Tag Archives: Confession

Of Hotdogs, Baseball, and Going to Hell

16 Nov

yankee715
For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.
~ Gaudium et Spes

Winter is setting in, so here’s a baseball story to conjure up a springlike vibe.

It’s about my dad, Phil, and a buddy of his – Morty was his name, I’m pretty sure. They’d grown up as neighborhood pals in East Orange, New Jersey, and one fine Friday morning they played hooky together and caught a Yankees game in New York. It was an excursion that affected my father deeply. I know this because I heard the story from him several times before he died.

The details are a bit fuzzy now, but here’s the gist.

Judging from my dad’s birth date, I’m guessing the escapade took place sometime in the late 1940s. Baseball was king back then, and the immortals were real people, not just faces on trading cards. For example, fans would’ve still been mourning the passing of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth at that time (Gehrig! and Ruth!), and Joe DiMaggio himself would still be playing for the Yanks several more years – probably Morty and dad even got to see him.

Anyway, baseball was not only great entertainment for my father’s circle, but also a great leveler, bridging multiple cultural and social divides – like religion for instance. My dad came from solid Calvinist stock and a long line of serious Masons. Morty, on the other hand, was Irish, and Catholic to the core. They were both too young at the time to have adopted wholesale religious prejudice, I suppose, but it didn’t matter in any case: They were both nuts for baseball, and that was way more important to them than trifling ecclesial matters.

I’ve no recollection if there was something special going on that occasioned their conspiracy – a doubleheader, perhaps? – or if it was simply the anticipation of a forbidden pleasure. In any case, Phil and Morty ostensibly left their homes for school that morning, but then detoured to the train depot to catch a commuter into Penn Station. Once there, they took the subway up to the Bronx, and beelined their way through the crowds to the “House that Ruth Built.” A couple of Jersey boys buying tickets to a school-day ball game probably raised a couple eyebrows, but apparently nobody seriously challenged them. They made their way up to the cheap seats, and settled in to enjoy the main event.

My father’s family was dirt poor – grandpa worked the night shift at a beer bottling plant – but somehow my dad had scrounged up enough money for some eats on top of his train far83TD3OZA2MhkbfG.vDsgbge and the game ticket. The way dad described it, he and Morty took full advantage of their furtive outing: The Yankees down below working their magic on the field, and up in the stadium, the two truants living large and hailing vendors for hotdogs and Cracker Jack.

This is where my father would get real serious as he painted the scene for me: He and Morty, basking in the sun in their baseball paradise, focusing on the game, mustard-laden frankfurters at the ready. Morty takes a bite of his, then stops, mid-chew.

“What’s wrong?” my dad asked.

“Oh, no,” came Morty’s reply, his mouth forming words around the hotdog chunk. “I forgot!”

“Forgot what?”

Morty, pale and wide-eyed, could hardly reply. “It’s Lent; it’s Friday,” he managed to croak out. “I’m going to hell.”

So, that’s the story pretty much; dad never mentioned what happened next – you know, like did Morty spit out the hotdog? Did he and dad stay to the end of the game? And how did Morty navigate the moral minefields he must’ve faced at home and church back in East Orange?

Nope, none of that. Whenever dad told the story, it always ended abruptly with his friend’s somber self-assessment – and no hedging either. It was never Morty saying, “I think I’m going to hell,” but always the bare declaration stated absolutely deadpan: “I’m going to hell.” It’s as if my father wanted to avoid detracting from Morty’s very real spiritual crisis at that crucial moment – as if, for dad, Morty’s words stood apart somehow and required no additional comment.

Fair enough – I respect my dad’s reticence, whatever its origin. Nonetheless, there’s some good fodder there for insights and reflection. Here’s three observations that I can’t pass up, along with a word about scrupulosity.

