I may be biased, but it seems to me the Golden Age of Catholic education was post-war America. Having won the war because we were on God’s side and possessed a thermonuclear weapon, millions of returning vets and their wives entrusted their children’s education to another army, division upon division of stern, dedicated teacher-proselytizers, unsmiling and dressed to full authority in Medieval robes. Catholic nuns. I was one of the beneficiaries of the rigors of this system, spending nine years spanning two decades developing obedience to authority and intellectual certainty.
Primary to our education was the unthinking acceptance of the authorized practices and tenets of Roman Catholicism, the world’s only true faith. Following two years of preliminary training through the Baltimore Catechism, a rehearsed dialogue simulating a thoughtful conversation (Q: Who made you? A: God made me. Q: Who is God? A: God is the Creator of heaven and earth and all living things. A: Why did God make you? A: God made me to love him and to serve him in this world and to be happy with him forever in the next. And on and on and on …), my friends and I were deemed ready to take the first truly voluntary step toward salvation, the sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist.
The preliminary two years were necessary not only for learning the approved dialogue but as a kind of holding pattern until we reached the age of seven. The Catholic Church, presumably after much consideration, chose seven to be the age that children reached “the age of reason”. Not to be confused with the French Enlightenment, reaching this age of reason enabled children to grasp the full meaning of two ostensibly complex and ultimately quite simple truths.
The first, Penance, is an opportunity to cleanse one’s soul by admitting to wrongful acts done to others and seeking forgiveness. This is surely a helpful moral habit that would do all of us much good to develop. What remained unexplored for the clear-thinking seven-year olds was why they were asking forgiveness from a whispering man in a dark booth and not from the person whom they had wronged.
The second sacrament, Holy Eucharist, was the reward given to those children whose souls were cleansed through Penance. It is a chance to commune with Christ by eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Having reached the age of reason, this makes perfect sense to Catholic children. Many children, fooled by their callousness, often erroneously concluded that the wafer they were chewing might be bread since it was not unlike the crackers their mother’s served with sliced Velveeta. Perhaps it was some sort of what’s-the-word symbol. But alas, Sister Cornelia explained the simple principle of transubstantiation, that despite their appearance and taste, the children were actually consuming Christ’s flesh and blood. So as you can see, ostensibly complex but ultimately quite simple.
And so it was that in this time, 1952, I practiced Penance and received the Holy Eucharist for the first time. It was an unnerving experience for me. Not unlike my pals, I found it difficult finding the right words to describe my sins. Seven-year-olds are funny that way. Sister Cornelia suggested a few sins that we might use and most of us settled around some combination of disobedience three times and disrespect twice, enough to merit a penance of two Our Fathers and one Hail Mary at the Communion rail following release from the darkened box. The reward was powerful and nearly palpable. I had achieved the much-ballyhooed State of Grace. My soul was unstained and would remain so, perhaps for weeks, until I once again resorted to disobedience. I was a success. Practically a saint.
My second required visit to the confessional, a week later, was not as successful. Inexplicably, I found myself even more flustered than the week before. Standing in line with my pals, Carl ahead of me and George behind, I was reaching a level of hitherto inexperienced terror. Having carefully obeyed and respected my parents throughout the week, I was in a morally safe space yet I was in psychological turmoil. When Carl exited the penalty box and held the red velvet curtain back for me to enter, one of the more lasting acts of politeness we committed to habit in those days, my breath drained fully.
I entered gingerly.
Within seconds of admitting to Fr. Brennan that I was a sinner and that it had been seven days since my last confession, I felt the warm stream run down my leg. It might have been years since my last act of urinary indiscretion. I rapidly employed what I would later learn was my Sphincter muscle. It was working. But I was certain a now-tepid puddle had formed on the soft leather kneeler beneath me.
Not even hearing the details of my punishment I escaped the booth, ignoring every politeness, and assumed a kneeling position next to Carl at the communion rail. I was mortified. I didn’t bother to ask Carl what he got for penance, a ritual all us guys pledged to perform each week.
Two minutes later, George arrived and knelt to my right. I held my breath as he would have clearly been the victim of my infantile behavior. I sensed him lean toward me and I breathlessly waited for him to ask what my penance was. But it was not to be. Already snickering he asked, “Did you piss in the confessional?” I can now confess, nearly seven decades later, that I have never answered a question more swiftly. “No. I knelt in it too. It was Carl.”
And so I experienced my shortest State of Grace, in 1952. In far less than five minutes I traveled from purity to iniquity. No longer was I a pretend disobedient son. I was a genuine liar.