By Chris Hughes
Michael smiled as he sat in his old parish church, reflecting upon the tricks childhood memories play on adult minds. The building he had remembered as magnificent in his youth seemed small and only modestly impressive so many years later. He had for some time intended to go back to visit Father O’ Sullivan who still held the position of parish priest there. The opportunity presented itself when his work took him to the area where he had lived until he reached the age of sixteen.
Slipping in inconspicuously, he had arrived late for mass and was glad when he saw that Father O’ Sullivan was saying it. Michael was pleased to observe that it was still his practice to wait at the door to bid goodbye to the congregation at the end of the service. He had decided to remain until everybody else had left before making his presence known.
As Father O’Sullivan chatted amiably, Michael settled in for what he knew would be a long wait. As he did so his thoughts took him back to an afternoon, linked to the reason for his return, when he attended church to make his confession. His ten-year-old self had lost track of the date that he had last received the sacrament – so long had it been.
This presented a problem, as he understood that the act of reconciliation with God should take place regularly. Consequently, his plan when he was required to indicate how long it had been since he last made it was to say it had been two weeks. He would then state that in addition to other transgressions he had told lies without giving any details of his dishonesty. He believed he would avoid a scolding for his laxity and then gain instant forgiveness from God for lying about it.
After entering the confessional, he recognised Father O’Sullivan’s gentle tones welcoming him. After Michael had delivered his prepared script, his father confessor said:
“It’s been more than two weeks since your last confession hasn’t it, son?”
“Yes, Father, but it’s all right because I did say I’d told lies”, replied Michael confidently.
“You haven’t found a loophole in the confession process, son. You can’t hoodwink God with a technicality. He knows if you’re truly sorry for your sins.”
“How did you know it wasn’t two weeks, Father? I might have made my last confession then to Father Patterson.”
Father O’Sullivan responded kindly but firmly: “Father Patterson hasn’t taken confessions for over a month because of his other duties and I haven’t heard your voice within the last fortnight. I can also smell a falsehood a mile off. You’re a bright lad but thankfully you’re not a good liar. Come back when you’re genuinely sorry for your sins and next time if you can’t remember when your last confession was, say exactly that.”
Although Michael’s perceived loophole had been thwarted by Father O’Sullivan he didn’t feel crushed. Unaccustomed to compliments, being told he was bright had a joyful effect upon him. He had always liked his parish priest but his admiration for him increased following their exchange in the confessional. Something in the cleric’s manner was comforting and reassuring to the boy. Michael sensed that he had made a connection with another human soul in a way that was completely new to him.
Much to Michael’s delight, Father O’Sullivan paid one of his regular visits to his school two days later and spoke to his class about various religious topics. Normally a disengaged pupil, Michael asked so many questions Father O’Sullivan told him after the lesson that if he had any further queries he could make an appointment to see him at church. His eager young parishioner did so and they had a meeting, which became the first of many in which they discussed a wide range of subjects.
Michael enjoyed challenging his newfound confidant with arguments he would put forward vociferously. Father O’ Sullivan frequently told him he should consider a legal career when he grew up as he could envision him eloquently addressing a judge in court. Whenever he saw Michael coming, he would say: “Here comes my lawyer.” It became their private joke as the child became closer to the priest, realising he could talk to him in a way he couldn’t to his inattentive parents.
Michael’s saunter down memory lane was curtailed by the sound of his former mentor ebulliently saying farewell to the last to leave. At that point, Michael approached him.
“It’s…it’s…Michael isn’t it?” said Father O’ Sullivan warmly. “How wonderful to see you again. Come through to the house.”
Relieved that he hadn’t been forgotten, Michael followed him, declining his offer of tea.
“How long is it since you moved away, Michael?”
“That long? Do you know why I recall you in particular?”
“I think so, Father but I’d like you to tell me.”
“Because you were my lawyer. Do you remember?”
“Of course”, said Michael, as the two laughed. “You always called me that. You also told me I was a gifted orator. I didn’t even know what that meant the first time you said it until you explained it. It felt then like you were the only person who took an interest in me. My parents never had time for me. They weren’t quite the people they seemed in church on a Sunday.”
Realising that sad memories had been awakened, Father O’Sullivan changed the subject.
“What are you up to these days?”
“Well it’s ironic Father, but I became a solicitor. You always calling me a lawyer and commending me for my debating skills inspired something in me.”
“Does it make you happy, Michael?”
“Sometimes. Not all the time but I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
“Are you married?
“Yes, happily and I’ve got two boys.”
“That’s grand”, said Father O’Sullivan with a sense of pleasure that was almost palpable.
“I came today, Father to thank you. You were kind to me when I needed it. You were someone I could turn to when there was no one else. You even influenced my choice of career. I used to love our discussions. You always talked to me, not at me, like an equal and you listened to me. Adults often don’t really listen to children. You made me feel I was intelligent. I buckled down to my schoolwork because of you. It broke my heart when we moved away because I knew I wouldn’t see you any more. I’m grateful to you for so many things and I just wanted to say it.”
Michael felt an instant sense of relief. He had finally spoken words he had rehearsed for years and done so without crying- but only just. Father O’ Sullivan looked as if he might lose his composure but recovered, saying:
“That means a lot to me, Michael but I hope I influenced you in a religious sense. Do you go to mass? None of your clever answers now-the truth.”
“Not as often as I should do, Father.”
“Then I’m glad you came to see me. It’s time for us to have one of our talks again.”