  1. Accidental transgressions are not really sins. Morty was off on that point, despite his evidently sound moral formation otherwise. If that bite of hotdog on a Lenten Friday really was accidental, then Morty wasn’t culpable in any way – it was an oversight, not an intentional flouting of the abstinence rule, and so hardly a sin. If anything, he was guilty of a wee bit of intemperance that day, and maybe some imprudence as well – probably it wasn’t a good idea to spend a Friday in Lent at the ballpark. And, of course, there’s the deception and lying that undoubtedly facilitated Morty and dad even being at Yankees stadium that school day. If there was any sin to speak of, it involved playing hooky in the first place rather than the snack.
  2. Hell is a good motivator. As every second-grader preparing for confession can tell you, there’s imperfect contrition and perfect contrition. The imperfect kind is when we’re sorry for our sins because we don’t want to go to hell, whereas perfect contrition is sorrow for sin out of love for God alone. Obviously, perfect contrition is preferred, but imperfect contrition is good enough – God will take what he can get from us. And Morty? We know he wasn’t in danger of frying for biting down on the illicit ballpark frank, but he didn’t know that at the time. All he knew was that he violated a serious Lenten discipline, and he feared the consequences. Hell, in other words, was a reality to Morty, and he sure as hell didn’t want to go there.
  3. Moral struggle can be an admirable badge of faith. The first time my father told me his hooky story he was still a Protestant, although he related it to me at least a couple times more after he became a Catholic. Morty had clearly made an impression on my dad that bygone spring day – his young chum who goofed and wrongfully feared for his soul. Yet, consider: No one was present to hold Morty accountable for his lapse – what did Morty care about what Phil the Protestant thought? Besides, they were already playing hookey together, and so dad wasn’t likely to snitch on his Catholic friend for the forbidden Lenten hotdog. No, Morty’s sincere moral anguish revealed his true character and the strength of his convictions that day. It was a demonstration of authentic faith. It was a moment of grace.

1024px-Fra_angelico_-_conversion_de_saint_augustinAnd, finally, scrupulosity, the “habit of imagining sin where none exists, or grave sin where the matter is venial,” according to Fr. Hardon. Sure, Morty required some correction with regards to his grasp of sin, conscience, and the role of the will, but let’s not be hasty. These days, when there’s so much moral confusion, not to mention widespread rationalization for all kinds of evil, it’s probably not a bad idea to err on the scrupulous side of things – a perspective that St. Augustine seems to endorse:

While he is in the flesh, man cannot help but have at least some light sins. But do not despise these sins which we call “light”: if you take them for light when you weigh them, tremble when you count them. A number of light objects makes a great mass; a number of drops fills a river; a number of grains makes a heap.

And hotdogs? They can also add up, although one was enough for Morty – and, vicariously, for my dad as well. Thanks for your witness, Morty, wherever you are, and I pray that your conscience was long ago assuaged.

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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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I Will Accept No Bull From Your House

30 Mar

My buddies and I in junior high thought we were real cut-upsvery clever – and we were always on the lookout for new comic material. The Bible was no exception.

I grew up Presbyterian, and the Bible in the pew racks back then was the RSV – the exquisite Revised Standard Version put out by the National Council of Churches. What with Bible studies and memory verses, youth group and summer camps, we got to know the RSV pretty well, and it was naturally incorporated into our laugh lines and repartee.

For example, consider Philippians 2.3: “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.” We took Paul’s sober admonition, shaved off a bit, and bandied it about as an apostolic justification for serious sloth: Do nothing (Phil. 2.3a). Another is the very last line of Jonah which one of my friends claimed as his ‘life verse’: And also much cattle? (Jonah 4.11c).

You can just hear bullthe guffaws, can’t you? We just cracked ourselves up.

My personal favorite was Psalm 50.9a: I will accept no bull from your house.” God is portrayed in the Psalm as expressing his preference for holiness and personal sacrifice among His people, as opposed to animal sacrifice for the sake of animal sacrifice. As if to drive home the point, the psalmist concludes this way:

He who brings thanksgiving as his sacrifice honors me; to him who orders his way aright I will show the salvation of God!

But for me and my pals? “No bull” had other connotations, and you can bet we tossed that chapter and verse at each other on a regular basis (guffaw, guffaw).

I was reminded of all this when Psalm 50 came up in the Lenten Mass readings recently, and I got to thinking that my youthful and irreverent appropriation of verse 9 contained an unforeseen lesson in contrition and humility that will come in handy as I prepare for a pre-Easter Confession in the days ahead.

The lesson – more of a reminder – is this: God is not stupid. When we approach Him with our sins, we might as well come clean – why hold anything back? He’s God after all, and He’s going to know when I’m palming a secret sin despite my “firm purpose of amenPope_Francis_goes_to_confession_as_part_of_a_penitential_mass_at_St_Peters_Basilica_at_the_Vatican_on_March_28_2014_Credit_ANSA_OSSERVATORE_ROMANO_2_CNA_3_28_14dment” in the confessional. And I might think I’m pulling one over on Father behind the screen – with my smooth pious patter, and my seemingly rigorous ticking off of faults in kind and number – but God’s not fooled.

