In a town where Catholic children were not so much taught religion as indoctrinated with it, I always found it difficult to equate the catechism and the commandments with my sense of logic.
So did many other kids. But if we dared question any of the farfetched tales from the Bible, the priests and nuns would sternly warn us that we had to accept them as “the Word of God.” Faith should always prevail over reason, we were repeatedly instructed.
This was an intellectual constraint that I had a lot of trouble concurring with as I grew up. One of my greatest difficulties was with the Catholic ritual of confession. We had to confess our sins to a priest every two weeks, promise each time to “go and sin no more,” then return a fortnight later to confess how often we’d broken that promise.
One day in the late fall of 1940, when I was 14, I complained to my sister Mary, then nearly 13, about having to go back to Father Doyle’s confessional again on Saturday.
“What’s the problem?” she asked.
“I hardly ever have any sins to confess,” I told her, “so I usually make them up.”
“And of course these sins you invent are always venial ones, I suppose?” Mary said. She had already mastered the art of sarcasm.
“I guess they’re venial,” I admitted. “I tell Father Doyle I was a few minutes late for school one day, or that I forgot to help Sister Aloysius clean off the blackboards, or that I skipped a few stations when making the stations of the cross – that sort of thing.”
“They’re not even good venial sins,” Mary said scornfully. “Does he even give you any penance for them?”
“Three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys, usually,” I told her. “The only time he gave me five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys was when I confessed I’d fallen asleep during one of his sermons — a sin I really did commit. But I was running out of sins to invent, so I decided the last time I went to confession to tell him that I had no sins to confess.”
Mary was appalled. “What were you thinking? Did you really expect Father Doyle to believe you could remain entirely sin-free for a whole two weeks?”
“Well, he always tells me after giving me absolution to go and sin no more,” I reminded her, “so I thought he’d be pleased that I obeyed him for once. But after I said, ‘Bless me, Father, for I have not sinned since my last confession,’ he snapped back at me, “Well, you’ve just committed one sin, young man, by lying to a priest.”
“But I’m telling you the truth, Father,” I protested. He got mad at me. “Now there’s another sin, contradicting a priest!”
I was aghast. “I’m sorry, Father —“ I started to say I was sorry he didn’t believe I had no sins to confess, but he interrupted me after I said the first three words. “So you’re sorry,” he snorted. “Good. I’ll accept that as your act of contrition. Your sins are forgiven, and your penance is to say ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys. Now go and sin no more.”
Mary sighed when I told her about this pseudo-confession. “And now you’re worried about what to confess to Father Doyle this Saturday,” she said. “I suppose you plan to invent and confess more make-believe sins?”
“What else can I do?” I asked her. I was desperate.
She sighed again. “Look, Eddy,” she said, “your problem is that you don’t understand what the Church is all about. The Church is all about forgiveness. That’s its job – to forgive Catholics for the many sins they commit, and are expected to commit. If every Catholic was like you instead of me, the Church would go out of business. Why do you think I swear so much? It’s to make sure I have lots to confess and don’t get into the kind of pickle with Father Doyle that you’ve gotten yourself into.”
I had never before realized that my failure to commit sins was threatening the foundation of a religion that had endured for two thousand years.
I was worried. “So what do I do?” I asked Mary.
“You have to convince Father Doyle,” she said, “that you’ve become a loyal and dependable Catholic sinner. That means you have to start confessing real sins – mortal ones.”
I was horrified. “But mortal sins are going to be a lot harder to invent,” I protested.
Mary threw up her hands. “You can’t make them up, silly. You actually have to commit them!”
“No way,” I said. “I could never take the name of the Lord in vain like you do. And I’m certainly not going to commit a mortal sin and then risk dying and being sent to hell before I have time to confess and be forgiven.”
Mary heaved another sigh. “No, I suppose not. You’re too much of a goody-goody-two-shoes to even say ‘damn’ or ‘shit,’ let alone a really good swear-word. But it’s important that you have at least one good mortal sin to confess to Father Doyle on Saturday.”
She thought for a few minutes, then her face brightened. “Eddy, I have just the right mortal sin for you!”
I was skeptical. “What one?”
“Well,” Mary said, “this is Thursday, and you know Mom always serves sausages or blood puddings for supper on Thursdays. All you have to do at the table tonight, when Mom and Dad aren’t looking, is pinch off a little bit of meat and put it in your pocket. Then you eat it tomorrow.”
My jaw dropped. Eating meat on a Friday was indeed one of the worst sins a Catholic could commit in those days. Definitely a mortal sin, but I had to concede it would be easier for me to commit than curse or swear.
“I’ll do it,” I promised Mary. And I did. It took as much courage as I could muster, but I nipped off a bit of sausage at supper, then put it under my pillow before I went to sleep. As soon as I woke up next morning, before I could lose my nerve, I popped the forbidden morsel into my mouth and swallowed it.
As I felt it slide down my esophagus, I also felt my soul slowly turning from snow-white to pitch-black. I was now a bona fide mortal sinner! I really had mixed emotions about that. Would God strike me down before Saturday afternoon and cast me into the flames of hell?
Mary assured me I would live long enough to escape from my state of infamy back to a state of grace. She accompanied me to the Church of Our Holy Redeemer Saturday afternoon, and was waiting for me when I came out of the confessional.
“Did it work?” she asked eagerly. “Was Father Doyle impressed? Is he confident that from now on he can rely on you to be as sinful as a good Catholic is supposed to be?”
“Well, not as confident as he is in you, I suppose,” I said, “but let me put it this way: he increased my penance to a complete rosary!”
“Congratulations, Eddy!” she enthused. “I knew you could do it!”
I was on a roll. “But you know what, Mary? I’m not going to recite all five decades of the rosary, only four. That way I’ll have another sin to confess to Father Doyle next time because I really will be disobeying him.”
Mary was ecstatic. She beamed at me. “Good for you, Eddy! Now you’re getting the hang of it!”
She turned to go, but I grabbed her arm.
“Mary, I really appreciate your help with my confessions,” I told her. “I couldn’t have done it without you. But now that you know all my sins, it would only be fair, wouldn’t it, for you to tell me all yours?”
She gave me that withering look she had perfected by the time she was nine or ten, and turned away disgustedly.
“In your dreams, Buster!” she said over her shoulder as she walked away.
I never did learn what sins Mary used to confess, other than her occasional swear word, but of one thing I’m absolutely certain: she never had to invent any of them.
Ed Finn: A Journalist’s Life on the Left is available on Amazon.