by Michael Moran
Mary Margaret McBride was a devout Catholic and a prominent parishioner at the Church of the Immaculate Conception. She went to mass every morning and to confession every Saturday. Most people felt that the sins she confessed on those Saturdays must have been those of thought because her words and deeds were always in keeping with the tenets of her faith. She had six children all of whom had attended or were currently enrolled in Catholic schools or colleges. Today, however, Mary Margaret was worried about one of those children.
Her youngest son, Bobby, now a freshman at Holy Redeemer Academy, was basically a good kid, but he had always shown a rebellious streak. Recently Mary Margaret noted a troublesome change in his behavior. Instead of going to confession at the Immaculate Conception, Bobby was confessing his sins at St. Rocco’s church in the next town. To most people, where one chooses to go to confession may not seem like a reason for concern. However, in this part of the country, Catholic churches reflected the predominant nationality of their parishioners. The Immaculate Conception was considered an Irish church, St. Stanislaus on the other end of town was Polish, and St. Rocco’s across the river was an Italian church. To the Protestants in the area, Catholic was Catholic, but many of Catholic faithful would drive miles out of their way to attend church with their own kind. The McBride family had always structured their lives around the Immaculate Conception church, and for Bobby to start going to confession somewhere else was a concern.
The fact that Bobby had chosen St. Rocco’s was particularly galling to Mary Margaret. Although she believed it to be a sin and probably owned up to it in those Saturday confessions, she just did not care much for Italians. She blamed them for the fact there was never an Irish Pope. She often referred to the members of the Holy Name Society at St. Rocco’s as “made men” as if they were members of a crime family. But those who knew Mary Margaret best knew that her animosity toward the people of St. Rocco’s was not rooted in papal politics or Mafia allegations, but in jealousy over sausage sandwiches.
Every summer most of the churches in the area sponsored festivals or bazaars where ethnic foods were a central attraction. Mary Margaret always chaired the planning committee for the annual shindig at the Immaculate Conception. The specialty food of the Immaculate Conception was potato pancakes made from Mary Margaret’s family recipe. The potato pancakes were popular and tasty, but they never received the notoriety of St. Rocco’s sausage and pepper sandwiches. Every year people all over the valley raved about the sausage and pepper sandwiches at St. Rocco’s. The sandwiches even received mention in a regional travel guide. All of that so infuriated Mary Margaret that she never ate sausage or peppers in any form, always sneering, “They give me gas.” She prayed for forgiveness and asked God to make her more charitable toward the people of St. Rocco’s but she just could not get past her feeling.
For her son now to begin receiving one of the sacraments at this church of Sicilian sausage makers just did not set well with Mary Margaret. Why was he doing this? Could it be that he was attracted to one of those cute Italian girls? She hoped not. She did not fancy the idea of having grandchildren named Vito, Guido, or Salvatore. When she finally asked Bobby why he went to St. Rocco’s, he said that he liked to play basketball behind the church with some of the guys from that parish. Because Bobby had never been much of a basketball fan, she remained suspicious.
One Saturday afternoon Mary Margaret followed Bobby and some of his friends to St. Rocco’s. Wearing a hat with a black veil that covered her face, she slipped into the back of the church to watch the people at the confessionals in the front. She noticed something odd. Bobby and his friends we willing to wait in line at one confessional, that of Father Tomassetti, rather than going to another one that was open. Her curiosity was now piqued to an even greater level. Although it posed a moral dilemma for her, she began trying to listen to conversations between Bobby and his friends.
About a week later Bobby and some of the neighborhood boys were watching a ball game in the family room in the McBride’s basement. Mary Margaret, upstairs in the living room, was down on her hands and knees with her ear close to the air duct in an effort to hear some of the conversation among the boys. Between the play-by-play announcer on the TV and the generally poor conduction through the air vents, Mary Margaret could hear only bits and pieces of the boys’ conversation. She heard Jimmy Murphy say, “It’s not right to do it with anybody let alone a priest.” Another voice said, “We’ll probably go to Hell.” Then amidst loud cheering from the ballgame on TV she was certain she heard the word “AIDS.”
