God possessed Father Michael during mass. I was sure of it. I knew if I squinted hard enough, I could see beams of light shooting from our priest’s body, making him convulse in a sort of spiritual shiver signifying the exact moment God settled into his bones. ‘Go in peace to serve the Lord,’ God would say, raising His arms at the conclusion of mass. And then, following His somewhat self-serving farewell, He would return to Heaven in a flutter of robes, leaving a shinier and slightly steaming Father Michael.
When I explained this theory to my mother one day after church, she didn’t clarify, didn’t point me towards a bible or suggest I pay more attention in CCD. She only looked at me like she wanted to power-of-Christ-compel-me before saying, “No, that’s not right.”
On Sunday, I woke to my mother’s knock at my bedroom door. Wake up! Knock. Knock. Church. Knock! The final rap came like a bang. The same, Wake up. Knock. Knock. Church. Knock! was delivered at my brother’s door, to which he hollered, “I’m awake! ” Resisting the urge to lie back down, I sifted through a clutter of mixtapes, crumpled algebra homework, and discarded clothing on my floor for something clean-looking to wear, and vowed never to force church on my own children.
We crammed into our compact five-seater, jammed shoulder to shoulder. The drive to church, while brief, was awkward and often silent. Unused to such close proximity with one another, our ‘good mornings’ were more grunt than greeting. As was his ritual, my father crossed himself and touched his hand to the rosary hanging from the rearview mirror before starting the car. We all tensed. My grandmother gripped the overhead handle. My father drove the way some women worked sewing machines, pumping up and down on the gas pedal, revving and breaking, revving and breaking. Our bodies jerked forward. Back. Forward. Back. Up and down his knee went, not another car in sight on a slow Sunday morning.
Mass was held in the Catholic high school gymnasium. Father Michael spoke from a small erected platform—our raised seating in the bleachers provided a spectacular view of his shiny bald spot. A modest choir sat poised to sing. We had no hymnals, only cardstock printouts, a rolling organ, and a dry erase board announcing hymns. Each of us kids was given a dollar for the offering. I folded mine into airplanes and rolled cigarettes.
That day, Father Michael spoke of forgiveness. The overhead lighting glared onto his bald spot and the sleeves of his green robes swayed. He looked somber, staid. He wore glasses.
“Then Peter came up and said to him Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” His voice was smooth, not at all contrived or robotic. I’d heard he sometimes had beers with parishioners at local bars. “Jesus said to him, I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”
Intrigued and baffled by God’s prescribed equation for forgiveness and the absolute number it implied, I multiplied seventy times seven and came up with four hundred and ninety. I started listing times my brother was mean to me and counted at least twenty acts of brotherly terror in the last week alone. Over a lifetime, seventy times seven would be met a hundredfold. I decided then to tally each of my brother’s transgressions.
This is before I understood seventy times seven was not a real number, but a number to represent endlessness. Endless forgiveness.
We fidgeted through the final blessing and recessional, saying thanks when mass ended. The congregation surged out of the church and the race to our car was on. My father led the charge, hand jiggling the keys in his pocket, my grandmother on his arm, stumping along as fast as her cane would allow. And although my mother was able to hustle with her dignity intact, my brother and I had less concern for propriety. Dodging toddlers and overtaking the elderly, we snagged our complimentary donuts and sped to the car.
With church behind us, we were free. Until next Sunday at least.
Between bites of donut, we glowered down cars competing to exit the parking lot. Escaping the crush, my father floored it down a straight away and ripped into our block, tires squealing. The car fishtailed and my nose twitched at the smell of burning rubber. We swayed, squished together despite our attempts to beat inertia.
“Slow down.” I shoved at my brother’s shoulder, attempting to restore the space between us. “You’re driving like a maniac.”
The moment I spoke, it was too late to call the words back.
Pale knuckled at the steering wheel, my father’s reply was half sneer, half spit. Attitude. Respect. Quiet. His eyes shredded me from the rearview mirror. Like a festering wound rent open, his fury spewed from beneath a thin scab of good intentions, tempered by one hour of church.
