The church pews at St. Didacus were half-filled with parents and with seven and eight-year-olds who waited as three priests sat at the front and took confessions. The church now calls it reconciliation. But it’s first confession.

St. Didacus Church in San Diego

My daughter waited her turn as the little kids spoke softly to the priests who leaned forward to hear them confess. To what they confessed, I don’t know. How many sins can a seven-year-old kid possibly admit to? The church played some background music so we couldn’t hear what was being said. The view of the ritual was powerful.

I had my Catholic confirmation within the past year, and I did confess once. I wasn’t able to make it to the appointment that had been set for RCIA students to do their confessions. I mentioned this to Father Mike, expecting we’d make another appointment, and he said, “Well, can we do it now?”

I said OK but I wasn’t prepared and I didn’t know what to tell him. Was I supposed to scour my life and remember things I’d done to hurt people that I was ashamed of? I wish I had, because my confession was a vague, stumbling admission of not being sufficiently generous to my fellow humans… or something like that.

Being a journalist, I imagined the priest was expecting he would get SOME decent news. Instead, I sent him a boring press release. After more than 50 years on earth, he must have wondered, can’t you come up with a better sin than that?

Shame and admission of guilt are rare things in our public life, and I blame the legal system. Admit you did something to harm someone, and you’ll just get sued. God forbid you should do it when actually accused of a crime.

But I remember once covering the courts as a reporter when I heard a young man at a sentencing hearing admit that he had murdered someone. He earlier confessed to police. At the end of his statement in court, he choked on his words and told the judge he was so sorry. Today, 20 years later, the memory still brings tears to my eyes.

In the Clint Eastwood movie “El Camino” a veteran of the Korean War (played by Eastwood) sees his death coming and, out of respect for his late wife, goes to confession in the church. But what he tells the priest is not much. He saves his real confession for a Laotian neighbor kid he has befriended, telling him of the things he did during the war.

Here’s a joke:

Two kids, one Catholic and one Jewish, are arguing. The Catholic kid says, “Our priest knows a lot more than your rabbi!” The Jewish kid says, “Of course he does. You tell him everything.”

Most real American Catholics don’t go to confession. They may go to church but they think confession is a quaint custom, which they had to do once when being confirmed but they won’t do it again. So maybe the priest doesn’t really know THAT much.

But keeping secret a shame that we are able to admit to ourselves can make a hard life. Confession, and reconciliation, will happen somehow.

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