Saint George’s school is a two story, red brick building in the Georgetown district of South Seattle. In 1946 it had eight grades, four on the ground floor and four on the second. Each school day began with students marching silently into school in two files, one for boys and the other for girls, grade ones leading and grade eights last. Up the stone steps they marched, past the principal, Sister Mary Justin a symbol of authority with her arms folded, and past the wind-up Victrola playing John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” at full volume.
On this day in 1946, Sister Mary Francis is lecturing her grade seven class on “Confession”, a ritual by which Catholics can cleanse their souls and keep themselves prepared to enter Heaven. The students sit up straight with their hands folded on their desk tops. Sister cautions, “If you die with a mortal sin on your soul you will go straight to Hell”. The students have heard all of this before, but Sister knows that the religious duties of the Catholic child must be reinforced through repetition. Sister reminds her students that they must confess their sins, preferably on Saturday, before receiving Holy Communion at Mass on Sunday. She reviews the confession procedure. Wait in line for your turn to enter the confessional. While you wait, review the sins you committed since your last confession. Make a mental list to repeat to the priest when it is your turn. When you have finished confession, say the prayers which the priest has specified as your penance. Do not put it off; do it right away.
She reminds her students that there are two classes of sins, venial and mortal. Mortal sins are really bad and if you are unsure and think that what you have done is really bad, then it is a mortal sin. Your conscience will tell you. Venial sins are not as serious. She gives an example. You are taking a test and you don’t know the answer to a question. You think of sneaking a peek at your classmate’s answer. That is a venial sin. If you actually do peek; you have committed a mortal sin. Sister reminds her students to confess all their sins. To offer only venial sins at confession would raise doubts in the priest’s mind about your honesty.
Jimmy Servizi is a student in this grade seven classroom. He is also an altar boy at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in South Park. Sister Francis refers to altar boys as “acolytes”. Jimmy attends St George’s school because there is no Catholic school in the parish where he lives and his parents want him to have a Catholic education. He lives in a rural area and travels eight miles to school each day. He starts off on a trail through the woods and a mile later reaches a bus stop. He catches a public transit bus to South Park where he transfers to a second transit bus which takes him to Georgetown. Another mile of walking brings him to school. Jimmy doesn’t serve Mass every Sunday, but when he does, his father drives him to confession on Saturday evening so that he may take Holy Communion the next day.
It is Saturday evening and Jimmy is waiting in line for the confessional. He searches his memory for sins committed since his last confession. Did he cheat in games or on tests? Did he fail to feed the chickens and turkeys before leaving for school? Did he fill the wood box? Did he talk back to his parents? Did he have impure thoughts? Did he hit his sister? Did he envy any of his classmates These queries all come up negative. But, he remembers waiting at the bus stop on the way home on Friday, a meatless day for Catholics, when he smelled hot dogs roasting in the corner store and he wished he could have one. That was a venial sin. One venial sin would not be a believable confession. He was next in line at the confessional and he couldn’t think of any meaningful sin. Suddenly, the confessional door opened and it was Jimmy’s turn. He stepped inside, closed the door, kneeled, crossed himself and began, “Forgive me Father for I have sinned. I wished I could have a hot dog on Friday.” There was silence from the other side of the grating, then Father said, “Yes, and….”. Jimmy panicked, then blurted, “Uh, when I was filling cruets for Mass I drank some of the wine”.
Jimmy left the confessional after hearing his penance pronounced. He went to the altar railing, kneeled, blessed himself and said his penance. He walked out of church knowing that next time he would have a real sin to confess. He would have a lie. But if he died before then, he would go straight to Hell.
Based on an actual event
James A. Servizi
January 25, 2015