Saturday, March 17, 2012

Surviving Catholic School

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.
St. Leo's had African American Catholic kids, Mexican American Catholic kids and Anglo American Catholic kids all united in wondering if God could create something so big and heavy that even He couldn't lift it.  Needless to say, the nuns had their hands full as our teachers.  In your early years at parochial school, you have to make your First Confession before you make your First Communion.  That's part of the Catholic ritual.  After you've memorized pages from the Baltimore Cathechism with rules and prayers and the 10 Commandments, you are then prepared for another Catholic experience.  You will enter a mysterious booth in church, kneel down, wait for a little panel to be slid back -- as if you're trying to enter a holy speakeasy -- and you will tell the priest in the next booth all the sins you've committed even though you're under 10 years of age.  Unless your Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed, the priest is not going to hear that you broke Commandment #5: Thou shalt not kill.  He will hear many slight detours from Commandment #4:  Honor thy father and thy mother.  That comes about in admissions like "I didn't do my chores when my mom told me to."  After you've been introduced to guilt and shame, after you've been absolved and said your prayers of penance, then your soul is clean as a whistle. When your little soul is purified, then you can make your First Communion.  I was now an official Catholic.  I'd made my First Communion.  I was in Catholic school.  I wore the same uniform to school five days a week as I gave my classroom attention to the nuns at St. Leo's.  Heck, they were in uniform too.
Going to mass every week during school hours was also part of our ritual.  We often saw Fr. O'Donnell serve mass.  He was present at our First Communion.  Sister Mary Magdalene was my favorite nun at St. Leo's.  Remember sweater-clad Thelma Ritter as Birdie Coonan in the movie All About Eve?
Put that down-to-earth dame in a nun's habit and you had Sister Mary Magdalene.  Months after I'd made my First Communion, my elementary school curiosity got the best of me.  With Fr. O'Donnell, you knew how bad your sin was by the amount of penance prayers he gave you.  Anything over 1 Our Father and 10 Hail Marys was really bad.  One kid in our class told us at recess that he accidentally ate a hot dog on a Friday and confessed that to Fr. O'Donnell.  He he had to say 1 Our Father and 15 Hail Marys.  That gave us an idea of how strict Catholic rules and regulations were.  Murder, we knew, would put your immortal soul on the express train to Hell.  So would seeing any movie based on the dramatic work of Tennessee Williams or the Billy Wilder comedy Kiss Me, Stupid. That was according to the Catholic newspaper, The Tidings.  But what about those in between sins?  How bad were they?  Especially those sins that had words I didn't understand?  I didn't so much need to know what they were.  I needed to know what kind of penance you'd be assigned to perform from Fr. O'Donnell.  That would let me know how bad the sin was.  Plus, there was a Commandment that I totally did not understand.

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."

Father:   "What?!?!"

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.

1 comment:

  1. I really like your writing style. Such a nice Post, Can’t wait for the next one.
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