Perhaps it’s the years I’ve worn the collar that have made me cynical and fatalistic or maybe it’s because I’ve never truly believed in God, but time and time again I look at my time absolving sins in the confessional as an elaborate game whereby I prey upon the superstitions of my congregation. Admittedly, I realize it serves its purpose much like when George Steinbrenner apologizes to the fans or signs some up some ballplayer for big money. It makes the player feel good because he’s hit a payday and it makes the fans feel good because they feel like they’re being rewarded. Really, all that’s ever achieved are headlines. Confession gives the believer the same feeling. It’s a cathartic release for the sinner to say what they’ve done and feel like it gets washed away. Some say they could feel the spirit of Jesus Christ within their souls the moment they exit the confessional. They rush to do their penance and all the wrongs they’ve committed suddenly disappear like they’ve never happened. It amuses me to think of the power religion has over these people. They commit the most horrific deeds 6 days out of the week and then they come in at 8am on Sunday and confess so that they could deem themselves pure enough to receive Communion.
It’s amazing that so much of human behavior could be dictated by ancient fairy tales and superstition. “Lord I am not worthy to receive you,” indeed. Typically in my 30 years as a priest, I’ve dealt with your garden variety cheating spouses, the occasional remorseful shoplifter, the drunk who neglects his family, drug addicts, prostitutes, and all varieties of poor judgement and disgraceful behavior. I’ve waved my hand and pardoned them all only to find them sitting across the booth from me time and time again confessing to different varieties of the same sin. Humanity is nothing but a forgetful drunken fool repeating the same pratfalls time and time again. If there were a God, we would be his court jesters trouncing upon his stage naked and unashamed for his bitter amusement. If God exists, he is nothing but a spectator at the cinema filling himself up with popcorn and candy feasting his eyes on all sorts of atrocities, devastations, pornography, murder, violence, as well as the quiet humiliation of those who suffer in silence. In an ironic twist, I am meant to be his vessel on Earth, and I do very much the same thing. I listen, I observe, and I pay witnesses to the destructive nature of the very human beings I’m supposed to be helping but in actuality I do nothing. The kicker is that they admire and respect me for this just as they do the God they claim to worship. I’ll tell you, life in the priesthood is a real racket.
It must have been around this time last year when Joey Calonzo entered my confessional. I knew who he was the minute I laid my eyes on him through the shadows of the screen meant to guard his face. The perception is that you’re supposed to be anonymous in these boothes but the priest knows his congregation. I had performed the baptisms of his children and I knew who he was. I also knew how much he contributed to the Church. At first I figured, how bad could it be? I listened as he went through the initial motions all the while shifting on his knees. He was a strong muscular man for a 50 year old. I imagine he could lift his own body weight but he had weak knees. He sometimes limped down the aisle at church telling anyone who expressed concern that he had been in a bad car wreck some years ago. He wore a nice grey suit that day with the most remarkably flashy cuff links. His head was balding but it didn’t take anything away from the fierceness with which he carried himself. He was a man to be feared if you saw him walking towards you on a dark secluded street. If you actually did see him walking towards you on such an occasion, it might actually be the last thing you ever saw. Joey was a hitman.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been 3 years since my last confession,” he said.
“Was that around that time that Father Palisimo passed away?”
“It is, Father. He used to hear my confessions but since he passed I haven’t felt comfortable confessing my sins until now.”
“Go on, my son.”
“I’ve seen the life leave the eyes of many men since my last confession.”
“You mean you’ve committed murder. You realize that murder is a mortal sin.”
“I do, Father, but Father Palisimo absolved me of my sins in the past and I was hoping you might do the same.”
“What you ask is not easy. Murder is not only a mortal sin but also an egregious crime.”
“I realize that Father, but I also know that as a priest you cannot violate the Sacrament and turn me in.”
“In order to be forgiven for your sins, you must truly repent and commit to change your life for the better so that you may live in peace in the love of Christ,” I said. I knew that his chosen profession wouldn’t permit him to do this, but I had to say something that sounded noble to reinforce the reverence he afforded me.
“Father, I admit that I cannot change but I truly regret my actions. Is that not enough? It was for Father Palisimo.”
“Let’s set this aside for now. What other sins have you committed?”
“Father, I have also committed adultery on many occasions. I know Anne-Marie loves me and I love her but she doesn’t satisfy me, Father. I’ve recently found myself not only lusting after other women but I also believe I’ve fallen in love with another woman.”
“What is her name?”
“Tina Vitale, Father. I’ve sent her a single white rose every day for the last 3 months. I feel as if my heart belongs to her but I know I can’t leave my wife.”
“Divorce is against church teaching of course.”
“That and she’s liable to take me to the cleaners, Father.”
At this I chuckled. It’s strange how miniscule a petty thing like infidelity appears when compared to such a horrific crime as murder. We sat in an uncomfortable silence for a few minutes. I gave him the impression as if I had taken on the weight of the world deciding whether or not to fulfill the Sacrament. I had to do this so as to at least give the appearance of wise contemplation. In actuality, I was merely thinking about the perfect words to use to keep the ruse going. I wasn’t about to let Joey Calonzo or his blood money leave my church for another. I’m sure Saint Mary’s would love to have his bankroll in their pockets.
