At 7 years old what do you know about life? I would argue nothing of real importance but, in Catholic terms, you’ve completed your 7-year journey and come to a place of reason where you understand what it is to be a true sinner. Along with this newly acquired status, you’re given a superpower enabling you to discern good from evil. Two sacraments were provided to aid you in your battle against the kryptonite of sin, confession and first communion. Doling out this important information was the Sisters of Mercy. The nuns had two sets of kids to instruct in matters of faith; middle-class children who needed little to no help with their doctrine, and children from a working-class background who knew little to nothing about faith. Middle-class parents were pillars of the church and, therefore respected by the sisters as good people.
Then, there was us, the scrappy ragamuffins from impoverished circumstances. When it came to our socioeconomic status, we were on the bottom rung. Our dwelling place, Springtown Camp, was formerly a military installation. Its wooden huts had not been built to accommodate families but when they were abandoned by the military Catholic families with nowhere else to go commandeered them. Even if we didn’t feel that we were the lowest of the low, our birth certificates quite clearly stated that we were from the lower liberties. It was obvious to the sisters that we were going to need a lot of help understanding. The Mercy sisters, astutely aware of our differing social situations, used their gift of discernment to make distinctions between the affluent, well-read students, and the snotty urchins of the slums.
To prepare us for the great day when we would become full-blown sinners, we had to practice making a good first confession, and communion. To facilitate this event, we were marched down to the local church and seated outside the confessional. I remember that the chapel was poorly lit. The red votive light in front of the Tabernacle was there to remind us that Jesus was in the house. The saviour noticed everything you did or said. Sister Catherine, taking on the role of the priest, occupied the little box between two confessionals. Once inside, we were instructed to enter one at a time reciting the line ‘Bless me Father, this is my first confession.’
As we sat there. There was a lot of restless fidgeting on my part. What was I to say? What great sin had I committed that was worth telling? This time of waiting was our opportunity to recollect our sins but for me, it simply led to greater confusion. At 7, I hadn’t murdered anyone, at least not in real life. I hadn’t coveted anyone’s wife, or husband. The gay in me was dormant biding its time. And when it came to stealing, I was a little confused. Where I was from some stealing was seen as virtuous. Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor, was that a sin too? My head was reeling over the ramifications of the legalities of the commandments and the spirit of the law. It seems at 7, you also have an innate desire to find loopholes that will absolve you of possible criminal activity. So, when it came to my turn to confess I had successfully cornered myself between good and bad intentions. Such moral quandaries are burdensome to a young mind determined to shake off the stigma of sin.
I got up from my seat, tripped over the end of the pew and still managed to regain my dignity. Kneeling in the dark little room, I joined my hands in prayer. A crucified Christ hanging over the confessional grill reminded me that there was no escaping the fact that I was guilty no matter how innocent I felt I was. The messiah suffered because I was a sinner and, if I repented of my sin his suffering gave me access to the forgiveness I needed. Any loopholes I’d hoped to exploit had begun to wear thin. I didn’t have to work very hard on appearing contrite. When the grill opened, my heart began racing. My confession was proving to be a greater ordeal than I had anticipated. I couldn’t see the sister but I could hear the sound of her breathing. Putting aside all the arguments for the prosecution and my defense, I ran through a well-rehearsed script of sins. As I waited for my penance, I could hear the sister sniggering. Stifling her laughter, she absolved my sins and awarded me a generous penance. Happy with my performance, I exited the confessional to the sound of laughter and fingers pointing in my direction.
Confused and embarrassed I took my seat behind those still waiting to confess. Now that the hard bit was over, I was about to engage in my penance when Sister Catherine came out of the confessional. Everyone watched as she approached me. The red votive light flickered. I wasn’t quite sure what that was supposed to mean. Was it an omen of doom? Was Jesus not pleased with my confession? Had I over-dramatized my absolute disdain for those sins that had put my soul in mortal danger? Looking down at me, Sister Catherine called my name. Raising my blushing red face towards her, I saw her smiling.
