Father Alex, unloved and unappreciated by his parish, sat uncomfortably inside the confessional waiting for his parishioners to confess their sins.
No one will come, he said to himself, just like yesterday and the day before and the day before that. People think they don’t have to go to confession anymore. What happened? People still attend mass and still receive the Eucharist, but surely they haven’t stopped committing mortal sin. That’s impossible. But then …
He stopped his thoughts from going there. If people were still committing mortal sin but they were also still receiving the Eucharist, that meant they were receiving the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin which is also a mortal sin!
He checked his watch. He had 30 more minutes to wait. What if I leave now? he asked himself. Some priests have already given up daily schedules for confessions and some will give only confessions as requested. No! he chastised himself. I shouldn’t leave. He was one of those conservative priests. He thought of confession as the Catholic Church’s first aid station. While he can’t possibly stay in the confessional 24/7, he ought to make it available daily just in case someone needs the sacrament.
Time slows down when there is nothing to do. Father Alex checked his watch and saw that he still had 29 minutes to wait. He breathed deeply, closed his eyes and thought about how to make his parishioners like him. They considered him too young and too awkward and too tall. They made up horrible stories about him. Just yesterday, he heard that people were spreading the news that he was having a sexual relationship with one of the young wives in the community whose husband was away in the army. That’s preposterous! Why, I only said ‘Hello’ to her after mass. How can that be considered an affair?
Then he heard the creak of the old wooden door. Someone has come to confess!
He slid the window and leaned towards the screen, but the person was silent.
Father Alex was about to say something when the woman spoke, “I’m not sure how to do this. It’s been a while.”
That made Father Alex’ heart swell. Ah! You’ve come back!
He guided her and taught her the words, but she paused again when it came time to say her sins.
“Be strong,” he said. “Have faith.” He cringed at his clichés, but he couldn’t think of another way to encourage her to go on. He was half-afraid that she would get up and leave.
Then the torrent of sins poured out. It sounded like a lifetime of sins: fornication, use of contraceptives, receiving the Eucharist with the stain of mortal sin, not attending Sunday mass, being angry towards her friends and colleagues, being angry towards her enemies, stealing money from her mother’s purse when she was 16, and so on. It took her about 20 minutes to pour everything out because she was crying in between.
Fr. Alex told her, “You have been given a great grace today. Your sins are nothing compared to God’s love.” He wanted to say more comforting things, but it was already 5:35 according to his watch and he still had to prepare for the late afternoon mass. He gave her absolution and the penance of 1 Our Father, 1 Hail Mary and 1 Glory Be. “Do you remember the prayers?”
“Yes, Father,” she said.
After the woman had left the confessional, Father Alex stayed for a minute sitting with his eyes closed and asking God to forgive him. IF he had left, that woman would not be able to confess her sins, and maybe she would lose the courage to do so the next day. Fr. Alex then went out and saw Mrs. Travers standing quietly outside apparently waiting for him.
“Father,” she said, “Was that all I had to do? I’m forgiven now?”
He reddened. So it was Mrs. Travers who had committed all those sins. “Yes,” he replied.
She frowned. “But why did I have to do that? Why can’t I not go straight to God? And please don’t say it’s because God said so. I hate that answer.”
Father Alex smiled. It was a common question. He said, “There’s a long answer and a shorter one. I’ll give you the shorter one. Because when you ask God directly for forgiveness, you usually say your sins silently. They are still, in a way, disguised or kept secret. Kind of like when you have a horrible wound that is covered by your clothes. You know and God knows, but since it is kept hidden you are not directly confronted by how hideous it is. But when you go to confession, you have to mention your sins out loud. You have to shed all your clothes and show your hideous wound, and you are confronted with how horrible and ugly you really are. Also, when you go straight to God, your guilt may make you think you have to bend over backwards to be forgiven, but when the priest says you only need to say 3 prayers, you realize, well! It’s not so difficult to be forgiven after all no matter how horrible your sins may be.
Mrs. Travers looked at him wide-eyed like she was hearing this for the first time in a very long time which was likely the case. She asked again, “Why did God not choose to simply forgive me? Aren’t we encouraged to forgive others even before they ask for forgiveness? So why do I have to ask God for forgiveness when He could forgive me the instant I commit sin?”
Some parishioners have already come in for the late afternoon mass, but Father Alex knew he still had time. “Ah! It’s not just about forgiveness. God wants to forgive you but He also wants you to ask for His forgiveness because He wants you to come to Him.”
At that, Mrs. Travers laughed gaily. Fr. Alex was surprised by her girlish laughter and for a second he worried that people might start the rumor that he and she were having an affair. Given his experience with this parish, that was not an impossibility. Nevertheless, he was happy for her. Her girlish laughter reminded him that, after all, they were all children in the eyes of God, children who sometimes made a big deal of things because they forget that their Father could out-love them all.
“Will you attend mass?” he asked.
“Sure. With a clean slate, I can receive the Eucharist properly. Am I right?”
“You are right,” he said, smiling at her, not caring anymore if any of the gossips were thinking ill of them.
*This story is an excerpt from my novel in progress.