“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned … It’s a big one. Abortion.” Why one woman went back to her childhood CHURCH, 25 years later, to make an emotional and powerful confession.
Ihave a confession to make. Actually, I had a confession to make. Bu- t it’s taken me a quar ter of a century to get on my knees in front of a priest at my local Roman Catholic church.
You s-ee, I had an abortion, actual ly, two. One as a university student, a second in my late 20s.
I’ ve thought about confession many, many times. Even more so now that my mom, who would rather die than face my mortal sins, has, in fact, been dead seven years.
I- have, yes, felt guilt about com m- itting what the religion my moth er practised so faithfully considers m- urder — worthy of excommunication and eternal damnation. It’s the shadow that follows me. And it m- anifests in so many ways: perfectionism, hyper- criticism, bouts of low self-esteem.
I- have wrestled equally with ad mitting my sins. There may be no p-lace in heaven for me, without con fession. But how could I be viewed a good person here on Earth if I share them?
I fear being judged; I’m equally tired of judging myself.
Bu- t this fall, Pope Francis an nounced the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. He decreed that, starting this week until Nov. 20, 2016, all p- riests would have the power to ab solve penitents of the sin of abortion.
And so I returned to church. The same church — my church — where I- spent virtually every Sunday mor ning until I left home for university.
The tiny light above the door of the confessional is red. Occupied. So I- sit in one of the chairs lined up out side.
I have not rehearsed what I will s-ay. I know how to start, those open ing words drilled into my brain over 14 years of Catholic school, where we used to make confession in the gym, a priest and a kneeler in each corner.
But I’m too nervous to plan any more. Instead, I make small talk with the woman who insists on sitting right beside me, her large husband pressed beside her and she is pressed into me. This way I can’t flee before the light changes to green, and it’s my turn.
Then the light does change, and I begin.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, it has been 25 years since my last confession … ”
“- Whoa, whoa, whoa,” the priest interrupts me softly. “It’s a big one,” I say. And, before I lose my nerve, I blurt out just one word: “Abortion.”
There is a huge inhalation of b-reath on the other side of the kneel er blocking my view of him.
I have shocked him. The reaction I had feared. My tears start to flow and I’m sorry I’ve put my gum into the tissue I brought.
“I know in September the Pope decreed that the church will forgive abortions next week. I don’t know if I’ve come too early,” I stutter. “Or too late.”
The priest pushes a box of Kleenex around over to my side. “No, no, no,” he says. I tell him the story.
I was in university. My father, who h- ad no more than a Grade 3 educa tion, didn’t see much point in that — surely I’d end up a secretary. He certainly hadn’t saved any money for my schooling. Bu-t I crammed cours e- s and managed to work my last se mester of high school.
I was in the middle of being the first person in my family to get a post- secondary education, and the first woman to prove I was worthy, when I fell in love. I got pregnant.
I had already hoped that we would marry — maybe not so soon but how else were we to handle this terribly unexpected event? The boy did not even offer.
His parents, I knew, had also got pregnant in their final year at the same university. They had married. And they seemed happy enough to me. But the boy told me they were not. They would have lived different lives if they could.
This thought had apparently loomed over him. He would not let history repeat itself.
Instead, he drove me down to a clinic. In his favour, he did cry on the way home as I huddled in the p- assenger seat with a pain no sim ple painkiller could soothe. But any feelings I had for him were well and truly vacuumed from my body with that procedure.
There was no turning to my parents. They were still talking about the unplanned pregnancy of one of my friends from school. Her family was so ashamed, they quickly shipped her out of town to distant relatives. I continued to see them all in church, w- ithout her, but we stopped visit ing them in our silent judgment. And our friends continued to gossip about the pregnancy in whispered tones for years.
Meanwhile, for my mother and father, there was a new, pressing question for me: “Are you being a good girl?”
No, I was not. And now I had to consider the consequences. Sitting o-n the waterbed in my rented apart ment, I was adrift. I had worked so hard, come so far — but I was also alone. The only faith I had in that moment was in myself. I had to look out for me. No one else was going to.
“And then I did it again,” I told the priest.
A second time. I can’t even believe it myself.
“It was easier,” I say. I had been here before and I knew e-xactly what to do. I was com pletely clinical in my decision. I was equally so in my admission. There was no story now. Instead, I tell the priest I r- emember when this par ish was just a portable on the road into this town. I tell him it was in this parish I celebrated my first communion, my confirmation and, even after I left town, i-t’s where my parents ar ranged for my son’s baptism.
