One Saturday afternoon in 1969 when I was 12, I sat waiting to go to confession in a quiet pew showered in the prismatic light emanating from the stained-glass windows of All Saints Church in Northeast Portland. As usual, there were about seven people ahead of me. All waited patiently, silently reflecting upon their transgressions, so I assumed.

As I attempted to recall my own recent collection of wrongdoings, I came up empty. I wasn’t about to guess at them or conjure something comparable. Perhaps I should have written the sins down as they happened, I thought to myself. I knew there were all sorts of sins I had committed over the years, sins long forgotten and thus unforgiven. But there was neither pen nor paper available when I needed them.

Then I had an idea.

When my turn came up seven sinners later, I entered the dark confessional, knelt, and waited for the screen to open before reciting my act of contrition. In those days, I never knew which priest I was getting. There was no indication, no shingle on the confessional door. It was a mystery until that screen slid open and I could identify the voice in the shadow.

Father Pio Ridi, with his pronounced Italian accent, was the easiest priest to identify. I started out with him at my first confession when I was 7. The good priest made it easy for me. He would instruct me as we went along, indicating, “That’s a sin but that’s a’ not a’ real bad,” or, “Now that one’s a’ bad, so don’t do it again,” or, “What else you got?” Sometimes I would get Father Wong whose voice was also easy to identify, who would respond to each sin with, “That’s bad, very bad.” I knew what he meant. I mean, I think I did.

So, who was I getting that Saturday afternoon of my 12th year? The screen slid open. There was the dim light and then the voice. He cleared his throat and spoke. I could detect the gruff voice of Father Thomas Tobin, the open-minded pastor. Given this, I decided to present him with my plan.

After confessing the few sins I could recollect, I briefly explained my sin dilemma. I asked him if it were possible that I be forgiven for everything in my 12 years of life at that time, going back to when I was a baby. That way, I could resolve all those long forgotten, unforgiven sins that I couldn’t remember, all those sins that were still popping up like weeds from time to time, with no pen and paper available to record them.

Father Tobin seemed to accept my proposal. From his shadow, he appeared to have been nodding his head. He finally replied, “I guess we could do that.” He then proceeded to give me a penance of 30 Hail Mary’s, 30 Our Father’s and 30 Glory Be’s.

Afterwards, I knelt in the pew outside the confessional, doing my penance, working away at reciting 30 of each prayer, marking each one down with a pencil as I went along. As I was reciting each beloved prayer, close to halfway through my penance, Father Tobin had just finished the last confession for the afternoon. As the pastor folded his purple stole, stood up and stepped out of the confessional, he looked over at me and asked, “Van der Hout, how you doing over there?” Before I could reply, he smiled, waved, and walked away.

Van der Hout, a graduate of All Saints School, attends St. Pius X Parish and Mount Angel Abbey.