My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you….Galatians 4:19 KJB
From the time I was in my parents’ arms, they took me to church. In those days the priests performed the mass in Latin. One Sunday as Millie and Al, with me in Al’s arms, rose and sat and rose and kneeled and rose again, I remember eagerly awaiting my opportunity to be heard as the priest and the altarboys had their chances. Because my father was tall, I had a perfect view of rows of parishioners sitting, kneeling or standing in front of us, a sea of men’s heads and women’s hats. When finally I perceived a quiet moment, perhaps the priest was just thumbing pages to read from the gospels for which Catholics stand up to hear, I took a deep breath and launched into my favorite song, “Old Macdonald had a farm, ye ie ye ie oh… and on his farm he had a cow…..” I still see my beautiful mother, who found the Latin mass as hard to sit through as I did, bow her head, not in prayer but in her laughter that always began with a long “ooooo!”
Every head and hat turned to look at me. Some smiled and nodded, others gave their best ‘it’s time to be serious’ Sunday mass scowl. It was my first moments of such glorious attention, a captured audience for a two year old with not such a great voice, singing as loud as she could for Jesus. I didn’t yet know why I was attracted to him. I knew he was really handsome, as all the images in those days depicted him as movie star quality, but there was something else.
My father quickly slid past our row of worshippers, and rushed me out one of the side doors open to catch the stray summer breezes. I stretched up trying to lean over his shoulder to be sure my song was reaching into the church so that Jesus could hear me sing that joyful noise.
My next religious memory was a few years later, before my “First Holy Communion” an event I never quite understood, “Why would we eat Jesus’s body and how did they turn it into so many little round wafers and didn’t they eventually run out of one body?” The rest of my questions remained silent and were eventually left behind, somewhere in the past, except for one that really stood out in my mind. Why did I need to figure out what sins I may or may not have actually committed at the age of 7.
When we were older and smarter, like around 12 or so, my siblings, cousins and I would convene each Friday night on the front steps of our shared two family home, just before our parents took us to the dreaded confessions, to come up with some sins. We would decide who would say what, using such sins as, “I said a bad word, I chewed gum in catechism” which we all knew would garner the fewest numbers of prayers that were to be our penance. There was another conundrum for me, “prayers as punishment?” I just didn’t understand. The greater punishment was we wanted to be outside playing. Personally, I never minded talking to God or his son even if I wasn’t in church. And so after our visit into the darkened confessional box that smelled of wax, incense, and curiously, cigarette smoke, we would meet up in the pews to say our penance as fast as we could and try to make one other laugh with various versions of side glances, nods, and blinks. Then it was a race out the big heavy doors, not to be the one left behind.
Once outside and the church doors finally, slowly, closed, we could at least hoot and holler with freedom and then review our penances for next Friday’s confessions. Sometimes we even planned in advance what we might do, tell a little white lie for instance, so that we wouldn’t be lying about white lying to the priest. A white lie seemed to be ok, like telling our mothers dinner tasted good even though it was something awful like liver.
I was not exactly nervous as I stood in line for my first confession and tried out a few sins in my mind that I thought would be acceptable to the man on the other side of the screen. Some of us kids whispered to each other about what we might say, “I disobeyed my parents,” was a popular one, as was “I ate meat on Friday.” What I was most unsure of was I could only remember the first three words of the “Act of Contrition”, a prayer one would recite after having received your penance from the priest taking your confession and that I attempted to memorize the night before. I just figured God would cover me on that and it would just magically pop into my head. But at that moment I still needed to come up with a sin or two. “Oh, I know!” I said to my little self, “I’ll tell him about those times I asked Jesus to marry me. That might be a sin.” And, I thought it might show him I was not just your average kid.
It was nearly my turn. I stepped up to some invisible line till one of the nuns gave me the nod to enter the confessional. Now, I do need to say I felt a bit cheated, having been really interested to see what was in those dark wood confessional boxes, but the church had set up fake confessionals that were screens between us and the priest, and other than that we were all exposed right there before the nuns, our peers, all the statues and the nearby altar with Jesus hanging up in the rafters and looking down.
I kneeled, did the “sign of the cross” as we had been instructed and said in a loud strong voice, “Bless me father for I have sinned and this is my first confession…” clearly in catechism they were training us that there would be more than one time you’d have to do this, “and this is my sin, I said something to Jesus,” now imagine that I reenacted this just as my sister and I would play, as divas on a Shakespearean stage… “OH JESUS, JESUS, WILL YOU MARRY ME!!!” Let’s face it; I had a little girl’s crush on him. He was going to save me. He was going to walk with me everyday, why, he ended up even dying for me. In fact, I had fully expected that at any time he would simply appear before me, strong and shining, and I wouldn’t be scared and it would be wonderful. Who would not want such a man to spend eternity with! And then on top of it all, God raised him from the dead. He had to be the most special man in the whole universe. I thought I chose well. But alas, the priest did not tell me it was NOT a sin, and in fact gave me a bunch of prayers as penance, which sealed in my mind that I was in fact committing a sin, and so I pretty much stopped talking to Jesus after that. I knew he was sort of around somewhere up there, but he was no longer a reality to me as he had been before my confession.
When the words of the Act of Contrition just did not miraculously come through, I faked it, mumbling along with the priest, and adding a clear “amen” when he did.