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.