So many people are being received into the Church this Easter! Congratulations, my new brothers and sisters. I’m so glad you’re here. Your new faith is wonderful, and soon you’ll see how liberating, how illuminating, and above all, how much sense it makes!
That is, unless you’re going to confession. Oh, not the sacrament itself. The sacrament of confession is the greatest thing in the world, next to Cadbury eggs. Um, and the Eucharist. There is nothing better than going into a dark box all laden, dirty, and bruised with sin, and coming out lighthearted, clean and healed. Magnificent!
But the confession line. Oh, the confession line.
I love my parish. But oh lord, I hate going to confession there. It’s hard enough to hurl the kids into the van, examine my conscience in a way that even resembles thoroughly, and, when I arrive at the quiet church, to control the ragged panting of a fat old mother who can never remember that confession is at 2 and not—NOT!!!—2:30.
It’s hard enough, I tell you. But what makes it almost unbearable is what happens while we’re waiting in line. Here’s a typical scene: It’s a few minutes before 2:00. I open the door and scan the dim church for anything resembling a line. What do I see? An amoeba-like blob of penitents in the pews. Their formation is line-like here, but unintelligible there. Who is first? Who is last? Are some of them just praying, or what?
The old ladies twitter among themselves; the few solitary college guys are sitting with patient endurance, just itching to be gallant and wholesome at a moment’s notice. Kerchief-and-Denim-Skirt Lady is whispering furiously at her floppy sons, who are flopping around the pews; and the old men lean on their canes, openly glaring at the world.
“Well,” I think, “I don’t know what the order is here, but I’m clearly last.” So I tiptoe over to a fellow with a bristly beard and a posture of equal parts humble piety and pure rage. He sits far from the rest of the gathering, so I whisper, “Excuse me, are you at the end of the line?”
And he bellows back, in the voice of the reformer, “I am at the FRONT of the line. Confession will be HERE, starting today.” And he gestures at a brand new confessional, which I honestly had no idea was even there.
Everyone’s head pops up. Beard Man is first? This confessional? Starting today? Line? Nobody knows what’s going on. The muttering begins. A few people slide uncertainly around on the pews, trying to assert their places. No one wants to lose their spot; but on the other hand, this is hardly the time to be pushy. No one wants to have to say, “Bless me father, for I have sinned. I knifed an old lady for cutting in line.”
Cheerful Practical Mom Type takes over, though, and sets things aright. It looks like she’s got everyone straightened out, and no one is even mad—but then the worst happens: Slowly, painfully the door swings open again, and a dark silhouette heaves into view.
It’s the Oldest Old Lady of Them All.
She has a walker AND an oxygen tank. All eyes are glued to her as she shuffles and groans on her wretched pilgrimage down the center aisle. Maybe she’s headed to the Sacred Heart altar for a quick prayer? Is she? Oh no. She’s headed for the confessional—straight for what most of us have now agreed is the beginning of the line. One medium-old lady hisses to another, “She doesn’t know where to go. WE’LL tell her.” My blood runs cold.
Finally, the priest appears. Walking more briskly than a man with his workload has any reason to walk, he zips down the length of the darkened church, snaps on a few lights, and a sunny smile cracks his face as he faces the crowd of penitents. “Good afternoon, everyone!” he says. “Thank you for coming. Now, about the seating.”
OH, HALLELUJAH! a nearly audible mental chorus responds. For we are broken. We are a shattered people. We came to be healed, but here was only more darkness, more confusion, more tangled webs of resentment, malice, uncertainty and despair. About the seating! This glorious man, this prince among priests, HE will show us the way. He will tell us where to sit, and then we will know if we are first or we are last. He has come to save us.
“The seating,” he continues. “Here’s what I’d like you to do, is just … just move back a bit. We don’t want to sit too close, because then we can hear each other. So, don’t worry, you can keep your places—just move back a bit. All right? All right.”
And he disappears into his box.
Ah, to be a priest. Ah, to have nothing but the petty cares of a thousand souls, a dozen antiquated buildings, an order of nuns, a bishop, a soup kitchen, and a million ministries and classes and organizations and charities and fundraisers and whatnot.
Is he overworked? Is he underappreciated? Is he living the life of a martyr? Pish tush. A priest knows nothing about true suffering, and this is why: At least he always knows where he’s supposed to sit.
[This post first ran at the Register around this time in 2011]