I have attended the o- ccasional mass, for wed dings and funerals. But I
This fall, Pope Francis announced the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. He decreed that, starting this week until Nov. 20, 2016, all priests would have the power to absolve penitents of the sin of abortion. And so I returned to church. The same church — my church — where I spent virtually every Sunday morning until I left home for university.
have continued to stay away from receiving the wafer- thin host and sweet wine. There has been no “body and blood of Christ” for me in years. I know the edict: Those conscious of mortal sin cannot receive the Eucharist without confession.
I have come to refer to myself as a “recovering Catholic,” a phrase often met with knowing titters. My husband is not religious, neither are my kids. O-ver the years I’ve found a mil lion excuses for continuing to stay away from the church: the sexual abuse of children, the blatant discrimination a- gainst women and homo s- exuals, the lack of accept ance of birth control. I’m not alone. There are many women who left the church because they could no longer reconcile feminism with a paternalistic church, a church so out of touch with our lives.
Many of us have been suffering in self- exile. I have, at least.
I haven’t lost my faith. I still believe in God. No one is allowed to take his name in vain in my house. What I have lost is the communion I felt at my parish. The weekly pause in the same place, with the same faces, all saying t-he same phrases, free ing my mind to think about higher ideals. I’ve also lost that incredible rite of reaching out to our neighbours in the pews, shaking hands and sharing a sincere “Peace be with you.”
I hang onto memories of the church. The state of grace I felt at my first communion. The joy I felt at the prospect of standing at the lectern during mass to give a reading. The youthful crush I had on Jesus, whose portrait hung behind the altar. But I could not go back. This confession, I tell the silent, invisible figure sitting across from me, is not just about The Church forgiving abortions, but My Church forgiving mine.
“- This is my home church,” I ex plain.
The priest stumbles a bit as searching for just the right words. “God is mercy,” he says. Then he t ells me t hat God, through the death of his son Jesus, washed away all sins and granted t- he church the power to offer re demption to all others in the future.
He tells me that he recognizes that I know I have made bad choices. I sense that he feels my guilt. And my shame. Although I never say I am sorry. I don’t want to lie.
Then there is silence as the priest pushes a slip of pink paper next to the box of tissues.
I am instructed to read aloud the typed paragraph that I see is circled in blue pen. Did he do that right now, I wonder, as I struggle to find my reading glasses in my purse?
I can’t remember the words after they’ve left my mouth but I recall that I have asked for forgiveness, and promised to be a better person.
T- hen the priest delivers my pen
if ance and it’s my turn to say “whoa, whoa, whoa,” if only in my head. That’s it? Out loud I simply say, “Amen” a- fter he whispers words of absolu tion.
The shame is too much for me to stay for mass, which is starting in half an hour.
F-rom the non-so-anonymous con fessional, I am afraid the priest will have seen the sleeve of my sweater, or the style of my coat. He will know me.
I’d like to take the host, finally. Receiving Christ in the Eucharist forgives venial sins — sins we made by choice — and Saturday mass was always my favourite. The church is full of people who want to come, not those obliged by parents or rules or tradition to spend their Sundays there.
“-I like the music they have on Sat urdays,” the woman who sat beside me in the lineup for confession told me quietly.
We had watched the vocalist warm up with her piano while we waited our turn. Now the singer has been joined by a drummer. I still won’t stay for mass. Instead, I sit alone on a familiar hard oak bench, taking in the altar, dressed with white poinsettias and garlands of branches that hint at Christmas. I watch as pews are taken up, mostly by elderly couples. I say my penance, an “Our Father” and a “Hail Mary.”
I am not entirely sure I am saying them right, it has been so long.
In any case, as the last of those seeking reconciliation heads into the c-onfessional, before the priest emer ges, I slip away quietly.
For the next two nights, the priest h-as urged me to take some time be fore I fall asleep to think not about those two abortions I had, but of Mary and her unplanned pregnancy.
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 17 days before Christmas a- nd the same week I go for confession, is often misunderstood as a celebration of the moment Jesus was conceived. It is actually the moment the Virgin Mary was conceived, in the womb of her mother, St. Anne. It was then she was granted grace to deliver Jesus free from the original sin inherited by all humankind. It is m- eant to teach us that the propensity to sin is in our nature.
But reflecting on that doesn’t seem enough. I am disappointed t-hat my confession is so light. I won der if it’s because I have suffered for so many years. The secrecy has kept m- e away from an aspect of accept ance and unconditional love that only the church can provide.
Still, something has changed since I knelt before my priest. I’m not sure I- feel relief, exactly. That would re quire someone telling me I did the right thing in having abortions. But I do feel reassured. When it comes to my final moment, I believe I’ ll at least have someone who speaks in my defence.
I am ready for the end of my exile. I- am back at my church again Sun day morning.