Feeling my own scabs falling away, I willed myself not to slam my knees against his seat, anger the only thing preventing tears from falling. “I hate church,” I said when he finally stopped, not daring to speak above a whisper. “We always fight after church.”
“You’re right,” my mother said, not looking at me, though I thought I might see pity in her eyes. “We always fight after church. I don’t know why.”
I knew why. For one hour, we’d been repressing our baser, meaner selves. But as soon as mass was over, we were just us again—back in the car, revving and breaking, our next sin, just waiting around the corner.
My CCD teacher put it this way: a soul is like a chalkboard that begins clean and gets filthier with each sin. The gravity of the sin determined the size of the mark. She pockmarked a chalkboard with dots and circles. If we confessed our sins and were truly sorry, we would receive God’s Grace, our sins would be forgiven, and our souls would be cleansed. She erased the chalkboard. Only then, she said, would our souls be prepared for receiving the Eucharist, the transformed bread and wine we believed to be the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
I knelt and made the sign of the cross.
“What have you sinned, my child?” Father Michael’s disembodied voice was soft and encouraging through the thin partition separating us.
Supposedly, I could confess anything to Father Michael and he would tell no one, not even my parents. He was a man of God to be trusted with all things. This was the priest who would administer each of my sacraments—my first confession, my first communion, my confirmation, my wedding, and maybe even my last rites. I imagined us in a long sequence of photographs, he, smiling in green robes, standing next to a more buxom and beautiful me in successively more elaborate white dresses.
I cleared my throat and pressed my palms together.
“Sometimes, I steal the remote control from my brother and change the channel when he’s watching something.” I was in second grade—changing the channel mid-cartoon seemed a sin-worthy of confession.
I thought hard.
“Sometimes I’m mean.”
There was something I should tell him, but I fidgeted, and said nothing.
Together we said the Act of Contrition, which I had memorized, though a copy was laminated and taped to the wall of the confessional. He handed out an arbitrary penance: three Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys. I made the sign of the cross and left the confessional to kneel in a pew. This was the time, my teacher said, to reflect on my sins, to think about what I had done and why I shouldn’t do it again. I prayed quickly, imagined for a moment trumpeting angels descending to touch my shoulder, a dove to kiss my cheek, thinking: forgiveness was easy.
In the weeks leading up to my first communion, my CCD class staged practice communions, once with bread and apple juice, and another with animal crackers and lemonade. We lined up in my teacher’s kitchen, following her litany of rules for a successful first communion: Stand in line with your hands together. Put one palm over the other, facing up. If you are right handed, put the left palm on top, so your right hand can lift the bread to your mouth. Be silent. When the priest says, Body of Christ, say Amen. Accept the bread and immediately put it in your mouth. Be silent. Step to the right for the Blood of Christ. Say Amen. Accept the cup and take a small sip. Be silent. File back around and kneel in your pew. Be silent.
Only, I already knew.
That something I should have confessed to Father Michael was this: I’d already eaten Jesus well before my first confession, and the first communion we were so diligently preparing my soul for, would actually be my second. And while I could have said, with animal cracker crumbs still on my lips, “I know! I had Jesus. He was sour and kind of gross,” I did not.
If you’re Catholic, you know how seriously we take the sacrament of communion. Catholics believe in transubstantiation, meaning that the wafer we eat is transformed into the real deal Jesus Christ, not a symbol or a metaphor, but that He is straight up right there in the bread. Jesus. That’s why there are crazy stories about old men whacking someone with a cane or churchgoers tackling a kid for trying to take a wafer from church without permission.
Your first communion is a rite of passage where little girls dress up in mini wedding dresses, and boys slick their hair and wear shiny shoes. If you’re Filipino like we are, first communion often means a party with a potluck buffet, a whole roasted pig, purple ube cake, money from your godparents, your grandparents, your titos, and your titas. So when I say that my first communion was really my second communion, it’s really bad.
I blame my grandmother. Despite weak knees, Lola was robust and sharp. In her late seventies, she liked things her way, and because she usually paid for after-church brunch, we called her ‘The Boss’.
