This is the confidence we have in approaching God:
that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 1 John 5:14 (NIV)
On the day I went to Rome, I cried – not in St. Peter’s Square, but at the Coliseum. Sins of commission and sins of omission – neither are my primary burden. Incompetence isn’t a sin.
I say my confession. I beg for forgiveness. Nothing fills the void Victoria left behind.
During her first visit with me, Victoria asked me to hear her confession. She didn’t want to sit across from me in the small room in the rear of the church. She knelt behind the privacy screen. When I asked her name, she stammered it out.
“I don’t know when my last confession was, but I guess it doesn’t really matter, right?”
“God’s been waiting for you patiently. Go ahead.”
Though we are taught that each confession is singular, most people plead guilty to anger and lust. Few Americans ever consult a priest about greed.
“Well, I needed a hundred bucks,” she said. “When they told me I could earn it in two hours work, I jumped at it.”
Then a hiss, slow and subtle, oozed through the screen. The air itself changed. An oppressive force, as palpable as humidity before a heavy rain, descended into the prayer room.
The strange noise, the sound of a leaking tire, continued.“Victoria, are you alright?”
After she rose, she stood and walked around the screen. “I see you, fraud.” Her voice - deep, rich honey -snapped my head back. Then, a smile of pride and defiance curled her lips. “Take off your collar.” She walked out without another word.
All the next day, I thought about Victoria’s confession. My appointment to a parish was to Amherst, Massachusetts, a high-profile, university town. The bishop had told me that the temptation inherent in spending so much time ministering to the young, to the dewy-eyed whose lives were just beginning, were typically avoided by placing an older priest in the position. “But you have been affirmed as one with a true vocation, Bill.”
Yet no vocation allowed for an obsession with a bizarre two-minute confession. I worked with the counseling department when they were overwhelmed. I visited dormitories and spoke to small groups of students about adjustment, substance abuse, and spirituality.
I helped numerous Catholic freshmen through their transition. Absence from family for the first time left some kids rootless. On Sundays, my modernist church, the white-walled, low-peaked windowless space, was filled with students. Electric guitars and a drum set improved my attendance. Episcopalian and Methodist students came to hear the Good News on Sunday mornings when they could’ve slept in or eaten brunch.
In 1995, I was still discovering who I was as a priest; energy and optimism fueled me. As I walked across campus, past old brick buildings and modern labs, students greeted me. At UMass, I gave a guest lecture on Liberation Theology and sat in on the long-winded debates of philosophy students.
In early October, the bishop called. “How do you find your post? Are you meeting their needs?”
“I’m doing God’s work here in Amherst.” Ego came effortlessly. I had convinced myself of its necessity, and it proved its value from the pulpit.
When my parents drove in from Connecticut, I showed them my first church with the pride of a new homeowner. After Saturday night Mass, they took me to dinner at a chain restaurant.
“You have been blessed,” my mother said. Tears rested in her eyes. When I returned to my home at St. Brigid’s Rectory in town, I sipped a glass of Father Joe’s best wine.
I didn’t see Victoria until weeks later. Rabbi Klein and I walked past the pond on the way to the UMass Student Union. A sheepish look on her face accompanied her apology.
“Please hear my confession, Father.” She avoided my eyes and pulled at a loopy curl at the nape of her neck. “I’ll come Saturday afternoon. Would that be ok?”
“Of course.” I extended my hand; she took it without hesitation.
“She looks like Little Orphan Annie,” the elderly rabbi said.
I spent Saturday afternoon hearing confessions, but not Victoria’s. I remained after the Saturday service, vacuuming the area between the pews. At 7:45, she arrived. She shifted from foot to foot as she waited for me to open the confessional room door. Immediately, she told me she had to move the chair from its usual position.
“I don’t want to look at that.” She pointed to the crucifix.
“Why not? He died for you.”
I let her sit where she wanted. In rapid bursts, she explained how she’d earned over a thousand dollars in a few weeks.
“I play a corpse. They wear robes, chant and parade around, then the leader pretends to kill me.” She paused and stared. “I fake die. Everyone goes home. I get the broom and clean up the mess. The guy wearing the red robe comes back in and pays me a hundred bucks cash.”
