Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Instructions For A First Confession

Richard Modlin


In addition to religious dogma and the fundamentals of the three “R’s,” 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 teacher—a pious nun—by 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 wasn’t 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. “That’s easy. It’s like praying.”

Wrong! A traditional protocol had to be followed. The sinners had to humbly submit themselves to God and confess their sins in a confessional.

Having 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 our anonymity.

We 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 parents—sometime 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 you’re 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 we’d 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?

The above essay aired on WLRH, 3 October 2002.

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Richard 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.

© Richard Modlin

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012