It's St. Patrick's Day. This morning, I thought about my moment of sheer panic when I confessed a sin I didn't commit to our Irish priest, Father O'Donnell. Because of the way it's come to be portrayed on film and on TV news, folks don't think of South Central Los Angeles in the 1960s as being racially diverse. But, in many ways, it was. I was a gradeschooler at St. Leo's Catholic School on Imperial Highway. The building doesn't exist anymore. To make room for a freeway, it was demolished. St. Leo's was the first of the four parochial schools I've attended in my time and the first one with an Irish priest. Father O'Donnell was older and sounded just like actor Barry Fitzgerald as the aging priest in the Best Picture Oscar-winning 1944 film, Going My Way.
Fridays were Confession Days at school. In the afternoon, Sister guided the class, walking in a straight single file line, across the street to St. Leo's Church. We youngsters went to confession so we'd be in good spiritual shape to receive communion during Sunday mass. There we were in the pews, under the watchful eye of Sister Mary Magdalene. I had a plan. I'd not taken out the trash one day when Dad told me to. That was one of my sins. I didn't honor him. I told a lie. Mom told me no snacking before dinner. I had a candybar. When she asked me if I'd snacked, I said "No." And I hit my little sister too hard when were playing outside and made her cry. I'd confess those -- and then confess something I didn't commit to see what kind of penance it would get from Fr. O'Donnell.
I was in the dimly lit booth, on my knees. The panel slid back and, through the screen, I could see and hear Fr. O'Donnell. I confessed the minor sins. I waited for his usual question to come with that Irish brogue. And it did.
Father: "Is there anything else you'd like to confess, my child?"
Me: "Yes, Father. I coveted my neighbor's wife."
The panel slammed shut. My heart was pounding so hard through my parochial school regulation shirt that it sounded in my head like a gong. My confessional door whipped open. Fr. O'Donnell seemed the size of a sequoia as he glared over the tops of his eyeglasses at me exactly the same way Barry Fitzgerald glared at Bing Crosby in Going My Way. Then he ordered "Robert Rivers, come out here right now. Right now." I was too scared to get tears in my eyes. He took me by the hand and marched me down the aisle to Sister Mary Magdalene. She was kneeling and in prayer but looked up with a concerned expression when she saw Father headed towards her with me by the hand. He leaned over and whispered in her ear. She also replied "What?!?!" Then Sister closed her eyes and put her face in her hands. I remember seeing her shoulders going up and down real fast. Was she going to punish me? Fr. O'Donnell turned and headed back into the confessional. She looked at me. I knew that look. It was the Mom look. But I was getting it from Sister Mary Magdalene. She told me to kneel next to her and say my prayers. I was still scared. Should I tell that I really didn't covet my neighbor's wife? Then I noticed she looked as if she was trying not to giggle. In that one moment, I wasn't scared anymore. I was relieved. Especially when she gently said, "Just...say your prayers."
I never again confessed that sin. And, if you know me well, you know that I never will. Somewhere, somehow Father O'Donnell and Sister Mary Magdalene would be very very pleased, I'm sure. Happy St. Patrick's Day.