I started, “My son, you have committed deeds that are truly evil, however, I believe you’ve shown true remorse.” Waving my hand in front of the screen I continued, “You will say 30 Our fathers and 20 Hail Marys and you will try every day to walk with Christ and show compassion for your fellow man. You will do something kind for your wife and be a good father to your children.”
“I will, Father.”
He then said his act of contrition and left. I must admit to have felt a heavy burden on my heart since that day. Joey’s confessions became a weekly ritual, and I sat, listened, and waved my hand accordingly as he recounted crimes and details that might make your stomach turn. The city around us was falling apart, and it felt like Joey and I were just superfluous dust meandering through a wellspring of urban decay. Not even baseball could cheer me up. The Mets were in the gutter and the Yankees had Dave Winfield who could never come through in the clutch. The city itself just seems to be decaying every time I turn around to look at it. Depravity runs wild on the streets, and fewer and fewer young people come to church on Sunday morning. More and more it’s become a haven for perfume soaked spinsters and widows. They need someone to reassure them that their lives mean something, and I sell the snake oil they need at just the right time to prevent them from losing their minds. The kind smiles they offer me disguise lifetimes of despair and self-serving sacrifice. It’s become harder and harder to disguise my own contempt of it all.
The one comfort I have in this life is the knowledge that on the day Joey Colonzo dies, the moment his life extinguishes, he’ll know he will have been had. He won’t see a light. He won’t see St. Peter. His consciousness will vanish into the ether just as everyone else does. He’ll dissolve into the same nothingness as his victims and my knowledge of that makes me feel good about what I do. I provide a service. Without religion, this city would have decayed decades or even centuries ago. Men like me provide a service to keep society from complete self-destruction. Men like Joey Calonzo would have no sense of morality whatsoever and they would kill for sport instead of killing to fulfill a contract. I’ve done more for this city than God ever could.
After all those gory confessions of murders, torturings, and fighting, I’ve become almost numb to it. Instead, in our recent sessions I’ve come to let him breeze past those mortal sins and had him tell me more about his affair with Tina Vitale. If one didn’t know better, after the first few minutes it might appear as if our confessions transformed into a gossip column. He’d tell me about all the wonderful things he bought her and about how he can’t stop thinking of her. He wrote her love poems, and I truly came to believe that he genuinely loved her despite his status as a sociopath.
It’s amazing how a man capable of such ugly behavior could turn around and almost appear human. Tina’s mother passed away of cancer recently. Joey not only paid for the funeral but he also bought the most beautiful pendant for Tina’s mother to be buried with. The damn thing must have cost about 20 grand, and it looked as beautiful as anything I had ever seen. On it he had an inscription which read, “I will forever abide in Christ as he abides in me.” During the wake, the mourners were all invited to lift it slightly from the body’s chest to admire it and declare how beautiful it was and how peaceful Mrs. Vitale looked as she wore it in the casket. In fact, everything about it was beautiful and graceful. It was as if her dead body had become this adorable accessory to this beautiful jewelry. I performed the ceremony taking on my usual somber reflective tone for such occasions. My performance was exquisitely convincing, the body rested in all its peaceful glory, and the faces of the mourners took on a surrealist impression. Everything was as it should be.
As I finished my final blessing, I looked into Tina’s eyes and then I looked into Joey’s eyes and said, “Surely, she will find life everlasting as will each of us who believes in our lord, Jesus Christ.”
Joey held Tina in his embrace and nodded reverently. Tina tried to suppress her tears and buried her face into Joey’s arm. I embraced them both, held them in my arms, and said, “Don’t fret, Tina. Think of the saying on the pendant and let that give you comfort.”
Tina replied, “But those are just words. I don’t even know what it means”
Joey Calonzo looked to me for a sage response, but I merely stood back, smiled, nodded, and left. I could still hear him call out to me as I approached the doors. I tried not to listen. Instead, I focused on the rain pouring down like pellets fired from a careless carbine. The gutters would soon be awash with fresh waters from the heavens. The streets would be cleared of those who wished to get away from the torrential downpour, and for a brief time the city would be still with the exception of the rain. The parked cars would remain parked and the street corners would be clear of drug dealers and would-be muggers. The prostitutes would abandon the streets and the wind and the rain would force all sins to be committed indoors far from the omniscient sight of their neglectful God. For that moment, I felt truly free, truly peaceful, and I relished the relative solitude I was about to have for myself upon clearing the archway until my senses awakened and I heard his voice. It was clear as day and could penetrate any distance. “Bless you, Father,” he said. I could feel the eyes on my back so I turned around, smiled, waved my hand and said, “May the peace of the Lord be with you always.” Afterwards, I returned to the rectory, retired to bed and prayed. I prayed for dear life that there should not be a God.