Ritchie Saperstein’s first confession
I don’t think anything could have matched the sweet aroma of the steaming hot dog that day, or the tingling warmth on my fingertips as I held the tissue-wrapped bun.
I smeared a good-sized gob of yellow mustard on the hot dog, and the pungent smell of that delectable condiment made my eyes smart as I took my first bite. I had waited all day long for this moment!
But no sooner had I savored that first morsel when Bloke came by, hollering the words that ruined the rest of my day.
“Sean-o! It’s Friday!!!”
I had eaten meat on Friday.
Without any doubt, I was now doomed to the lowest level of hell.
My face suddenly turned crimson. I looked down at the hot dog and knew I would have to throw it away. Worse, I would have to wait until the next day to confess this sin and be saved from the fires of damnation.
I was now doomed.
I hurried over to Patrick’s Corner. Ritchie Saperstein and Victor Doyle were there because they liked to hang around Danny and me when the weather was nice. I related my tale of woe to the boys, and Danny berated me for being so dumb as to have forgotten what day of the week it was.
While this was going on, Ritchie was earnestly listening to Victor explain what I had done, and how I could be forgiven for this dastardly deed and saved from eternal torment.
“You mean that confession stuff will get you back in good with God?” Ritchie asked.
He had known about confession. Many Saturdays when he was on his way to or from temple, we would be on our way to confession, and we would all stop to talk before we each went on our way. Before some of the major feasts Ritchie would sit in one of the pews in St. Columbkille, waiting for us to finish our holiday confessions and get back to whatever game we had been playing.
“Sean-o will go to confession tomorrow and tell Fr. O’Phelan that he ate meat on Friday, and Father will tell him that he’s a lout and not to do it again,” Victor was saying. “Then Sean-o will have to say some prayers and he’s all forgiven.”
It was a simplistic way of describing the sacrament, but to our way of thinking it pretty well covered what confession did for the soul.
Sean-o will have to say some prayers and he’s all forgiven.
“What if Father thinks Sean-o is going to eat another hot dog?”
It was a fair question, and Ritchie knew me well enough to expect a scam.
“Then Sean-o will have to convince him that he has a firm purpose of amendment,” Victor said.
Bloke explained to Ritchie that meant I had to be pretty sorry for eating the hot dog and promise not to do it again unless I forgot (which was not likely with my brother and my friends around).
“How ’bout if you rob a bank?” Ritchie was getting to the heart of confession.
“Father makes you give the money back and you have to promise not to rob a bank again,” Bloke said matter-of-factly.
The conversation was making me feel a bit better. I had said an act of contrition, which would hold me over until confession time on Saturday — or so I hoped. I was truly sorry — sorry that I had taken a bite out of the hot dog and sorry that I had to throw the rest away, uneaten. That was the real thing about confession: You had to be sorry, and not just because you got caught.
That was the real thing about confession: You had to be sorry.
The theology of not eating meat on Friday and the spiritual renewal we felt each time we received the sacrament did not enter into our conversation.
“That’s real neat,” Ritchie said as he settled back against the barber shop window to watch us work and to think about the cleverness of Catholic living.
We worked until it was almost twilight, then I packed up my shoeshine box while Danny went into the Shamrock Pub with the two or three newspapers he had left. He could always get rid of the last few in there.
“I sure wish Jews had something like that for when they have something on their mind,” Ritchie said as we all walked home.
“Well, Jesus invented confession and he was a Jew,” Victor said, sincerely.
The next day was Saturday. Confessions were heard from three until six every Saturday and the church was always crowded. Danny and I liked to go early, around 3 o’clock, so we could get in and out without having to wait forever in Fr. O’Phelan’s line.
Jesus invented confession.
We were in luck. The church had not yet begun to fill and Fr. O’Phelan waved as he headed for his confessional. Danny brushed me aside and hurried to the penitent’s door. Bloke, Victor, and Charlie Carroll had come in and were crowding together in a pew when Danny came out.
As he went up to the communion rail to say his penance, I went in to the box and confessed the heinous deed of having taken a bite out of a hot dog the day before.
“Why only a bite, Sean-o?” Father asked with some puzzlement in his voice.
“Well, Bloke hollered that it was Friday, so I tossed the rest in the trash.”
Father laughed and gently told me that I was not doomed to the fires of hell. He said that my slipup was human error, not something done to offend a loving God.
I was still miffed that I could have been so dumb as to eat a hot dog on Friday, so I felt a bit better when he gave me five Our Fathers and Hail Marys to make up for my misdeed. I said an act of contrition while Father murmured the words of absolution. Then, feeling like a washed-clean Christian, I got up and opened the door of the confessional.
