I went to Catholic school. Taught by the nuns of the Order of Saint Benedict (O.S.B). The nuns of the O.S.B. were the very pillar of old school Catholicism. Full black battle gear with rosary bead belts, shiny black boots, and a seemingly physical inability to smile in the absence of parents. Pro discipline, duty, corporal punishment, and evoking fear in children. Anti smiles, happiness, liberal thinking and smart-assness. They ruled with an iron fist (or thin side of yardstick, or cane, or crutch…whatever was within reach). This is the story of the greatest day ever. Great day for us boys, a day of infamy for the O.S.B.
Fr. John was new at the school and the church. He was junior associate pastor, which meant he did all the duties the pastor and the associate pastor didn’t want to do. He was young and he was educated. Besides being a priest, I think he had advanced degree in psychology. Now, none of us 8th graders knew anything about psychology (Heck, I doubt half of us could even spell it.). But, we did know anything ending in -ology was not to be totally and completely trusted.
That particular afternoon, we were at the church for a religious education session with Fr. John. It was a classic Catholic school session on SIN. Fr. John gave a masterful presentation on mortal and venial sin. The retired O.S.B sat in the front pew, the classes spread out in pews behind them and, although each was class supervised by their respective teacher, we could feel the retired nuns “watching” the crowd.
It was a long standing belief, backed by volumes of empirical evidence, that many of the O.S.B had an extra eye in the back of their head. I personally experienced this extra visual sensory organ in a fourth grade incident when 70+ year old Sister Johanna trapped a friend of mine in a corner and was laying on him a verbal assault of biblical proportion. I stood several feet behind her, pointing and making faces at my poor friend, when a blind, behind-the-back slap landed square on the side of my head, almost knocking me down for the count. The O.S.B were no BS.
Fr. John finished his session on sin and we knew we were about to be set free with the wrap up prayer. I was already mentally preparing my recess basketball game when two spots down from me the unspeakable happened. One of our class clowns, a smart-ass extraordinaire, raised his hand to ask a smart-ass question. He just couldn’t leave well enough alone. We were halfway to recess, what was he thinking? Fr. John acknowledged the hand up with a “Yes, son?”. The heads of the O.S.B snapped around to find the raised hand.
Young smart ass stood up, grinned at us as we rapidly slid away from him in the pew, and asked the loaded question,”Father John. Is cussing a venial or a mortal sin?”
The line of the O.S.B relaxed in their front pew. A crack of a smile broke through the stone facade on one or two of them. This was an easy one for Father John, they thought, it was a softball lobbed over the middle of the plate for the young priest. All was good.
Thank God for psychology, for what came next was totally unexpected and turned a normal, bland day into a miraculous one.
“Neither.” Said Fr. John. The O.S.B. collectively cringed in their seats. The students snapped to attention. Game on.
Smartass was as shocked as the rest of us. “You mean it’s not a sin?”
“No. Cursing and bad language is more a sign of ignorance than an act of sin.”
Smartass was stupefied. For the first time in eight years of school he was speechless.
Fr. John asked the stunned crowd if there were any other questions. There were none. So he led us on a final prayer and dismissed us. I floated out of the church on cloud nine. The O.S.B sat frozen in totally disbelief. This ordinary day had suddenly, miraculously transformed into the BEST DAY EVER. Why?
I was longer going to hell for poor language choices!
I was just an idiot!