Clarice James

Smart, Fun, Relatable Fiction


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Speaking of the Pope and Things Catholic . . .

With Pope Francis’s visit to the United States upon us, I’ve been thinking back on my childhood. I was raised in a large Catholic family on Cape Cod. During my formative years, we attended St. Francis Xavier Church in Hyannis. The name may sound familiar to you because it was the same church where Jack and Jackie Kennedy attended Mass in the summer, where Arnold and Maria got married, and where Eunice Kennedy Shriver was eulogized.

Jackie Arnold etc

For some reason, all the talk of the Pope has stirred my conscience. I’ve been convicted to confess a sin I’ve been holding back for decades. Even flying under the radar as a hand-raising Protestant for the last 35 years has not removed this last bit of Catholic guilt.

My memory is kind of fuzzy, but I’ll do my best to recount the event accurately—then I’ll use literary license (which is not considered lying, by the way). Here’s what I remember about that day.

St. Francis 1950s

St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA

It was still cold out, maybe a few days before Easter–one of the two major holidays which warranted two priests and all four confessional booths. The church was packed. There were three pews full of people ahead of us.

My mother and three of my five siblings were there. I was around ten, maybe. I specifically recall wearing a dress under my winter jacket. I remember my mother’s long, powder blue coat. I always loved that coat on her.

In church, my mother always looked holy to me. She knelt with her back straight, never resting her bum on the seat like less disciplined parishioners. She bowed her head without hunching her shoulders, and folded her hands like an artist would paint them. 

Her children, however, did not. We wiggled and squiggled. Especially that day, the day I interrupted my mother’s holy pose with a whisper.

Me: “I have to go to the bathroom.”

Mom: “You’ll have to wait.”

Kennedy Plaque on Pew

Plaque on the Kennedy family pew

Me: “I can’t wait.”

Mom: “We’ll lose our turn.”

Me: “Can’t I go by myself?”

Mom: “No, because if you leave you’ll have to go to the end of the line. Besides, your father is waiting.”

Me: “But Mom—”

Mom: Shh. We’re almost there.”

All I could see was the 27 people in front of us—some of them old.  And old people always had more to confess, I knew that much.

By some miracle I made it safely into the confessional booth and knelt gratefully on the soft, red velveteen kneeler.

Seconds before the priest slid the tiny door open, I peed my pants.

St. Francis Xavier Church Hyannis

Follow the arrow, then skip this booth.

Mortified and petrified–if not physically relieved– I confessed the sins I had on my list—except the latest one. Once I received my penance (three Hail Marys and two Our Fathers), I rushed back, crying, to tell my mother. Without a word, she maneuvered my brother into the second booth and went into the booth I had vacated.

As only a mother would do, she soaked up the wet with her powder blue coat, then calmly confessed her sins, and went to the altar for her due penance.

I still have questions about that day. Did the people who used the confessional booth after us blame the person ahead of them for their wet knees? Was one of them a Kennedy? Did the Secret Service investigate?  Did they replace the velveteen? Am I the reason the bishop Gerrymandered the parish lines so we had to attend a different church the next year?

Recently,I asked my mother about this traumatic event. She said she didn’t remember it. How could a mother not remember one of her kids peeing in a confessional booth? Were we that bad that this was a minor offense easily blotted from her memory?

Perhaps God gives mothers a selective memory to keep them sane. Or does He bless them with the ability to throw their children’s sins as far as the east is from the west?

Finally, let me do what I came to do: “Forgive me Father for I have sinned. I am sorry for my sin of emission.”

For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. ~ Psalm 103:11-12 (NIV)