Biff America: To forgive is divine (column)
December 9, 2017
I sometimes lie, swear, fight and cheat.
No, those words are not on the cover page of Vladimir Putin's resume. Those were my shopping list of sins that, as a young boy, I offered monthly to a Parish Priest to cleanse my conscience, allowing me to go out and sin again.
The sacrament of Holy Confession has lost some of its popularity in the Catholic Church. But when I was growing up with it was a regular ritual. Offered weekly, some parishioners (often 50 or more) would wait in line to enter a small booth partitioned into three compartments. The priest would sit between two sinners and alternately slide back an opaque panel to listen to their bad deeds. No matter what you did, you could be forgiven as long as long as you confessed. Kind of like a phone booth to God.
The intention was that you would keep track of your sins, confess to the priest, who would sentence you to a certain amount of prayers for your penance, commensurate with your crimes. Regrettably, even at a young age, my urge to sin was more powerful than my memory. Never being able to remember the exact number or nature of all my assorted corruptions, I came up with a monthly cheat-sheet.
"I sometimes lie, swear, fight and cheat. I'm sorry for these sins and all my sins of my past life."
Those words, more or less, made up my Holy Confessions from the age of 6 until my early teens. To the best of my recollection, the menu of misdemeanors seldom varied. In retrospect it all seems a little odd but it totally worked. I absolutely remember a sense of rebirth; going in with guilt and a stolen candy bar in my pocket and leaving with a clean slate and an appetite. Unfortunately, as I matured, so did my sins.
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The reality was that being a member of a relatively small parish, that priest who heard my confession would be the same guy who coached church league basketball and occasionally came over to our house for dinner. Father Murphy would easily recognize my voice.
That being the case, I was embarrassed to share my true teenaged offenses, many of which concerned more heinous crimes like improper thoughts, acts and a fascination with certain items of clothing, hanging from the Casey sisters' clothes-line.
My fear was when the good Father joined us for dinner he would be less likely to ask me to pass the potatoes knowing where my hands had been.
Now granted, all you had to do is to go to confession and be absolved until the next time you sinned. But the problem was if you confessed your true sins to Father Murphy he would know just how wicked you were and next time he gave the Sodom and Gomorrah sermon he would look right at you.
So rather than risk the priest learning what a 'perv' I was, I attempted to use a fake accent to fool him.
The only dialect, other than my own, that I had mastered was cowboy-talk from the various westerns on TV, which was a stark contrast to my native-born Boston accent. After a few rehearsals, I sauntered into the dark confessional booth, waited for the panel to slide back and began my confession.
In a Western twang (a combination of Walter Brennon and Slim Pickens) I said, "Howdy Father, I thought I'd mosey in and make my confession: I sometimes lie, I often swear, I sometimes steal, fight and cheat" — (I'd then slip in some big sins that I was afraid to confess in my own voice) — and end it with, "I'm mighty sorry for these sins and all my sins of my past life."
Without missing a beat, Father Murphy said, "Much obliged, Jeffrey — I mean 'cow-poke,'" and he then gave me my penance.
I don't mean to make light of the Church or the Sacraments. Even now, (on a good day) I try to live up to the ideals that I was taught by the priests and nuns. And if nothing else, confession taught me the cleansing power of forgiveness; forgiving others and yourself.
Do I still "sometimes lie, swear, fight, cheat and have impure thoughts?"
Boy Howdy! But at my age I do it much more slowly…
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Biff's new book "Mind, Body, Soul" is available at local shops and bookstores.
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