I struggled to accept the fact that she claimed she had no fear of the ritual, but again and again she denied it. “It’s just a performance. I need the money.”
When I couldn’t convince her of the danger of her behavior, I asked her what she wanted to confess. She lowered her eyes and slumped forward. The tension in her knees slackened and her body tipped sideways. Before she slipped off the chair altogether, I moved to grasp her under her arms. Kneeling on one knee, I lowered her to the tile floor.
“Did you touch her?” The deep voice I’d heard the previous confession returned. Victoria’s limp body fell sideways.
“Yes,” I said. An oppressive sense of darkness flooded me.
“Quod modo creditis?” the voice asked. “What do you believe?”
“I believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” I boldly pronounced each word.
“Accuso hypocrita.” Victoria’s eyes blazed. “You have doubted God but call others to believe. You have committed acts of fornication but counsel others about chastity. You sermonize about respect, but have uttered foul words to your elders. Hypocrite.”
Victoria’s voice spoke the truth. In my teens, I had refused to attend church, succumbed to the temptation of sex and marijuana, and fought with my mother when she tried to help. “I rebuke you.” It was all I could manage to say, the only words I could utter while paralyzed with shame.
“All Christians are hypocrites.” A hiss devolved into laughter. Victoria’s body shook. She threw her head back. Her neck cracked. When her eyes opened, she rubbed them with her fists. A strip of skin showed between the bottom of her shirt and her pants. The red remnants of old scratches tore across her belly. She finally propped herself up on an elbow.
“Did I fall off the chair? What the hell happened?” Accusations rested in her eyes.
“Do you know Latin, Victoria?” I remained calm as I offered her my hand.
“No. What does that have to do with my confession?”
I explained what happened word by word as she rose from the floor. When I told her that she spoke in Latin, that she claimed knowledge of my past, she denied it. “You don’t matter to me. Not at all.”
“I understand. But consider the events of last few minutes as evidence. That dangerous ritual is affecting your soul.” I took her hand. “Let me help you.”
“You’re taking this personally, Father Bill. Maybe I shouldn’t see you again.” She pulled her hand from mine.
“Just tell me your last name, which college you attend, and your major.”
“See, it’s personal,” she said. “Tall, bald, not very attractive. Does that hurt your feelings?”
“No,” I said, yet I felt offended. “My appearance isn’t the point. Give me your information please.”
“Victoria Bruce. I’m a history major at… why the hell did you ask me that?” She recoiled from me. “I’m not answering any more questions. I’m never coming back here again.”
She walked out, but never left my mind. That night, I walked the floors of the comfortable home I shared with two parish priests. The elder, Father Joe McCord, ordered me to sit down at the dining room table. We agreed that the conversation we were about to have would escape the confines of our memory. “You’re young,” Joe said. “God put you in my way. Every young priest has asked for help at one time or another.”
Before long, we sat fixated on an ancient book about the rite of exorcism, even though we both declared Victoria’s symptoms the result of some other cause.
“No display of unusual strength.” Joe looked at me over his glasses. “That doesn’t mean she couldn’t lift you and toss you over a fence. You’re skinny as a post, my friend.” Joe’s tremulous smile reminded me we were already on shaky ground.
The word “exorcism” brought thoughts of medieval European prelates, of movies where a dummy’s head turned like a human’s could not. The modern age believed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, that mental illness explained the decline of a mind. Could she be possessed? Was she psychotic? Was she a danger to herself or someone else? The seal of the confessional held me bound.
I consoled myself with facile generalizations. Demonic possession was rare. Victoria Bruce had a family and friends. God would set her on a path to health. I could pray for her.
I would later discover that true naiveté means being unable to plumb the boundless depths of one’s own ignorance.
On an Indian summer Sunday, I said Mass before a larger congregation than ever. After communion, I blessed the faithful. As I raised my hand to make the Sign of the Cross, Victoria waved at me from the back of the sanctuary. A husky man wearing a camo jacket had his arm around her waist. After she spoke to him, he waved, too.
By the time the Mass was over, they were both gone. In the box for prayer requests affixed near the front door, a block-printed message got my attention.
