Suzette Martinez Standring: First confession leads to new secret

Suzette Martinez Standring More Content Now

My Catholic first Communion was circa 1962. I was 7-years-old, but my first confession was the stepping stone, which brings back dress rehearsals and the sins of omission.

We second-graders had to cleanse our souls through confession before receiving the Body of Christ at Communion. Easing one’s conscience officially would happen in the confessional, a somewhat spooky-looking structure to my 7-year-old eyes. The confessional is like three small closets pressed together at the back of the church. Here’s the process: A priest sits inside the center one, with a small screened window on both side walls to hear a confession from either adjoining room. I’d enter one through the lush and mysterious purple drapes.

In the classroom Sister Margaret dispelled all mysteries: Go in, kneel down. Memorize saying, “Father I have sinned, this is my first confession,” followed by a list of personal failings. Penance is pronounced, that is, prayers to be said in atonement. Go in peace.

This was how it was done in 1962.

“Now let’s practice!” Sister Margaret commanded. She sat down at her desk, and little penitents took turns kneeling next to her to have a go at unburdening their souls.

“Do I have to tell you my real sins?” asked Laurie, a rebel at 7.

“No, make them up,” said the nun.

It was a false sense of privacy. After all, our garden variety sins might be disobedience or fighting with a sibling. What exactly would we make up?

“I set fire to the house.” “I robbed a bank.” “I offed my sister.”

No, a kid is going to keep it pretty close to the truth. “I thought about offing my sister.” “I ate too much candy.”

First Confession day found me anxious. I hoped to remember the “Bless me, Father” opener and each of my five sins. Did I lie two times and fight with my sister six times? Or did I fight with her six times and fib to my mother four times?

Particularly shameful would be confessing to “saying a bad word,” having told my sister, “You’re ugly.” Maybe I won’t.

Suddenly it was my turn through the purple drapes. Kneeling down, I recited all. Silence. Hmm. I barely reached the screened window. I stood up and stage whispered into the window. Again nothing.

I put my ear to the panel just in time to hear classmate “Julian” confess to “being impure.” I pulled away, my ears scorched by the fires of hell. Am I supposed to confess hearing that, too?

Suddenly, the window slid open on my side. Oh! Nobody told me it had to open!

“Yes, my child?” said the voice behind the screen.

I stammered through, opting to come clean with “You’re ugly,” but stayed mum on overhearing Julian’s impurity.

I never told anyone as I feared gossip would compound the sin. That was hard. Yet it was early training to keep a secret. Full disclosure: Until now.

— Email Suzette Martinez Standring at