Needless to say, my confession didn’t go at all like I had thought it would. I’m not sure what I was expecting really, a little lecture and maybe some fatherly advice, an Act of Contrition and a few Hail Mary’s, you know. Instead I got the God of retribution from the O.T.! Father Dugan was all over me! Throwing question after question at me! He sounded more like a police detective interrogating a suspect than a parish priest. He finally asked, no he demanded, that I promise God that I would never do it again!
In hindsight I suppose the smart think would have been to make the promise and get the hell out of there! Believe me I wanted to, but instead I knelt there in the dark thinking about making a promise to God that I might not be able to keep. The next thing you know I hear myself saying something about it being an unrealistic promise and not knowing if I could make it. Suddenly the light went on in father’s cubicle and I could see him standing up from his chair and exiting the booth. He looked pissed. The next thing you know the door to the confessional flies open and he grabs me by the arm and pulls out of the confessional in front of about a dozen wide eyed parishioners waiting for confession. Father escorted me to the door of the chapel and pushed me outside. “Don’t come back until you can make God the promise!” he shouted as he pulled the door shut. I just stood there for a bit trying to regain my composure. Had it really happened? Had the pastor really thrown me out of church? It had and he had! Wow!
Even after nearly forty years I still have trouble believing that a Catholic priest, the intermediator between God and man had actually done such a thing. I remember making excuses for him and blaming his alcoholism for his actions. Father Dugan was infamous for his alcoholic excess. Believe me there were several stories, most of them true. Yes, Father Dugan managed to turn the small rift I had with the church into the Grand Canyon. I swore I’d never go back. And if you’re wondering about the transgression that started it all, well, yes I continued to do it, but I no longer felt guilty about it.
For the next year I kept my distance from Holy Mother the Church. I wanted nothing to do with Catholicism and even started attending my girlfriend’s Presbyterian Church on occasion. Around that time I ran into an old friend, Bob, who I’d known since the sixth grade. It was good seeing him and listening to all that was going on in his life. He told me he was in a church group called Shalom, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Irwindale and that he was getting married soon. His fiancé was the lead singer in the group. It sounded pretty awesome, the group featured guitars, bass drums, violin, flute and a group of singers. They played church songs, originals and some current tunes. He invited me to come listen to them at the Saturday night youth mass and I told him I would, even though I knew I probably wouldn’t. He also invited me to his wedding.
A few months later I decided to forego my personal battle with the church for one day and attend the wedding. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. The guitar mass was incredible as was the wedding. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. It was radically different and broke all the rules of tradition. And the priest Father Aldo was unbelievable! Never before had I heard a priest or anyone for that matter speak about love as he did. He was so intense and passionate, I hung on his every word and was moved to tears. This was the church I’d longed for, a community of believers celebrating the Living Word. I began going to the Saturday evening mass.
A few weeks later Bob invited me to join Shalom and I readily accepted. It became a mainstay in my life. I remained a part of the group for over five years. We practiced every Thursday and played together every Saturday night at the youth mass. I played guitar, sang and even wrote a couple of songs for group. Bob and I also collaborated on a couple of others. It was quite an experience. Never had I felt so alive. My life had purpose at last!
It was while on a Shalom retreat in the San Bernardino Mountains that I met a young priest who touched my life forever. On our first night after the opening service he and I got to talking and we ended up walking together along a lighted path through the forest. It was awesome. As we walked I told him everything about myself, thoughts, feelings and experiences. We eventually reached an old stone bridge that forded a small creek and stopped there to have a cigarette. As we sat there admiring the starry sky he asked me if I would like our conversation to be a confession. I was blown away! How could our conversation be considered a confession? He explained to me that what we had shared was what confession is supposed to be like, a face to face dialog, with input from both parties, not just a repetition of offenses whispered in a darkened confessional. I was absolutely floored!
Before giving me absolution he told me that God had His hand on me and wouldn’t let me stray far. He also suggested that I find it in my heart to forgive Father Dugan because priests are only human and make mistakes too. I remember I was crying as I forgave Father Dugan and received absolution and a blessing from an amazing priest on an amazing evening in the mountains.
Yes, those were truly wonderful years. I met my future wife about six months after joining Shalom and she too became a part of the group. A year and a half later Father Aldo married us at OLG in a beautiful untraditional ceremony with Shalom adding the musical touches. It was truly incredible! A few years later our daughter was born and she was baptized in the faith by Father Aldo and welcomed to the community of the faithful during the Saturday night youth mass while Shalom played on. I have to tell you that particular time of our lives was golden, a span of years that I wish could have gone on forever, but like all things it too came to an end.
In time the group took on a life of it’s own, it became bigger than life. People loved us! They would hang around after mass to listen to us perform, and perform we did. We’d usually do at least a couple of extra numbers to satisfy the fans. We were also traveling up to Santa Barbara to perform at masses. We even held what was dubbed a “House of Wonder” where Shalom could showcase their talents. It was so successful that we had a “House of Wonder II.” It was at one of these shows that I had the opportunity to get together with another guitarist and a singer to form “Larry, Don & John.” We performed four songs, one written by the three of us, one written by Don and three that I’d written. We had an awesome time basking in the limelight.
Yes it seemed that we had lost sight of our true purpose, giving glory to God. Praising the Lord had taken a back seat to the performance. I knew we were in real trouble the night after mass when during one of our extra numbers two of the male singers began a little push and shove as they jockeyed for position in front of the microphone. One finally pulled the mic from the holder and hung on to it for the remainder of the song. It was a sad moment. The group was simply getting too full of itself and eventually self- destructed. It didn’t help matters any that our beloved Pastor Father Aldo left the priesthood around that time, but things at OLG and Shalom were never quite the same. In time I stopped attending mass once again…
To be continued…