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.”