I don’t mean to sound holier-than-thou, but I think I may have a leg up on you when it comes to committing sins and doing penance. I’ve been there, done that, and then some.
It all started when I was seven years old and made my First Communion at St. Patrick’s Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The day before that, I made my First Confession and that’s when the trouble really started.
At that time, I was a devout religious zealot. I was convinced that as soon as my permanent teeth came in, they would let me join the Convent of the Sisters of Charity, but in the meantime, I decided to dedicate my life to prayer. So I would go to Mass and Communion every morning, after lunch I would hurry over and make the stations of the cross, and after school I would run over and if they were offering confessions, I would go to confession, make my penance, say several rosaries, and then recite litanies all the way home.
The only trouble with this schedule is that it didn’t give me enough time to commit sins, and you had to have some of those in order to go to confession. I mean, you couldn’t just go in there and be tongue-tied. And I not only didn’t have enough time to commit enough sins, I wouldn’t have been caught dead committing one because what if I was caught dead before I could get to confession.
So that’s how it was that I started fudging. Whenever I couldn’t think of any sins, I made them up. At first, my confessions were pretty tame: “Bless me, Father, I confess to Almighty God and to you, Father, that I have sinned. My last confession was yesterday. Since then I have committed these sins: I told three lies, I forgot to say my morning prayers four times and my night prayers three times, and I disobeyed my mother five times.” And of course, hardly one word of it was ever true.
I used to live in constant fear that the priest would figure out that something was fishy because nobody could forget to say all those morning and night prayers since yesterday, so pretty soon, I also had to start lying about that, too, and had to pretend that I hadn’t been to confession for a whole week. I also started making a point of always going to Father Peter’s confessional, because he had a notorious reputation for dozing off during confessions.
One day, though, I found in a pew in the back of the church, a wonderful little white pamphlet called “The Examination of Conscience”. I could hardly believe my eyes. Here – on every page – were all these questions, prompting the reader to help him identify all these strange and wonderful sins I had never heard of. It was the answer to my prayers. It was just like a Sears Roebuck catalog, and all I had to do was to pick out the ones I would confess at my next confession, and the one after that, and the one after that. And that’s exactly what I did.
If poor old Father Peters only could have stayed awake, would he have had an earful about the depravity of at least one sinner in his flock!
I don’t even want to think about the number of times I worshiped false idols, or coveted my neighbor’s goods, or his wife, and by the time I was eight-and-a-half years old, I don’t know how many times I had committed adultery.
It gives me comfort to think that I wasn’t the only child who could benefit from tongue-tied-ness. I once heard about seven-year-old and six-year-old brothers who used to cuss a blue streak. Finally, their mother couldn’t stand it anymore so she took them to see a psychologist. His advice was that every time one of the boys used a swear word, their mother should hit him and that would condition him not to do it anymore.
The next morning, the family was all at the table and the mother said to the seven-year-old, “Now, what would you like for breakfast?” And he said, “Give me some of them damn cornflakes”. With that, his mother gave him the back of her hand, hitting him so hard that she nearly knocked him off his chair.
The six-year-old, wide-eyed, was watching all this violence, and when his mother said, “Sonny, now what would you like to have for breakfast?” he said, “Well, I don’t know, but it sure as hell won’t be cornflakes.”