Bless me, Father, for I have sinned….


Last month saw the rollout of a curious new application for the iPhone: Confession: a Roman Catholic app. Sanctioned by the Catholic Church (it even has the nihil obstat, or “nothing stands in the way,” the Vatican’s official stamp of approval), it’s the cyber-age mechanism for recognizing one’s misdeeds, described by the developer as a “personalized examination of conscience for each user.” I’m not sure how having an iPhone guide to categories of sin is supposed to “encourage lapsed followers back to the faith,” as the hype suggests, but it may do away with what I like to think of as “Not-Very-Original Sin.”

I can easily summon up a vision of myself leaning against the wall in a line of penitents, trying in vain to recall what I’d told the priest in the confessional booth the week before. As a youngster, I worried that the priest would remember exactly what my sins had been previously and correctly suspect that I was making them up, so I attempted to vary the litany by changing the order and number of my transgressions: “OK,” I’d whisper to myself, “Last week I think I said, ‘Lied twice and disobeyed once’ so this time I’ll tell him, ‘Disobeyed three times and lied once.’” Imagine how much easier this app would have made the job – it has password-protected accounts that allow you to keep track of your sinning history, and includes such helpful extras as the exact time elapsed since your last confession, and the words to seven different acts of contrition (that was another part of the sacrament that I’d get stuck on – who knew that there was so much acceptable variety?).

Although having access to this app might have made it simpler to call to mind my personal crimes, it would have done nothing to ease my mind about the rest of the experience. In our huge parish, you could try to ensure some degree of comfort by choosing which priest to go to for confession – there were several possibilities, and the length and demographic composition of the queues varied according to which priest was inside the confessional.

Father Hogan, the young, cool priest who told funny jokes when he came to our classrooms (and later left the priesthood, to marry, it was rumored, a nun!) generally had a longish line of kids and teenagers. For a while I went to him, but that ended abruptly the day I heard him yelling at someone through the confessional door.

The longest line belonged to Father Tully, an older, easy-going gent. His relaxed mien extended even to his speech, which was a long-drawn-out, raspy drawl, the words slurring into each other so that he was a little hard to understand. He was popular as a confessor because his was the express method – somehow you were in and out in record time. But the most appealing thing about him to a lot of us younger folks was the unvarying penance he meted out: “ThreeeeHailMaaaarys,” with an occasional Our Father thrown in for the most egregious offenses. We were delighted and mystified at the same time, and lots of us conspired to test how well he was listening by sending some brave soul in to report, “I killed my mother.” I don’t know if anyone ever actually tried it – I sure didn’t – but I have a feeling he would have been very forgiving of such a prankster.

The shortest line belonged to our parish pastor, Monsignor B, who had the not-undeserved reputation of being a crab. He was known to shout from the altar during Mass, embarrassing young parents by demanding to know whose crying baby was disrupting the service. I personally witnessed an episode involving the Monsignor that convinced me never to choose him as a confessor.

I was slouching, as usual, in Father Tully’s long line, “examining my conscience.” Across a phalanx of pews, Monsignor’s line – no surprise – consisted of four or five of the parish’s grandmotherly “old country” types: hunched-over women in long, dark dresses worn over wrinkly stockings and sensible nun-ish shoes, their mantilla-covered heads bowed in shame and reverence, rosary beads ticking slowly through arthritic fingers.

Although Monsignor didn’t set any speed records, his line was relatively quickly dispensed with, while Father Tully’s stretched all the way back to the grotto containing the statue of the Blessed Mother, where the conscientious were supplementing their penance by lighting candles. Suddenly, Monsignor’s confessional door swung open and he stepped out with a swirl of his ankle-length cassock and a scowl on his face. “You!” he bellowed, pointing a finger somewhere in the vicinity of the middle of our line, “You and everyone behind you – get over here!!” My mouth dropped open and my gaze swept quickly up and down the line, trying to discern where I stood in relation to where his finger pointed. Almost every single person in the line was doing the same thing, and even adults, eyes wide with fear and loathing, were silently mouthing the words, “Me? Do you mean me?”

As soon as he retreated back into his curtain-draped hideaway, half the line scurried out the door between the confessionals, preferring to take the chance of leaving with blotches on their souls rather than risk the wrath of Monsignor B.

Many a year has passed since that day. Father Tully’s death probably left a lot of folks wondering where they stood, confession-wise. And as with many other modern conveniences, although the confession app may make things easier, it takes a little of the torturous thrill out of the experience, which for me, at least, would have made it much less worth reminiscing about.


About rangermoi

I'm a former park ranger and teacher, mother of two no-longer-teenage sons, avid cook and reader and the Official Family Memory. I thought I'd better get some of those remembrances down before they all leak out of my senior-moment-affected brain!
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14 Responses to Bless me, Father, for I have sinned….

