Some years ago my twin sons were preparing for their First Confession. They were almighty trepidacious about this, though they very much liked and trusted our pastor, a wonderful gentle witty man who loved kids and did everything he could at all times to make them feel welcome and comfortable in church and parish life, from epic mounds of doughnuts for them at all times to having his huge shaggy dog waiting eagerly for them on the church steps after Mass.
But even so my sons were nervous about this whole sin and confession thing, and it turned out the other First Confessionists were also worried, and one day my sons asked me if I would conduct a rehearsal, a practice, a run-through, informal, no sacrament in sight, for them and their companions. I was honored to be asked, to be so trusted by children. I checked with our pastor, who said sure, no worries, just be reverent, so we had a rehearsal one morning, instead of my usual CCD class.
We walked through the usual procedures, the opening remarks, the whole kneeling thing (this was a while ago, before penitent and confessor both sat comfortably in armchairs), the shape and sting of real sins rather than pro forma utterances like I dishonored my parents, and then they asked if they could practice privately, one by one. I said sure, but not in the confessional, so I sat in the last pew and they came and sat down, one by one, shyly, gravely, and whispered the things that they thought were actual sins, and I sat there so moved I wanted to weep, and answered, to each, This is when Father John will talk to you about humility and forgiveness and sacrament, you listen real sharp and then say thanks, okay? And he will tell you when you’re done.
Even now, years later, I remember what they whispered. I punched my little brother in the back of the brain and didn’t say anything when my dad yelled at my older brother for it. I poured salt on a slug and watched it die and I feel awful. I laughed with everyone else when a kid peed his pants in the playground and he cried and the teacher came to get him and i feel bad that i laughed, was it a sin to laugh? Was it? I yelled at the dog when he got mud all over me and she hid under the bed and I think being mean was a sin, is that a sin? I was angry at my mom and I told her all the other mons had better clothes and better cars and she was crying when she went to do the laundry I know she was because I could hear her in the laundry chute, was that a sin, what I said, was it?
They were so honest and open and unadorned and not defensive and quietly haunted by what they dimly but truly knew to be small failures of honesty and mercy that I wanted to cup their faces in my hands and kiss their foreheads and hug them with all my might for their grace and character, but I didn’t do those things. Instead I told each and every one of them that yes, the things they were saying were actually sins, small though they be compared to the terrible betrayals and savageries that adult sinners like me were all too capable of, and I told them that I was absolutely sure that Father John would be gentle and honest and probably even warm and funny when their actual First Confession came to pass, and then it was time for doughnuts, and I sent them flying sugarward, but I tell you I sat in that last pew for many minutes afterward, thinking how miraculous children are, and how they are everything we mean by the words holy and innocent and divine. Then my sons came to claim me, their hands dusted with cinnamon and chocolate sprinkles, and we went home.
Brian Doyle sent us a batch of columns before he was diagnosed with brain cancer last fall. He died May 27.