My Eucharistic Breakfast

Last night, for the first time in many months, I took a drink. Beneath the accidents of appearance, the cheap wine was really the Most Precious Blood of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, which is the real news. For about as many months — nine to be exact — I’d gone without it and the corresponding Body.

Catholics are required to commune once every year, so any Eucharistic fast that runs nine months is really pushing it. Nobody likes a tease, so it would be nice to tell the story in un-Bowdlerized form, naming all people, places, and — best of all — acts. But so much of it takes place in confessionals, which are sealed for good reason. In the spirit of that seal, I’ve made strategic omissions to protect the guilty…and the guilt-ridden.

There was a sin, and there was a context behind that sin, and I tried to confess one while explaining the other to a priest I’d never laid eyes on, at a parish I’d never visited, in the few minutes before Mass was to begin. The man cut me off, accused me, in a phrase I’ll carry around for some time, of “trying to play canon lawyer,” and ordered me to change my life out of all recognition. When I suggested that making such prescriptions on 180 seconds’ acquaintance was rather rash of him, he snorted loudly enough to turn heads as far away as the donuts stand.

Apart from his dismissal of some facts even I knew to be germane, his whole shtick reminded me of the one I’d played when I was in foreclosures and now wince to recall. In a case of familiarity breeding contempt, I felt like saying, “Listen, sunshine, when it comes to moral strong-arming and emotional alpha-rolling, you’re good, but you’re merely good. I’ve walked with kings.”

Instead, almost as though I were watching someone else do it, I told Father he needn’t bother absolving me and assured him I wouldn’t commune unworthily. Then I thanked him for his time and stepped our for a last smoke before Mass.

I saw him for the first time when he took the pulpit. He was, I thought, a dead ringer for Chicago mob boss (and alleged Sinatra bestie) Momo Giancana. His homily touched on a number of issues raised in the box; in fact, he repeated verbatim certain formulae he’d employed there. If his views on the subject were strong enough to make him plagiarize himself, I reasoned, then the same bee in his biretta could have stung him into an intemperate judgment of me.

After the dismissal, I found Father in the sacristy. He was seated, reading a book by a beam of light that poured through a low window. After some basic courtesies, I said, “I’m the guy from the confessional. You had that homily just packed in your holster, didn’t you?” It’s just possible I was grinning in triumph.

Blinking, Father eyed me sideways. “It wasn’t personal.”

I can’t remember what I said next, but there was a chair next to him, and I slid into it. That much I do remember, because Father greeted this move by asking, “What do you want?” A touch of the old edge was in his voice.

His question brought me up short. “I’m not sure,” I said. For a few moments, I groped after the words. But I could feel his impatience mounting. Finally, I told him, “I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate your taking your job so seriously.” Then I offered him my hand.

He took it and said, “Pray for me,” and I left.

A couple of weeks later, I told the same story in another confessional. I had rehearsed it, and the rehearsal improved my delivery, which was smoother, more coherent, less marked by distress. This new priest heard me out, assigning me penance and absolving me without any sound or fury, and without making any burdensome demands. That evening, I received Communion from the hand of that commie pinko cafeteria server Archbishop William Lori, who happened to be visiting the Valley.

Had the story ended there, it might read like a rite of passage: Recent convert, finding himself badgered by eccentric priest, proves well-enough catechized to seek second opinion, and, what’s more, plays it like a gentleman. But Fr. Momo’s ghost proved harder than that to exorcise. Before long I committed another sin, one rather more serious than the one I’d brought before Fr. Momo. It seemed to confirm his implicit opinion of me as a total degenerate, which, in no time at all, became my opinion of myself.

My own pastor is one of the wisest, gentlest souls who ever mixed water with wine. But whenever I thought about approaching him in the confessional, I imagined him saying, “This time you’ve gone too far — no more Mr. Nice Guy.” Whereupon, like the devil in that Chick Tract, he’d peel off his rubber mask to reveal none other than Fr. Momo.

I decided to attack the sin at its root, so that I could approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation with evidence of my rehabilitation already in hand. My program wasn’t nearly as drastic as Fr. Momo’s had been. But, I liked to think, because it came from my own more intimate understanding of my life circumstances, it would work even better. Carrying it out some time and resolve, but — a little to my surprise — I did it.

Still, I never felt quite ready to reconcile. There were always merits left to gain, benchmarks left to pass. Saturday after Saturday, I found things to do that took up the whole afternoon. I went on attending Mass, but hung back when the rest of my pew stood up. Being a non-communicant creates extra mental space for appreciating the liturgy and mediating silently on special intentions, so it’s far from an unrewarding experience. In fact, it’s downright habit-forming, which became part of my problem.

Nothing ruins a story faster than God coming out of a machine, but what would you say to His arriving in an envelope? The day before my birthday, I received a package containing, among other things, a disk of fabric mounted in some stiff material, which in turn was set in a strip of cardboard and held fast by a sheet of plastic. A note on the strip explained:

The encapsulated cloth has been touched to a First Class Relic of St. Padre Pio at the Padre Pio Shrine. Please treat it with reverence.

Despite the shades of Paddington — Please look after this bear. Thank you — it flummoxed me. “Reverence” has no concrete meaning in a bachelor pad where even beloved clothes, books, and dishes end up heaped in cairns. Besides, I never did care for Padre Pio. All those stories of him screaming at people in confessionals touched a nerve.

But I was fond of the person who sent it, so I put it in the cleanest place I could find: my billfold. A couple of good things happened out of the blue, and…to make a long story short, one of Sunday’s errands led me to within quick walking distance of my old parish. It was 6:00 PM, an hour before Mass, and the confessional was open. Floating on the tide of good fortune, I thought, what the hell.

