A story received at second-hand:
One weekday afternoon, a man, probably in his sixties and mostly gray now, entered the vestibule of a Catholic church. He had come to it because it was unknown to him, and he to it. He had attended his usual parish intermittently at best for quite a while, sometimes missing Mass for a span of many months over a course of even more years. The confessional was in the rear, so he turned left and entered. There was a narrow, floor-to-ceiling screen with a kneeler on one side and a chair on the other. Facing that chair was another set a few feet away. There was no priest in the first chair, so he stared for a moment at the statue of Jesus in the tiny alcove to his left. At Jesus’ feet were candles in red glass containers. He left and wandered back out front where he saw the priest coming up the sidewalk accompanied by a plump, bespectacled young woman.
“Are confessions being heard today?” the man asked.
“Yes, absolutely. I’m on my way in,” said the priest. The man guessed him to be in his early fifties, and couldn’t tell whether he was going bald or shaved his head. Maybe both. He was short in stature but appeared fit, wore a neatly trimmed goatee, and his features struck the man as stern – ‘pugnacious’ was another word that came to mind. He looked like a little tough guy, and the man wondered what might be in his past.
The man followed the priest and the woman back inside. The priest entered the confessional while the woman knelt in a back pew and placed a white veil over her hair. The man stood there with his hands in his pockets until the woman said, without turning around, “You can go ahead.” So he entered the confessional once more. Anonymity had been lost, so he sat in the chair across from the priest.
He leaned forward, elbows on knees, clasping his hands together, looking down rather than at the priest. He cleared his throat. “It’s been many years since my last confession.”
“Ah, well, begin wherever you like.”
The man reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small piece of spiral notebook paper. There were torn fringes along the top. The list had seemed long when he’d written it, but it now occurred to him that it was less a list of sins than of categories of sins, there being so many. The list looked suddenly and pathetically brief, and a sense of his own cowardice bent him further down. “I, uh…”
The priest interrupted. “Let me just say from the outset – and I don’t mean to make light of it -” the man looked up briefly to see the priest smiling, but not with amusement; it was something else altogether – “but the fact that you’ve even tried to make that list after all these years, well…Do you know how happy God is today? Seriously. You have made God happy. I really believe that. I’m happy. In fact, there are numberless souls all around us right now, rejoicing with him that you’re even here today.”
The man hadn’t thought of it that way. He just nodded, head down. “Well, I went through the ten commandments…”
“Of course. Go ahead.”
And so the man went through his list of generalities – his swearing, which arose in his thoughts and alighted on his lips second nature; his lying, his anger, his impatience, his envy. When he got to the part that distressed him most, disgusted him actually [we shall categorize it under offenses against purity] he found it hard to go on. There was another “I, uh.” He removed his glasses and wiped his eyes. He never once looked up. He could not.
“You know what else is a fact?” said the priest. “Even before you get to the end of that list, you’re as clean as on the day you were a baptized baby.”
He hadn’t thought of that, either, yet felt the need to justify himself. “I never stopped believing. Just gave up on myself, I guess.”
“Until today,” the priest reminded him. The man nodded again, apparently all the response of which he was capable, his breathing a visible sign to the priest of some battle being waged. The priest asked him if he ever thought of death. “A lot,” said the man.
“A greater death has been lifted from you. Now you may rest in peace.”
The man finished his recitation, looking always at the floor. He would not look up again until he was out of the confessional. He returned the piece of paper to his pocket. The priest then explained that it was not his practice to impose penance on someone returning after so many years, for gauging true contrition was within his realm of competence, the burden of guilt that brought the penitent back likely counting as penance enough. He offered some advice, such as that the man ought to avail himself of a pamphlet in the vestibule, which gave guidance on the examination of conscience, and to make more frequent recourse to the sacrament, perhaps every three or four months. “Don’t let things pile up,” he said. “Over time, hope tends to give way to fatalism, and finally to despair.”
He was silent for a moment, then said again, “As clean as a baptized baby. Remember that.”
“Thank you,” the man whispered.
“You’re welcome. But you should probably be thanking someone else. And now God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Again thanking the priest in a whisper, he arose and departed the room. The veiled woman still knelt in the back pew. “I’m done,” he said.
“Okay.” She remained where she was.
The man walked up the aisle and took a seat to await the Mass, at which he would receive the Sacrament for the first time in many years. The friend to whom he confided his story asked what had driven him to return after so long a lapse, and the man replied that, the law of averages being what it was, he figured he was destined to die within the next twenty years without having become anything close to the man he was supposed to be. And, further, that the priest seemed to know this. That was his sense of it, anyway. He did not know whether, in years to come, he could remain the man he was on that day – the clean man, the one who had made God and a priest “happy” – but he did know that there was one good thing he could do: he would pray for that priest, heretofore unknown to him, that he now loved. He would pray for his long life, for his endurance in the faith and in the fire of its zeal, for his holiness, his freedom from persecution, his example to the world, the increase of his flock, and his place in heaven. Indeed, for the following few days, the man could not gather his thoughts in prayer save for two words, “Thank you,” uttered over and over. He knew that he could do this until the day he died, and that it would count for something.
And that’s the story he told his friend, who told it to me, though I know not of whom he was speaking, which is as it must be.