When I was a little girl, I attended a Catholic school, where we went to confession as a class once a month. Nuns were our teachers, and the school was a strict, respectful environment. Probably the polar opposite of what we have in our public schools today. Back then (in the stone ages) eating meat on a Friday was a grave sin. One particular time I confessed to a priest (who had the reputation of being rather nasty) that I had eaten chicken noodle soup on a Friday. I was sick, I explained, and my Mom gave it to me because it was the only thing I could eat and made me feel better. Well, Father Nasty reamed me out as if I had committed murder. “Wasn’t there anything else in the house to eat?” he scolded. Thank God the confessionals were private back then and he couldn’t really see who I was for I was sure I was blushing. My penance was heavy, consisting of at least five Our Father’s, ten Hail Mary’s and I don’t know what else, but I remember kneeling and praying for a very long time for the dastardly deed of eating meat on Friday, which added up to a few pieces of chicken in broth. I told my Mom about my confession, and she was really mad at the priest. I don’t think she ever actually spoke to him about it, but she had conversations with the other moms and her sisters. I recall avoiding him like the plague after that.
Many years have passed, and times have changed. Nowadays meat is only prohibited on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and Fridays of the Lenten season. I make it to confession not monthly but maybe once a year, usually around Easter or Christmas. The other day I went to the Easter Penance service with my aunt. When we arrived, I was surprised to see that there were already many people in line. We got in a line for an older, silver-haired priest. The line moved quite quickly, and before I knew it, I was up. Last year my mind went blank when I was confessing, so this year I wrote a little list to remind me of mostly petty, insignificant stuff, but sins nonetheless. I started with number one, which I did remember and then glanced at my list, explaining to the priest that I went blank last year and needed some reminders. “May I see the list?” he asked. “Um, sure,” I said hesitating. I fumbled and unfolded it, handing it over to him. He barely glanced at the note at all then looked into my eyes as he ripped it into tiny pieces. Oh geez, I’m in trouble now, I thought.
“I think this is what Jesus would do if you handed him a list of your sins,” he said. A tear escaped my eye as I stared into his kind eyes and saw his gentle smile. “Pray one Our Father.” He put his hand on my head and gave me absolution. Then he said, “Just be a good person and do better.”
A lot is being said about priests these days, and for some rightly so. Someday the atrocities of some will have to be answered for. A lot of people have turned away from the Catholic Church because of it. But I can’t help to think that good, sincere priests outnumber the others. I believe there are priests who genuinely want to care and minister to people for all the right reasons. They want to teach us kindness and forgiveness and are trying to direct us to the power of faithfulness and the path to trusting in God and in His goodness in all circumstances. Tonight I was blessed to be in the presence of one of those.
I knelt in a pew in the quiet of the Church and said one Our Father. I marveled at the lesson I had just learned. I was reminded that Jesus gave his life for all of our sins, and we are forgiven. My faith just keeps getting stronger.
On the way home, my aunt recited something which she learned in her Catholic school:
Good, better, best. Make the good better and the better best.