. Commonweal was our liberal voice. I even wrote for the magazine on occasion. I would still write for them, if they'd have me.

Which, quite rightly, they won't. In fact, "liberal Catholic" sounds to me today like an oxymoron. The magazine probably hasn't much changed its editorial stance, but what used to seem cutting-edge and spunky, now seems stogy and defensive. Still, I'm a faithful, if disbelieving, fan.

I bring this up because I was stopped in my tracks by a photograph in a recent issue: a boy of about 8 or 9 years of age at the door of a confessional. We see the boy from the back. His face is turned to the curtain of the dark booth he is about to enter. Next to him is the other door, behind which the parish priest patiently waits.

That boy might have been me. Same skinny posture. Same haircut. Same clothes. Same hesitance.

The door of the grill slides back. The priest is dimly glimpsed, leaning toward the grill, his hand cupped at the ear. The nervous recitation: "Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It's been two weeks since my last confession." Then, the brief list of made-up sins, with made-up numbers of occasions. The same tame transgressions the other kids confessed. Any really naughty stuff that had crossed my mind, I kept to myself. I could always save myself from eternal Hell-fire with an Act of Contrition.

What was that all about? An elaborate ritual to teach innocent children that they are sinners? Not a public celebration of virtue, but a dark, private confirmation of our fallen natures.

I caught myself saying the kid in the photograph, "Don't. Don't go in. You are OK. Go home. Kiss your Mom. Be kind to your sister. Play ball."