Perhaps it was the Latin rite that I’d never really understood or even had properly explained to me, or the weekly mass I found so dreadfully tedious and downright hypnotic, perhaps it was those annoying altar bells (Will someone please answer that phone!) or the pain in my knees and lower back from genuflecting, kneeling and standing for so long. Perhaps it was the nagging questions about the dry, sacrosanct Eucharist stuck to the roof of my mouth, or the secret envy I held for my public school friends who where never compelled to attend a church at all, much less go to Sunday School. At the age of twelve, and after a full five years of Sunday School (catechism) and an hour-long, weekly High Mass and having been given leave to do so, I left the Roman Catholic Church and never looked back.
I was very much like my father in that, because from that time on, I wouldn’t go to church except for the occasional wedding or funeral. But a number of years ago I found myself attending Święconka one Holy Saturday at the behest of, and as a favor to, my elder brother, who never left the church.
I never lost my love for Easter Breakfast. I took a representative basket of goodies to my brother’s church to have it blessed by the parish priest. Times change and so does the church, apparently.
The St. Raphael the Archangel congregation (1999) is a consolidated parish from what used to be both the high-steepled Holy Spirit congregation (formerly Holy Ghost), modest St. Ignatius (1994) and the New St. Barbara’s church which was built a block from the Old St. Barbara’s church and school – a blocky little brick building that my mother attended as a girl. Of these four church buildings the New St. Barbara’s building is relatively newest and services for the St. Raphael parish are held there. But the New St. Barbara’s Church building is actually deceptively old because it was built in the 1930’s but in a more modern style. Ahem.
I found myself waiting on line in the side aisle of the church, food basket in hand, idly examining the architectural features of the interior of the building. Having had architectural drafting and similar courses in high school I’d long had an appreciative eye for the skill involved in woodworking in general but also superior finish carpentry and fine cabinetry as well. The stained glass windows were abstract; the woodwork a light blonde and far too minimalist – for my taste at least. I mean if you’re going to build something for Almighty God, don’t spare the filigree, the Fleur-de-lis, the intricacy and artisanship.
As the people moved slowly forward toward the altar I found myself standing right next to the confession booths, and this afforded me the opportunity to examine the woodwork close up. In keeping with the moderne theme of the rest of the church, the confession booths were a light shade of yellowed blonde. For whatever reason, I prefer a dark, brooding Gothic theme for churches, It should inspire awe.
Some people make disparaging comparisons between the confession booths and an outhouse. But if you take Gothic elements of architectural ornamentation like apogee arches, trefoil insets and elaborate finials and compress them into a very small structure, what you come up with is as celebratory as a birthday cake, yet sacred and stern as a judge. An outhouse fit for an emperor at least.
But these confessionals lacked the elaborate ornamentation of most of the more impressive confession booths I’ve seen over the years and were disappointingly drab and downright plain in comparison. I noted too, that the framework was of a cheaper wood overlain with a veneer of a finer grained hardwood. I saw some gaps that were just forming in the joinery and in other places adhesive was giving way and in yet other places slices of the hardwood veneer was actually curling back on themselves, as though they were trying to tear away.
Wondering what could have caused this damage a thought flitted across my mind: It must get damned hot in there.
This is how free-association works: while heat and humidity over time is the most likely culprit in the deterioration of the confessional, I pondered the many questions I’ve had over the years about the sacrament of penance. I mean what Catholic kid didn’t wonder what it would be like to be a fly-on-the-wall in a confessional?
I felt a twinge of sympathy for the celibate priests. Catholic priests are expected to keep themselves holy and spiritually aloof from the cares and desires of this world but, as the old saying goes: “When you’re up to your ass in alligators it’s hard to remember the original idea was just to drain the swamp.” Or, your mother tells you to keep your clothes clean and your father tells you to muck out the barn – you aren’t going to do either very well.
In modern times where six days a week the priests are tempted by half-naked women strutting their stuff on the street, or showing up for church on Sunday in shorts, mini-skirts and skin-tight jeans, add cleavage, perfume, make-up, not to mention television; and on the seventh day he has to sit down and have all manner of ungodly filth whispered into his mortal ear by his congregants, some of whom he recognizes by voice alone. That’s asking a bit much, don’t you think?
In my personal reading of the King James Bible, the only justification I find for this sacrament would be an ornate and evolutionary ritualization of James 5:16:
“…Confess thy sins, one to another….”
Admit you’re a sinner, but spare us the lurid details, OK kid?
It would be wonderful to know exactly how, what appears to be merely a suggestion evolved into a sacramental rite over the centuries.
Penance: A Roman Catholic sacrament;
repentance and confession and atonement and absolution.
While it may be flip of me to say the adhesive is giving way and the veneer is curling off, and all-in-all, to any mortal man or man of flesh, and especially to a celibate priest, it must, therefore, get hot as hell in the Confessional; it must certainly be a source of some temptation. But all things are ordered by cause and effect, and taken in its historical context, Penance and the Confessional predates not only the current scandals but many previous scandals as well.
Scandals are good. Having taken a year of World History at a Jesuit school (Marquette University) I found them completely unabashed in their discussions of the true history of the Roman Catholic Church. The church’s history is shot through with scandal after scandal and, from the very beginning, locked in an on-going power struggle between the First and Second Estates.
But scandals are good. In a sense, scandals are reassuring. When someone, anyone, a cleric or politician, gets caught up in a scandal it reveals a prerequisite – an expectation held in common by the people at large that has not been met. We are disappointed in that person. While they may do something vile and repugnant in our estimation, it, at the very same time, confirms the existence of an otherwise intangible standard of conduct that still exists. A scandal is a breach of that standard. You can’t have a real scandal without one. I would be worried if scandals simply did not exist.