Today my 7-year-old love fairy, Phoebe, received the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time. Yep, we’re Catholic. Or at least I am. And our kids are being raised Catholic, with my husband’s blessing, of course. What I’ve come to realize over my lifetime is that a lot of people find this confessional thing kind of weird. The most common thing I hear is: “Why do you need to tell a priest your sins? Why not just talk to God on your own?”
And honestly, I kinda get it. It is kinda weird. Walking into a small box of a confessional (even if it is way more mellow and comfortable and face-to-face than it EVER was when I was a kid) to have a conversation about sins can sound pretty, uh, strange.
But my standard answer has always been something along the lines of, “Well, it’s a lot harder to think about how you can improve as a human being and actually talk to someone about it, than just sit and think about it.”
I haven’t been to confession in a long time. When my daughter Claire received her first confession two years ago, all of the parents were encouraged to also confess, but I didn’t. And before that? I can honestly say I hadn’t even considered going in years. Like a lot of years. I had convinced myself that my private conversations with God were good enough, as far as me recognizing my faults and trying to improve on them.
Even this morning, after the group prayer service and the gentle encouragement saying that parents were welcome to confess after their child, and as I sat and waited for Phoebe’s turn to go into the confessional, I was not even considering going in. She was a little nervous, worried that she might forget her sins, and I was all about just telling her it was all good and it won’t be scary or bad or weird or anything. That the priest she was going to see was super nice and all was good on the confessional front.
But with Phoebe, I should have known…
“Mommy, are you going to confession? You must go to confession, too. You just have to.”
“Oh really, Phoebes? I’m not sure, Honey. There are a lot of kids waiting and, well, I can go another time.”
“No, mommy. You must go.”
With her angelic face, she was calm yet determined. Her questions were not pleas—they were barely questions, really. They were statements. Spoken with quiet conviction.
When she was getting closer to going in, she got up from the pew and stood at the wall, waiting her turn. I remained seated. She looked at me from her place in line and gestured for me to come. Not emphatic. Not desperate. Just certain. She mouthed to me:
Phoebe has been taking care of me since she was born. It’s her. Don’t know how else to say it. I remember when she was about 17 months old and we were hanging out on my bed after her evening bath. I had the paper spread open before me, and I was reading a sad article about some sick twin babies who were awaiting a transplant of some sort, a miracle, and I was getting weepy. Phoebe looked into my eyes with the tears welling up in them, and she said, “Mama’s cying?” (That’s how she said "crying." No R.) And I said, “Yes. Mama’s reading a sad article, and it’s making me cry.” And in her love fairy 17-month-old way, she said, “Love you, mama. Love you.”
I got up from the pew without thinking too much. I was just doing what Phoebe was telling me to do. As I stood behind her, she shifted in place with a nervous smile on her face as she waited for the confessional door to open. She was next. I gently rubbed her back and asked her if she was ready. She said she was. She had the sweetest look of innocence and excitement in her eyes. A new adventure.
The door opened, her classmate came out beaming and proud, and she slipped in without needing any final words of encouragement from me. She was on her way.
As I stood there waiting for her to come out, I thought, I can’t really believe I’m doing this. I wasn’t nervous. I was just feeling a little embarrassed. I knew I didn’t really have to go, that no one else would care if I went or didn’t—only Phoebe cared. I was doing it for her, I guess. I was setting an example, I thought. I’m teaching her that this is something we do as Catholics. But inside, I felt like a skeptic. A fraud. Did I believe in this? How come I haven’t gone in more years than I care to mention? I wondered if that is why I haven’t gone. Maybe I stopped believing that there was really any reason to go at all, that my life was not better or worse for having confessed or not. Maybe I had come to the conclusion that going to confession was basically irrelevant. Maybe?
As I stood there knowing I would most likely go in because Phoebe would be expecting me to go in, I wondered if I could go through the motions of confessing. Did I know what I would say? Are they even doing it the same way they used to? “Bless me, father, for I have sinned…” Is that what I should say?
I felt tears starting to well up in my eyes as I stood there. Oh, man. I did NOT want to cry. Come on! This is Phoebe’s day, not mine. I am here to support her, not just stand here and get all weepy and consumed with my own thing. Damn.
And then the door opened and she slipped out. Just as pure and innocent and near perfection as she was when she entered just a few minutes ago. I felt my legs walking toward the door and my hand reaching for the handle, and before I knew it I was face-to-face with a priest. Inside a confessional. No screen. No darkness. Just a friendly face in priestly garments.
Holy shit. Now what?
I stammered, "I haven’t been to confession in forever."
"No problem," the priest said. "We specialize in that."
"Well, what should I do? Do I say the things I used to say? How do I start?"
"Well," he said, "we covered a lot of ground in the prayer service before this, so we can just start."
"OK. Do you start or do I start?"
"I’ll just ask you," he said, "one thing." And he looked straight at me and said, “If you had to name one thing that is keeping you from having the kind of relationships you want to have with the people in your life and with God, what would that one thing be?”
And with that question, I realized exactly why I was sitting there. And of course, in me style, the tears started flowing and I apologized for being such an emotional person, but I knew exactly what that one thing was. I didn’t have to reach or dig or make up anything or bullshit him or anything.
The words just came.
When I walked out of that confessional a mere seven minutes later, I felt renewed. Yeah, I know that sounds all corny, but I did. The words I shared were deep inside me, and I knew about this thing that holds me back too often but it’s a whole different ballgame when you're sharing these words with another human being. Especially a person I didn’t know well at all—who was able to view me as just another imperfect soul trying to get a little better.
I don’t know what it is, really. Not sure why the whole experience was so freeing. So filled with that new start vibe. Is it because the priest absolved me of my sins? From those weaknesses that keep me from being the kind of person and mother I really want to be? Is it because I looked another soul in the eyes and spoke about what I feel hinders me? What was it exactly? I don’t know, but I do know I felt better. Cleansed. Free. Human.
I went over to Phoebes, who sat in the pew waiting for me. I gave her a huge hug and thanked her for making me go to confession. She looked at me with a knowing look that said, “Of course. No problem, mama.”
And that’s just the way my motherhood journey continues to go. Just when I think I am leading them, I realize they are guiding me, too. Showing me things I can’t seem to see on my own. Giving me what I need when I don’t think I need it.
After Phoebe and I were all confessed-up and soul-cleansed, we headed over to the patio of the church so Phoebe could pick up her certificate, a sugar doughnut and a wooden cross necklace that said “Forgiven” on it.