Mary Margaret recoiled from the air duct as if she had received a jolt of electricity. “Oh my God!” she exclaimed to no one in particular. She had read with disgust about the scandals in the Church related to inappropriate behavior by priests, but she never thought anything like that could happen in her community. Could there be something like this involving her son and a priest? Holding her head with one hand and her stomach with the other, she walked in circles for several minutes then, staring up at the picture of the Blessed Virgin that was displayed on her wall flanked by pictures of John and Robert Kennedy, she decided to do what she always did in times of crisis, go to the family priest.
She hurried off to the rectory without so much as a phone call to warn of her arrival. She had to see the rector, Father John Conlin. Father Conlin, who reminded those of a certain age of Spencer Tracy in the movie Boys Town, was a wise and compassionate man beloved by young and old alike. He was not surprised to see Mary Margaret at his door in a state of panic. Such visits had become an all too frequent ritual over the years. In most cases Mary Margaret’s concerns were diffused with some calming talk and a cup of Earl Grey tea. For example, there was the time when her oldest son, on the day of his first communion, forgot about the three hour fast then required before taking communion and had absent mindedly eaten an M&M as the family was preparing to go to church. Mary Margaret feared that she would have to pull the boy out of the first communion ceremony. Father Conlin assured her that there was a special dispensation for children and bridegrooms allowing them to break the fast. This of course was baloney, but Conlin knew that God would not be offended by a seven-year-old who ate an M&M. Then there was the time that Mary Margaret was upset because her daughter Marie was dating a Jewish boy. She ran to Father Conlin asking, “Isn’t it true that Jews have no better chance of getting into Heaven than they do of getting into the local county club?” Father Conlin assured her that there were Jews in both Heaven and in Fox Hill Country Club. “As a matter of fact,” he told her, “I play golf at the club with Rabbi Silverstein once a month.” It turned out that the name of the boy that Marie was dating was Cone and not Cohen and that he was not Jewish but Methodist. That only made Mary Margaret a bit less uneasy because Methodist or Jew, he still wasn’t Catholic.
Today however, Mary Margaret’s fears could be set aside so easily. Few years ago Father Conlin would not have thought anything of Bobby’s behavior. But he too had been appalled by the recent scandals in the Church and, although he knew Silvio Tomassetti to be a good priest, he felt that the issue could not simply be dismissed.
“Mary Margaret, I’m sure that this is not anything to be concerned about. But, we should get to the bottom of it quickly. Please tell Bobby come over to talk with me this afternoon.”
Shortly thereafter a knock came at the rectory door.
“Hi Father, What’s up?”
“Come in and sit down. Bobby, your mother tells me that you have been going to confession at St. Rocco’s.”
Bobby, squirming a bit in his seat responded, “Yes Father.”
“And I understand that you confess only to Father Tomassetti, is that right?”
His face starting to turn a bit red, Bobby managed a barely audible “Uhuh.”
“Bobby let’s cut through the malarkey, I want you to tell me if there is anything that I should know regarding your friends and Father Tomassetti.”
Now, his voice trembling, Bobby said “Father, If I tell you what we’ve been doing, you’ll tell me we’re going to Hell.”
With a knot in his stomach and his most stern expression on his face, Father Conlin said “Bobby, you won’t go to hell you’re just a boy, but it is important that you tell me what is going on.”
“Well,” Bobby said, “Some friends at St. Rocco’s told us that Father Tomassetti was losing his hearing and if you go to confession and whisper your sins he can’t hear you. He won’t admit that he can’t hear so no matter what you confess, he always gives you the same penance, five Our Fathers, five Hail Marys and a good Act of Contrition, and no lectures. So we started going to confession to Father Tomassetti because we knew we could tell him anything and he wouldn’t hear it.”
With the knot in his stomach beginning to loosen, Father Conlin said, “Your mother thought she heard one of friends mention AIDS, did she hear correctly?”
“Yes, Father, the Bishop told Father Tomassetti that he should get hearing aids. Since he got those aids he hears everything you say in confession. So we might as well just go to you for confession. No offense Father. Father, am I going to Hell?”
Putting his head down to try to hide the smile that was slowly spreading across his face, Father Conlin said, “No Bobby, you’re not going to Hell. But when I tell you mother what you were doing I’m afraid you’ll think you’re in Hell. See you at mass Sunday.”