Pray for yourself, William Moore.
Was it a veiled threat? What was the message’s intent? Who was the man beside her? I didn’t want to get Father Joe involved this time. I’d never asked Victoria if I could share her confession with another priest. Technically, I had already broken the seal of the confessional despite Joe’s assurances about the needs of young priests.
I hoped Providence would guide my search.
On Monday at eight a.m., I entered the University of Massachusetts admission office. The university data base was off-limits to me. I debated the assistant director about confidentiality regulations before she checked Victoria Bruce’s schedule. She permitted me to see the green-on-black computer screen readout:
Student does not exist.
“Are you satisfied now, Father?” the annoyed woman asked.
“Of course.” Despite the distracting beauty of a fall day in New England, my determination grew as I drove my Ford Escort to three other local colleges – Amherst, Smith, and Mt. Holyoke. I got past the gatekeepers by virtue of my Roman collar, found out she wasn’t registered, and considered giving up – but knew I couldn’t.
By the time I arrived at the small campus of Hampshire College, I could recite FERPA privacy regulations by heart. The skeptical male behind the desk stared as I asked my question a second time.
“I’m looking for Victoria Bruce. Can you tell me if she’s registered here?”
“And I’m looking for Father James Porter,” the young man snapped back in a whisper, referencing a recently discovered clerical abuse case. “He’s in Bridgewater State Hospital for ‘rehab’, isn’t he?”
“Porter is a disgrace to humanity,” I replied. Then the lies began, as they had at the four previous admission offices. “Miss Bruce left a volunteer request at my church, but my secretary didn’t take down her full information.”
The desk clerk returned with a middle-aged man in a Bill Cosby sweater. “Father Moore, I’m Chester O’Neill. I’ve been to your Sunday Mass.” He shook my hand over the reception counter and directed me to a little-traveled corner of the office. “Victoria Bruce is a student here. You can leave intercampus correspondence at her main mailbox. She may respond more quickly if you leave it at the theater. Those kids work constantly.”
I hadn’t investigated for nothing. I arrived at a third possibility: Victoria could be acting. Then I confused myself by pairing possibilities: acting as though possessed? Was she a mentally ill theater student? Why did she want me to pray for myself?
My lies wreaked vengeance upon my conscience. I needed Joe’s help after all. I requested he hear my confession.
After absolving me, his face reddened. “You need to let this go, Bill. What is it about this girl? There’ll always be a woman, anywhere you’re assigned, wondering if she can ‘make a man out of you’. People in this state think we’re predators nowadays. We’ve always been more like prey than anyone will ever know.”
“You have to understand me, Joe. I want to help Victoria rid herself of the darkness in her soul. She’s hardly more than a child.”
“Is that the job of a green twenty-seven year-old? To rid someone of darkness when they don’t even know where their own shadows lie?” Joe abandoned me in the kitchen.
But I had to think about what Joe had said, to be honest with myself. Priests experience the temptations of greed and envy, of gluttony and alcoholism, of hubris and lust. As I had prayed, it was pride that I recognized. I could not “fix” Victoria, but God could, if he so wished it. I resolved to purge my arrogance through three days of fasting and prayer at a nearby monastery.
The monastery’s comforting routine failed me. After hearing the confessions of pregnant students still using drugs, of young men who’d hit their girlfriends, and of experimentation with gay lifestyles, I knew I was meant for the world. I had no ascetic in me. I hadn’t even gotten halfway home before I stopped at a burger joint.
Joe had dinner waiting when I arrived back at the rectory. Five minutes sent me crashing back into a vortex of stress. “Victoria Burke came looking for you, here at St. Brigid’s. She said she found out you had left for a few days, and wanted to leave you a message.” He handed me a sealed envelope. I read the flyer, printed in grunge-style, with distorted type and randomly used capital letters:
“EXperimental Theatre’s Theeter FREE GO-Round – Five plays no waiting
At Rooke at Mt. Holy on October 29 at 8. Groundlings only.
A block-printed message in blue pen read: “You need to be there.”
“How did she seem to you?” I asked. “And do you know what a groundling is?”
