It was the Our Fathers that usually elicited gasps.
Growing up Catholic and attending 12 years of Catholic school provides one with a host of memories. I think of them now in sensory fashion.
The smell of wet wool skirts in the winter when snow fluttered down to dampen my plaid jumper during recess. The pungent aroma of incense inside a dimly lit church, priest in cassock walking the aisles, swinging the censer as he walked.
Eyes adjusting to the dimly lit church, focused on the candles burning at the altar. Feeling the stare of the ever vigilant Sister Maurice or Sister Mary Thomas burning a hole in the back of my head as they looked for heathens who might dare to whisper in God’s house.
Hearing the slam of the kneelers in sharp contrast to the silence of the sacristy, as the boys purposely let them fall. Knowing they would pay for that later with a pull of the ear or detention when the nuns could get hold of them. Listening to the soft organ music played before Mass, before Ms. Hurley would really ratchet it up during the service. Mid-Mass, the sounds coming out of the organ pipes were likely so loud I wanted to cover my ears. I always wondered if she was trying to show us what hellfire would sound like, should we decide to stray that far afield.
Feeling the kick against the sole of my feet, trying to knock me off balance as I knelt. Knowing only the usual troublemakers, Dean or Brian, were bold enough to try that move under the watchful gaze of Sisters You Know Who.
You with me on this one? Good. We’ve set the scene.
Catholics have cornered the market on guilt. At least during my grade school years we had. We did not just sit in church for Masses. We confessed. A lot. I still wonder why the powers that be thought young children should have to confess that often. I used to make things up to confess because I didn’t have enough to say. Which is ironic because in the very act of being purged from my sins, I was sinning by lying. Which gave me something to confess the next time. Oy.
We would enter the private confessional box, softly confess our sins and be given an individual penance—usually prayers—to complete. Your penance was supposed to be kept private. We were savvy little sleuths, however. You could easily gauge by either the movement of lips or the length of time spent on the kneeler after confession the penance someone had been given. Three minutes or so was acceptable. Any less meant you had not been forthright. Any more? Your soul was truly besmirched.
Our penance was usually a mix of Our Fathers, Hail Marys and the Glory Be. I often wondered why, when I was mean to my sister, a Hail Mary would fix things. I didn’t mind the penance because saying a couple Hail Marys certainly was easier than having to treat her well.
At our parish, Hail Marys and Glory Bes flew fast and furious. They covered your usual petty crimes of conscience—mistreating a sibling, losing focus during Mass.
But see someone silently mouthing an Our Father after confession and you knew they had gone far beyond petty crimes of conscience into the heavy stuff.
An Our Father meant you had—gasp—talked back to your parents or cheated. And you were pushing the venial sin limit, feeling the hot fires of hell looming closer and closer. Usually not just one, but several Our Fathers were required to speed your soul back to safe territory.
Which is why the Our Father elicited gasps from your classmates. Except when Dean or Brian said it; Our Fathers were du jour for them. They knelt for a longer time after confession than it takes most people to eat breakfast. We were used to it.
As a girl who read every saint biography in our parochial school’s library by grade two, I did not have to say many Our Fathers. I knew the rules of the road. I was aiming for sainthood by age 20 and too many Our Fathers would doom me.
Alas, I fell short of my sainthood by 20 goal. And the life I have lived, while not dooming to eternal hellfire, qualifies me as no saint.
“Our Father . . . “