by Fr. Joe Uecker, C.PP.S.
In this article, I’d like to share my view of where we have been with regard to the sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession), and next month, I’ll share where I think we are today.
It was Saturday evening, April 30, 1949, and as we often did, our family celebrated life with popcorn. But something different happened that evening. Instead of washing the dishes used to make and serve the popcorn, they were left until the morning.
Already at age 7, I was a salt-a-holic. So early Sunday morning, May 1, I got up bright and early because it was my big day, my First Communion at Precious Blood Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana. So, after washing up and all the things that seven-year-olds did in those days, I went out to the kitchen—but not for breakfast, because in those days a person neither ate nor drank anything from midnight on before receiving Holy Communion. But there it was: the pan that held the popcorn. Without thinking, I put my finger into the pan, went around the pan to collect salt and put it in my mouth. Was that ever good! And almost immediately it hit me: You broke your fast! You can’t make your First Communion!
Then the seven-year-old mind went to work. I had been taught that fast breaking was a mortal sin, but how could it be so wrong to eat a few grains of salt? So what to do? The punch line is that when I made my First Communion, I felt I was on the interstate highway leading straight to hell. The logic was impeccable. The law says no eating or drinking: you ate, you committed a mortal sin, case closed. It took many years for me to realize a seven-year-old was incapable of mortal sin, especially since the fasting had been reduced by that time to one hour.
That was the second bad experience I had within a couple weeks. The first was the day of my First Confession. At Precious Blood, the confessionals had curtains on both sides and the priest sat in the middle. The curtains hid the penitent from anyone close by. I had seen David T. go into the confessional and, of course, we had been dutifully instructed to never break into anyone’s confession: another mortal sin. Sister had not seen David go into the confessional. Since I was next in line, she told me to go in. I refused because David was already there. Sister insisted, so I pulled back the curtain and sure enough, there was David. My first mortal sin at age seven.
The very fact that I remember those two events sixty-five years later indicates the depth of the spiritual trauma I endured at age seven. The good side of all this is that as a confessor, I always do my best to be aware of the feelings of every penitent, so that nothing similar to my experience ever happens to anyone else.
Sometimes I wonder if much has changed in sixty-five years, if the burden of guilt continues to be laid on the backs of the people. People continue to confess having missed Mass while they were sick “because I feel better having confessed it,” as if God is the old ogre just waiting to zap somebody and send them to hell.
One example I often use in preaching is taken from baseball. You’re on first base. The pitcher keeps his eye on you lest you lead off too far. Every so often he tries to pick you off first. But then the batter after you gets a hit. You round second and head for third with your eye on the third-base coach. The signal he gives with his arm sends you on home to score. Now the question is: Do you look at God more as the pitcher whose aim is to pick you off first or do you look at God as the third-base coach whose greatest desire is for you to score?
I wonder how many people see God more as the opposing pitcher wanting to pick us off than the third-base coach who wants us to score.
As I write this, I’m supposed to go to Ft. Stockton this afternoon for confessions and Masses. It’s icy, although it may melt a bit by afternoon. I haven’t seen my car through the ice and snow since Tuesday. (Yes, I missed Mass on January 1, a holy day!) If I don’t go today, how many people will confess that they missed Mass because Father didn’t come?