By Paul F. Morrissey
A woman phones to ask if I will hear her confession at her home (not normal for a Catholic sacrament). I agree because she is an invalid and the mother of a man I ministered to as a chaplain in the city prison. As I climb the stairs of the row house in South Philadelphia the next afternoon, I clutch my purple priestly stole under my arm, the sign of Christ's presence when I give her absolution after she confesses her sins.
Once inside, Dolores lowers herself onto the sofa. Then pointing at a tin of treats on the hospital serving tray between us, adds, "You want a cookie?"
"I'll wait until after the confession," I say, removing my jacket and dropping into a faded stuffed armchair. "Go ahead and have it now," she insists. We spend a few more moments bantering in which she makes it clear that this is her house and I am her guest. I drape the stole around my shoulders to get to the point of the visit: her confession.
"Should I start?" she asks, suddenly compliant. I nod and she begins this traditional ritual of the Church. Mostly she focuses on her anger, while assuring me she doesn't intend to hurt anyone - "I just tell the truth." She interrupts with tangential stories and barks directives to a woman in the other room: "Give me my wrap, Agnes. It's cold in here. That's my sister. She's a saint, always helping someone. Go to the basement, Agnes, I don't want you to hear my sins."
Agnes, smiling meekly, shoots me a victim's look.
I glance at my watch. I was hoping to be done in no more than a half hour. "OK, where were we?"
"Relax, Father Paul. You want some pizza? I could order a pizza."
"No. thanks." This could be a challenge. We never discussed this option in our class on the sacraments.
"How about something to drink. A soda? Some water?"
I am getting angry, and decide to tease. "Do you have any gin and tonic?"
"What!" Mock horror? "My husband was an alcoholic." She jabs a crooked finger toward his picture on the far wall. "But he gave it up a year before he died. I do have some blackberry brandy if you want."
"I'm kidding, Dolores." Yet I take a cookie to show I am still with her, placing it on the table in front of me. "Can we get back to the confession?" I'm almost pleading now.
Just then a phone rings. It's hers, and she fumbles for it in the clutter on the side table. Soon she finds it and chats briefly, "I got a priest here. He's hearing my confession. Yeah, really. I'll call you back." She notices that I was glancing at some pictures on top of the TV. "My two sons. So handsome. The oldest one died suddenly." Her voice grows suddenly soft.
It's now or never. "Dolores, you were talking about your anger, and how you don't intend to hurt anyone. . ."
"Yeah, I never want to hurt no one, but why are people so thin-skinned?" she asks. "Do they want me to lie?" A phone rings again. Oh, no. It's mine.
I check the caller. My brother. Usually I don't pick up in the middle of a conversation, let alone a confession, but for some reason I do. "Excuse me a second." I stroll out to the dining room, chatting with my brother about tickets he bought for an upcoming Villanova basketball game. "Joe, I'm hearing someone's confession. Gotta get back."
It was only a minute that had passed, but as I slide back into my chair I blurt out, "Forgive me, Dolores. I shouldn't have interrupted your confession to speak on the phone."
Puzzled at first, her eyes gradually widen. Then she raises her hands to reassure me. "It's OK, I forgive you, Father Paul."
Chuckling at the role switch, I respond, "Thank you, Dolores. It's so great that you forgive me."
Throwing her head back, she chortles for joy, "Oh my God, I feel so powerful. I forgive you - a priest!"
"Agnes, come here," she shouts into the kitchen, "Father came to hear my confession and I forgave him. Can you believe it?"
It begins to dawn on me that we may actually have reached a moment of true reconciliation. "Can we join hands and pray?" I ask.
"Sit in the walker," Dolores motions to Agnes. Reaching for both of their hands, I begin to thank God for making this happen. Noticing that they have joined hands as well, I say the Act of Contrition which we pray together. I sneak a peek at Dolores as we do so. The rigid jaw is relaxed. Her anger seems to have melted. Agnes' eyes are closed.
As a conclusion, I place the ends of the purple stole across both of their shoulders while they look at me, mystified. "Jesus is with us, forgiving us," I tell them, and then recite the words of absolution.
"Father Paul, this is so. . ." Dolores is stuck for a word. "Agnes, I told you it would be a good experience, didn't I?" "It's wonderful," Agnes murmurs. A new experience of forgiveness comes over me. From the look on both of their faces, they're feeling it too. We sit for a few moments in silence, taking this in.
Before Dolores can start up again, I rise to pull on my coat and hat. "Don't he look cute with that Irish cap?" Dolores asks Agnes.
I start to turn toward the door but then look back. "You thought I'd forget the cookie, didn't you?" Dolores' eyes squint, and she says coyly, "But you did forget something." I glance upward, wondering, and then "Oh, the penance!" I pause before it comes to me. "Your penance is to forgive yourself when you feel you've hurt someone by your words." She considers this for a moment, and then nods.
Walking to my car moments later, I shake my head in amazement at the encounter, grateful for the power to forgive, both ourselves and others. I say aloud, "Thank you. Lord. I needed that."