All right, a good story now. We’ve heard so many bad ones.
This happened to me awhile back, at a parish I used to go to a long time ago. I think about it when things get very hopeless, and it helps.
It was Good Friday. I wanted to go to a Three O’Clock service, but for reasons we won’t get into I couldn’t. I just walked to a local church to meditate on the Passion of Christ in quiet at a little after two.
When I got there, it wasn’t quiet. There were people kneeling in the front murmuring the Rosary, a bit of a flashback trigger of mine. And there were people lining the walls, going to confession.
I hadn’t been to confession in months.
I hate confession. Confession was where I sat knee to knee with Mister Morrier and prayed a deliverance prayer forgiving my rapist, and that was harrowing even before I knew what I know now. But it’s not just that; trying to examine my conscience triggers my scrupulosity and OCD. The worst part is when I’m in the confessional and the priest is giving me the usual little sermon after I’ve confessed and before absolution. My brain starts a running list of every terrible thing I’ve done and makes me panic that I’ve accidentally somehow held back a mortal sin and I’m going to be marked up for sacrilege as well. I tend to confess my sins very quickly, then try to hum to myself and think about something else for the minute or two before I’m absolved. It’s deeply uncomfortable.
But somehow or other, I got in line.
I got into the little dark box. I knelt. I faced the funny black screen. I whispered my sins over the sound of my palpitating heart, as fast as I could, in a comical squeak like a chipmunk.
The priest de-railed me as I was approaching the end of the list. “Ma’am, ma’am, ma’am, slow down! You sound terrified! You sound so worried. I’m not here to yell at you.”
I wished I could believe that.
“Jesus doesn’t want you to be scared,” said the priest, and instead of a lecture on my sins, he started telling me how glad God was that I was there and how much He wanted to heal me.
And then there was a pause.
“You’ve been abused?” the priest said, because of something I said in my confession.
“Yes,” I said. I didn’t give any details. I didn’t say what kind of abuse. I’ve been raped and I’ve also been emotionally and spiritually abused in the Charismatic Renewal, but there wasn’t time to get into details.
“Me too,” said the priest. “For the longest time I didn’t admit I had been. I kept thinking, ‘it can’t be, men can’t be abused.’ But finally I admitted I was.”
In the pause that followed, I contemplated that no priest had ever admitted such a thing in my hearing before. The things we hear about seminaries makes me wonder how many deeply wounded and traumatized men make it through to ordination. But it’s not something that’s talked about.
“Do you have… situations and images that trigger your flashbacks?” asked the priest.
I said that many images of the Virgin Mary and some prayers to her trigger me.
He said he had some similar things.
I don’t know if that was why he gave me Our Fathers instead of Hail Marys as a penance, but I appreciated it.
And then he absolved me.
And then I was back outside the confessional, trying to say Our Fathers while somebody else murmured Hail Marys too close to my ear.
I was staring up at the crucifix, the Divine Victim pierced for our offenses: the One Who endured the absolute worst, most humiliating shame that His culture could think up to inflict.
And it was just three o’clock.
And the veil was torn, and the firmament was open, and the ghosts of the righteous dead appeared to testify to the living, and everything hidden was revealed, and I believed.
I have been a Christian since my baptism, thirty days after I was born. I have been a Christian for decades. I have heard at least two thousand homilies. I’ve been yelled at and glared at and harrangued by men in clericals. I read my Saint Joseph Baltimore Catechism. I took the “read the whole Bible in a year” challenge when I was a teenager, and then I re-read the Gospels I don’t know how many times. I have done my Leccio Divina and listened to the Good Friday Reproaches and gone to see passion plays. I have walked up and down the outdoor Way of the Cross in the mud of spring and the haze of summer, the crunching leaves of autumn and the slick frost of winter. I have shuffled to the front of Latin Catholic churches to kiss the crucifix and hobbled on my knees to the front of an Eastern church to kiss the shroud. But I don’t think I’ve ever felt so certain that Christ was real, and truly died and truly rose, as at that moment.
It wasn’t a priest preaching at me that did it. Preach all you want, I’m sure I’ve heard it before.
It was a priest, sitting on the other side of the screen, acting in persona Christi and for once actually acting as Christ would do. It was a priest saying “me too.”
Christ has no body but ours, after all. He can’t say “me too” unless we say it to each other.
So if you wonder why I write so much about how pathetic I am, that’s part of the reason.
And maybe there’s a lesson for priests in there as well. Maybe we don’t need a lecture and a good dressing down. Maybe what the whole Church needs is something quite different that you can provide.
I left the church justified, and everything was all right for a time.
Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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