I grew up sort of a Catholic.
By “sort of,” I mean I didn’t really know much about Catholicism (despite several years of CCD), we only generally hit the church on major holidays, and I never had the cred of the actual Catholic school kids, who knew all the psalms and had the Catholic-kid sex appeal. I started a brief campaign to bring my family back to church around eighth or ninth grade, which may or may not have been largely due to a crush on several high school seniors in the choir. After getting my parents into the rhythm of weekly service, and after hearing what I considered a bogus sermon, I promptly bailed. I think I was sixteen.
While I never really felt completely at home in the religion, there are a few elements that have stuck with me. One is stylistic; I still prefer the stained-glass windows, vaulted ceilings, and heavy wooden pews to the crassly carpeted younger churches complete with folding chairs and slide shows. While Catholic mass is likely unsettling to the newcomer, I find constant references to being “saved” and invitations to head to the front of the church to atone if you’ve been a sinner far, far creepier. Catholic church is ritualistic but private… at least, at the time of mass.
In CCD — never, ever called by its full name, Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, so obscure that I just had to look it up — things were different. I started in preparation for my First Communion, which my parents, in their rather typical ball-dropping fashion, enrolled me in one year later than everyone else in my grade. I was a third-grader among second-graders, embarrassed by my old age, as if I’d deliberately been held back a year. We were learning what we needed to know in order to begin eating Jesus, and this included instilling a lot of Sturm und Drang regarding the holy sacrifices that had been made for us. In particular, a big to-do was made concerning “reconciliation,” the act of confessing our sins in order to regain favor with God.
We were all eight or nine years old, so naturally, we needed lots of coaching in the field of confession. Weeks before the great First Confession was heard, we gathered in circles and had brainstorming sessions. “Have you recently been fighting with a brother or sister?” the teachers probed. “Did you lie or cheat or steal something? Say something hurtful that you didn’t mean? Really consider, now.”
We hadn’t not sinned, was the point. We just had to figure out why we were alienated from God, and apologize. It would be a continuous cycle, and sure, at the age of eight, we were learning that we would always be alienated from God. But the silver lining was that it could always be fixed. Confession was a refreshing ritual, like cleaning your room.
I don’t really remember what I first confessed, but I know that it was short, bland, and I struggled to think of something worthy. Despite its stone walls and stained-glass windows, St. Rose didn’t have the archetypal confession booth with the sliding plate window. Instead, we were led into a beige-colored room with some bookcases and lamps, and the priest sitting expectantly at the other side of a round, wooden table. We may have addressed him as “Father,” but it was still unnerving ticking off my naughty tendencies to the holy figure of the church. A step or two down from God, as far as we were concerned.
Despite my struggle, I came up with something, received a tepid blessing and was on my way.
And so, at eight years old, I was taught two things, and these have stuck with me despite shedding the religion like an old coat. (1) I have (always) done something wrong; (2) I must confess what that is. Slightly more sensitive and receptive at 23 than eight, I would now walk into a confessional with volumes of my offenses, broadly categorized and then divided into sections and subsections, with footnotes. “Friends” would include “Phone-related offenses” which would branch into screening calls and forgetting birthdays (or remembering, but not calling nonetheless), among other things. “Lack of thoughtfulness” (a decent overlap category) would include not sending a postcard for my grandmother’s birthday & not sending cards regarding a few recent deaths that I should by all means acknowledge. “General offenses” would be painstakingly long and detailed, ticking off my laziness (or “sloth,” in Catholic terminology), increasing lack of environmental concern, impulsiveness, selfishness, lack of tact, and poor dietary habits.
Instead of an old white guy on the other end of the table, though, it’d be another me, looking deeply uncomfortable and disappointed. I have to share the burden with myself; the old white guy can just let my sins float out the window and move onto the next kid. It would be pretty hard for me to just bless myself and send me on my way.
Still. The impulse is there, to confess, to illustrate, to explain, to analyze. To select moments that I’ve lived and relive them, to approach a sense of understanding. To be uncomfortable.
I’m already vulnerable. I may as well own it.