  1. Tara says:

    haven’t gone to confession in years. I prefer no middleman 😉

  2. Susan Rexroad says:

    I can still remember lying in bed with the covers pulled over my head as I contemplated how to handle my first confession with unbelievable dread. How to extricate myself from the sinning spiral was my major conundrum. I was in the second grade and thought how can I remember all my sins from the past seven years? And if I didn’t remember them, I couldn’t confess them and wouldn’t that be also be sin? Then, there was the matter of bad words – how to confess them without actually saying them and committing yet another sin. Well all I can say is Jesus, Mary and Joseph! For a public school kid this unknown was terrifying. I finally settled on generic categories, like the kind you wrote about Moira, such as I said bad words and lied; figuring out this system provided some relief. After, I was amazed that my penance was just a few prayers. But, contemplating this whole process was definitely penance enough!

    • rangermoi says:

      I can so relate, Susan! The business of sin was all so confusing and scary, but at the same time sort of compelling. I remember the nuns telling us, when we asked about the difference between mortal and venial sins, that anything you believed to be a mortal sin and did it anyway, was a mortal sin. So my little brain, being continually in overdrive, would say to me, “If you slide down this banister, it will be a mortal sin.” And then I just had to slide down the banister, and afterward, of course, I’d be wondering if I’d committed a mortal sin!

  3. I remember confession at St. Aidan’s exactly as you describe it and I remember Fathers Tully and Hogan and, of course, the tyrant Msgr.Bermingham. Do you remember Father Joseph Basel? When he was transferred from St. Aidan’s to another parish the rumour I heard was that Msgr. Bermingham had driven Father Basel to a nervous breakdown so he had to leave St. Aidan’s to regain his sanity! By the way,what is your full name and maiden name? I graduated St. Aidan’s school in 1964 so maybe we knew each other back then.

  4. rangermoi says:

    Hi Phil – (I remember your name – I believe you graduated with my brother, Terry Laughlin, and maybe you were in his Boy Scout troop too?). I graduated in ’69 – and certainly remember Fr. Basile – he seemed like a nice guy, although I never had any personal run-ins with him. Probably went to his confessional a few times – like I said, my favorite was Tully, for obvious reasons! I was even selected to be an honor guard at his funeral vigil, standing for hours at the corner of his casket, in full St A’s uniform (including beret). Thanks for checking out my blog!
    Moira (Laughlin)

    • Yes, I did graduate with Terry in 1964 from SAS.I recently became friends with him on Facebook. I was in Boy Scout Troop 221, i don’t remember if Terry was in that troop.I recall a funny story about Msgr. Bermingham. One Sunday,at the children’s mass, he was talking about how often you need to go to confession, he said at least once a month and a kid raised his hand and asked if one should go more often if that person is possessed by the devil, Bermingham replied “don’t worry, I haven’t seen any one in Williston Park possessed by thr devil, maybe in Albertson, but not in Williston Park”.I guess he was joking about some parishoner who lived in Albertson that he did not like but. of course,all the kids took it seriously and kept asking their teachers who in Albertson was possessed by the devil. Keep up the good work, you bring back many chilhood memories.

      • rangermoi says:

        I think it’s funny that Msgr B said you should go to confession once a month, because we were expected (by my mom) to go every week. She must’ve thought we were pretty bad! Once, when I was 16, my mom said I needed to go to confession with my dad, who for some reason, was driving over to Notre Dame (maybe she realized that we were faking going, and figured we couldn’t get out of this one). I protested, saying that I hadn’t done anything I needed to go to confession for (haha – now that I’ve been through my own kids’ teenage years, I know better!), but she persisted, saying that I should go anyway, for the sacremental grace. So when it came my turn to go into the confessional, I said to the priest, “Bless me Father, it’s been a long time since my last confession, and I don’t have any sins. I’m just here because my mother told me to come for the sacramental grace.” There was dead silence on the other side of the partition for a minute – maybe he was laughing? – before he asked me if I went to Mass every Sunday (I did, at the time, but that Saturday was my signal to quit). After that, he just told me to say an act of contrition, and I beat it out of there. Sixteen years old was the beginning of my split with the catholic church, and although I’ve gone occasionally over the years (usually for some occasion involving may parents), I’ve never been involved much with it again. I do miss the rituals, though – nobody does rituals like the Catholics.