The Boss and I shared a bedroom. I was the youngest granddaughter and her constant companion, a position which accorded me early exposure to many of life’s amusements. We played cards, watched Days of Our Lives, and enjoyed Steven Segal movies—I often accompanied Lola to her weekly mahjong game, watching her play in the smoky backroom of an old kasimanwa’s house.
That fateful Sunday, about a year before my second communion, our family arrived late to a packed church, and had to sit in separate pews. While The Boss prayed, I spent mass kicking my feet and thinking about donuts. Pink frosted with sprinkles. Twisted glazed. Cinnamon sugar. When people started lining up to receive communion, Lola lifted her gray head, leaned over and whispered, “Do you want to take the bread?”
My eyes were round and unsuspecting of the sin awaiting me. I’d never been offered the bread before.
“I don’t know how,” I said.
“Just say, Amen.”
Now, if my parents had been there to intervene, this could have been prevented. But they weren’t. They were seated several aisles over, and my brother was conspicuously absent.
I stood in line. Maybe because I was taller than most kids my age, no one spoke or questioned me. I went right up to the front of the church, and when the woman with the wafers said, Body of Christ, I just said, Amen, took the bread, ate it, and tried to look all solemn on my walk back to our pew.
My first confession would have been the most appropriate time to come clean to Father Michael. But I didn’t. We had been taught that a clean soul was the most ideal receptacle for receiving communion, but my chalkboard was hopelessly marred with my sin, which I thought took the shape of chalked letter L. For Liar.
On the big day, I stood there in my pretty white dress and my matching pretty white veil, and when Father Michael said, Body of Christ, I said, Amen. And I ate that Jesus right up. Any kind of absolution I might have had coming, did not come. The second I tasted that tangy wafer on my tongue again, I knew it was a sin. At that moment, God was looking down at me in my pretty white dress and saying, For shame! And inside of me, Jesus was sliding down my throat, into my intestines and saying, For shame! The Holy Spirit was probably flying around somewhere, offering some more deserving kid an olive branch, and thinking, For shame!
It’s hard for a kid to live with a sin like that hanging over her soul.
But some sins are greater than others.
My first year of college, Father Michael was forced to resign from our church due to a case of ‘sexual impropriety.’ Five hundred miles away, I learned what I could from my dormitory computer. A local newspaper reported from Father Michael’s last mass. I attempted to piece together the scene from what I read online and conversations with family.
My parents would have arrived to mass a little late. They would have been confused by the press outside the church, frowning at the tall antenna poles perched on news vans, obscene in their contrast to the dignity of the cross atop our church. They would have hurried by, despite their intrigue, and for a moment, wondered if someone important had died.
During mass, a palpable question would have pervaded every song and prayer, hovering over the congregation like a sour smell. People would have fretted in their pews, going through the motions of mass, accepting communion, awaiting a blow.
I read that Father Michael concluded mass by stating it was his last and that he would be leaving the parish after twelve years of service.
“The news is not good,” he said. “It is not good at all.”
Here, I imagined families deflating into pews, others blundering towards the exits, crossing themselves with holy water before shuffling outside where they were handed a one page letter from Father Michael explaining that nearly two decades previous, he had ‘transgressed the personal boundaries of an adolescent,’ and due to the ‘seriousness of this one complaint,’ he would ‘no longer remain in public ministry.’
My parents would have avoided reporters, would have read the letter as they walked to their car, the aftertaste of communion wafer and revulsion at odds in their mouths. They would have sat in the car for a moment, adjusting seatbelts, their pain repeated in every car of the parking lot.
It turned out after all, someone important had, in a way, died.
Years later, I wondered what happened to Father Michael. I searched online, not knowing what to expect, and found that he was one of several priests named in a 100 million dollar settlement with the Orange County Diocese and nearly ninety plaintiffs. As part of the settlement, personnel files of accused priests were released, revealing Father Michael’s history of misconduct with children.
