A modern prayer for St. Patrick's Day


Are you a Roman Catholic nervous about confessing your sins to a priest? A German computer jock may have the answer: bare your soul to a computer with a new program called "Online With Jesus." Just like a priest, the computer questions sinners about their misdeeds and deals out their penance."

-- From a recent Reuters news service dispatch.

MAY I PUT my cards on the table, right here at the start?

The first thing you should know about me is this: I am not an ax murderer.

Honest. I tell you right up front: I am not the kind of shrieking, raving lunatic who goes around setting fire to other people's hair.

No . . . I'm merely an Irish-Catholic.

All right, all right: I do admit that there are certain similarities between the kind of character Jack Nicholson played in "The Shining" and your typical former Irish-Catholic altar boy.

I've never denied, for example, that I am occasionally prone to fits of desperate, frenzied screaming, during which I alternately chant archaic Latin phrases and bite savagely at my own wrists.

Of course, the chanting and the biting always become especially pronounced on March 17, each time that deeply disturbing holiday known as St. Patrick's Day rolls around.

No hard feelings, but when the 50 million Irish-Americans who now inhabit the United States begin donning their silly leprechaun hats and guzzling their traditional green beer tomorrow, I'll be elsewhere.

In order to explain why, let me describe for a moment what it was like for many of the Baby Boomers like me who grew up as members of America's most savagely twisted and grotesquely distorted minority: Irish Catholics.

Middle-age and older Irish Catholics are unique for several reasons; the most important of which is that we were all educated by the Sisters of the Sacred Misery.

We grew up in that flickering Never-Never Land known as the 1950s, surrounded by black-cowled, chain-wrapped nuns who dragged themselves through gloomy, underground passageways while muttering endless funeral dirges in a language that had already been dead for 1,000 years.

We spent our childhoods in a world where they tied you to the furnace each evening with a string of rosary beads, then left you to nightmares in which ruby-eyed demons leered above the barbecue-spit from which you helplessly dangled: "Turn him over -- he's done on that side!"

We learned, usually by the age of 4, that simple, two-word prescription for living which every Irish-Catholic instantly understands: seek pain!

We realized, early on, that our basic purpose on Earth was to be as miserable as possible in order to reduce, if only minutely, the gigantic burden of suffering which would be ours on the other side of the Pearly Gates.

Now, please understand, I'm not really complaining about any of this. Why should I? That Catholic education we received was a priceless gift. It prepared us for life in contemporary America, because it taught us how to enjoy being miserable!

But then a very disturbing, very upsetting thing happened.

They went and changed it all.

That's right. It started about a generation ago, with the theological earthquake known as the Second Vatican Council. They sat down in Rome -- all those heavyset guys in the really impressive-looking hats -- and they worked out a whole new set of rules.

In a flash, everything was different. No more Latin. No more worrying about eating meat on Friday. No more weekly confession, no more crawling into that tiny, wooden box where you sweated blood while describing how you'd hidden your supper time Lima beans behind the refrigerator.

I could hardly believe my eyes.

What the hell kind of a religion was this?

How dare they put away the whips and chains and the hair shirts, just when I'd gotten used to them? How dare they change the Latin Mass from a somber, gloomy, chanting ritual to a bright-eyed, hand-shaking, folk-singing love-in . . . just when I'd finally learned how to enjoy being beaten with candlesticks and threatened with Perpetual Hellfire?

"This new Catholicism isn't religion," I spluttered to pitying friends. "How can you trust a religion that doesn't require you to ++ starve yourself around the clock, or to plunge yourself into ice baths on frigid winter mornings?

"Listen, this new Catholicism looks entirely too healthy. I went to Mass the other day and they were taping the damn thing for one of those feel-good segments on Oprah Winfrey! How I yearn for the good old, bone-stretching days of the Spanish Inquisition. . . ."

It's been brutal, let me tell you.

So you can probably imagine how I felt the other morning, when I opened the paper to a Reuters dispatch about a new computer program that will hear your confession just like a priest and then "deal out your penance."

In a flash, I could picture the entire scene.

I'm kneeling in the gloom of my shuttered office, with the lights out, and the only illumination coming from the softly flickering computer-screen.

"Bless me, Father Online," I mutter shamefacedly -- just like in the old days! -- "for I have sinned. It has been far, far too long since my last Compu-Confession."

The screen flashes the phrase: "PROCEED, MY SON."

Then, agonizingly, I tell the PC my litany of sins: "Yesterday, Father Online, I succumbed to two filthy, hateful temptations. First I dreamed of a really kinky frolic with Madonna.

"And then, later that day . . . I'm . . . I'm so ashamed! But the truth is, I willingly, knowingly mocked the memory of our dear departed brother, Richard Nixon!"

Sobbing with remorse, I look up at the gently glowing screen and find there the magic, forgiving formula of the New Catholic Church of the 21st Century:


Tom Nugent, a Baltimore free-lance writer, is the author of "Death At Buffalo Creek," W.W. Norton.

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