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No words can express to those who
have never had any experience in the matter, the consternation, anxiety and
shame of a poor Romish child, when he hears, for the first time, his priest
saying from the pulpit, in a grave and solemn tone, "This week, you will
send your children to confession. Make them understand that this action is one
of the most important of their lives, and that for every one of them, it will
decide their eternal happiness or misery. Fathers and mothers, if, through your
fault, or his own, your child is guilty of a bad confession if he conceals his
sins and commences lying to the priest, who holds the place of God Himself,
this sin is often irreparable. The devil will take possession of his heart:
he will become accustomed to lie to his father confessor, or rather to Jesus
Christ, of whom he is a representative. His life will be a series of sacrileges;
his death and eternity those of the reprobate. Teach him, therefore, to examine
thoroughly his actions, words and thoughts, in order to confess without disguise."
I was in the church of St. Thomas when these words fell upon me like a thunderbolt.
I had often heard my mother say, when at home and my aunt since I had come to St. Thomas, that upon the first confession depended my eternal happiness or misery. That week was, therefore, to decide about my eternity.
Pale and dismayed, I left the church, and returned to the house of my relatives. I took my place at the table, but could not eat, so much was I troubled. I went to my room for the purpose of commencing my examination of conscience and to recall all my sinful actions, words, and thoughts. Although I was scarcely over ten years of age, this task was really overwhelming for me. I knelt down to pray to the Virgin Mary for help; but I was so much taken up with the fear of forgetting something, and of making a bad confession, that I muttered my prayers without the least attention to what I said. It became still worse when I commenced counting my sins. My memory became confused, my head grew dizzy; my heart beat with a rapidity which exhausted me, and my brow was covered with perspiration. After a considerable length of time spent in those painful efforts, I felt bordering on despair, from the fear that it was impossible for me to remember everything. The night following was almost a sleepless one; and when sleep did come, it could scarcely be called a sleep, but a suffocating delirium. In a frightful dream, I felt as if I had been cast into hell, for not having confessed all my sins to the priest. In the morning, I awoke, fatigued and prostrated by the phantoms of that terrible night. In similar troubles of mind were passed the three days which preceded my first confession. I had constantly before me the countenance of that stern priest who had never smiled upon me. He was present in my thoughts during the day, and in my dreams during the night, as the minister of an angry God, justly irritated against me on account of my sins. Forgiveness had indeed been promised to me, on condition of a good confession; but my place had also been shown to me in hell, if any confession was not as near perfection as possible. Now, my troubled conscience told me that there were ninety-nine chances against one, that my confession would be bad, whether by my own fault I forgot some sins, or I was without that contrition of which I had heard so much, but the nature and effects of which were a perfect chaos in my mind.
Thus it was that the cruel and perfidious Church of Rome took away from my young heart the good and merciful Jesus, whose love and compassion had caused me to shed tears of joy when I was beside my mother. The Saviour whom that church made me to worship, through fear, was not the Saviour who called little children unto Him, to bless them and take them in His arms. Her impious hands were soon to torture and defile my childish heart, and place me at the feet of a pale and severe looking man worthy representative of a pitiless God. I was made to tremble with terror at the footstool of an implacable divinity, while the gospel asked from me only tears of love and joy, shed at the feet of the incomparable Friend of sinners. At length came the day of confession; or rather of judgment and condemnation. I presented myself to the priest.
Mr. Loranger was no longer priest of St. Thomas. He had been succeeded by Mr. Beaubien, who did not favour our school any more than his predecessor. He had even taken upon himself to preach a sermon against the heretical school, by which we had been excessively wounded. His want of love for us, however, I must say, was fully reciprocated.
Mr. Beaubien had, then, the defect of lisping and stammering. This we often turned into ridicule, and one of my favourite amusements was to imitate him, which brought bursts of laughter from us all.
It had been necessary for me to examine myself upon the number of times I had mocked him. This circumstance was not calculated to make my confession easier, or more agreeable.
At last the dreaded moment came. I knelt at the side of my confessor. My whole frame trembled. I repeated the prayer preparatory to confession, scarcely knowing what I said, so much was I troubled by fear.
By the instructions which had been given us before confession, we had been made to believe that the priest was the true representative yes, almost the personification of Jesus Christ. The consequence was, that I believed my greatest sin had been that of mocking the priest. Having always been told that it was best to confess the greatest sin first, I commenced thus: "Father, I accuse myself of having mocked a priest."
