By Bob O’Connor
As a young man attending parochial school, I learned that the devil was in a constant battle to take my very soul. The good sisters who taught me saw Beelzebub lurking around every corner hoping to trick me into becoming one of his minions and thus burn forever in the fires of hell.
I remember in the seventh grade, a nun we affectionately called “Sarge” drew a giant circle on the blackboard and began furiously filling the circle with chalk marks. This, she explained breathlessly, is your immortal soul and each of these marks is your sins. Once our soul was blackened by sin we were destined for the furnace that was hell.
She then dramatically erased all the chalk mark sins and exclaimed: “This is why you must go to confession and cleanse your soul and die in a state of grace!”
So I was a regular penitent and quickly learned to game the system. Nearly every Saturday, I’d make my confession and come prepared with a list of sins. The trick was to be nonspecific when describing your transgressions, for example: “I disrespected my parents three times.” Once in a while the priest might ask the nature of your lies and I’d make something up on the spot. Thus, the cycle continued.
Once I confessed to saying a bad word; this was a tried-and-true, all-purpose sin. Much to my surprise, the priest asked what I had said. “Actually, Father” I stammered. “My friend George said “nipple.” He actually chuckled. “First of all.” he said, “that is not your sin; it is your friend’s. And secondly, saying that word is not sinful. They are like eyebrows and elbows; we’ve all got them." I was relieved and ready to bolt the hot box when he asked what had prompted George to say that word.
Lord help me, I told the truth. “You see, Father,” I trembled. “George has a Courier route and every Saturday morning I help him collect.” (Back then, the Courier Express was 95 cents a week and when the customer paid, the carrier peeled off a tiny little stamp from a ringed binder and gave it as proof of payment.)
I stumbled on. “Last week he told me about a new lady on his route who had really big ones.” Behind the confessional screen I heard an exasperated sigh and I knew I was in big trouble. “When the lady came down the stairs she gave Georgie a dollar and told him to keep the change and he said, 'Oh, boy, a nipple tip.' I swear it was an accident, Father,” I pleaded.
The priest cleared his throat and said: “It is perfectly natural for a guy your age to be interested in the opposite sex, but that was disrespectful. How would you like it if your buddies talked about your mother or sisters like that?” I felt sick to my stomach and knew I was doomed. Did he have to bring my mother into all this?
Father continued in a very serious tone. “For your penance I want you tell your friend everything I told you. More importantly, I want you to treat all females with respect from now on. Got it?” “Yes, Father,” I promised. I said a quick Act of Contrition and got the hell out of there.
I left the church feeling a little ashamed, but mostly I felt relief. After all, I had a clear conscience, a lily-white soul, and the devil couldn’t touch me for the moment. I decided to warn George not to mention “nipple” at his next confession.
Bob O'Connor saved his soul and learned a lesson.