Francesca’s first confession, after years of abstinence from the Catholic Church, had been prompted by her lover. Her lover was a former hockey player who had himself come up through the Catholic ranks, but not spiritually – rather, skating it out with the other jocks at St. Michael’s on Bathurst Street in Toronto, toughened by the Basilian fathers. “Get up, get up,” the Basilian fathers had yelled over him as Francesca’s now lover had to her boy, when Marco fell to the ice and just lay there. It was Francesca’s lover, her sweet and secret sin, who admonished her to “get your ass over to the Catholic Church and fill in those envelopes, make yourself known, so your boy can take his first communion.” This was not something Francesca ever shared with Father Mercutio, nor any priest, unable to feel her love for this man or his love for her could possibly be sin. Did Mary Magdalene feel similarly silenced around the apostles?
“Bless me father, for I have sinned. It has been about 10, well, actually maybe 20, years since my last confession … In fact, I don’t think I will be able to make a full confession. You have a long line-up outside and the Mass is about to begin.”
It was just before Easter, the morning of Good Friday, and her last opportunity for confession if she hoped to take the host on Easter Sunday. But divorced Catholics are not supposed to take the host. Some real Catholics suffer over this. But Francesca wasn’t a “divorced” Catholic. Her first marriage had been annulled making Francesca an “annulled” Catholic. Her second marriage was in the Anglican Church, and that, according to one priest, wasn’t a real marriage in the eyes of the Catholic Church. So, technically, she wasn’t a divorced Catholic and could still take communion if she had been able to buy into the bullshit of what was real and what wasn’t real. To be honest, Francesca didn’t give a damn about the ability to take communion in the Catholic Church. But for some mysterious reason she did give a damn about her son’s ability to do so.
“Don’t you worry about the line-up, dear, you take all the time you need,” the anonymous priest in the confessional of St. Michael’s Cathedral said on that Good Friday. Her heart sank. How was she to start up that mountain of her life again?
“Spit it out, woman,” her lover had said to her when she had tried to tell him about the two former husbands …
Cutting to the quick, there was the choice of her first husband – the charismatic, handsome Paolo Giovanazzo who turned out to be an abuser. Francesca had been a virgin on their wedding night. Having come from loving parents, she didn’t understand that a man could say he loved you and yet be so cruel – hate everything you were and loved. She had been a student of music, at the time, studying voice at the Royal Conservatory of music – he, an engineer. Only 19 years of age, Francesca hadn’t yet found a way of being in the world. Spending most of her days in the cloistered world of the Conservatory, inside a private studio practising hours a day when other girls her age were out partying, drinking, having sex, burning bras, attending protests, she had little experience of men nor what kind of men to avoid. She had thought, by marrying Paolo, that he would be her way of being – a traditional choice, of which her Italian parents had approved. After marriage, she would simply continue with her passion and her gift – the voice she had been given at birth and had a responsibility to cultivate. The voice Paolo hated. He hated her voice because it took her away from him. The first time he penetrated her, he pinned her wrists above her head, stopped her mouth with his free hand and spread her legs with his knee.
“The Catholic Church annulled that marriage, Father, at the instance of my abuser. He used the legal argument I was unwilling to bear children. That was a lie. This lie turned me away from the Church – that my marriage had to be void ab initio. The Church turned me into a whore on my wedding night, which is what he called me – whore. And worse.
“I was fortunate in the love of my good parents. This love enabled me to escape. The marriage ended after only three months. Many years after that, years of floundering, I entered law school. I never sang again.”
Francesca paused. So how, now, to fast forward?
“After 10 years of recovery, I met and married my son’s father. This was my second real sin.”
The sin of this second marriage, to the man who would eventually become her son’s father, was that she had married Zachary without love. Francesca had married Zachary knowing she didn’t love him, married him for the wrong reason – fear of loneliness. And when she realized she could not continue in the loveless marriage, with an attachment that truly was void from the beginning, she had gotten out.
Because she had married Zachary in the Anglican church, it wasn’t a real marriage according to one priest she had consulted. Francesca had argued with that priest: “What does that make of my son? Doesn’t that make him a bastard? No, Father, it was a real marriage. The child born of that marriage is a real child.”
Francesca’s sin is also real – conceiving a child to a loveless marriage. There would be lifelong and real repercussions for the son. Now that she had left his father, Marco would never have any siblings, had to shuttle back and forth between two houses, always in conflict with himself; having to watch his mother always in conflict with herself, her voice now used in the service of greedy warring people who hired that voice only to spout their one-sided truths, which she did convincingly for mammon, to stave off the wolf at the door, so that she could keep want away from her son – this treasured son, whom she loved more than any being in the world.
“It comes down to two sins, Father,” she told the anonymous priest, summing things up in her closing argument, like the lawyer she had become. “The sin of not honouring my gift. The sin of conceiving a son to a loveless marriage. And for these sins, but especially the second of these, I am most heartily sorry.”
Francesca came to the end of her confession. All out of breath, there was a long pause – she dreaded to hear what was at the end of that silence. What came out of the darkness and silence was a surprise. The priest told her that she must not confuse the agents of the Church with the one true God. And then: “God loves you. He has given you many gifts. For your penance, I want you to sing one Glory Be to God, and to sing this prayer in the morning, in the privacy of your own room, first thing upon waking. Answer the invitation of the Gloria. Do you remember the words?” And astonishingly, the priest, quietly at first and then with rising passion, began to sing the words for her recall, sing – contrary to the cannon law no singing during Lent – sing from his compartment of the confessional such that when Francesca left the confessional booth, having been granted absolution, free to guide her own son to his own first confession and communion, her face was hot with humility and grace…
Excerpt from “Pasta With The Priests” from the short story collection Winners and Losers, Guernica, 2023.
Darlene Madott is the author of nine books and has twice won the Bressani Literary Award. She has been shortlisted for the Gloria Vanderbilt sponsored Carter V. Cooper Short Fiction Award three times, as well as being a frequent finalist for Accenti Magazine competitions, among others. Her short fiction has been widely anthologized. She lives in Toronto. www.DarleneMadott.com