“She smiled the whole time. There’s something strange about her. And let’s ask Matt what a groundling is.”
Father Matt, a teacher before he became a priest, explained. “Groundlings were poor tradesmen who paid their way into an Elizabethan performance. They stood right in front of the stage, an area notorious for rowdy behavior. Might be a hint as to what is to come.”
“Don’t go to the performance,” Joe said.
“I’ll think about what you’re saying,” I answered, staring at the flyer’s printed message.
I should have prayed about it.
Curiosity drove to Mt. Holyoke’s Rooke’s Theater. The building held less than two hundred, so the crowd was small, yet standing room only. The wooden walls held in the scant odor of marijuana and beer. Knots of students in eccentric dress and grungy flannel shirts exchanged gossip and kisses. Never before had I sensed the estrangement of my vocation so utterly.
The middle-aged woman who stood on the stage first received hoots and applause. “Good evening, all. I’m Dr. Margie Pearson of the Mt. Holyoke Theater Department.” She paused a moment for the hubbub to die down. “Our actors and playwrights have worked hard to make tonight a success…”
“Gonna act their asses off!” one of the men yelled.
“Keep your mouth shut!” said a short-haired woman next to him.
“Tonight, you’re more than an audience. That’s a fundamental principle of experimental theater. Pay attention and follow the performers.” She smiled and swept her hand across the expanse of the stage. “Participation! Our first piece is called… ‘Keep your Mouth Shut’,” she said, then pointed to the short-haired woman, who nodded at her.
Under a black light, three women in white bodysuits danced together to the beat of a snare drum. Behind them, two stagehands unrolled a replica of Matisse’s “La Danse.” The arms of nude females, both on the backdrop and onstage, formed sinuous rings. The similarly-dressed narrator, arms lifted above her head, entered stage left. “Before patriarchy, women were worshipped.” Her arms fell to her sides in a great sweep. She placed her hands on her belly. “The womb was sacred space.” As her arms rose, a few audience members softly chanted, “Sacred space.” Soon others picked up the rhythm. The gallery repeated the words until the narrator was joined by a young man dressed in an ancient Greek tunic, a cloak, and sandals. The drumming and dancing stopped. The women stared at the actor, mouths gaping open.
The actor seized one woman by the hand and positioned her on stage. He bent one over fully, ensuring her fingertips touched the floor. When he took two steps back to admire her position, she adjusted the placement of her feet.
“Did I tell you to move?” he screamed.
She remained utterly still.
The other dancers, then the narrator allowed themselves to be led. One was positioned, legs splayed open and a hand on her breast. The other was placed on all fours. The actor slapped her bottom. The Matisse painting was walked off-stage. The previously silent audience reacted in outrage.
“Keep your mouths shut!” the actor yelled at the audience.
The narrator, who had slipped off unnoticed, returned to the stage in a red business suit and pumps. She strode toward the actor and pushed him to the floor. The audience applauded and shouted.
“You can’t do that!” the actor cried.
The actress reached into her jacket. As a magician would pull scarves from his sleeve, she tugged a strand of dollar bills from the breast of her coat. The actor pointed, his mouth agape, eyebrows raised. After the last dollar was pulled out, the well-dressed actress dragged the strand of money toward the woman on all fours. The Greek actor remained still on the floor, stunned as the suited actress draped the cash over the bent dancer’s back.
“Get up,” the suited woman commanded.
“But he said no,” she whispered, her gaze meeting that of the actor.
“Keep your mouth shut,” the rich woman snapped. “Follow me.”
The actress stretched dramatically from her position. “Oh this feels so good!” she exclaimed.
“Keep your mouth shut and follow me.” The suited woman freed the other two former dancers. All the women stood together on the stage, smiling at each other for a moment as the audience applauded.
One of dancers looked at the actor. “What about him?” she asked.
“He has no authority. I do,” the suited actress replied, raising the chain of bills over her head. “I am a first world woman. I have purchasing power!”
“But you’re a woman and I’m a woman,” one of the body-suit clad actresses said. “We’re sisters!”
