THE BEST SINNER
The following is a true story. However, due to my sacred vows, I am required to keep the details secret. The incident occurred somewhere in upstate New York. There are three main actors in this revelation; a young priest (with minimal experience), a parish priest (with great experience) and a male confessor who appeared frequently in the confessional booth. Well, in reality, he was not a frequent visitor in the confessional (at first) but he tried diligently to increase his lackluster performance in that respect. Likewise, in reality and initially, he was not an extremely good sinner; but he worked very hard at becoming one. It will soon become apparent to the reader how much effort he put into this goal.
(Let us begin the story) It was about 8:00 P.M. on a Saturday night when the young priest returned to the parish house. The older parish priest noticed that he was quiet and pre-occupied with something.
“How did you do in confessions tonight?” the older priest asked; hoping to start a conversation regarding whatever was bothering the younger one.
“Oh, OK. Nothing special” was the short, but not terse, reply.
The remainder of the evening wore on rather quietly. Something was eating at the young priest but the older one could not seem to break open the conversation. They watched the remainder of a basketball game together and then repaired to their individual sleeping quarters.
The next morning there were two masses scheduled. The young priest was on tap for celebrating both masses and the parish priest was responsible for coming up with a homily and helping to serve the Eucharist at communion. The older one noticed that the young priest seemed somewhat agitated during communion.
The actions of the young priest had bothered the parish priest over the last two days. He thought about attempting to open the conversation again but hesitated to do so. Remembering that the two of them had planned an early tee time for golf on Monday the older priest decided to let it go; hoping that a more opportune time would arise.
They awoke at the scheduled hour and consumed a nice breakfast of bacon, eggs, home fries and English Muffins with butter and strawberry jam. The parish priest warned the younger one “If you are not careful you will look just like me in a few years.”
The younger one joked back “Well, as long as I don’t start acting like you; asking everyone to pledge $600 for repairs every year; I will manage.”
They both had a big laugh at each others expense and that was just fine with both of them. The diocese was amazed at how well the two were getting along. After all, the last six new priests assigned to this parish had all asked to be transferred as soon as possible. One young priest had even abandoned the priesthood when his transfer was delayed for twelve months.
The diocese could not seem to put their finger on any specific problem that may have been causing these rifts between the older parish priest and the new younger ones. The parish priest was one of those people who had been hard on himself and therefore very hard on the new incoming priests. It was that age old problem of one generation not being able to get along with the other generation. The diocese had warned the current new young priest but he indicated that he could find a way to make it work; and he apparently did.
During the Monday morning golf outing the two priests were swinging and hacking and making a terrible mess of the greens (but having a lot of fun picking on each other). An opening came up for the parish priest to quiz the young one about last Saturday’s confessions.
“You seemed troubled last Saturday night. Something was apparently occupying your mind but you were not ready to talk about it. Would it be less troubling for us to discuss it today?”
“You know Tom (of course that was the older parish priest’s name, Tom), I am glad that you asked. Something did happen in the confessional Saturday night and I did not, and I still do not, know what to make of it. Someone could be having a lot of fun with me but I hope not.”
“Bill, (likewise, the younger priest was William) I surely am not asking you to give me any specific names or sins but whatever you can talk about, I am willing to listen to.”
Father Bill opened up like the safety valve on a nuclear plant. He related to Father Tom what had been bothering him.
“I just don’t know what to make of it! It was a typical Saturday night of confessions; kids were telling me the sins of kids and husbands were telling me the sins of husbands. Wives, I think, were making up sins because they really had none. The last person in the confessional, he must have waited to be last in line, told me a deeply disturbing story and an even stranger plan.”
“This man, I think he was quite young, told me that he had studied the Catechism during his years as a parochial school student. He was convinced of the validity of what he had learned during that twelve year period. He had, and still has, the deepest faith in one of our Christian beliefs. That is, if he was absolved of sin, in the confessional, then God would also absolve him.”
Father Tom responded to the younger priest “Bill, that does not seem to strange to me. In fact it is a belief of all of us who partake in confession. You know that.”
“But Tom” continued Bill, “That is not even the beginning of the story. The confessor went on to inform me that after twelve years of Catholic parochial school he attended a college in the New York State University system. During his second year there he read an essay by one Frederich Nietzsche, ‘The Anti-Christ.’ I was surprised that we had not been exposed to this story while we were studying for the priesthood. It seems as though it would have helped me to understand this confused young man.”