Scarcely had I uttered these words, "mocked a priest," when this pretended representative of the humble Saviour, turning towards me, and looking in my face in order to know me better, asked abruptly, "What priest did you mock, my boy?" I would rather have chosen to cut out my tongue than to tell him to his face who it was. I therefore kept silent for a while. By my silence made him very nervous and almost angry. With a haughty tone of voice he said, "What priest did you take the liberty of thus mocking?"
I saw that I had to answer. Happily his haughtiness had made me firmer and bolder. I said, "Sir, you are the priest whom I mocked."
"But how many times did you take upon you to mock me, my boy?"
"I tried to find out," I answered, "but I never could."
"You must tell me how many times; for to mock one's own priest is a great sin."
"It is impossible for me to give you the number of times," answered I.
"Well, my child, I will help your memory by asking you questions. Tell me the truth. Do you think you have mocked me ten times?"
"A great many times more, sir."
"Many more still."
"A hundred times?"
"Say five hundred times, and perhaps more," answered I.
"Why, my boy, do you spend all your time in mocking me?"
"Not all; but unfortunately I do it very often."
"Well may you say unfortunately; for so to mock your priest, who holds the place of our Lord Jesus Christ, is a great misfortune, and a great sin for you. But tell me, my little boy, what reason have you for mocking me thus?"
In my examinations of conscience I had not foreseen that I should be obliged to give the reasons for mocking the priest; and I was really thunderstruck by his questions. I dared not answer, and I remained for a long time dumb, from the shame that overpowered me. But with a harassing perseverance the priest insisted upon my telling why I had mocked him; telling me that I should be damned if I did not tell the whole truth. So I decided to speak, and said, "I mocked you for several things."
"What made you first mock me?" continued the priest.
"I laughed at you because you lisped. Among our pupils of our school, it often happens that we imitate your preaching to excite laughter."
"Have you often done that?"
"Almost every day,especially in our holidays, and since you preached against us."
"For what other reasons did you laugh at me, my little boy?"
For a long time I was silent. Every time I opened my mouth to speak courage failed me. However, the priest continuing to urge me, I said at last, "It is rumoured in town that you love girls; that you visit the Misses Richards every evening, and this often makes us laugh."
The poor priest was evidently overwhelmed by my answer, and ceased questioning me on this subject. Changing the conversation, he said:
"What are your other sins?"
I began to confess them in the order in which they came to my memory. But the feeling of shame which overpowered me in repeating all my sins to this man was a thousand times greater than that of having offended God. In reality this feeling of human shame which absorbed my thought nay, my whole being left no room for any religious feeling at all.
When I had confessed all the sins I could remember, the priest began to ask me the strangest questions on matters about which my pen must be silent. I replied, "Father, I do not understand what you ask me."
"I question you on the sixth commandment (seventh in the Bible). Confess all. You will go to hell, if through your fault you omit anything."
Thereupon he dragged my thoughts to regions which, thank God, had hitherto been unknown to me.
I answered him: "I do not understand you," or "I have never done these things."
Then, skillfully shifting to some secondary matter, he would soon slyly and cunningly come back to his favourite subject, namely, sins of licentiousness.
His questions were so unclean that I blushed, and felt sick with disgust and shame. More than once I had been, to my regret, in the company of bad boys; but not one of them had offended my moral nature so much as this priest had done. Not one of them had ever approached the shadow of the things from which that man tore the veil, and which he placed before the eye of my soul. In vain did I tell him that I was not guilty of such things; that I did not even understand what he asked me; he would not let me off. Like the vulture bent upon tearing the poor bird that falls into his claws, that cruel priest seemed determined to defile and ruin my heart.
At last he asked me a question in a form of expression so bad that I was really pained. I felt as if I had received a shock from an electric battery; a feeling of horror made me shudder. I was so filled with indignation that speaking loud enough to be heard by many, I told him: "Sir, I am very wicked; I have seen, heard and done many things which I regret; but I never was guilty of what you mention to me. My ears have never heard anything so wicked as what they have heard from your lips. Please do not ask me any more of those questions; do not teach me any more evil than I already know."
The remainder of my confession was short. The firmness of my voice had evidently frightened the priest, and made him blush. He stopped short and began to give me some good advice, which might have been useful to me if the deep wounds which his questions had inflicted upon my soul had not so absorbed my thoughts as to prevent me from giving attention to what he said.
He gave me a short penance and dismissed me.
