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The Priest and the Punk

By JT Beatty

“Father, you mind if I smoke in here?”

“I’d rather you don’t.”           

“Well, there’s my first sin to confess.”

Andrew pinched the bridge of his nose and thanked God there was a screen between him and the penitent as the smell of cigarette smoke filled the confessional.

Don’t flip out. Meet people where they are, Andrew thought to himself. He shook his head and tried not to think about the stench of tobacco filling up the old wooden church. I’ll just use extra incense on Sunday, that should help clear it out. I’ll have to Google it later.

“I’m not gonna lie to you, Father. It’s been a while. How does it go?” asked the voice on the other side of the screen. It was familiar, somehow.

“‘Forgive me Father, for I have sinned,’” Andrew said, “and then tell me however long it’s been since your last Confession.”

“Forgive me Father, for I have sinned. It’s been—let me think. Damn. It’s been ten years since my last Confession,” said the voice between deep drags of the cigarette.

Andrew’s eyes widened. He made the sign of the cross and smiled.

“Do I just go? Say everything?”

“Pretty much. Try to give a number if you can, but don’t get too caught up on that,” Andrew said as he leaned back in his chair and got comfortable. He couldn’t quite place that voice, but he was sure that he had heard it before.

“Well, alright. I fell off the wagon when I graduated high school. I was in a band, I was a pretty good guitarist,” the voice said.

Andrew thought of someone else like that. Peter. They had been best friends since kindergarten. Andrew thought of him often. Of the two, the old church ladies always expected Peter to be a priest and Andrew to lose his way. Andrew, with his bright red hair and quick temper, was called “Fireball” for his antics. It was Peter that kept Andrew from giving up on the faith, even when his confessions started getting longer and longer as he got closer to adulthood. Peter had been an altar server since second grade, and he even had a sweet childish lisp that everyone loved. He was short for his age, too, only reaching five-foot-three by the time they graduated. Andrew smiled when he remembered those days. He stretched his fingers out, looking at knuckles that hadn’t been bruised in a while. Guess you were wrong, Miss Cecilia.

The voice started again. “I never went to church, drank almost every night, I fucked—I don’t have to go into the details, do I?”

“I’d really rather you don’t,” Andrew said.

“Okay. That’s a relief. Where was I? I got into a lot of fights; I got hooked on cocaine. For a while.”

“Keep on going if there’s more,” Andrew said. He wasn’t one to judge. He’d loved to fight when he was younger. Mostly protecting Peter.

“There is. I started… Fuck, this is hard. I started selling drugs. Pills, weed, coke, just about fuckin’ everything…”           

“You could mention swearing as well. I know that one’s hard to break,” Andrew said.

“Yeah, that too. Sorry. Wait, what do you mean?” the penitent asked.

“Priests don’t drop out of the sky. We’re humans, and we all have a past,” Andrew said. Miss Cecilia had stamped his toes with her cane more times than he cared to think about for swearing, and Peter would always try to defend him. “What else do you need to confess?”

“Huh. I never thought about it that way. Maybe there’s hope for me after all,” the voice said, chuckling to ease the tension. Andrew struggled to stifle a laugh. “Anyway, things went on like that for a year or so. Selling drugs, I mean. The other stuff went on the whole ten years. There’s a last one, Father, the worst one probably.”

“I’ve heard it all before, don’t worry,” Andrew said. The voice took a deep breath and cigarette smoke wafted into Andrew’s side of the confessional.

“Well, here it goes. About a year ago, in Philly, I met a guy online; he said he had a good deal on percs—you know, percocets? I went off after the show and met him behind a gas station about a block away. We got into an argument. He said I didn’t bring enough money, I think. I don’t remember. It was all a blur…” the voice said as it began to crack.

“They should have a tissue box on your side, if you need it,” Andrew said. Tears weren’t uncommon.

