“Forgive me Father for I have sinned it has been over thirty years since my last confession.”
It had, in fact, been thirty-three years!
“And what,” Father B asked, “brought you here today?”
Not an easy question to answer. Except, it had a lot to do with a brown-eyed eight-year-old boy who waited for me back in the pew. Though I had little trust of religious institutions or the men who ran them, I was determined to support my son’s spiritual quest.
“Mom, I want to be a Catholic.” He’d informed me months before.
I, too, had been a Catholic once. Like my son, I received first communion in a ceremony of pomp and circumstance. Instead of a tie, I wore a white lace dress with a doily-shaped veil bobby-pinned to my pageboy haircut.
Father B looked at me as I sat down in the chair opposite him ignoring both his question and the optional pre-Vatican II screen, which I could have hid behind. What would be the use? He knew who I was; the entire congregation knew who I was; the woman whose partner was a woman. The term gay or lesbian was never spoken aloud. This small parish with its thriving parochial school embraced an ideology that skirted its Roman roots, preaching that “the people” are God’s church, therefore, “all people” are welcome, a friendlier version of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which I was grateful for.
“I’m here to support my son,” I said, pointing at the ornate door I’d shut behind me upon entering the closet-sized room.
Parents were encouraged to receive the sacrament of reconciliation along with their children, and though there were other lapsed Catholics in the crowd, one by one, they all lined up to follow their child’s lead.
“Aren’t you going to go up too, Mom?” My son asked. It seemed easier to nod my head and get in line then try to explain away the theological implications of being gay. Moreover, I did not want to burden him with the still-fresh pain of my partner’s recent confession. A surprise, even to her, she’d said, returning home late from Bible study. Not only because he was a man, but a married man, with kids, and the minister of the open and affirming church we’d been attending.
Who knew how open and affirming it would turn out to be?
So, there I sat in a claustrophobic closet with a white-haired priest who smelled of peppermint and the garbled sounds of women’s voices floating up through the floor vent from the yeasty lunchroom directly below. He cleared his throat, no doubt sensing I was not thrilled to be there. “Have you been practicing your sacraments?” He asked.
“Father, I’m a lesbian,” I said incredulously.
“In this church,” he said softly, “that makes no difference.”
Perhaps, it was the gentleness in his voice, it resonated with a kind of vulnerability, or maybe it was because my partner’s confession was colliding in my mind with recent news reports of pedophile priests, sex-scandals, and mounting legal fees. Maybe it just that my heart felt so ravaged, raw, tender, or perhaps we were both in the wrong place at the wrong time, whatever it was his words opened a floodgate inside of me and out spewed my own unplanned sermon on the hypocrisy of religious institutions and the men who ran them. How screwed up it all was, how they perverted the true message of Jesus, how I did not buy any of it, how I did not trust him, and if all that wasn’t enough, to cap it off, I added that for all I knew he too could be sexually abusing the boys behind the altar!
When I finished, I sank breathlessly back into the chair and put my head in my hands and sobbed. After a long silence, I heard him say, “I feel your pain. I’m sorry.” I stood up mumbling my own apology, preparing to leave, but then my eyes met his and there was such compassion in his eyes that when he waved me back down, I obeyed.
“Please,” he said, “Do you believe in prayer?”
“Will you pray for me? I am scheduled for a surgery on Monday and I’m asking for prayers because . . . well, frankly . . . I’m terrified.”
In that instant, I realized he had honed in on the one thing I did have faith in, it wasn’t a religious institution or a person, but I did believe in the power of prayer and he’d asked for the one thing I could give.
“Of course, Father, I will pray for you.” I took the tissue he offered.
Outside of the box the congregation began to sing the Halleluiah chorus, and suddenly, we were both conscious of the time. I imagined my son horrified at the thought that his mother must have an extraordinary number of sins to confess.
“Are you ready for your penance?” He asked.
Wondering how many Our Fathers or Hail Mary’s my impertinent behavior had merited, I nodded.
He cleared his throat and, for the first time, said my name, “Bridget, I want you to trust God.”
I stared at him. Was he joking? A million Hail Mary’s would be easier. “Father, I don’t think you know what a tall order that is.” I said, and got up to leave.
“Oh, I think I do.” He smiled.
There was a strange twinkle in his eyes as he handed me a tissue for the road. I took the tissue and couldn’t help but smile back.
“Thank you,” I managed, as I stepped through the thick door into a crescendo of voices. The sound broke over me like a wave of warm water and I returned to the pew where I found my son kneeling, his hands clasped, his eyes closed and his head bowed. Grateful for his lead, I kneeled beside him, closed my eyes and thanked God for men like Father B: men who understood the true meaning of the message of the one they professed to follow.