I am that rare soul who can remember his First Confession, at age eight, very nearly word-for-word—I think because I was terrified, and hyper-alert, and intent on remembering everything that Father Newman said, mostly because it was my First Confession and I was afraid I would be sent to prison or farmed out to the Lutherans for the many times I had committed fisticuffs with my brothers and failed to honor my mother and father—but also because Father Newman was wry and funny and fond of reminding everyone that he was, as far as he knew, the only Jewish Catholic priest in the diocese. He had been born and raised Jewish, as Jesus and His family and friends had, as he much enjoyed reminding his startled congregation.
Confessions then and now open with a brief overture from the penitent, followed by his or her litany of sins. The priest listens intently, and then asks questions, and in a productive confession (yes, priest friends of mine tell me, there are such things as unproductive and antagonistic confessions during which even a seasoned priest is discombobulated), there is then an often piercing and moving conversation. The genius of the thing is not merely catharsis, but something like a gentle open door to revelation and reflection. Usually, then, in my perhaps too extensive experience, the priest suggests, again gently, that some change in behavior be contemplated or undertaken, and then he asks absolution for the sinner, and blesses the penitent, and the penitent emerges from this riveting conversation thinking long thoughts.
In my case, though, the first time around, I got the overture out successfully, but then rattled off my sins so hurriedly and whisperingly that Father had to ask me to speak up—a remark I interpreted as shock on his part at my sinfulness, which made me even more headlong and guilty, and I went into exquisite manic murmured detail about how I had nailed one brother in the shins with a baseball bat, and forced another brother to eat a bumblebee, and used such foul and vulgar language with my sister that she had actually gone pale, and stolen coins from my father’s bureau, and married a girl in my class at lunchtime, and thrown a rock at a defenseless sparrow, and hit it, too, which made me both proud and ashamed, a strange feeling.
“Back up to where you got married,” said Father Newman. “I will not ask you the young lady’s name, for that is none of my business, but marriage is a serious commitment.”
“No one should enter into the Sacrament of Marriage without deep reflection on love, and responsibility, and reverence, and especially humility.”
“Probably humility above all, from what I understand of marriage.”
“And being wholly and honestly open to the gift and grace of children.”
“Are you and your betrothed wholly and honestly open to the gift of children?”
“We … haven’t talked about it, Father. We can only talk at lunchtime, because she has to go home right after school with her older sister. And at lunchtime we can only talk for a few minutes before the other guys start to tease me and I have to punch them. And we didn’t really get married. That was a lie. That was another sin that I said that. I just gave her a ring I found at the beach. I told her I bought it, too. Another lie. Sister Anne found out about the ring and made her give me the ring back right in class that afternoon and everyone laughed and she cried and I feel terrible.”
“Sister Anne cried?”
“No, Father. The … the girl cried. She was embarrassed.”
Father was silent for a moment, and I thought he was laughing silently, but he wasn’t. It’s remarkable, fifty years after that moment, that I remember clearly that he didn’t laugh, for which I will always be grateful.
“The fact that you felt terrible should teach you something,” he finally said. “Feeling terrible is a gift from God. It’s a sign of awareness of sin. That’s a gift, you know. Never take that for granted. The flush of shame, that pang of guilt—that’s a gift. Remember that. Imagine the horror of not being able to feel that.”
“The poor girl. Never make a girl cry ever again if you can help it.”
“I would suggest that you not consider marriage again until you are at least ten years old. Probably more like thirty is not such a bad idea. Given the parlous times.”
“For your penance say ten Hail Marys, slowly, savoring every word. You will address them directly and humbly to the Madonna, who was, of course, married.”
“And Jewish. People forget that.”
“And in addition I want you to think about how you are always going to do your very best to treat women with respect and reverence henceforth. All women. Starting with your mother and sister, and extending to Sister Anne, and to the girls in your class.”
“All of them?”
“Even Maureen McGonigle? I can’t stand Maureen McGonigle.”
“Extraordinary gender, women. Stronger than they look.”
“And in general smarter than any twelve of us at once. Consider the bumbling Apostles. Who were also Jewish. People forget that.”
And then he asked absolution for my sins, and sent me forth to be a better boy, which I have tried to be, trying to pay particular attention, as instructed, to attending to women with respect and reverence, which is an assignment we should all share, it seems to me. We sing and celebrate the Madonna in so many riveting and colorful ways in our faith, but often I wonder if we see her as clearly as we should, as we most certainly should, in every woman we meet.
Brian Doyle is most recently the author of the essay collection So Very Much the Best of Us.
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