Barely breathing, I opened the file. In scans of old correspondence, names were redacted with black marker. In a letter, dated 1996, an alleged victim, fourteen years old at the time of the incident, reported that Father Michael kissed and fondled him during a camping trip when they shared sleeping bags—Father Michael thought ‘a good idea would be to zip them together to create warmth.’ After his resignation, several more reports emerged. One man divulged that when he was an altar boy, Father Michael gave him wine to drink and would check how his vestments fit. “His hand would end up inside my underwear on the skin of my butt,” he said.
A new priest would preside over Lola’s funeral some years later. The relief I feel, that it was not Father Michael who officiated her last rites, is immeasurable. When I think of the holy sacraments he officiated—first communions, confirmations, weddings, I mourn the photo albums, the bitterness people must experience when seeing pictures tainted by his smile, pictures that should be amongst their most cherished. Do they crop him from the photos, cross him from the albums? Could they erase him from their most joyous memories?
In a picture taken at my second communion, my brother and I pose with Father Michael. My brother sports a clip-on bow tie and suit. I look especially pretty with curled hair, in my matching white dress and veil. Father Michael rests his hands on our shoulders, smiling in robes decorated with painted handprints—the handprints of all the children receiving their first communion. Though the picture makes it difficult to count all the handprints, I know that one is too many, that seventy times seven is a number too painful to imagine, and that forgiveness, whatever his number of sins, is not mine to give. But because I have Lola to thank for my first communion, not Father Michael, I can look at this picture with a sort of grim satisfaction, and it seems unimportant that on my true first communion, I did not wear a dress and veil at all, but rather jeans and sneakers.
It’s Sunday again, only now, I am the mother forcing her unwilling offspring to attend church. My son is two years old and we are bringing his newborn sister to mass for the first time. The momentous occasion is marked by frustration and tears.
“I don’t wanna go to church!” my son whines.
Repressing an, Amen, kid. Me either, I pull his struggling body close and grunt in his ear, “We’re going.”
During mass, my son, who I must often wrestle from beneath the pews, sits unusually quiet between my husband and me, and our daughter sleeps in her car seat at our feet. Again, we are late, and cannot find space enough to hold all of us, so my parents sit in the pew behind ours. We are late, yes, but appear as one happy Catholic family. I had done my part in birthing my own little Catholic minions to condemn to infinite Sundays.
Times like this, I imagine my younger self rolling her eyes at me. Just like her, I still struggle to find meaning in church. But even Father Michael could not undo more than three hundred years of Spanish imposed Catholicism in the Philippines. He could not undo a lifetime of novenas and Ave Marias, baptisms and communions—ceremonies marked with roasted pig and cakes topped with frosted crosses. Nothing could undo my faith in Jesus Christ, nor erase the memory of Lola’s softly spoken, “Do you want to take the bread?”
The unexpected sound of liquid hitting the ground bewilders me. After a moment of searching, I realize the liquid originates from my son’s pants. Silencing an exclamation of No! I lunge for a thankfully open diaper bag and shove it between his legs, wincing at the sound of urine magically amplified as it hits the polyvinyl.
His face is gleeful, gaping at the growing wet spot. Crouched on the floor, I meet my husband’s horrified eyes, and can’t help but think we are the victims of a two year old’s plans to put us off church altogether. Wet son in arms, my husband hurries from the church hall, forgetting the diaper bag containing the now wet spare clothing.
At the end of mass, my mother, keen to avoid embarrassment, urges me to hurry.
“Just leave it,” she insists. “Someone else will clean it.”
Only I know they won’t. By the time the cleaning staff comes by, there will be a stiff stinking patch in the carpet to be suffered by churchgoers in an endless march of Sundays.
Because church is difficult enough to endure without the added stench of urine, we kneel and pour water over the wet spot. Using my daughter’s blanket, we sop up the mess, smiling shamefacedly as people file towards the exits. Some ignore us. Others smile. Throughout this, my daughter sleeps. Just a couple more years and I know that she too will become a church hating hellion. Still, in seven days, we will find ourselves in church again. We’ll bow again in seven days. We’ll return, again, still and always, to kneel—every seven days. But so much can be accomplished between now and next Sunday.
Original artwork by Trinidad Escobar. www.trinidadescobar.com