The suited woman slung the dollar bill boa around her neck and pushed the other actresses to the back of the stage, where a pile of old newspapers and plastic bottles sat. “Third world women work for a living. Go make me something beautiful.” The suited woman ripped a strip off her dollar bill and lifted it above her head. “I’ll pay you.”
“But that’s not enough money to feed our children!” the three actresses cried in unison.
“Keep your mouth shut!” the suited woman said. The lights at the back of the stage dimmed. The actresses froze in place; the rich actress pointed down at the pile of trash. The three actresses mourned, holding their lowered heads in their hands. A few catcalls punctured the silence.
The actor stood and shed his tunic. The bodysuit beneath revealed a muscular body. He moved to the center of the stage. “Does oppression know only gender? Does it know only race?”
The suited actress broke from her formation. “Keep your mouth shut,” she said, holding tightly to the money strand around her neck. “Patriarchal cultures…”
“Keep your mouth shut,” screamed the women from the rear. They rose from their positions. Soon the three actresses and the actor surrounded the wealthy actress.
“I earned my money! It’s mine!” the suited actress shouted as the money was ripped, dollar by dollar, from the strand around her neck. The actor and other actresses called out their uses for the money as they held the bills in their raised fists.
“This is my children’s education!”
“This is a home with four walls!”
By the time they finished taking the money from her, the suited woman had stepped out of her shoes and shed her jacket. She walked toward the audience. “I wrote this play because social justice isn’t about feminism. It’s about money. And anybody who calls me a communist should keep her mouth shut!”
The audience gave the entire cast a standing ovation as they came off the stage and joined the crowd. A sudden chant went up. “Keep your mouth shut!”
The author went back on stage for another bow. She slipped her pumps on, waved, and ran back into the audience I thought I understood the nature of the evening’s entertainment as I joined in the applause.
Dr. Pearson climbed back up the three steps at the side of the stage. “The next author asks for your participation. If you’re tapped, come on stage. You will receive a card with directions. Nobody has any tomatoes to throw, do they?”
The audience grinned and snickered. The woman next to me checked her large purse. “No tomatoes,” she said, smiling at me.
I was tapped to go on stage, as were three other patrons. Though I spoke to congregations larger than the audience before me at every Mass, my stomach roiled. Dr. Pearson told me to stand furthest to the right. A smiling student gave me a card that said, “Thank you for standing up.”
As the others lined up, I glanced at a fleeting figure stage left. The movable screen that hid the figure shook as a hand emerged. I wondered if Victoria stood behind the black panels.
Dr. Pearson surveyed the scene for a moment. “Now, for our second piece, ‘Apologetics’. The author encourages you to react to the statements made by our newest performers. Without further ado,” and Dr. Pearson left the stage.
The theater went pitch-black. Only the red exit signs cut through the gloom. A loud female voice echoed across the auditorium. “Some people say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Raise your hand if you think that’s true.”
My eyes barely adjusted to the darkness, I saw a few hands in the front rise. Students dressed all in black crawled on the floor in front of each person on stage. The dim light glinted off the handle of the flashlight of the boy who’d taken his place in front of me.
The disembodied voice continued. “Apologetic has two meanings. One is the defense of a religious principle. The other is to be sorry for a mistake. So I ask you, what do you have to be sorry for?”
The flashlight under the first card lit up. The holder of the card read: “In 591, Pope Gregory the Great referred to Mary Magdalene, Jesus’s most prominent female disciple, as a reformed prostitute. Though centuries of scholarship have proven Pope Gregory wrong, the Catholic Church has never officially cleared the name of a woman some claim was Jesus’s secret wife. The church’s intention? Marginalize women. Keep Jesus a celibate god.”
Gasps and silence followed. The flashlight aimed at me flashed directly into my eyes. The voice spoke. “Do you apologize?”
Shock gripped me. When I said nothing, the student below me shut off the light. “Wait,” I whispered. But by then, the second participant’s flashlight had blinked on. She read her card in a deep, full voice: “In 1256, Pope Alexander IV allowed the torturers of the Spanish Inquisition to forgive each other for the methods they used to extract confessions. What crimes could they pardon? The use of hot coals, the rack, thumbscrews and metal pincers. The church’s intention? To send sadists to heaven.”
