By David Gardiner
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"The priest should conform himself to God, whose minister he is... God does not reveal the sins which
are made known to Him in confession, but hides them. Neither, therefore, should the priest reveal them."
Summa Theologica St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
Father McDermot entered the classroom at the back and waited for Miss O’Brien to finish what she was saying and announce his presence, before walking up to the front of the class and smiling at the children.
“Good morning, Miss O’Brien. And good morning boys and girls.”
“Good morning, Father,” came the reply, in monotone chorus.
“It’s good to see you all looking so well. God bless you all. Does anybody know why I have come here this morning?” Six hands immediately reached upwards. “The boy at the back with the green jumper.”
“For our first confessions, Father.”
“That is exactly correct. To hear your first confessions. Now, can anybody tell me what is meant by the holy sacrament of confession?” Almost every hand was raised. “The little girl with the flower in her hair at the front.” She was also very obviously the only black girl in the class, but Father McDermot was careful to make no reference to that.
“It’s when God forgives your sins through a priest, Father.”
“Yes! That's a brilliant answer! Absolutely one hundred per cent correct. Most people, even adults, say that it's the priest that forgives your sins, but it isn't the priest. It's God who forgives your sins. The priest merely acts on God’s behalf, like the telephone between you and God. Very good. Miss O’Brien has done a great job here. Now, I’m going into Mr Dynan’s office in a few minutes, and each one of you is going to come and speak to me, one by one, and I’m going to hear each of your confessions, and I’m going to give you absolution and a penance. Can anybody tell me what absolution is?” The hands shot up. “Over on the right – you, young man.”
“Correct. And penance? You, the girl with the book open.”
“Not exactly. But you're very nearly right. We use the term ‘reparation’. Repairing the wrong. Making up for whatever it is that we have done. For example if you had stolen money, what do you think you might have to do to make it right?”
“Give it back, Father.”
“That’s correct. Just so. But often we can’t really make things right in that simple kind of way, so what do we do instead? No, not you again. Somebody else. The boy with the lunchbox.”
“Say prayers, Father.”
“That’s right. Talk to God. Tell him we’re sorry. Ask his blessed mother to intervene on our behalf. And now here’s a very important question. What if one of you were to tell me a secret during your confession? What if one of you were to tell me that you had just robbed the Bank of Ireland in the High Street?” Giggling broke out but soon subsided. “ Could I go to the police and turn you in? The boy at the back with the white shirt.”
“That’s right. And what if I had to go to court and give evidence under oath. Could I repeat what you had said then?” He looked at the same boy.
“And what if they were to tie me to a post and a firing squad had their rifles trained on my heart, and they told me they would shoot me if I didn’t tell them? Would it be okay to tell them then?”
“That’s right. Not even if they had me chained to the rack and they were pulling my body apart with winches, or pulling my fingernails out with pliers.” Some of the little girls began to look alarmed, but the boys, he could tell, were enjoying the image. “No children. Not even then. Does anybody know what that rule about not telling is called?”
Only one hand went up this time. The black girl with the flower in her hair.
“It’s called ‘the seal of the confessional’, Father.”
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”
“Quite right. Now, if this wasn’t your first confession, what would I ask?”
“You would ask how long it was since my last confession, Father.”
“Quite right. Very good. I was impressed by your answers in class. You’re a bright girl. Is your family from Africa?”
“Yes, Father. I was born in Sudan.”
“Really. I’ve only been to Africa once. Cape Town. Beautiful country. Wonderful people. Is your whole family Catholic?”
“No, Father. Just me and my little sister. Daddy wants us to be Catholic because he says this is the best school around here.”
“Oh. I see.” He paused. “But you do believe in Jesus, don’t you?”
“I think so, Father.”
“You only think you believe in Jesus?”
“No… I do believe in Jesus.”
“Can you explain to me why you believe?”
“Because… if you believe in Jesus… I think you don’t get cut…”
The bishop’s housekeeper opened the door and stared disapprovingly at Father McDermot’s rain-sodden figure. “I need to see His Grace. I’m sorry that I don’t have an appointment. I need to see him urgently.”
“Come in, Father. I’ll get you a towel from the bathroom.”
The bishop came out to greet him as he dabbed the rainwater from his hair. “Will you take Father McDermot’s coat, please, Mrs Finnegan. And perhaps you could bring some tea to my study. Come in, Liam.”
“Thank you, Your Grace.” He followed the elderly cleric to a small inner room. The bishop indicated a chair. “I feel terrible about bothering you like this…”
“I said when you came to the parish that my door was always open. I meant it. Relax. You’re as pale as a sheet. Would you like something a bit stronger than tea?” The priest shook his head. “All right, Liam. No hurry. Tell me what’s on your mind in your own time.”