      • St.Aidan’s pastor before Bermingham was a Father Loewe. He died in March, 1960. I will never forget, as long as I live, going to confess my sins to him in 1958 or 1959. I confessed to stealing coins from my mother’s purse. He asked me did I attend St.Aidan’s School? I said yes, and he screamed at me “We have a thief in our school!” He then told me to say the Act of Contrition.Obviously, he got me so scared that I could not remember it. He yelled at me “Go home and learn it!” and closed the window.Since that incident, I only went to confession with the priests at Chaminade High School.To this day, I have not been to confession again since I graduated from Chaminade in 1968! I also stopped attending Sunday Mass on a regular basis in 1969 or 1970. I went occasionally because I lived at home with my parents until I married a devout Catholic woman in 1984 who insisted we go every Sunday. Her father was a Sunday usher and so was my father, for 50 years at St.Aidan’s. My ex-wife also insisted that our daughter attend Catholic school. I said no so my ex-wife paid her tuition from rental income she received and kept telling my daughter: “Your father dosen’t pay your tuition or pay for your clothes” She never told my daughter that I paid all the bills to put a roof over her head and enable her to receive medical care.To make a long story daughter met people much richer than me in Catholic high school turned against me because I was not rich and because my wife constantly criticized me in front of my daughter.So it was 2 against 1 and I finally got divorced in 2010 despite my best efforts to save my marriage.My daughter has spoken to me maybe 5 times since the divorce.I send her a birthday card every year but have not seen or heard from her for the last 3 years.
        Finally, believe it or not, I became an usher at St.Aidan’s 7:30 PM Saturday night mass about 10 years ago to honor my father who was an usher there for 50 years.( I refuse to get up early on Sunday mornings as he did for 50 years).I have made friends with the ushers who knew my father well so my ushering is both a social event and a homage to my father. I receive communion but I still don’t go to confession!

      • Dennis Walsh says:

        I remember having to go to Father Low’s wake on the first floor of the rectory.I think I was 9 his was the first body I looked at in my life.We all had to approach the casket.It caused many bad dreams.I still remember

      • rangermoi says:

        My first wake was for my dad’s uncle, who was an older man – I was about 7. My brothers and I stood around the casket (supposed to be praying, but we were more marveling that Uncle Pat was so still and quiet). Steve, who was probably 9, reached into the casket and touched his head, then turned around to me and Terry and said, “His hair feels like wire,” which caused us all to crack up, and Mom to hurry over and whisk us away. While the adults went to the funeral, we stayed at Grammie’s house, where we had the usual Grammie-type treats of 7-Up and Coke in their little green bottles, and M&M’s, all of which were forbidden fruit in our own house. Made it seem like having someone die was kind of festive!

  5. Oh boy this all brings back so many (in some cases, forgotten) memories. esp. Father Lowe and Father Basile….had completely forgotten them, but not the line for Father Tully, 3 Hail Mary’s for whatever transgressions you confessed to, always a good bet. Remember when the chapel was all we had, then they built the church. When JFK was assassinated, the nuns had us all in the chapel praying. Years later, my friends and I hung out on the chapel steps. The cops wouldn’t bother us there as it was sanctuary! A bit medieval, but it worked.

  6. Tom Murphy says:

    Father Tully was well known for his evening ritual of walking up to George’s Deli on Willis Avenue and buying a six pack of Shaefer beer. He was a great guy. Father Basel was well liked by the youth of the parish and was heavily involved in the SAS youth programs. He died rather young as I recall.. maybe 58 or so? I can certainly appreciate and agree with the comment about Monsignor B giving him a nervous breakdown. I ran into Monsignor B in West Palm Beach, FL in about 1999. He was living in a senior retirement home.. where my mother happened to be. He was very friendly and cheerful.. but with obvious signs of dementia. I believe he died not long after that. I was class of 1960 at SAS by the way. My favorite teacher was Brother Finian.. second only to Brother Andre who many years later ended up marrying the sister of a friend of mine. Small world.

    • If I recall correctly,Monsignor B, died in December 2003 or 2004 a week before Christmas. I went to his wake at St.Aidan’s.and I believe Father Basel did die at about age 58 of a heart attack.His brother, Bill Basel, was a phys ed teacher and head football coach for many years at Chaminade High School. He retired maybe 2-3 years ago. I graduated St. Aidan’s in 1964 and Chaminade in 1968.And I remember George’s Deli very well.Brother Andre was a big tall man. I never knew he left the order and married. I had Brother Finian in 7th grade, I and all my class mates were afraid of him.

    • rangermoi says:

      I never knew of Fr Tully’s penchant for Schaefer beer! But then, I was probably a little too young to notice those things. I do remember a humorous incident with Msgr B from about 1969 (did I just connect the word humorous with him?!). Of course, he didn’t realize he was being observed, and perhaps he would have changed his behavior if he had. I was in the Legion of Mary, my most religious affiliation ever in my life (it didn’t last), in 9th grade. I probably joined because 2 of my girlfriends did. Anyway, we met in the rectory basement, and performed the weekly penance (at least that’s how I thought of it) of saying the rosary on our knees on the linoleum floor. We were in the midst of this torture one night, when from upstairs came the unmistakable voice of Msgr B intoning the familiar words of the Alka Seltzer commercial: “That’s a spicey meatball!” He said it several times, seeming to try to imitate the commercial perfectly, while we, thankfully distracted from our aching kneecaps, giggled uncontrollably into our hands.

      Now that I’m thinking of it, maybe I should post this – other “fans” of Msgr B would probably enjoy this memory!

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