Confession and Embarrassment

shutterstock_60412597When people ask me, or indeed anybody else, “Why did you join the Church of Rome?” the first essential answer, if it is partly an elliptical answer, is, “To get rid of my sins” (G.K. Chesterton).

Cecilia was working on something for school. “Papa,” she asked, “what was your most embarrassing moment?”

What, I have to choose just one?

Let’s see, there’s the time I lost my passport in England while traveling with a group from my high school. I had hid it so well in my Brighton hotel room that I couldn’t locate it by the time we were leaving for London. While all my friends toured Buckingham Palace, I was navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth of the U.S. Embassy in order to procure replacement credentials.

And speaking of high school, how about the time my friend Johnny and I were co-emcees for a musical variety show. We had worked up some clever patter and repartee, and the first two performances went off without a hitch. For the third and final performance, we got a bit cocky and decided to change up some of the jokes — you know, for our fans who were coming to see us for a third straight night.

Yup. Great idea — except, under the lights and before that packed auditorium, I completely blanked on the new punchlines. Gone, *poof*, nada. Later, after my complete implosion and frozen silence onstage, the show’s director chided us: Don’t. Make. Last. Minute. Changes — as if he needed to tell us that.

The episode I finally settled on for Cecilia’s school assignment, however, was one she already knew well — a story that will be passed on as a part of Becker family lore for generations to come. It concerns a job interview — no, actually, it wasn’t even the interview. It was my initial encounter with the person who would conduct the interview.

I had just started nursing school, and I decided to get some experience in a healthcare environment, so I applied for a job in a nursing home. I was terribly nervous about this first foray into the healthcare arena, and when the HR director appeared to usher me into her office, I fumbled: “Hi, I’m Jennifer,” said I, hand outstretched. “You must be Rick.”

And these, of course, are just the ones I can remember — or at least they’re the ones I’m willing to relate. The funny thing is that my first confession didn’t occur to me at all. You’d think that would’ve been plenty embarrassing, seeing as how it included a couple decades’ worth of screw-ups and sin.

It was Holy Saturday. I took the ‘L’ to the Loop and walked a few blocks west on Madison to St. Peter’s. Served by Franciscans, St. Peter’s is one of Chicago’s penitential hotspots, with confessionals manned seemingly around the clock, from dawn to dusk.

For this first confession prior to my reception in the Church at the Easter Vigil, I’d made an appointment with Fr. Robert, the pastor at the time. St. Peter’s in the Loop is a mighty busy place, and no doubt Fr. Robert was an extremely busy man, but he put me at ease and made me feel like he didn’t have anything else to do but hear the first confession of a twenty-something convert.

Was I anxious? Sure. Unsettled? Definitely. But embarrassed? Oddly, no. In fact, far from it — more like: Relieved; unburdened; free. Father heard me out, gave me some words of encouragement, and then asked me if I knew my Act of Contrition. Know it? I’d only been practicing it daily for weeks.

And then he put his hand on my head and gave me absolution. Perhaps you’ve had this feeling before, but I felt a physical weight lift from my shoulders that day — a real, physical weight. I’ll never forget it

Yesterday, my second-grader made her first confession. I watched Kath waiting in the long line for Monsignor, our (her) beloved pastor. As she stood there, no signs of shame — as she went in, no hesitancy. And when she came out a few minutes later? No blush, no embarrassment, no drooped head, eyes cast down. Her head was up and she was looking around, a smirk transfixed where you’d perhaps expect a frown.

I’ve seen that smirk before — the same smirk that all seven-year-olds seem to display after receiving the Sacrament of Penance for the first time. Do they practice that smirk in school and CCD?

Regardless, it’s a sign that something went right. No embarrassment. Instead, simple grace. And satisfaction.

What a relief.

image: Shutterstock

Richard Becker


Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing on his blog, God-Haunted Lunatic, and his Facebook page.

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  • Declan Kennedy

    Lovely story, but as an “Irish Catholic” may/can (Irish people have difficulty with the grammatical use of those terms) I recommend Frank O’Connor’s story of “The First Confession”? It really tells of the hilarity and horror of those of us “cradle Catholics” brought up in those days.

    On a further note. Moving to England in my youth, I came across to contradictory attitudes to confession from non-Catholics. On the one hand Catholics were supposed to be obsessed with sin and were so guilt ridden that they had to go to Confession to get purged, on the other had Catholics were mad sinners who did whatever they wanted, went to confession and then started doing all the sins until the next Confession.

    Finally, I’m delighted that your daughter came out smiling. My feeling always, since I started going back a fair few years hiatus.

  • JMC

    Good grief, I remember that smirk from my own first confession. For me, at least, I was struggling not to display a bright smile. Face it, at seven you just barely have the concept of right and wrong down, and there’s nothing embarrassing about telling somebody what you’ve done wrong, but all the grown-ups around you are acting like penitence is something serious, and you get the impression you’re not *supposed* to smile about it. My own feeling coming out of that confessional was simply one of looking forward to the First Communion for which this was the final step of preparation. The feeling of unburdening, of that physical weight being lifted from my shoulders, didn’t come until many years later. Thinking of that feeling of relief after confession makes me realize Christ’s infinite wisdom in giving us this Sacrament. Look at all the people who don’t have recourse through this most merciful of Sacraments. Though repentant of some grave evil such people may have done, they never lose the guilt, which shapes their entire outlook on life ever afterward. Due to the natural law which God inscribed on our hearts from the beginning, our sins, whether one believes them to be sins in the theological sense or not, take a psychological toll. While it’s good to know that we can always simply make a perfect Act of Contrition, if actual confession is impossible, and know that our sins are forgiven, the ability actually to *tell* those sins to someone whom you know will not, under any circumstances, however dire, reveal them to anyone, is indescribably comforting.

  • pnyikos

    I twinge every time I recall embarrassments like the one Rick relates. I sometimes wonder whether the majority of people living today would be more glad to hear “Your social blunders are forgiven you” than to hear “Your sins are forgiven you.”