The Catechism reminds us of this divine “accept no bull” principle in very direct terms when describing the sacrament of Penance:

Through such an admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a new future possible.

And the Catechism, quoting the Council of Trent, goes on to specifically reject our attempts to deceive God, saying that those who attempt to conceal sin in Confession end up placing “nothing before the divine goodness for remission through the mediation of the priest, ‘for if the sick person is too ashamed to show his wound to the doctor, the medicine cannot heal what it does not know'” (CCC 1456).

Mind you, I’m not just talking about obvious sins like the sexual ones – those are the no-brainers. As Dorothy L. Sayers so astutely observed in “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” immorality comprises much more than just fornication, adultery, and lust. She comments:

A man may be greedy and selfish; spiteful, cruel, jealous, and unjust; violent and brutal; grasping, unscrupulous, and a liar; stubborn and arrogant; stupid, morose, and dead to every noble instinct – and still we are ready to say of him that he is not an immoral man.

When I approach the Tribunal of Mercy, it’s the habits of greed and petty jealousy and (especially) gluttony – Sayers’ “other six deadly sins” in other words – that I tend to rationalize and downplay. The fact that Tradition has declared all seven categories of sin to be deadly ought to be plenty of incentive for rooting out all our failings with the same diligence that we apply to rooting out the sexual ones.

Today’s readings at Mass were all about shedding light on that which is hidden. There’s St. Paul to the Ephesians (“everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light”), and the Gospel from St. John about a miraculous healing (“I was blind and now I see”). However, the first reading – about Jesse quibbling with the prophet Samuel about which son to anoint – was the perfect corollary to an earthy “no bull” reading of Psalm 50. Here’s what the Lord communicates to Jesse through the prophet:

Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.

Enough said. God grant me the courage and strength to put away the bull and come clean, and to receive that ultimate cleansing He so much desires for me.

Mea culpa.

 

What Should’ve Been My Most Embarrassing Moment

8 Dec

When people ask me, or indeed anybody else, “Why did you join the Church of Rome?” the first essential answer, if it is partly an elliptical answer, is, “To get rid of my sins” (G.K. Chesterton).

Cecilia was working on something for school. “Papa,” she asked, “what was your most embarrassing moment?”

What, I have to choose just one?

Let’s see, there’s the time I lost my passport in England while traveling with a group from my high school. I had hid it so well in my Brighton hotel room that I couldn’t locate it by the time we were leaving for London. While all my friends toured Buckingham Palace, I was navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth of the U.S. Embassy in order to procure replacement credentials.

embarrassedAnd speaking of high school, how about the time my friend Johnny and I were co-emcees for a musical variety show. We had worked up some clever patter and repartee, and the first two performances went off without a hitch. For the third and final performance, we got a bit cocky and decided to change up some of the jokes — you know, for our fans who were coming to see us for a third straight night.

Yup. Great idea — except, under the lights and before that packed auditorium, I completely blanked on the new punchlines. Gone, *poof*, nada. Later, after my complete implosion and frozen silence onstage, the show’s director chided us: Don’t. Make. Last. Minute. Changes — as if he needed to tell us that.

The episode I finally settled on for Cecilia’s school assignment, however, was one she already knew well — a story that will be passed on as a part of Becker family lore for generations to come. It concerns a job interview — no, actually, it wasn’t even the interview. It was my initial encounter with the person who would conduct the interview.

I had just started nursing school, and I decided to get some experience in a healthcare environment, so I applied for a job in a nursing home. I was terribly nervous about this first foray into the healthcare arena, and when the HR director appeared to usher me into her office, I fumbled: “Hi, I’m Jennifer,” said I, hand outstretched. “You must be Rick.”

And these, of course, are just the ones I can remember — or at least they’re the ones I’m willing to relate. The funny thing is that my first confession didn’t occur to me at all. You’d think that would’ve been plenty embarrassing, seeing as how it included a couple decades’ worth of screw-ups and sin.

It was Holy Saturday. I took the ‘L’ to the Loop and walked a few blocks west on Madison to St. Peter’s. Served by Franciscans, St. Peter’s is one of Chicago’s penitential hotspots, with confessionals manned seemingly around the clock, from dawn to dusk.