I said an act of contrition while Father murmured the words of absolution.
As I stepped out, someone rushed by me into the confessional and pulled the door shut. I turned to see who it was but my eyes hadn’t adjusted to the sudden light after having knelt in the dark confessional.
“Ssssssssss!!” Bloke and Victor were waving at me wildly.
“Ritchie’s in the confessional!” they hissed when I came up to them.
“What?” I gasped.
They told me that Bloke was just about to get up when he saw me come out of the confessional.
“Then Ritchie just pushed past Bloke and went in there! Holy cow!”
A Jew in our confessional?
Bloke and Victor moaned audibly, blaming themselves for not noticing Ritchie in the semi-darkness of the church. I self-righteously remained aloof because I had been in the confessional and hadn’t seen Ritchie in the first place.
Danny had finished saying his penance and had come back to the pew. He dragged me outside by the arm so that I could tell him what all the commotion was about.
“Oh my!” he gasped when I told him that our Jewish friend was in the confessional.
I was about to go back inside to say my penance when the side door opened and Ritchie stepped out into the afternoon sunlight. Charlie Carroll and Victor were with him. The smile on his face was genuine and radiant.
“Where’s Bloke?” Danny asked.
“Tellin’ his sins,” Charlie Carroll supplied.
“Man! What did you do that for, Ritchie?” I faced the problem directly.
“When I heard you guys talk about being forgiven yesterday, I got to thinking … well, I’ve got some stuff that needs forgiving, too.”
Ritchie said that there were things in his life that had been bothering him. He told us that on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, he always prayed for forgiveness and promised to live better during the coming year.
“But it ain’t always easy to do,” he said. We nodded our heads in agreement. “And Yom Kippur is just once a year.”
He always prayed for forgiveness.
He had a point.
“So, I thought I’d give your confession stuff a crack!”
“Did Father kill you for comin’ into a confessional?” Victor asked.
Ritchie shook his head.
“I guess he knew I wasn’t Catholic, but he listened to me and gave me some hints about how to be better.”
That sounded like Fr. O’Phelan.
“Then he told me to say some prayers and to tell God I’m really sorry for my sins.”
We could see that our friend was beaming in the knowledge of God’s forgiveness, that he had truly felt the loving hand of the Lord.
Our friend was beaming in the knowledge of God’s forgiveness.
Later on, Danny got up the gumption to ask Fr. O’Phelan if he knew that he had heard the confession of a non-Catholic.
“You mean when Ritchie came in to tell me about his faults? Naturally I knew it was Ritchie. I’ve known him and Noam since they were just little guys.”
“But …” Danny looked a bit startled.
“You boys talk to Rabbi Hirsch. If one of you had a problem and a priest was not around, would you hesitate to go to him and ask his advice?”
We shook our heads. Rabbi Hirsch was respected by just about everyone for his knowledge and for his willingness to listen.
“You, Daniel. You’re best friends with Denis Tracy; his father is a Presbyterian minister. How many times have you gone to Rev. Tracy when you needed help with something personal?”
Danny grinned. It was no secret that Danny had often sat with the Reverend in the quiet of the tiny Presbyterian church when he felt bothered or alone. I had done so myself, sometimes sharing things with Rev. Tracy that I couldn’t even tell Danny.
Rabbi Hirsch was respected by just about everyone.
Fr. O’Phelan went on. “Did Jesus come for only a few? He came for us all and his Father made us all. Ritchie is as much mine as you all are, just as you all belong to Rabbi Hirsch and to Rev. Tracy. God is not particular about who he forgives!”
We grinned in appreciation.
“I did tell Ritchie it might be better if he just comes to the rectory and asks for me!” Fr. O’Phelan said with a smile. “I imagine his running into the confessional made some hubbub in the pews!”
We never kidded Ritchie about his first confession, although we might have if we hadn’t understood the depth of his need and the reason for his action.
Ritchie’s experience opened up new doors for us, too. From then on, when Ritchie confided in one of us, we didn’t hesitate to recommend a trip to the rectory. And when he did make that trip he invariably returned with a lighter step and an infectious grin.
“What penance did Father give you, Ritchie?” we sometimes kidded.
“Psalm 23,” Ritchie might answer. Or, “Psalm 121; always the Psalms!”
And why not?
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was taken from The Best of Sean Patrick: Memories of Growing Up Catholic (Twenty-Third Publications, 2003).