The recent conflagration at and partial ruin of Notre Dame Cathedral reminded me of “confession” and the role that it has played in my life. I will come back to Notre Dame later but after I received my First Communion in 1958, most every late Saturday afternoon would find me and my older sisters, each of them with a handmade headscarf tied under her chin, being driven by Mother in the family Chevy to Saint Anthony de Padua Church in Germantown to confess our sins.
There were two wooden confessional booths located in the rear of the church’s nave with the priest’s compartment between them. Each of the stalls had a small red five-watt bulb above its entrance which was controlled by the spring-operated kneeler inside. When a person entered the confessional and knelt down, the light would glow, indicating that the booth was occupied.
Sometimes, after entering the confessional and waiting for Father Bornbach to finish hearing the confession of the penitent in the other booth, instead of kneeling down and further examining my conscience as to the sins I had committed the previous week—such things as lying to my parents, eating meat on Fridays, cutting off the hair of Jane’s doll in spite, and hitting younger-brother Mark in the head with my wooden building blocks—I would squat before the kneeler and use the tips of my hand to tap out three short-, three long-, and then another three short bursts of light as a distress signal for the confessors waiting outside.
I liked the confessional, its darkness and quiet, as well as the waiting time inside the cubicle before Father Bornbach slid open the window between the stalls as an invitation for me to confess my sins. I can’t remember ever having committed a mortal sin during my youth but even the act of confessing my venial transgressions did serve to bring me peace of mind. Before leaving the stall, my pastor would always remind me that for true penance I must not only admit my sins and be sorry for having committed them, I must also ask forgiveness from the people I hurt.
My father, John A. McGlynn Jr., met his future wife, Anna Marie Schauf, in 1938. She was a primary school teacher boarding at the home of John’s sister, Molly. He was a disgruntled farmer whose dream of going to college had been stolen from him by the Great Depression. For John, it was love at first sight. Not so for Anna Marie but in the hundreds and hundreds of love letters he wrote to her between that time and when they finally married in 1944 it is apparent not only that he was madly in love with her but that she was his private confessor.
In November 1940, after the beginning of World War II, John enlisted in the armed forces. Though initially trained as a cook and baker and, later, a radio operator, he eventually became a reconnaissance photographer in the U.S. Army Air force. By February 1944, he had risen in rank to second lieutenant and was stationed at Mount Farm Airbase in Oxford, England. The P-38 he flew was named “Annie-O,” a nickname for his bride-to-be.
On February 14, the day of the first daylight bombing of Berlin, John and his plane were sent ahead to photograph the city from an altitude of 37,000 feet. In a letter he wrote to Anna Marie he night before, he mourned the loss of a former flight leader, “a really swell guy” who had not returned from a recent mission. Even so, he remained optimistic that he himself would return home soon: “Just think what it will seem like when we see each other the first time when I get home!” And, as he always did, in every letter he wrote to her, he closed his letter with a confession of love for her “I’d give anything in the world to have you in my arms right now, Oh, I do love you, my sweet, more than I can ever tell you.”
The next time Anna Marie was to hear from John was not until five weeks later, on March 23, when she received a Western Union telegram: “SAFE AND WELL. HOME SOON. INTERESTING EXPERIENCE. LOVE DARLING.” John’s “interesting experience” was an understatement. His flight to Berlin had been a successful one but not so his return flight to England: his plane was shot down over the Rhine and he had been declared Missing in Action (and presumed dead). In fact, he had managed to jump out of the plane and his parachute had taken him to the river’s west bank. By living off the land and concealing himself constantly, he eventually succeed in making his way to Paris. There, he hooked up with the French Underground who arranged identity papers for him. Unable to speak French, John became a deaf-mute by the name of Jean Pierre Millet, a former hotel employee who had been maimed in the early days of the war.
For a number of weeks John lived with a gendarme’s family on Rue Sebastopol, a short walking distance from Nortre Dame Cathedral. Because there was an unspoken agreement that the German occupation army would not violate the sanctity of that church, it is there that John spent many of his days. Yes, he prayed there to God, but he had another reason to go there as well: the fourth confessional on the right was occupied by a British intelligent agent in clerical dress who coordinated the movements of the MIA-soldiers with the French Underground.
As John wryly wrote in notes after the War, during that time living underground he went to confession very often! It was confession, he said, that saved him. (Eventually, with the aid of the French Underground, John made his way over the Pyrenees and escaped with the help of Spanish Basques to a British submarine off the coast of the Bay of Biscay.)
It was in 1970, when I was a senior in high school, that I stopped going to confession. My twenty-year old second cousin, Mike Drea, had just been killed in Dong Nai, Vietnam, and at his funeral services, the new priest at Saint Anthony’s, a former army chaplain, spoke more about the holiness of war than the sanctity of life and railed about the need to stand up and fight instead of suggesting the possibility of the U.S. government confessing its wrongdoing.
I rediscovered confession and the peace that comes with admitting ones wrongs and seeking forgiveness after coming to Indonesia where, at the end of Ramadhan each year, friends, neighbors, and even strangers will say to one another, “mohon maaf lahir dan bathin”—a request for forgiveness of wrongs one has committed—a peace-making tradition I Intend to keep.
(Caption for photograph: John A. McGlynn atop his plane, the “Annie-O”)