For this first confession prior to my reception in the Church at the Easter Vigil, I’d made an appointment with Fr. Robert, the pastor at the time. St. Peter’s in the Loop is a mighty busy place, and no doubt Fr. Robert was an extremely busy man, but he put me at eaconfessionse and made me feel like he didn’t have anything else to do but hear the first confession of a twenty-something convert.

Was I anxious? Sure. Unsettled? Definitely. But embarrassed? Oddly, no. In fact, far from it — more like: Relieved; unburdened; free. Father heard me out, gave me some words of encouragement, and then asked me if I knew my Act of Contrition. Know it? I’d only been practicing it daily for weeks.

And then he put his hand on my head and gave me absolution. Perhaps you’ve had this feeling before, but I felt a physical weight lift from my shoulders that day — a real, physical weight. I’ll never forget it

Yesterday, my second-grader made her first confession. I watched Kath waiting in the long line for Monsignor, our (her) beloved pastor. As she stood there, no signs of shame — as she went in, no hesitancy. And when she came out a few minutes later? No blush, no embarrassment, no drooped head, eyes cast down. Her head was up and she was looking around, a smirk transfixed where you’d perhaps expect a frown.

I’ve seen that smirk before — the same smirk that all seven-year-olds seem to display after receiving the Sacrament of Penance for the first time. Do they practice that smirk in school and CCD?

Regardless, it’s a sign that something went right. No embarrassment. Instead, simple grace. And satisfaction.

What a relief.

_____________________________________________________

A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Did He Show Up?

20 Oct

This is primarily a tribute to my friend Tim Roemer. Tim died last year just before Christmas, and I’ve been mulling over his death and life ever since.

It’s high time I got some of that mulling out of my head and into words, especially  with the first anniversary of his death approaching. I owe it to him, to his wife, Nancy, and to his kids, Peter and Anna. I owe it because, even though I’ll forever be in Tim’s debt, that’s no excuse to skip payments. Consider this a belated first installment.

A friend like Tim doesn’t come along very often, and he came along in my life at a crucial moment. He was fiercely loyal, embarrassingly generous, and extraordinarily self-effacing. Tim could also be infuriating at times (neglecting to pick up his wedding cake until an hour before his wedding comes to mind), and fantastically stubborn—just like the rest of us. In his case, however, it seemed like those were very small flaws compared to his many gifts and grand magnanimity.

Also, Tim was an idealist and a dreamer—a war tax resister, for example, and a regular at the Uptown Catholic Worker—so we found common cause as we stumbled around like a couple urban Don Quixotes, tilting at windmills and laughing at our foibles.

During this same time, I was discovering the Church, and, in time, embracing it, and my friendship with Tim gave me firsthand insight into what it meant to be a thoroughgoing Catholic. In fact, he was, along with my godfather and others in Uptown, among the first thoroughgoing Christians I’d ever encountered—thoroughgoing in the sense timthat Tim’s faith wasn’t an attachment or an addendum or just one aspect of his life, but rather it was his life, in a very natural, integrated way. So integrated, in fact, that he didn’t talk about it all the time, nor did he feel a need to draw attention to it. It was simply a given for Tim; it was assumed.

Three stories about Tim neatly summarize that integrated demeanor he modeled for me and which I’ve tried to emulate ever since. The stories all have Sacramental themes, and together they form a kind of catechetical triptych which continues to inform my own faith to this day. Maybe you’ll find them helpful as well. At the very least, if you’re a convert, you’ll appreciate these three Sacramental anecdotes, and why they helped me find my place in the Catholic universe.

First, Confession.

Tim loved to tell about battlefield priests during World War II who would hear Confessions of soldiers prior to major combat actions. “Are you sorry for your sins?” the priests would ask. “No,” would come the honest reply from war-hardened troops accustomed to less than saintly behaviors. Knowing that the troops faced the probability of death, and so anxious to grant them absolution, the priests would then ask, “But are you sorry that you’re not sorry?”

It sounds apocryphal, and maybe it is. Nevertheless, the story illustrates something profoundly true about the Church and her work of mediating the love of Christ to the world—namely, that He’s desperate to give it to us. Unlike the rather rigid formulas that most people associate with Catholicism, the God we encounter in Christ, the one we see in the Scriptures, the one the Church presents to us, is one who will go to any and every length to give us life and love and even Himself.

As Jesus said, God won’t be outdone by human fathers who generally provide good things for their families. Does a dad give his children stones when they ask for bread? Or scorpions when they ask for eggs? No, and usually he is working extra shifts to not only give them food and shelter and clothing, but cake and ice cream as well. Maybe even a trip to Disney World.