He felt his tense, rapid breathing slow down. The bishop took his seat behind the desk, which was littered with open books and writing material. Out of the corner of his eye, Father McDermot noticed a chess board on a small table, the pieces set out in an uncompleted game. “That’s still the same game as when you were here three weeks ago,” the bishop smiled, “I think I’m in a bit of a corner. And I hate to lose to the Rabbi.”
“I… I need a bit of guidance. I haven’t slept since Friday.”
“I was told something… by a very young child… under the seal of the confessional.”
“Well, I think I know the answer, but I need to ask you anyway. Are there any circumstances whatsoever, I mean when serious human good and ill are at stake, when other considerations over-ride the seal?”
“I think you do know the answer to that, Liam.”
“Nothing? No circumstances?”
“Absolutely none. I find it easiest to think about what transpires in the confessional as a kind of dream. Another world, not connected to this one in any substantial way. What was said in the confessional wasn’t really said at all, except in a dream. We’re awake now. That world no longer exists.”
“What if the person were to repeat the same thing, but outside the confessional?”
“That would be different, of course. But you mustn’t do anything whatsoever, directly or indirectly, to encourage or bring about that repetition.”
“Then… I don’t think it’s going to happen. I think she found it incredibly hard to say it the first time. She isn’t going to say it again.”
“Then it’s out of your hands. You’re only a priest, you know. You aren’t God. It isn’t your responsibility to control people’s choices and actions. You can’t force people to be good, or brave, or honest, or even sensible. People have free will, even children. If somebody won’t or can’t say something, that’s the way it is. That’s the way God has made the world. Your duties and responsibilities are clearly defined. The rest is for almighty God to decide. There’s no need to torture yourself. Your duty in this matter is absolutely clear.”
He paused to consider the bishop’s words. “And… what would happen if I disobeyed?”
“To break the seal of the confessional would be a betrayal of the most sacred trust placed in the priesthood. If it became known to the Holy See it would mean automatic revocation of your ordination, and possible excommunication, depending on the seriousness of the offence. You'd be de-frocked. It’s that serious, I’m afraid.”
“So, the least that could happen would be that I wouldn’t be a priest any more?”
He nodded. “The least that could happen. Yes.”
Father McDermot spent the following day thinking about a life outside the priesthood. He wore ordinary clothes and took the bus into town, looked at the display boards in the local job-centre, visited a bookshop and thumbed through some books of which he knew the Catholic Church disapproved. In a large newsagent's shop he lifted down one or two risqué magazines from the top shelf, only to discover that they were shrink-wrapped and inaccessible without purchase. He went to a multi-screen cinema to see a film that carried a warning about sexual content, but could muster no interest and walked out. After a couple of hours he made his way back to the parochial house, excused himself from lunch, and sat alone in his darkened room for most of the afternoon. Then he made his way to the police station.
Father McDermot was still wearing mufti when he went back to the Bishop’s House the following evening. This time he had an appointment, the sky was clear, and it was the bishop himself who opened the door.
“Good to see you, Liam. Your colour’s a bit better today. Have you come to terms with things?”
“Yes, I think you could say that.”
“Please, come in.” He followed the Bishop into the same study. The chess board was still laid out on the side table. The bishop’s desk was as untidy as before. They took up their former seats.
“I… I have a confession to make,” the priest began. He opened and closed his hands, wiped sweaty palms on the legs of his trousers.
I’ve done… what you told me I mustn’t do. I’ve been to the police, and I’ve spoken to Social Services. This morning, three little girls were taken away from their parents, and their father was arrested. He’ll be appearing at the Magistrate’s Court on Monday. I think he’s going to be spending some time in jail. It's... that thing that they do to little girls in Sudan.”
“Will you need to give evidence?”
“I don’t think so. It’ll be mainly medical evidence. They say it’s an open and shut case. He’ll probably plead guilty.”
“And the girls?”
“It’s too late for the oldest one. The other two are going to be all right. They may never go back to the family, of course.”
The old bishop smiled. “You have broken the promise you made as a priest,” he said. “That’s a serious sin. Have you committed any other sins since your last confession?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand. What are you talking about?”
“What was the first thing you said when you walked through that door?”
“That I’d been to the police?”
“No, before that.”
“Nothing… oh, you mean, that I have a confession to make?”
“Exactly. Your penance is the Lord’s Prayer, which you shall offer for the peaceful repose of my soul. Now, if you would kindly kneel, I’ll give you absolution.”
“You mean… you aren’t going to take it any further? You aren't going to tell anybody?”
“I mean that I can’t tell anybody. Nor does anybody need to know. This is a dream, Father McDermot. We’re both going to wake up in a moment, and then I’m going to ask you if you can help me to find a way out of the Rabbi’s gambit. The Almighty is a chess player too, you know Liam. You are merely a pawn. I, on the other hand, am a bishop.”
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