“Bless me father, for I have sinned. It’s been…ah, about twenty years since my last confession.”
Father Antonio leaned forward, his face close to the screen that separated him from the man opposite him. In the darkness, he couldn’t make out the man’s features. It was better that way. There were some parishes where penitents had to face the priest head on, without the anonymity of the screen. He’d served in one for a year back when he was fresh from the seminary. He always felt that people guarded their sins more when they had to look a priest in the eye and spill their darkest secrets.
Dark secrets were made for dark places.
“We are very glad to have you back,” he said. “God’s home and heart is always open to you.”
“Thank you, father.”
A long silence followed. Father Antonio heard the whistle of the man’s breath through his nose.
He was well aware that sometimes, especially when there had been a long absence in the confessional, you had to give them space to collect their thoughts. It had been a while since he’d had a prodigal son walk through his confessional door. Most weeks, he heard the same confessions from the same blue hairs who attended mass seven days a week. He’d often been tempted to tell them to ‘go forth and seek fun’. Come back to him with some real sins to be forgiven. The thought made him suppress a chuckle.
After the silence went beyond the typical summoning of courage period, he said, “Do you have any sins you’d like to confess?”
The wood seat groaned as the man shifted his weight.
“I…I did something terrible when I was younger. I thought I could live with it. When I realized I couldn’t, I knew I had to confess but I was too afraid to speak it. I even changed religions. I was an Episcopalian for years. You see, with them, you confess your sins straight to God in your head. And I confessed, every Sunday, kneeling before the cross.”
Father Antonio said, “And did you find forgiveness?”
The man sniffled. It sounded as if he was crying. He ran a finger down the screen.
“No.” He said it with a breathless desperation.
“Have you forgiven yourself?”
Father knew the answer but sensed the man needed to give voice to his sins and perceived shortcomings in order to find the path to healing. He felt a burning tension in his own core, waiting to hear the man’s confession. What must it be like for him, to have a sin so great he’s spent years finding a way to unburden his soul?
“No. I need your help father.”
“You need to tell God your sin. You’ll be amazed how lighter you’ll feel. No sin is without forgiveness. All you need to do is ask for it.”
“Should…should I just say it, then?”
“That would be best. Look at it like jumping into a cool lake. The moment you hit the refreshing water, you’ll wonder why you hadn’t jumped in sooner.”
He listened as the man took several deep breaths, expelling them through his mouth.
“Will God forgive me for taking another life?”
Father Antonio’s heart kicked into a stuttering gallop. He’d spoken to other priests who had been on the receiving end of confessions of murder. What lay people didn’t know, and shouldn’t know, was the weight of those sins that simply shifted from sinner to confessor. Priests were still human. To know that there was potentially a murderer in his parish, to wonder who it could be, and to somehow let it go, to be the conduit of forgiveness, was far from easy.
The man continued. “I was a kid when it happened, still in college. I’d been at a party, had a little too much to drink, too much to smoke, and I’d taken a few pills. At some point, I wandered off, left the club to get some air, I think. After that, I blacked out for a while. Next thing I knew, I was ringing someone’s bell. A pretty woman answered. I asked her if I could use her phone so I could call someone to pick me up and take me to my dorm.
“I must have woken her up. She was wearing a robe and it kinda fell open at one point. I saw that she’d been sleeping nude. She was beautiful. I forgot about the phone. I couldn’t help myself. Before she could scream, I put my hand over her mouth and forced her onto a table. I…I can’t remember exactly what I did, but when it was over, she wasn’t breathing any more. I’d crushed her windpipe. Like a coward, I ran. For weeks I watched the story on the news from the safety of my dorm. The police never even thought to look into the students at my college. My prints weren’t on file. I was free.”
Father Antonio’s mouth went dry.
“But I wasn’t,” the man said. “Please, forgive me Father. I can’t go on like this.”
It was difficult for Father Antonio to speak. He didn’t hear his own words as he doled out the man’s penance. Something about saying the rosary and asking Mary for forgiveness.
The man thanked him profusely, praising him and Jesus for their kindness. As he left, Father Antonio cracked the door open just enough to see the man as he shuffled down the aisle.
It was Gene Fenton. He always sat in the center pews so he could bring up the gifts during mass.
Father Antonio fumbled within his cassock for his cell phone. He thumbed his brother-in-law’s phone number.
“I know who killed our Laurie,” he whispered.
“God brought him to me. His name is Gene Fenton. I’ll get you his address when I return to the rectory.”
“You know what this will mean, don’t you?”
It was impossible to see through his tears. “Please, don’t tell me.”
But he knew. His wife’s murder was why he became a priest, to put as much distance as possible from the man he’d been to who he was now. In both incarnations, he was wholly imperfect.
He disconnected the call.
Stumbling from the confessional, he opened an adjacent door. Father Murphy sat on the other side, unprepared for what was about to come.
“Bless me father, for I have sinned.”
~ Hunter Shea
© Copyright 2013 Hunter Shea. All Rights Reserved.