First a confession: I have been trying for years to crawl back on bended knee to Holy Mother Church. The Catholic Mass is a celebration of the Eucharist, otherwise known as Communion. It is under the species of bread and wine that Catholics come together in union to profess the same communal faith, worship God and receive forgiveness for their sins, which in my case are legion.
I have a thirty year unconfessed roll of sins, give or take ten years or so, that are, thank God, venial.
Venial sins are not to be winked at. They still count and, taken together, I suppose – if they are weighty enough – might plunge you into everlasting torment. Hell, in the days of Dante, used to be an uncomfortable, stench ridden pit, full of faithless politicians and sinful prelates; but now, Hell is regarded as separation from God, the creative source of all felicity. In any case, it is the mortal sins that kill your spirit; venial, not so much.
I have been telling myself for about ten of those 30 years that my sins are slight, not worth bothering a priest about. However, I do recognize that this is what psychologists call rationalization. My mother, who was a faithful Catholic, would call it, more appropriately, lying to yourself. I do miss her blunt honestly. If she were alive, she would order me to confession, and I would go – because one of the commandments orders us to keep Holy the Sabbath, and another commands us to honor our mothers and fathers.
In order to scan for mortal sins, a Catholic must perform an examination of conscience, which involves consulting the 10 commandments to discover how many of them the sinner may have tripped over since his last confession.
This year, owing to the curiosity of my wife Andree, I stuck my foot in a confessional.
We went to our usual Saturday service at St. Mary’s in Coventry and found that the two priests who usually said Mass, Fathers Victor and Ray, were absent, off on some work of God no doubt. Father John, standing in for them, had one of those deep, resonant and convincing voices. He might easily have been mistaken for Elisha or Jeremiah.
During our vacation in Scottsdale, Arizona, Andree had gotten into theological discussion with her sister concerning the use of water in the chalice at communion. Both of us were convinced that the priest did not, as her sister had maintained, mix water with the wine during the Eucharistic celebration. But father John indisputably did mix water with wine on this occasion. Immediately, Andree, more sensitive than I to venial sins, asserted she would write her sister and tell her she was right. Confession is good for the soul.
But what was all this water business about?
We asked Father John, who was standing after Mass by the confessional. The water and wine, he said, represents the duel nature of Christ Jesus, true man and true God. I didn’t know that. Andree was bold enough to ask him about confession. He opened a nearby door, and there it was. I trembled before the terrifying confessional cell, venturing so far as to stick my foot inside it.
In the early church, Father John said, confessions were less frequent. People were illiterate, and so there was a set form of confession: “Forgive me father, for I have sinned. It has been (indecipherable mumble) since my last confession…” Now, you just confess. This pleased me because I had forgotten the form at about year seven of my non-compliance. Confession and absolution in the early church was given by a number of church elders at Mass, and forgiveness was communal -- no individual confessions.
Now, there’s a tradition that should be restored.
I was beginning to like the early church. However, there is a hitch: Penance was an ordeal. The sinner lay outstretched at the door of the church in a posture of repentance, and the faithful stepped over him on their way into the building. I was lost in a vision of the weighty but relatively sinless Mrs. Smith adroitly stepping over my prostrate body on her way to receive the host.
Under the influence of this vision, I’ve now resolved to go to confession. And I’d like to drag all Connecticut’s Catholic politicians with me. But they must first make an examination of conscience. To assist them, I have especially adapted for politicians the original Ten Commandments, taking care not to depart too much from the spirit of Moses.
1 Thou shalt not treat thy colleagues as if they were gods. Thou shalt not impute a heavenly character to any politician, especially presidents. Thou shalt not bow down to them, or serve them. Beware you do not make of any politician, whether on earth or in heaven – or more likely in the bowels of Hell – a graven image, for it is unseemly to worship men, for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me, and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments.
2 Do not heap praise on the legacy of politicians, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who gives to men what belongs to the Lord.
3 As the Lord of creation rested on the seventh day, so you shall avoid politics, and the near occasion of politics, at a minimum of one day a week, 52 days a year, thereby giving your constituents a much needed rest from demagoguery, truth stretching, cheating (on your wife and others) and stealing. Under your democratic hand, men and women shall labor and do all their work, retaining for their family, loved ones and the needy they grace with charity what they have earned by the sweat of their brow. Cesar’s portion should not strip them of their Christian character, your own personal political ambitions notwithstanding.
4 Honor your father and mother, like everyone else, and do not heap shame upon them while in office.
5 Thou shalt not kill, however much you are incited to do so by the impenetrable idiocy of your political opponents.
6 Thou shalt not commit adultery or send racy e-mails to your constituents over the internet or toy with pages, male or female. Be faithful to your long suffering wife to whom you owe your career and whatever mite of common sense you have left.
7 Thou shalt not steal, not even from the rich.
8 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor, be he Republican, Democrat or a member of the fourth estate.
9 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, even though it is taxable.
10 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything of value that is thy neighbor’s, not even to offset a deficit.