For A First Confession
addition to religious dogma and the fundamentals of the three
Rs, elementary parochial schools instruct their
students in a variety of beliefs and procedures needed to gain
salvation and the ticket to Heaven. Foremost of these duties in
Catholicism is partaking the sacrament of Communion. But, preliminary
to receiving Holy Communion for the first time, children must
learn how to participate in Confession.
Instruction in the procedure of confessing my sins began along
with thirty other innocents. When we became first graders at Sacred
Heart Catholic School, the idea of committing a sin had rarely
entered our minds. The task of teaching us this concept fell to
our first grade teachera pious nunby the name of Sister
Mary Something-or-other. She taught us the Ten Commandments and
how to live by them. Toward the end of the school year, Sister
Mary Something read us the stories of flood, fire and brimstone
to ensure that we understood sin and to let us know how God treats
sinners. She terrified me. I spent summer vacation feeling as
if I were doomed to Hell.
Shortly after returning to school in September my trepidations
subsided. Although instruction on sin and its consequences continued,
a compassionate second grade teacher taught us that God wasnt
so bad. She told us that, if penitent children confessed their
sins directly to God, He would forgive them. No sweat,
I told my mom. Thats easy. Its like praying.
A traditional protocol had to be followed. The sinners had to
humbly submit themselves to God and confess their sins in a confessional.
been under the control of a stern nun, humbleness and submissiveness
came easy to me, but the business of a confessional, the thought
of isolation, and under the dominance of this omnificent, mystical
Being stimulated my anxieties.
A confessional consists of a trio of booths, which are found in
darkened alcoves of all Catholic churches. I had always thought
that they were phone booths that contained a direct line to God.
Metaphorically, the nun, who demonstrated the use of these ornate,
highly carved, dark wood chambers, supported my contention when
she said, Think of them as places to telephone God.
But when she pulled the heavy purple drapes that covered the doorways
aside, we saw only a stark, gloomy interior and no telephones.
The two side enclosures, the ones sinners used, had kneelers,
and the one in the middle, where the priest sat, had a comfy,
cushioned, straight-back chair. Since the priest, we were told,
communicated with God, the persons in the side compartments had
to tell him their evil deeds, which were followed with special
prayers of repentance that we were taught.
From the day of our introduction to the confessional, the nuns
marched us to confession every week. This produced two concerns
among my friends and me. Having the priest, a scowling, scornful-looking
man as our confessor, caused us major apprehension. His eyes and
voice were stern and seemed unforgiving and, we knew he held our
salvation in his hands. Although he was not supposed to know who
we were when in the confessional, we believed he would recognize
us even though our teacher had told us the curtain covering the
opening between the confessor and the priest was there to maintain
believed that he could identify us by the sound of our voice.
And, when he learned the bad, dark things we did, we were convinced
that he would tell our parentssometime later, we learned
that what is heard in a confessional, stays in the confessional.
The weekly repetition of going to confession became the second
problem. We quickly ran out of sins. When this happened, I said,
after the priest slid the panel open and welcomed me, Bless
me Father for I have sinned. My last confession was a week ago.
I have not sinned. When the priest heard this, he popped
off an indignant, You think youre a saint? He
went quiet for a moment then continued. For lying in the
confessional, your penance will be to recite twenty Hail Marys,
and twenty Our Fathers every day for the next week.
I told my buddies of my experience and we all started making up
sins, listing them and exchanging lists. Although the priest warned
us about the horrible consequences of faking a confession, we
took our chances, because on the next go-around we could confess
to a lie and wed be forgiven. Our deception must have worked
because on the Sunday of our First Communion, all communicants
looked angelic. I wonder if anyone besides me could see the halos
over our heads?
above essay aired on WLRH, 3 October 2002.
Modlin, an Emeritus Professor of Biological Science at The
University of Alabama in Huntsville, has authored a travel memoir
titled Malachite Lion, and Chasing Wings, a memoir
of birding exploits and encounters in various parts of the world,
which is searching for a publisher. He is a member of the Alabama
Writers' Conclave, Huntsville Literary Association and Tennessee
Writers Alliance and occasionally reads on WLRH, Huntsville, Alabama's
NPR affiliate. Read more about Richard at www.richardmodlin.com.