I’d be happy to give his name here.
But he wouldn’t see the point of that. People who truly help, that’s how they are. If anybody needs them, then they’ll stop, set things straight, move on to the next indicated thing. And if you come back years along to thank them, they won’t remember or see why. To them, it was just walking through their day.
At the time, though, I wanted nothing to do with the guy. In fact, I stalled all the way. But Rick (we’ll call him that) would not let go. “I know you’ve given up the whole idea. And yes, you’ve tried for years,” he conceded. “But you haven’t tried it here. And you will. I’m picking you up at the commuter station. Saturday, 6:30.”
Rick was still in seminary then, in 2001. He was sent to a parish to assist the Pastor. Once he got to know how Father lived and worked, Rick got this bonnet bee that his friend Mary was going to give Confession one more try.
Me, I was through with the Sacrament of Reconciliation, through with trying to tell things to a new priest who would either be annoyed, laugh, or think I was making it up.
So all that week I was upset and apprehensive about Saturday night. Several times I picked up the phone to cancel. But I also composed a comprehensive orderly outline, a script of what to say. And somehow on Saturday I showed up at South Station. For distraction I stopped at Rosie’s Bakery, and bought a splendid chocolate cake as a present for the church rectory.
Proceeding to the train platform, I glanced down at the box and noticed the label. In proud ornate letters, it proclaimed that my gift to my new confessor was called a “Chocolate Orgasm.” Tears sprang to my eyes; what a terrible omen of the state of my soul! Father would be horrified. He’d never agree to see me now! This could be my last chance on earth to make a good confession, and here I’d wrecked it all by being too nervous to read the little sign in a bakery display case.
As the train pulled in to the station, I fled back to Rosie’s, weeping my heart out. The counter staff and customers in line listened in concern and alarm. All they could make of my lamentation was I was in trouble and a priest was mixed up in it somewhere. They absolutely rushed to take back the cake, readily exchanged it for some chocolate chip cookies, gave me coins in change and pats on the shoulder, and waved as I ran for my train. (Rosie’s South Station must many anxious Catholic customers on their way to confession; a check of their website shows that they’ve renamed the cake.)
Father met us at the rectory after evening Mass. He was welcoming and unassuming and calm. Gathering my courage, I piped up with my first concern. “Can we talk outside? Instead of inside a confessional?”
He led the way right out to the yard and handed me two folding lawn chairs, to place wherever I wanted.
Confession took a long time. My careful outline, written over and over and packed in the knapsack with the cookies, completely slipped my mind. Instead I first blurted out the story of a major life obligation, when I didn’t show up and stayed home instead.
Father locked his attention on the words, watched me tell the whole thing, and stated, “You had to protect yourself somehow.”
I stared at him as it dawned on me that his take on the situation was absolutely correct. His perspective cracked years of burden off my conscience. It called to mind the flamingoes who walk around in alkaline salt flats until balls of salt form shackles on the poor birds, weighing them down to a slow death by starvation. Then whack! volunteers come along and tap the salt away, and the birds fly away. At those words of his everything shifted; the light on the grass, the way I breathed air.
After that the words just flew at him for over an hour.
He took in all of it. He did not interrupt, admonish, contradict, doubt, belittle, or ridicule a thing. He did raise a hand several times with “Now that is not a sin, and here is why,” or “That’s not a Church law at all,” or “That was not your responsibility in the first place.” He did ask a few questions to draw me out, and a few more to make sure that my life now was safe. Then to my surprise he gave me general absolution, not only for the sins I’d confessed but for all the sins of the past.
“Really?” I dried my eyes. “All of them? What if I forgot to mention them? What if I forgot them altogether?”
He smiled. “All gone now. You only get to keep the sins you really want.”
After Confession, Father put away the lawn chairs and headed for his room. His walk looked tired. Later on I learned that my visit interrupted his packing for the airport, for an assignment in Rome.
In the cozy rectory kitchen, Rick and another seminarian were studying hard, and ready for a break. They welcomed me in for tea and a chat. Soon we were laughing happily. When Father appeared in the doorway I shrank a little. Maybe we were making too much noise. Maybe he would not like to see a girl here laughing with his seminarians. Maybe he would think my good time meant an unrepentant heart. But he smiled kindly at our harmless fun, poured himself a cup of tea, and went back to his packing.
Then, I remembered to unpack my present.
“You brought us cookies!” said Rick. “Thank you!”
“Chocolate chip, my favorite,” said his study partner. “Ooh, look, they’re from ROSIE’S! Do you know what’s our absolute favorite of all? Sometimes when we’re hitting the books until late, we drive to Rosie’s to bring back…” He stopped short, and the two exchanged bashful looks. “Well, never mind. The name of the cake is pretty outlandish. You wouldn’t believe it if I told you.”
“Let me guess,” I said.
At the end of Confession, the priest assigns a penance. It’s some spiritual exercise of repentance and mindfulness to help us focus on amending our path and charting our course for the future. I waited for Father to assign one to me. But he didn’t. Instead, in closing, for a moment his centered calm flickered; there was a catch in his throat, and his eyes misted over. “Pray for hope!” he exclaimed, leaning toward me. “Pray for hope, every day of your life!”
Father, I still do.