Confession — empty words?

On Yom Kippur Jews must first acknowledge their sins against others and make reparation for those sins, and then ask forgiveness directly from those they have hurt. Only then are they to turn to God and ask forgiveness for sins against God. As Catholics we are taught that sacramental absolution is sufficient for sins against others or against God – God will forgive us, the slate is wiped clean. We are not taught about the necessity of first going to those we have hurt and making reparation and asking forgiveness. It might be suggested as a good thing to do as part of our penance but it is not a pre-requisite for absolution. If sin and forgiveness were treated by Catholics the way Jews treat it then the two priests who abused my family might not have felt it sufficient to confess their sins to each other and offer and receive mutual sacramental absolution. Maybe, just maybe, they would have re-considered their crimes of rape and sodomy if they had believed they would not receive God’s forgiveness without first asking for ours.

Talking with Oprah

Talking with Oprah

Have you ever asked yourself which TV show would be the best forum for your family story? Jerry Springer, CNN nightly news, Oprah?

You’re saying there were two priest abusers not one…and five victims in your family.

                        Yes, Jerry, that’s what I’m saying, on my mother’s grave.

Well, we have a surprise for you today…it seems your mother isn’t dead at all, and she’s flown in all the way from Knocklong…

                      Actually Jerry, when I said on my mother’s grave I wasn’t being literal, more ironic, if  you like.  She’s  been  dead to me for years.

Ah, but will you like what she has to tell you today. About how you abandoned her to a nursing home and are now trying to have your own father committed so you and your brothers can take all his money.

 Boo… boo. (from the audience) That’s no way to treat your parents. They gave you everything.

Ah, yes, everything! The full Catholic catastrophe…a  complete education in shame and guilt from the age of three, nurtured by the martyrdom of mothers and the folly of fathers. My Catholic Litany of the Saints included Saint Incestua and Saint Sodomatus. The Irish boys and men in my family have made many novenas on their knees to these saints, but you won’t find them in any official prayers. What you do find, though, are the role models young Catholics are meant to emulate: a virgin mother doting on her only son– a god in her eyes– and an apparently cuckolded father who is good with his hands but a complete failure when it comes to planning a vacation, doesn’t think to book ahead, just expects there to be a room when he needs it. So for the rest of his life he has had to hear:

A barn! You expected me to give birth in a barn? Did you even notice the odor. You didn’t of course.

                    No…But?…

“Let me tell the story, Joseph, and don’t interrupt.”

                    Yes dear.

He stayed outside around the camp fire with all the other men, drinking and telling stories, praying for a son not a daughter, and there I was biting down on a rag for the pain, wanting it out of me, and trying not to retch from the smell of animal excrement all around. And then they put my newborn baby in a feed trough. For the love of God, what were you thinking you eejit.  (That’s Irish for idiot).

 And then there’s the son. He lives at home until he’s 30. No woman can match his mother. He looks down on the profession his step-dad has chosen for him, preferring to study scripture. And he hangs out with a bunch of friends who end up leaving their wives and kids at home to go on a road trip with him to the big city, where he gets himself arrested for disturbing the peace. Then things get really messed up. He can’t afford a lawyer, there is perjured testimony, and he ends up being executed. His mother blames it on his friends, of course.

“If you hadn’t broken the law he wouldn’t have been arrested. It’s all because of you. Lord love us and save us!”

Eventually all of Christianity assumes that burden of wrong, and all our sins become part of the cause of this son’s death. The Train to Guiltville has taken off. With stops on the way at penance, flagellation, starvation, mortification and a Grotto to all mothers. In the dining car, shame pudding will be served topped with a glaze of self-hatred.

So, in Catholicism these are the role models we have to offer our Catholic children: a virgin mother, a cuckolded father, a perfect son, self-abusing saints. And people wonder why we are so screwed up.

OK, so maybe the characters in your internal dialogue don’t have their own sensationalist  talk show, or speak with Irish accents. But I grew up with watching Sean Connery play a Russian naval officer and a British spy — both with a Scottish accent. I’m sure he’d play Jesus himself with a brogue.

On CNN— late-breaking news of a Catholic family that was more like a Catholic cult. The ATF have uncovered a garage filled with antique cars and gallon bottles of illegal white lightning that the locals call potheen (pronounced putcheen), apparently brewed by a family member, a retired police officer. The investigation is ongoing but it appears the Patriarch of the clan has a getaway planned to a private golf resort in Spain, where he recently acquired a brand new apartment. The source of the funds for this venture remain a mystery to family and friends alike. A local citizen who spoke under guarantee of anonymity revealed that the head of this family was under investigation by the IRS for falsely reporting  income and property. More later–when we interview a 27-year-old woman who claims to have borne the 82-year-old man’s love child just last year.

Much of this is actually true ( not the love child bit though) as are some of the details in the Springer conversation. So you can see how some of my family story could easily belong on the evening news. But a reporter would just take one piece and spin a three-minute segment and that would be that. Unless someone in my family pulls a gun and gets chased through the streets of Knocklong in a white van. But even then the locals would only manage updates from some nitwit up a tree with an instamatic trying to follow the chase, shouting down what he sees. There are no police helicopters in Knocklong village. Three bars, two churches, a grocery store, a beauty parlor and a car rental. But no police cars, let alone helicopters.

We all have dialogues going on inside our heads, (in Scottish accents or not) and I happen to imagine famous people in the dialogue. I especially like talking to Oprah. Oprah is my internal guru. I talk to her regularly, in the shower or blow-drying my hair, or driving. And I imagine her responses. They are always thoughtful and meaningful, not shallow and contrived, or manipulative -in order to elicit the greatest emotional reaction. Oprah seems to want the truth told. I’ve watched her. She expects sincerity and does not brook duplicity. In our talks she usually just asks me leading questions and I find myself thinking more clearly as I formulate an answer. I learn to be succinct; I become more coherent; my comments become eloquent. I know that if Oprah believes me (even my imaginary companion Oprah) I am believable.

Our guest today has had a tragic life. You probably will have trouble believing her, I did at first. But our initial disbelief didn’t upset or surprise her. You see, Mona didn’t believe her own life story until all the pieces began to fall into place. Over the past two years, members of her family have reached out to break their silence and own their part in this complex and twisted tale of moral bankruptcy, collusion, rape, abuse and deception. The story she tells will shock you, disturb you, perhaps even shake your faith in the Catholic Church, but Mona is adamant that she does not want to hurt people’s faith in God. Indeed Mona claims that if it weren’t for an ongoing sense of God’s presence in her life she might have given up on herself long ago. So please give a warm Oprah welcome to…

Ah, Oprah! Maybe one day we will actually meet. But if not, thanks for listening and helping me work through stuff. Thanks for being my internal guru, my imaginary friend.