First, I must confess that I’m a lapsed Catholic, or more precisely, a recovering Catholic. The recent selection of the new Pope, the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, has stirred up memories of childhood and my first conscious religious experience and hallucination.
Child psychologists generally agree that by the age of seven a child knows the difference between right and wrong. I would also add based on my own personal observations and experience, children learn to lie at an earlier age. It is a tool used to avoid punishment, painful recriminations, and consequences like a timeout. Lying is a useful tactic to manipulate others, especially parents or those with power over us. The challenge for the seven-year-old child is to begin making moral choices, to be honest, to treat others as we wish to be treated; unfortunately this follows after we’ve already learned the benefits of lying.
It’s probably not a coincidence then that in the Catholic Church, First Communion preceded by one’s first confession, occurs roughly at this age. Before we are able to receive the sacrament of the Body of Christ, we must confess our mortal and venial sins. Since I was a public school student the first important lesson of my parochial education was to master the Baltimore Catechism and prepare for my first confession, followed by my First Communion. The Baltimore Catechism was the defacto standard Catholic school text in the United Sates from 1885 to the late 1960s.
At St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Racine, Wisconsin during the second half of the 1950s, I was fortunate to have a great lay teacher, Mr. Moretti (not his real name, only because I can’t remember). Every Sunday for weeks following Mass we studied and practiced answering questions from the Baltimore Catechism:
Who made you?
God made us.
Who is God?
God is the Supreme Being, infinitely perfect, who made all things and keeps them in existence.
Why did God make us?
God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven.
What must we do to gain the happiness of heaven?
To gain the happiness of heaven we must know, love, and serve God in this world.
As we studied the text of the Baltimore Catechism, we also practiced receiving our First Communion. This was everybody’s favorite part of parochial education. Pretending to be the priest, Mr. Moretti would stand at the front of the classroom, we’d line up, then individually kneel, place our hands together in prayer, tilt our head backwards, stick out our tongue, and he’d place a Necco candy wafer on it, a sweet stand-in for the Body of Christ.
An additional incentive, a liturgical carrot so to speak, was dangled in front of us, a six-inch tall, glow-in-the-dark angel we could earn by correctly answering the questions from the text of the Catechism. Mr. Moretti demonstrated that by holding the angel near a bright light for few moments then bringing it into a darkened room; a pale green luminescence would glow and protect us. I had to have the angel.
The day finally came. One by one our knowledge of the Baltimore Catechism was tested. At the end of the day, I earned my prize of the glow-in-the-dark angel. The final preparation for our First Communion followed; how to give an honest, first confession of our sins. We learned the difference between venial and mortal sins, as illustrated in The Baltimore Catechism. Our soul without sin looked like a bottle full of white milk, venial sins made the milk bottle gray and mortal sins caused the milk bottle of our soul to be pitch black. Mortal sins not confessed could doom us to an eternity in hell.
Giving an honest and complete confession clearly was more important than the desire to possess a glow-in-the-dark angel. We were now discussing the future of my soul. I became obsessed preparing for my first confession, wondering exactly how many times I took Christ’s name in vain, disobeyed my parents, lied, played hooky from church, and most embarrassingly, had unclean thoughts. I thought in my childlike way that the precise number was critical. If I couldn’t come up with an exact number of sins I would be damned to burn in hell.
The days leading up to my first confession and First Communion, I spent hours thinking about my sins and how unworthy I was to receive communion. Each night, I’d charge up my glow-in-the-dark angel at bedtime, turn out the lights and say my Hail Mary’s, Our Father’s and Act of Contrition’s until the eerie green luminescence would fade to dark.
It was now Saturday, the day of my first confession, the day before my First Communion. We attended my father’s work picnic in the country, what should have been a fun day of pony rides, ice cream and hot dogs, and games, including gunny sack races, egg throwing contests, and a scramble to find the most new shiny pennies buried in sawdust. I couldn’t enjoy the activities. All I could do was count to myself and review: how many times I disobeyed my parents, took the name of the Lord in vain, lied, and yes, had unclean thoughts. I worked myself into a bundle of tight knots, anxious, with a nauseous stomach, headache and loose bowels. I was a total mess. When my parents asked what’s wrong, I said, “Nothing,” then realized I’d have to add another number to the sum of my lies. Oh my.
Driving back to the city for my appointment with the priest to give my first confession, I stared out the car window, watching the telephone poles and wires pass by, repeating prayers and counting sins, prayer, sin, prayer, sin, how many, when, prayer, sin, staring at telephone poles, the car window open wide, the sound of the car passing the poles, woosh, woosh, woosh, w-o-o-o-o-s-h. And then it happened. My head resting on the open car window staring at the telephone poles looking like crucifixes, I saw Jesus. Yes, I saw Jesus, floating at the top of a telephone pole with his sacred heart exposed and a flame burning from it, his hands lifting up to give me a blessing, while his blue eyes sparkled and his long, wavy hair blew in the wind. A small comforting smile grew on his face. I saw Jesus. I was going to be okay, all I would need to do was tell the truth, be honest.
I entered the darkened confessional and knelt, bowed my head and put my hands together as if to pray. The door slowly slid opened and through the brass screen I could see the priest sitting and leaning in low to listen. I began my first confession:
“Bless me Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession. I’ve sinned so many times I can’t remember how many, but I know it was a lot. I took the Lord’s name in vain, disobeyed my parents, lied, hit my sisters, stole cookies, and yes, played hooky from church.” And, after some stuttering, speaking softly into my chest, I confessed my unclean thoughts. Finally, I told the priest I was planning to make up numbers for my sins because I couldn’t remember exactly how many I had committed, but promised I would do a better job of counting from this day forward. The priest blessed me, gave me my prayers for penance and said the Lord forgave me.
I left the confessional, knelt in the pew, said my penance, made the sign of the cross and ran outside where my family waited for me in our bronze and cream-colored 1956 Chevy Bel-Air. My headache disappeared, the knots in my muscles relaxed, my stomach ache was gone, and my appetite came back. I took in a deep breath of fresh air and never felt better in my life. My soul was clean. I never told anyone before today that I saw Jesus in the telephone poles. I didn’t want you to think I was lying.
A vignette from the memoir, Perfectly Flawed, by Linda Lenzke