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My First Mortal Sin

I committed my first mortal sin when I was thirteen years old. I remember the time and place of my damning infraction.

On a warm Friday afternoon in September in 1960, I was standing in front of the Granada Theater on Detroit avenue on the west side of Cleveland looking at the pictures on the marquee of the film that was then showing, And God Created Woman, starting Brigitte Bardot. There she was in one picture in a bathing suit which displayed her curvaceous figure. In another photo, she was in a bed with the sheets pulled up just over her breasts looking directly into the camera and right at me. I felt a bulge in my groin, and that's when I realized I had committed a mortal sin.

It's not like I hadn't been warned about these pictures and eternal damnation. And by good authorities.

The previous Friday, Sister Rosalia, my eighth grade teacher at St. Rose of Lima elementary school, had tried to warn me to avoid temptation. As school was ending for the day, she told me and my classmates that an evil film was coming to the Granada (which switched movies ever Saturday) and that we must never see it and not even look at the pictures on the marquee. The film, she said, was the work of the devil to lead good Catholic men and boys astray. Anyone who saw the movie would commit a mortal sin and could even be excommunicated from the Church.

Sister Rosalia was not to be trifled with. With veins protruding on the backs of her hands and wire rim spectacles on a weathered face, she looked to be about 138 years old to us boys and presented a stern presence in her habit. She didn't so much walk around the room as patrol the aisles, a twelve inch ruler seeming to be a permanent extension of her left hand. It was not at all uncommon to hear a "whack" on a desk or on the back of one's knuckles if one was caught not paying attention to her every word. She was on a mission not just to make sure that we knew how to diagram sentences, complete math problems and know how to spell, but also to insure that each one of us got to heaven. She took her mission seriously. And what she was saying about this movie was clearly serious stuff. I determined to resist temptation.

That evening, two other sources reaffirmed her warning. Every Friday, we received in the mail the Catholic Universe Bulletin. The Bulletin provided guidance on all things faith and moral for Catholics. It always reviewed movies and indicated which were appropriated to see and which were not. That day, it carried a scathing review of And God Created Woman, and even went so far as to condemn it. Which meant that Catholics were not allowed to see it. If they did, they would be committing a mortal sin. When my mother read about this, she told my brother, Johnny and me, that it was terrible that the Granada Theater would show such an awful and evil movie, which confirmed to me that it indeed would be a mortal sin to look at any pictures about it. I read what the Bulletin said about the film, and I remember just one word. It called Bardot a "vixen." I had no idea what that word meant, but it seemed exotic and sexual so I knew it had to be bad.

I had to pass by the Granada Theater twice every day on the way to and from school. For four days, I prided myself that I steadfastly turned my eyes away from the marquee. Then on the Friday before the movie would be replaced with another film, I succumbed to temptation. I had to see what would lead to such condemnation. And I committed my first mortal sin.

There are two kinds of sins. Venial sins are the more minor ones. A person can commit a lot of venial sins, then die without going to confession and still have a chance to get into heaven. One would have to stay in Purgatory, kind of way station on the way to heaven, for some amount of time, maybe even eons, but one could be cleansed and eventually get to be with God. But mortal sins were different. One mortal sin, without it being forgiven by confession, condemned one to hell for all eternity. One could be the most saintly of saints, but if one committed a mortal sin and did not confess it and then died, then they went directly to hell--do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

Right after I committed my mortal sin, I suddenly realized how many ways I could die on my way home. To get to my house on Hird Avenue, I had to cross 117th street, which was the dividing line between Cleveland and Lakewood, the first suburb on the west side of Cleveland. It was always a busy, four-lane thoroughfare. It dawned on me that I could be hit by a car, bus or truck; I could be shocked by the electric wires that lined both sides of the street; I could even be struck dead by a lightning bolt by the hand of God who was probably upset with me (it had been known to happen to others). In any case, I knew that I was living on the edge and needed to get to confession the next day before I met my demise.

On Saturday morning, I headed to church. I walked into Father Byrne's confessional and knelt down. He slid the confession door open, and I said through the screen, "Bless me Father for I have sinned. It has been two weeks since my last confession."

Confession was always an exercise in guesstimating the kinds of sins and the number of them that I had committed. I got into a routine. I assumed my sins. That is, I assumed that I must have disobeyed my parents and teachers, so I would make up a number, say 10 times, that seemed reasonable without really knowing if that was actually accurate. Then I would add that I fought with my brother (which was true since we fought all the time), and I'd presume a number of times for that. And I might add that I lied a few times, although I never really consciously did that. All of these sins were just venial sins. Then Father Byrne would say, "Say five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys, and sin no more." I would leave the confessional, say the prayers and then head out of church cleansed once again.

This time was different. In additional to my venial sins, I had a mortal sin to confess. After recounting my disobedience, fighting and lies, I hesitated and then added, "I also committed a mortal sin."

There was a pause and Father Byrne said, "You committed a mortal sin?"

"Yes, Father," I said.

"What was your mortal sin?"

"I looked at the pictures on the marquee at the Granada Theater, and had an impure thought."

"Oh," he said, "And why do you think that was a mortal sin?"

"Because Sister Rosalia said it would be a mortal sin to look at the pictures, and my mother said that it was a bad movie that no one should look at."

"Well," he counseled, "It is important to listen to your teacher and your mother. For your penance, say five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys. Now go and sin no more."

What!, I thought. I just confessed a mortal sin, and I got off with just five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys? Just like with my venial sins? Shouldn't I have to lay prostrated in front of the shrine to the Virgin Mary? Shouldn't I have to do the stations of the cross on my knees on the marble floor of the church? Shouldn't I have to wear sackcloth and get ashes on my head? Apparently not. I left the Church that morning wondering what was really sinful and what was not.

I said that this was my first mortal sin. It was also my last. As I look back, I realize now that my first mortal sin was the incident that began my departure (or was it my escape?) from the Catholic Church in particular and organized religion in general. There would be other incidences that would complete my departure, and those are stories for another day.

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