by Frank O’Connor
Sometimes you go through periods when you just can’t find anything to read. You’re stressed; you’re busy; you’re a little overwhelmed. When you find the time to sit down and relax with a good book, you can’t choose one. You pick up one book, read a few pages, put it down; you pick up another, flip through, put it down. You toss aside books you’ve been waiting months to read and old favorites you’ve read dozens of times. Nothing fits your mood or grabs your scattered attention. You can’t make a commitment. You have become a Commitment Phobe in the realm of reading. (Note that I have not done an entry in awhile so I know of what I speak.) That’s when I turn to short stories. Of course when one mentions “Catholic” and “short stories” in the same sentence, readers immediately think of Flannery O’Connor, and she is well worth reading (and will merit an entry here someday), but because it’s March, I will recommend at this time Frank (no relation to Flannery) O’Connor’s “First Confession.” Not only is O’Connor an Irish writer which makes St. Patrick’s Day an excellent time for reading him, but now is also the season of First Confessions and First Communions. Catholic aunts, uncles, cousins, godparents, etc. will be attending numerous First Communions in the coming weeks following Easter (I myself am already engaged for two) and memories of one’s own first sacraments – especially in cradle Catholics – will be very near the surface of the mind and heart.
“First Confession” is an extremely humorous, laugh-out-loud-in-public-even-if-you-embarrass-yourself, story. The narrator Jackie doesn’t see the situation of having to make his first confession as humorous at all. In fact he’s desperately worried about burning in hell in the afterlife and the misery his grandmother causes in his present, corporeal life. As he sees it there is no way possible he can refrain from sinning, no way he can admit the heinous nature of his sins and therefore no way he can escape eternal damnation. He can’t even operate a confessional correctly. But it’s the adult mind looking back on the absurdities of the situation of a six year old and the seriousness and literalness with which he approaches everything that brings out the humor. Frank McCourt’s recounting of his First Confession and First Communion in his memoir Angela’s Ashes is told in a similar fashion although O’Connor’s short story is much less grim. (McCourt’s grandmother sends him back to the confessional three times in the same day because she disagrees with Father’s assessment of young Frank’s state of grace.)
“First Confession” is available in numerous collections and anthologies including Collected Stories by Frank O’Connor at Doherty.
FYI – The UST Catholic Fiction Reading Group will read O’Connor’s short story at their organizational meeting on Sunday March 16th at 6pm in Doherty Library. All members of the UST community are invited to attend. See our Facebook page for more details.