Terry, you need to remember to lower your voice when you’re in the confessional. You might not be able to see the priest but that doesn’t mean that you have to shout. The sound of children laughing reinforced her point. Everyone can hear you when you shout so loudly. It’s a time when you need to whisper not shout. Remember, your confession is between the priest and God, and neither is deaf.
My absolution didn’t include protection from social ridicule but then this wasn’t the first time Sister Catherine had exposed me as a fool. On the occasion when she asked me to recite the prayer Glory be to the Father, I looked at her blankly. I’d had no recollection whatsoever of this prayer. And my ignorance became glaringly obvious when I simply followed her lead and repeated what she had said, Glory be to the Father. No one, especially my parents, had ever taught me this prayer. My lack of knowledge was swiftly rewarded with a slap of the ruler to the legs and my classmates’ sniggers. So, here I was again standing on the familiar ground of looking foolish. The votive’s flickering was more pronounced than ever. It seems that Jesus was in on the ridicule too.
The whole charade turned out to be for nothing since I was unable to make my first communion that year. As it happened, I, along with three of my siblings, fell foul of the dreaded disease of Tuberculosis. We lived in cramped conditions, sharing a three-bedroom hut with my grandparents and aunts, so it was only a matter of time before any of us got smitten with whatever was going around. My aunt had communicated the disease to us, and as a result, we were isolated to a special hospital. My older brother, Sean, who was 11 and I were admitted to the adult male ward. My older sister, Helen, went to the women’s ward, and my younger brother, Harry, was assigned a place in the children’s ward.
Looking back at it now, it seems absurd to consider children aged 11 and 7 as adult males. However, if the church considered me to be of an age to mortally sin, then why shouldn’t the state consider me an adult? It didn’t take long before Sean and I realized that this hospital was not like any regular healthcare facility. For one thing, the majority of patients were older men; men suffering from serious bronchial problems. To make matters worse, some of these men were smokers, and often they would smoke while connected to their oxygen tanks. Some of them were at the end of their lives, and we became accustomed to seeing them shuffle off their mortal coils.
When it came to treating us, I was completely unprepared for the first test we were subjected to. Sean and I were taken into a very sterile room. The nurse took out of her pocket a half packet of Rollos and offered us a deal. If we didn’t cough or fight during the test, we’d get the chocolates to eat. It was a strange sort of bargain but our eyes were fixed on the prize. I watched as they began to feed a rubber tube down Sean’s nose. The whole thing looked surreal. During the procedure, Sean tried to stifle a little cough. I could tell the thought of eating Rollos was kept his reactions in check. Having fed the tube down his oesophagus and into his stomach, they extracted a sample. I was in awe of Sean’s bravery. If he could do it, then I should be able to do it too.
I got into the chair, trying only to think of chocolate, but when they started to put the tube into my nose, I was immediately uncomfortable. Holding me down they tried to push the hose beyond my gag reflex but I was for having none of it. I shouted and fought like a wild thing until they gave up. As we were being led back to the ward, Sean, being a good sport, shared his Rollos with me. It did seem a little unfair that he’d endured all the suffering while I reaped the benefit of his reward. But if I’d thought my protest had won me a reprieve, I was sadly mistaken. During the night, I was woken up and held down. They had drugged me so that I was unable to fight them off.
Sister Catherine concluded our practice run with a wafer that had not been transubstantiated. Put simply, it was a wafer that had not been changed into the body of Jesus Christ. However, the lack of the miraculous didn’t mean we should treat the wafer any less than it would become. Don’t bite the wafer. If it sticks to the roof of your mouth, use your tongue to free it so that you consume all of it whole. Swallowing the body of Christ proved to be as difficult as trying to swallow down a rubber hose. Christ came to pieces in my mouth but at least he was spared being ignominy of being gnashed to bits. After the medical staff had left me alone in my bed, I began to wonder what would happen if that test happened after making my first communion. Would they find a masticated Christ among the pieces of Rollo?