“Bill, you should not bother yourself to much about not having that background. The young man will soon find his way through all the literature that is thrown at him. I just wish it was a more balanced set of literature that the University was offering these young people.”
“But Tom” continued Bill (it always seems as though Bill had to use a ‘BUT TOM’ in his attempts to override Tom’s interruptions). “I am hardly into the beginning of Saturday night’s story. The young fellow told me that after reading the first forty-five sections of the ‘Anti-Christ’ he was convinced that there were some troubling questions about Saint Paul. He also stated that from section 46 and on, in that same essay, Nietzsche appeared a little too strident.”
“Listen Bill” interrupted Tom again, “This will not be the last time you get blind-sided in the confessional. These young people are reading and talking about things that neither you nor I would have been exposed to in a lifetime.”
“But Tom” echo-interrupted Bill (on a regular basis by this time) “Hear me out. There is a lot more to this.”
By this time both of the men had put their clubs aside and sat on a bench located at the fourth tee. Other players were building up behind them as they talked. It seemed like a good idea to let the others play through. This would also give Bill a chance (hopefully) to finish the story without interruptions.
Father Bill continued, “Tom, this young man has a good Catholic education and is earning what I hope is a good university education. He thought so and I had to agree with him. However, now that the two educations are, at times, opposing each other on the subject of morality he has a dichotomy of his ‘self’.”
“It sounds like this young fellow is quite the philosopher” responded Father Tom.
“Yes. I think you have hit the nail on the head. However, I think the nail has hardly been hammered enough” responded Father Bill.
“Why do you say such a thing?” asked the older priest. “Is there more?”
“Yes, more, a lot more” answered the younger one.
“Glory be to Jesus! What more could there be?” wondered Father Tom aout loud.
Father Bill continued. “He has also read another of Nietzsche’s essays. This one is called the ‘Genealogy of Morals’. This essay told him that humankind is on the trajectory of a downward spiral. Guess who Nietzsche places the blame on? We Christians; especially the organized church. He claims that self denial is the cause of this degeneration and this asceticism turns humanity’s individualism into anger against itself. This leads to the premise that instinct may be better than morals. Can you see where this young confessor is going with this?”
“To be perfectly frank, Bill, it scares the hell out of me” responded Father Tom. “I hope there is not more to this confession; IS THERE?”
Father Bill continued on. “Oh yes, a lot more. This young man now has to prove his Catholic faith to himself but he is convinced that he has to play the game with Nietzsche’s rules. It looks like an impossible task to me. The young fellow is very logical about the whole situation. Here is his plan; by the numbers.
1) Each week he will break one commandment.
2) After breaking this commandment he will make extensive notes regarding:
a) how he felt about it as he was breaking the commandment
b) how well he slept that night [this would be an indicator of guilt, if any]
c) how he felt about the act the next day
d) how he thought about sin just prior to confession
e) how well he thought the sin was forgiven in the confessional
The young priest was not yet done with the story. “In this way he feels that he can judge what was learned in the catholic schools versus what he has learned by reading Nietzsche.”
“But this leaves so many open questions how could he ever make a decision?” blurted out Father Tom.
“He seems very comfortable with his decision to carry this risky plan out to the end” said Father Bill. “He will have tested Nietzsche by avoiding self denial and committing sins. On the other hand he will have tested God by determining if his sins have been absolved in the confessional booth. This puts me in a very uncomfortable position because I know that he is intentionally committing a sin but on the other hand it may stop him from ever committing that sin again. He may turn out to be the best Catholic instead of the best sinner.”
“Be careful Father Bill, be very careful. This young man may be quite unbalanced” said Father Tom.
“Well, if he is, he is also a very good sociopath. He has me convinced that his plan is logical and that he really believes in the test of God versus Nietzsche” answered Father Bill.
“BUT . .. …” interrupted Father Tom with one of his best interruptions ever. “You said in the beginning that he wishes to break ALL of the commandments. Did you really think that he meant all of them? God bless both of us if that is the case.”
The younger priest said in a low and very sad voice, “Yes, . .. … every last one of them”
The two men finished their game of golf with little discussion, no humor and deeply saddened hearts. Both of them were silent on the drive back to the parish.
The following Saturday evening each of the priests knew what the other was thinking. Confessions came and went that evening but Father Bill was afraid to speak and Father Tom was afraid to ask. Sunday morning brought the same anxiousness for Father Bill. Father Tom knew that the young confessor’s plan had been put into motion.