Yet human fathers are only a pale reflection of our heavenly Father who wants much more for us than treats and trips. He wants to give us heaven itself, and adoption, and eternity. He’s desperate to do it, and desperate times call for desperate measures. And that’s pretty much what the Gospels are all about.

Second, vocation.

This story hearkens back to the days when Tim and I were both wrestling with our life callings. Like him, I was oblivious to the painfully evident fact that God hadn’t called me to the priesthood. Tim figured it out way before I did—no doubt because, as a cradle Catholic, he was equipped to read the vocational tea leaves more readily. Nevertheless, until he finally relented and embraced his true vocation of marriage and fatherhood (in which both arenas he thrived), Tim had made halting progress in the discernment and seminary application process with the Archdiocese of Chicago.

During one of his interviews, my friend was asked what he thought about the role of women in the Church. Without any hesitation, Tim responded, and it was a simple, direct, vocation-squelching, yet wise classic: “Women’s role in the Church? Same as men: To become saints.” Clearly this wasn’t what the vocation folks in the chancery wanted to hear.

Rather, they wanted some nuanced and politically sensitive ramble about changing cultural attitudes, development of doctrine, and expanding opportunities for women’s participation in the liturgy and church governance. This was in the Cardinal Bernardin heyday, and the archdiocesan middle management was overwhelmingly “progressive.” Orthodoxy had to be gilded with a liberal patina in order to survive such vetting episodes.

None of that for Tim, however. He, like me, saw that the Church needed priests, and he pursued ordination accordingly—out of a sense of love and duty more than a sense of calling. But even if some fancy Jesuitical footwork could’ve enabled Tim to fly below the vocation office’s orthodoxy radar, it was a price too high, and that interview foretold the eventual demise of his priestly quest. That was a good thing, of course, because as Nancy and the kids can attest, his vocation lay elsewhere.

Here, too, Tim became a role model for me, as he took up marriage and fatherhood with the same tenacity and drive that characterized his do-gooder Catholic Worker-ism. “If God has called me to become a saint through marriage and family life,” I can imagine him saying, “well, then, dammit, let’s get on with it!” If he didn’t actually say those words, that’s certainly how he lived, and I took his example to heart.

Misa_Mosaico_SMarcosFinally, the Eucharist.

I lived with Roemer, along with our mutual friend and my godfather, Jim Eder, for a longish portion of my Uptown, Catholic Worker days. All three of us were daily Communicants, although we often went to Mass separately and at different times. Often I would go alone to the 8 am weekday Mass at St. Thomas of Canterbury. When I returned to our flat, I had a pretty good idea of what I could expect.

Eder would already be off to work, having attended the 6:45 am liturgy. Tim would be home, sitting in an easy chair and reading the Tribune amid the clutter and mess of our apartment. Entering our six-flat building and climbing the stairs to the third floor would involve enough noise that Tim would be alerted to my imminent arrival. When I entered our flat, Tim would invariably drop the paper enough to make eye contact with me and utter his favorite question deadpan: “Did He show up?” My answer, always in the affirmative, would be met with a grunt of approval, and the paper shield would be restored.

What might sound like sacrilege or, at best, irreverence always struck me as a preeminent sign of Tim’s secure faith, and I admired his comfortable familiarity with the miracle of the Mass and the wonder of the Church. He was truly at home in that vast Catholic Thing, and I envied him.

In addition, however, Tim’s seemingly flippant question was rooted in a profound insight regarding, first, our own utter dependency on divine grace, and, second, our dire responsibility as well. The humor in Tim’s daily query is that He always “shows up,” no matter what—it’s what He promised us, after all. “And, lo, I will be with you until the end of the age,” He told the Apostles just before the Ascension.

The real question, you see, is whether we show up—or rather, whether I do. He will always be there, no question, ready for whatever problems or difficulties or sufferings I might bring Him, and ready to give Himself totally to us, to feed us with His very self. Will I come to that encounter hungry for Him? Will I come ready with an open heart and a submissive will? Will I come prepared for what He wants to give me and do for me no matter what?

Rest in peace, my friend. Thank you for the Faith lessons you taught me: that God desperately wants to save us, that he desperately wants to sanctify us, and that all we have to do is let Him. Pray for me that, like you, I may show up whenever He does.

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A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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