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Friday, June 27, 2008

The first pope to forgive sins?

By Sean M. Wright

Immaculate Heart of Mary Church on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood has excellent acoustics. I know this only too well.

June 29, the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, falls on Sunday. By a trick of the calendar, exactly 50 years earlier, June 29, 1958, the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul was also celebrated a Sunday and, because of its high ranking, the feast superseded the Mass of the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost.

That Sunday morning, at the 9 o'clock Children's Mass, Yours Humbly, a third grade student at Immaculate Heart of Mary School, all of eight years old, was listening to the Epistle and Gospel delivered by crotchety old Father John O'Donnell.

Short and feisty, his bald head circled with snowy white, puffball-hair, Father O'Donnell, the very Irish pastor of Immaculate Heart looked benign. It was a sham. We shunned his confessional because he'd ask if we had a rosary handy. It always turned out to be the penance.

Following the reading of the Gospel ("Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build My Church"), Father O'Donnell made announcements that always ended with recitation of the Hail Mary "for those who have died in the service of our country." A long list of names of the honored dead from the parish stood at the foot of the statue of the Sacred Heart for all to see.

Warmed up for the main event, Father O'Donnell began his sermon. At the Children's Mass this took the form of quizzing the students gathered in the front pews. Father O'Donnell fixed his blue eyes on us and leaned forward, his arm resting on the rim of the dark oak pulpit.
"Who was the first pope to forgive sins?"

There is a rather neat symmetry to the question. Well, I'd made my first Communion. I was no dummy; I had listened to the Gospel about who had been given the keys of the kingdom. The answer, of course, was St. Peter. My arm shot up.

Father O'Donnell called on me. I stood. Little did I realize I was taking the bait in a fowler's trap set for the unwary.

On top of that, I misspoke and confused the name of the Prince of the Apostles. So, instead of answering "St. Peter" as I had intended my eight-year-old voice rang out loud and clear, enhanced by the lovely parish acoustics: "St Patrick, Father."

As the words fell from my lips, I knew I was undone.

For those of you used to applauding and chatting in Catholic churches, I should explain that no one in America ever thought of intentionally making noise in church in the 1950s. Parishioners never spoke aloud in church. For sure, no one ever clapped and, even more certainly, people never laughed aloud in a Catholic church for fear of losing their immortal souls.

But on this day, the parishioners' side-splitting laughter erupted with a spontaneous hilarity that was thunderous and prolonged.

Father O'Donnell, with superb timing, allowed the mirth to subside before answering in his thick brogue, "Well, I won't say you're right … but I won't say you're wrong."

More merriment. My face was ten shades of scarlet.

A fifth grade boy gave the right answer: No pope ever forgave sin, only God can forgive sin. Father O'Donnell nodded, emphasizing, "No priest, no bishop, no pope ever forgave one single solitary sin. Acting for Jesus, we grant absolution in His Name but only God can forgive sins."

Eh? What's that? I thought. O Lord, that's right. I was doubly undone and thoroughly mortified. Other questions were asked, other answers given; the rest is a blur. My mother understood my embarrassment and hugged me close as I rejoined her at the conclusion of Mass.

The incident passed into family legend, becoming one of my father's favorite recitatives. A member of the choir, descending from the loft he found Father O'Donnell and apologized for my being "fresh."

"No, no, no," the pastor told him. "Don't you worry about your son. He gave me an opportunity I'll never have again in a t'ousand years!"

In the schoolyard the next week he spoke to me kindly. I tried to explain the mix-up with the names Peter and Patrick. Father O'Donnell said that he understood adding, "Don't ever be afraid to speak up. If you're wrong, I'll set you straight. If you're right, so much the better. Either way, one of us will learn something."

Looking back at the joys given me by my own son, DeForeest, now 18 and away in college, I certainly understand. No wonder Jesus loved children so much. Parents, pastors, teachers --- enjoy the children entrusted to your care. Cherish their mistakes as much as their achievements. We all will learn something.

Sean M. Wright, a lector at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Santa Clarita, conducts workshops, enrichment classes and missions on sacred symbolic art and other Catholic topics throughout the archdiocese.

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