Do I Know This Guy?

When I was twelve, a priest assigned me 300 Hail Marys and 300 Our Fathers for reciting the new Act of Contrition. He didn’t like it. My mother reduced the sentence to 3, reasoning that I must have misheard, and in any case God knew that I had made a proper Act.

I remain, many years later, a wary and ambivalent penitent. I don’t find dredging up sin, or even the speed of old-style confession, particularly humiliating. Rather, what daunts me is the socially and spiritually unique experience of addressing God in the presence of a single witness (an instrument of God’s mercy, true, but also a human being).

No one could feel constrained pouring out one’s failings in silence to God. So too there is freedom from self-consciousness and self-invention in communal reconciliation services, where we forge the I-Thou relationship with God and also collectively craft an image of a repentant Catholic community. But what are we doing when we address God in the presence of a priest alone?

One thing I am often doing is trimming. As a child I always ended my litany of sins with "I lied." That covered any confessional hyperbole resulting from my desire to be an appropriately scrupulous penitent. As an adult, trimming has taken the form of omissions that stem from a genuine reticence before the priest, especially in his male identity. I also admit my tendency to omission stems...

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About the Author

Daria Donnelly (1959-2004) was an associate editor of Commonweal from 2000 to 2004. In 2002, after having been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, she became associate editor (at large) and co-editor of the poetry section.