This time, I expected my flashlight to blaze into my eyes. Again, I was asked the question: “Do you apologize?”
I stammered out the first few words of my response: “Every institution makes mistakes…” before words were hurled at me.
The crowd grew louder. “Call me a heretic,” one yelled.
“Just this year, Pope John Paul II issued papal apologies…” I shouted over the noise.
But my light was extinguished. The crowd silenced their catcalls only when the third flashlight came on. “In 1933, Pope Pius XII signed a treaty with Hitler. The Italian Pope eliminated the only thing that stood in Hitler’s way – the political influence of German Catholics. After the pope’s agreement with the Fuhrer, he remained silent as the Holocaust raged around him. The Pope’s intention? To maintain power at all costs.”
When the light burned into my retinas, the faceless narrator asked for an apology. I shouted my answer. “The pope had no control over Hitler!”
By then, the crowd had shut me off completely. Violent shouting – cursing, the word “Nazi”, the epithet “Anti-Semite” - strained from all corners of the space. The kangaroo court had found the church guilty. I had lost my case.
The boy who held the flashlight whispered, “She’s cuing me to leave. Maybe you should go out the back door.”
Though I wasn’t afraid of physical violence, I hoped the situation might calm down if I left. I could see nothing gained by staying to defend the indefensible. As the chant, “No more victims,” echoed in the eaves, I retreated through the small metal door into a chilled night. My tears fell as I drove back to St. Brigid’s, as I told Joe and Matt what had happened, as I typed my letter to the bishop.
“Don’t be hasty!” Joe shouted as my fingers pounded on the keys. “Don’t ask to be moved. It’s your first assignment. You haven’t even been here six months. The bishop will assume…”
“What will he think? That I’m having an affair? Using drugs with students? I’m not going to be effective here anymore. That’s reason enough.”
Joe shook his head and wiped the tears from his eyes. “It’s 1995, Bill. Reason enough? You think these abuse allegations will stop. I went to the bishop with an allegation twenty years ago. My pastor molested a teenager – I was certain of it! The church sent him to the Institute of Living in Hartford. He’s still a priest. But now, it’s different, Bill.”
I waited for weeks for the bishop to hear my petition. Then I wrote follow-up letters in response to previous letters. No mass exodus took people from my pews. Yet a pall so deep had fallen over me that the zeal that once driven me had died. Every week, at the four o’clock Saturday Mass, I saw Victoria in the rear of the church. As I blessed the congregation, her hand rose. By the time I held hands with the congregation for the “alleluia,” she had already left.
The bishop designated an elderly Jesuit priest to conduct three interviews with me. He said he was assigned to judge the legitimacy of my vocation.
“And if you believe I’m not suited to the priesthood?” I asked him.
“God will guide you,” he said slowly. “He puts us where we are most needed.”
“Where would an anti-martyr be welcome?” I asked. “Saints stood in the coliseum before thousands. I couldn’t defend my faith before an angry audience.”
On a bright Saturday in May, I announced my departure from college ministry. Victoria was not in the rear of the church. But as I walked to my car, I saw Victoria watching from a nearby grove of flowering cherries.
The need for answers burned within me, but I didn’t acknowledge her. She sauntered toward me at a snail’s pace. I ignored her until she stood right beside me.
“Thanks for showing up that night. Important people sat in that audience,” she gloated. “I’m headed to NYU.”
“Congratulations.” I stuffed my key in the door.
“You’re a hypocrite,” she said. “Then again, I shared that with you months ago. And you fell for the Barnum Effect? How could you? Well, one size does fit all - as long as you keep the statements general enough.”
I pulled the door open, struggling to remain silent.
“Matthew 7:15, beware a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” she said. “That’s from your bible.”
Pride still gripped me, even through my shame. I gritted my teeth. I refused to seek the last word.
“I don’t need commandments or forgiveness, Bill.”
Even after I started my car, she remained beside my door. She’s never left me since.
Victoria Burke: honored playwright, controversial writer, and outspoken atheist,
William Moore: Pastoral Care, Sexual Abuse Survivors, Archdiocese of Boston.