I left the confessional irritated and confused. From the shame of what I had just heard from the mouth of that priest I dared not life my eyes from the ground. I went into a retired corner of the church to do my penance; that is, to recite the prayers he had indicated to me. I remained for a long time in church. I had need of a calm after the terrible trial through which I had just passed. But vainly sought I for rest. The shameful questions which had been asked me, the new world of iniquity into which I had been introduced, the impure phantoms by which my childish heart had been defiled, confused and troubled my mind so strangely that I began to weep bitterly.
Why those tears? Why that desolation? Wept I over my sins? Alas! I confess it was shame, my sins did not call forth these tears. And yet how many sins had I already committed, for which Jesus shed His precious blood. But I confess my sins were not the cause of my desolation. I was rather thinking of my mother, who had taken such good care of me, and who had so well succeeded in keeping away from my thoughts those impure forms of sin, the thoughts of which had just now defiled my heart. I said to myself, "Ah! if my mother had heard those questions; if she could see the evil thoughts which overwhelm me at this moment if she knew to what school she sent me when she advised me in her last letter to go to confession, how her tears would mingle with mine!" It seemed to me that my mother would love me not more that she would see written upon my brow the pollution with which that priest had profaned my soul.
Perhaps the feeling of pride was what made me weep. Or perhaps I wept because of a remnant of that feeling of original dignity whose traces had still been left in me. I felt so downcast by the disappointment of being removed farther from the Saviour by that confessional which had promised to bring me nearer to Him. God only knows what was the depth of my sorrow at feeling myself more defiled and more guilty after than before my confession.
I left the church only when forced to do so by the shades of night, and came to my uncle's house with that feeling of uneasiness caused by the consciousness of having done a bad action, and by the fear of being discovered.
Though this uncle, as well as most of the principal citizens of the village of St. Thomas, had the name of being a Roman Catholic, he yet did not believe a word of the doctrines of the Roman Church. He laughed at the priests, their masses, their purgatory, and especially their confession. He did not conceal that, when young, he had been scandalized by the words and actions of a priest in the confessional. He spoke to me jestingly. This increased my trouble and my grief. "Now," said he, "you will be a good boy. But if you have heard as many new things as I did the first time I went to confess, you are a very learned boy;" and he burst into laughter.
I blushed and remained silent. My aunt, who was a devoted Roman Catholic, said to me, "Your heart is relieved, is it not, since you confessed all your sins?" I gave her an evasive answer, but I could not conceal the sadness that overcame me. I thought I was the only one from whom the priest had asked those polluting questions. But great was my surprise, on the following day, when going to school I learned that my fellow pupils had not been happier than I had been. The only difference was, that instead of being grieved, they laughed at it. "Did the priest ask you such and such questions?" they would demand, laughing boisterously. I refused to reply, and said, "Are you not ashamed to speak of these things?"
"Ah! ah! how very scrupulous you are," continued they. "If it is not a sin for the priest to speak to us on these matters, how can it be a sin for us?" I stopped, confounded, not knowing what to say.
I soon perceived that even the young schoolgirls had not been less polluted and scandalized by the questions of the priest than the boys. Although keeping at a distance, such as to prevent us from hearing all they said, I could understand enough to convince me that they had been asked about the same questions. Some of them appeared indignant, while others laughed heartily.
I should be misunderstood where it supposed that I mean to convey the idea that this priest was more to blame than others, or that he did more than fulfill the duties of his ministry in asking these questions. Such, however, was my opinion at the time, and I detested that man with all my heart until I knew better. I had been unjust towards him, for this priest had only done his duty. He was only obeying the pope and his theologians. His being a priest of Rome was, therefore, less in crime than his misfortune. He was, as I have been myself, bound hand and foot at the feet of the greatest enemy that the holiness and truth of God have ever had on earth the pope.
The misfortune of Mr. Beaubien, like that of all the priests of Rome, was that of having bound himself by terrible oaths not to think for himself, or to use the light of his own reason.
Many Roman Catholics, even many Protestants, refuse to believe this. It is, notwithstanding, a sad truth. The priest of Rome is an automaton a machine which acts, thinks and speaks in matters of morals and of faith, only according to the order and the will of the pope and of his theologians.
Had Mr. Beaubien been left to himself, he was naturally too much of a gentleman to ask such questions. But no doubt he had read Liguori, Dens, Debreyne, authors approved by the pope, and he was obliged to take darkness for light, and vice for virtue.