Andrew heard a lighter, and the cigarette smoke came back stronger. He tried to figure out what brand. He was the only non-smoker in three generations on his father’s side. He almost started before he went to seminary, but then he decided it was unbecoming for a priest to keep a pack of smokes in his pocket. Grandpa likes Winstons, Uncle Bryan likes Marlboro, Dad likes Camels. He took a deep sniff of the smoke. Camel Blues, Andrew was almost sure of it. He thought about the party the day after his ordination at his grandfather’s house. His brother barbecued chicken and his grandmother made mac’n’cheese. Half of the town came to his first Mass the next day, in the same church Peter used to serve and Andrew used to skip. All the old church ladies came and shook his hand and asked for his blessing. Andrew learned a lesson that day, holding his tongue when they all told him they knew he would find himself as a man of the cloth. Even Miss Cecilia told him she had been waiting for it. It’s a shame Peter wasn’t there.

The memories came to a crashing halt when the voice managed to talk again, and Andrew remembered where he was. Focus.

“I… I killed him. He had a gun on him; I got to mine faster. I never even knew the guy’s name. Someone called the police. It was all over the news, I think. I didn’t watch much TV in jail. The band had to cut me out. ‘Too much bad PR,’ they said,” the voice said as it gave completely to tears. His sobs were punctuated by puffs of a cigarette.

“The last money I had went to a lawyer. I told them that I went behind the gas station to have a smoke when the guy tried to rob me. I was taking a walk after the show, that’s what I told them. I lied, Father. I lied under oath. When the jury went into that room to decide, I said a prayer. The first time I had prayed in years. ‘God, if you get me out of this, I’ll turn my life around, I’ll do whatever it takes.’ They came out. They gave the whole speech. ‘Not guilty’ they said. I was guilty, Father, and I lied to get away with it. So here I am.”

Andrew was silent for a few moments. He had been a priest for two years, but he had never been speechless after hearing a confession. The silence didn’t seem to do much good; the voice started weeping again.

Andrew took a deep breath, smoke and all, before he spoke.

“I wish I could get up and dance with joy after hearing your confession. You went so far astray, and you still came back. You made a promise to God, and no matter what else you did, you kept that promise. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not all there is, but for today, that’s all that matters. You’re here today, and all of Heaven is rejoicing. For your penance—you know what that is, right?”

The voice sniffled and responded. “The stuff I have to do after this, right?”

“It’s a little more complicated than that. See, imagine a muscle—you know what, never mind—I won’t get into it right now. Anyway, for your penance…”

Andrew was faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, he didn’t want to overwhelm whoever this was. He thought about a lesson from seminary. “If they weren’t at least a little sorry, they wouldn’t have come in the first place. You aren’t there to judge. You’re there to absolve them and offer what advice you can.” On the other hand, there was the obvious concern. Murder and perjury were serious. Andrew mulled it over for what felt like an eternity but was really only a few seconds.

The penance isn’t what forgives, don’t hammer him.

“Do you remember how to say a rosary?” asked Andrew.

“Kind of. I don’t have one of my own, I’m sorry,” said the voice, seeming to recover from the tears.

Andrew dug through his pockets to find one of the rosaries. He always kept a few with him to hand out. He found an old one, the one he had as a child.

“Here, borrow this. Do your best to say a rosary every day until Sunday, then give it back after Mass. Don’t worry if you aren’t able to say the whole thing. Just at least hold onto it for a while if that’s all you can do. And are you sorry for these and all your sins?” Andrew said, as he pushed the rosary past the screen and felt the penitent take it.

“I am.”

“God, the Father of Mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Your sins are forgiven, go in peace,” said Andrew.

“You know, Father, my best friend growing up had a rosary just like this one,” said the penitent.

“Oh, really? What was his name?”

“Andrew,” he said, as he stood up and left the confessional.

JT Beatty is a Religious Studies and Journalism Major at Louisiana State University. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he drills in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and volunteers with the homeless on Sundays. His Instagram is @jfbt3 and his X is @JT_Beatty.


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