During next Monday’s golf outing Father Tom was informed by Father Bill of the outcome. “Well, he broke the first commandment. He deliberately had other Gods before him. He built alters to three gods of ancient religions and executed their sacraments. The young man said that two of the gods had no hold over him but the third god awoke some unknown emotion in him. He felt that it was a ‘good’ emotion. He also said it was a strong, almost instinctive, feeling to do something great; almost like he was on the edge of greatness himself.”
“And was he deeply sorry for his sin?” asked Father Bill.
“Well . .. … he was sorry that he had to break a commandment” responded the younger priest.
“And . .. … did you absolve him of his sin?” Father Tom asked rather testily.
“I did” stated the younger priest rather strongly.
“And . .. … what is the agenda for next week” asked the older priest quite stridently.
“He is going to ‘make for himself an idol’.”
“And are you going to absolve him for that also?” asked Father Tom incredulously.
“We will see, we will see” responded Father Bill.
I relate this story to you in quite an appended form. You do realize, don’t you, that this process took at least ten weeks. And that is the way it went week after week, the young priest, the young confessor, and the older priest as the second guesser. All three beings of this strange play acted in real human terms, in real human time and real human agony. All of them played their own parts in this hideous test of God versus Nietzsche.
The young man was absolved of “making for himself an idol”.
“But a singer named ‘MADONNA?’ Of all that is sacred why select her for an idol?” asked the older priest.
The young priest shrugged his shoulders and raised his palms upward as if to say “It is beyond me, but hardly a great sin.” Then out loud he re-stated (as if it were even necessary) “I absolved him of his sin.”
The third week the young man tested “using Gods name in vain.”
He was absolved.
Score; Nietzsche three – God three.
Week four and five; the young man skipped Sunday mass and therefore “did not keep the Sabbath holy.” Likewise he missed his opportunity for Holy Communion. The absolution he had received for “not honoring his father and mother” was wiped out.
Score; Nietzsche three – God five.
No hits, no runs, two errors.
Week six; he stole goods from the university; Absolved
Week seven; he falsely blamed the crime on a secretary. Absolved
Week eight; he coveted his student advisor’s wife. Absolved
Week nine; he slept with his advisor’s wife. Absolved
Father Tom had finally lost his patience with the young priest. “Absolved, absolved, absolved! Have you thought this through? Did you talk to him? Did you council him? Did he seem repentant? This has gone on long enough. Are you going to absolve him of that greatest sin . .. … …. ‘Thou shalt not commit murder’?”
Father Bill was at a loss for words. They completed holes four and five without speaking. Father Bill was three and four over par on the two holes (respectively). Father Tom was six over par on each of the two holes.
Father Tom spoke first. “Listen Bill, this young confessor is on the edge of doing something that will ruin the rest of his life. If he is caught at the crime then he will surely ruin his life. If not, he won’t be able to live with himself.”
“What do you suggest I do?” asked Father Bill.
“With all due respect, Bill, I think I need to take this situation out of your hands” responded Father Tom.
“You can’t do that. Really, you just can’t rip this situation away from me. I have worked on it for ten weeks now.” But this plea of Father Bills was ignored by the older priest.
“I am sorry Bill, but this is the way it will have to be” responded Father Tom. “I do not know if even I, with my greater experience and determination, can handle this one correctly”
And so it was. The next Saturday night Father Tom took Father Bill’s place in the confessional booth. The normal sins were heard from the kids, the fathers and the wives.
Father Tom had to wait for some time before the last confessor entered the other side of the booth. As hard as Father Tom studied the face in the darkness he could not make it out.
The man in the other side of the booth finally said “Bless me Father, for I am about to sin!”
Father Tom thought to himself, “Yes, this is the young man, he is ‘about to sin!”
The priest then said to the young man “You have not committed the sin yet?”
“No Father, not yet.”
“Can we talk about the sin and perhaps avoid this near occasion of sin?” requested the old priest.
“No Father.” responded the voice on the other side of the booth.
And with that the young man aimed a pistol at the priest and pulled the trigger; six times.
The silencer did its job; “Piff, piff, piff, piff, piff, piff.”
The old priest slumped in a pile on his side of the confessional booth.
The young man walked out of his side of the booth.
The church was empty except for Father Bill standing about five pews away.
Father Bill said (quite calmly) “Congratulations on getting your revenge against him for making you abandon the priesthood.”
The young man said “And congratulations to you on your new position of parish priest.”
They shook hands, smiled (knowingly), and went their separate ways.