I confessed my sin and explained how I’d fixed myself. The priest said, “Okay. Say one Hail Mary and one Our Father.” Pausing, he added, “You really ought to think about coming to confession more often. Life’s hard, and we could all use help from God’s Grace.”

I said, “No doubt, but I wasn’t sure I could have made a firm purpose of amendment. Got to keep it real, you know.”

The priest said, “Whatever,” and absolved me.

As I look back, two things occur to me:

First, when I denied being impressed by moral strong-arming and emotional alpha-rolling, I was full of it. I know how cheaply they come, since I’ve dealt in them both, but boy, do they ever impress me. In Fr. Momo’s case, the result was mixed. Yes, our meeting encouraged me to take moral inventory. It pushed me to go, as they say, above and beyond. But, as George Orwell wonders when conceding that his headmaster’s canings cured him of bed-wetting, at what price?

The second relates to the first: I know exactly why I tracked down Fr. Momo in the sacristy. I wanted to turn the tables, to extract a confession from the old bastard along the lines of, “Bless me, layperson, for I have sinned. I was rude and overstated my case recklessly. Mea culpa, mea culpa, me maxima culpa.”

Sounds extreme, I know. But the Church must have anticipated this type of drama when it took to styling its priests “Father.”

  • Paula

    If I lived near a church, I’d probably be in confession every day.
    I had an amazingly similar experience to you at the Vancouver Cathedral no less. My first time ever there and I went to confession with a dire sin in hand. One I’ve been struggling with in some form or other forever. The priest let me have it in the booth and I felt I deserved it. Imagine my shock though (well, I guess you don’t need to), when his homily sounded like an extended version of that round in the booth.
    Holy cow, I thought. This guy means business. It scared the daylights out of me.

    Another priest at an earlier time told me never to come back to him with that sin again because it will have meant that I wasn’t really trying. I just never went back to that priest.

  • FranRossiSzpylczyn

    Max, you’ve given me a lot to think about here… I will say this, you are a bit hard on yourself, aren’t you?

    One other thing – you can write like nobody’s business. You are that good.

  • Bridget N

    When a parish only offers Confessions for 45min or an hour on Saturday, it seems to me that maybe they don’t take the Sacrament that seriously. I know that’s probably a horribly incorrect assumption, but it makes me wonder. We want everyone to receive worthily. We want people to receive the graces that come from going to Sacrament of Reconciliation. We want people to be in a state of grace, but we’re only going to give the entire parish one hour a week to do it? Hmph. No wonder it can be easy to push it off and push it off and push it off.

    This isn’t a judgment of what you did because I’ve been Catholic longer than you and have absolutely mastered the art of rationalization and seat warming! But I gotta tell you – one of the best things about my beautiful parish is that Confession is offered a half hour before every single Mass. That’s 17 times a week, if my math is correct. Add to that that our pastor preaches about the importance of receiving that Sacrament regularly and receiving Communion worthily, and you have long lines (no less than 10 people) before each Mass usually. The only times I’ve been able to be first in line is when I’ve gotten there more than 30min before Mass. Long story short – if you offer it, they will come.

  • Bill Burns

    Great article as always. I can commiserate with the frustration of being a repeat offender. Your firm amendment is to turn away from sin with *God’s grace*, not to do without it until you master your weakness on your own (which rarely does the trick). It seems that your had to have the nudge from another direction to get you going again.

  • Melody

    I’ve always had to make myself go to Confession; not quite as bad as going to the dentist, but almost. No priest has ever been mean to me; just one of those personal things. When I was a kid I used to try to get the priest who didn’t speak much English. I would say a couple sentences, and he would break in with “You are sorry, yes? no? Make good act of contrition.”

    I’m so glad you got to receive Communion again!

  • Manny

    Oh I am so grateful I have never had a Fr. Momo type in the confessional. When i go in I’m quite fragile and don’t how I would take a harsh reprimand. I’m on pins and needles the whole time. I even go to a different parish to a priest who doesn’t know me personally for confession. As always, love your personal essays.

  • Manny

    That’s funny about searching out a priest who doesn’t speak much English. I’ll have to try that myself. :)

  • Frank McManus

    Amen to that — all of it.

    If only Max had given us enough detail (but not too much) to have some mental picture of the nature of his dreadful, dreadful sins, this piece would be simply flawless. The references to his presumably long-ago history of morally strong-arming others is amazing … as is the whole convoluted mixture of almost narcissistic pride and brutally honest self-examination.

    Let’s all drink to the day when Max finally sees himself as God sees him, and knows he is perfectly fine as he is right this very moment, purpose of amendment be damned. The guilt is nothing but Max defending himself against God’s love.

  • Mike

    Another interesting read. Thanks for the first person view of your struggles and triumphs.

  • Mike

    Yeah good idea. The first priest who absolved me of my “adult sins” was an old italian man who had such a strong accent i couldn’t understand much of what he said to me. My parish priest was there to hear my last confession, which included some embarrasing things that I think he’s still thinking about and snickering whenever he comes up to talk to me and my family after mass. My wife thinks I am just being paranoid and I am sure she’s right but it still makes me a bit red in the cheeks.

  • Mike

    Great point! I hadn’t appreciated or probably heard of this until Leah’s post on Pelagianism.

  • Brian Sullivan

    Max, you’re going to ruin those bootstraps pulling on them so hard! Use a shoehorn for crying out loud! Or get a pair that fit you…