I was baptized as a baby, raised Catholic and, although my parents were not the most devout Catholics in the community, it had a profound effect on me. Because I went to public school through 7th grade, I was required to go to Catechism classes before I could go to Confession and receive my First Communion then later Confirmation, three of the seven possible sacraments. My parents took us to church sporadically. Of course, we went for all the important holidays such as Christmas and Easter. We also went almost every week during the sacrament years. My dad liked to go to the mass that Father Bouton said because he talked very fast and had short sermons, so we were in and out quickly. Most of the women in the parish liked those masses too because Father Bouton was young and handsome with a sexy French accent, so we had to go early if we wanted to get a seat. It was fun watching the fashion parade as all the women were dressed to impress.
I preferred the high masses because of the beautiful music, and because they were in Latin. I didn’t really care what the words meant, but the language sounded so archaic and mysterious. I would sit there letting my imagination wander, managing to come in with the proper responses at just the right times. I think the Catholic Church expanded my love for music of all types. I still love hymns. I also loved the incense and all the pomp and circumstance. It felt regal to me, as I imagined being in a royal court in some far away time and place.
The magic of church quickly wore off once I started Catechism classes. I always had a thirst for learning and drove my parents crazy with all my questions. Now I was learning so many new things. I remember learning about Limbo, a place just like Heaven where unbaptized babies were sent. The only downside, according to the church, was that these babies would never get to see God. I could see a whole lot of other downsides and started asking questions. Who took care of the babies? Why did they care about seeing God since they didn’t even know who or what God was? Would they ever get to see their parents? Could their parents apply for visitation once they died? Did the babies ever grow up, or did they just stay babies forever? If so, it didn’t seem like a very pleasant place to me with nothing but a bunch of babies lying around. That was the first time I was thrown out of Catechism. My parents had to submit a special application to get me reenrolled in time for Holy Communion.
After that, I had a respite for a little while, but then I went back to prepare for Confirmation. Remembering my past experience with these classes, my parents enrolled me a year early and, once again, I got thrown out for asking too many difficult questions. My parents were told to instruct me that I was supposed to confirm my faith in God, not question the tenets of the church. I wasn’t so keen on that idea, but threatened with severe punishments, I decided to play along. I was already making up sins for confession because I wasn’t sure I had really sinned enough, so playing their game of submission should be easy, right? Wrong! I just couldn’t manage to keep my mouth shut. I received many warnings, and extra penance, but they let me stay. I think they just wanted to push me through and be done with it.
When you’re confirmed, you choose a saint’s name to take as your confirmation name. I chose Saint Therese, the little flower. We were encouraged to research the female saints before choosing, and I loved her story. I was told I couldn’t have that one because there were too many girls ahead of me who had chosen that name. I didn’t understand why that was a problem but chose St. Cecelia because she was the patron saint of music. That name was also too popular. They suggested Veronica, who offered her cloth to Jesus to wipe his face on his way to his crucifixion. I thought it was a bit morbid, but had no other choices, so that became my confirmation name. At the actual ceremony, you kiss the bishop’s ring, he says, “Peace be with you,” then he slaps you on the cheek as an incentive to be strong in your faith and as a reminder of your decision to be confirmed. Most of the girls were gently tapped. All the boys, and me, were slapped. To me, that slap signified the unquestioning submission that was expected of us. It brought everything into perspective in that one short moment, all my doubts about my religion were confirmed. I’m sure it was not the confirmation they expected.
Not long afterwards, the church changed with Vatican II. We were no longer required to eat fish on Friday. Most of the masses were in English. Limbo was in question, as were plenary indulgences, a way to buy your way into heaven for those who could afford it. Most of the things I had questioned went by the wayside. I felt vindicated but incredibly frustrated. I knew those things were wrong but was punished for questioning them. It didn’t make any sense to me. I may have been born a rebel, but the Catholic Church solidified and magnified that in me.
Many years later, my mother-in-law died. One of her daughters insisted on having her buried out of the Catholic Church, although she had been excommunicated for being divorced. The local priest agreed to do it anyway. During her eulogy he stated that, although she had been a sinner all her life and could never make her way into heaven on her own, her mother had been very generous to the church with her donations of … and he went on to list all the statues and additions to the church her millionaire mother’s money had provided … then told the congregation that since all this money had been donated, Catherine might possibly find her way into purgatory. At that, half of the congregation got up and left. He didn’t even know about the pile of plenary indulgences (tickets to get into heaven that were bought with substantial sums of money) she had bought over the years. Since then, I have not participated in a mass, and I refuse to kneel. It doesn’t mean anything in the long term, but it means everything to me.
Unfortunately, I learned firsthand, and more than once, about the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church and have no respect and no use for it. I watched good Catholics, who went to church every Sunday, do terrible things during the rest of the week. When I attended Catholic High School for four years with a severe physical disability, I was bullied and tormented by my classmates, as the teachers and administration insisted that these good Catholic boys and girls would never do such cruel things to anyone, and I must be exaggerating or just inventing these outlandish stories. Meanwhile, we had three suicides and one school shooting in my graduating class.
My experience with religion has left me jaded and bitter but not without spirituality. I follow my own unorganized spiritual practices and try to live a good life based on respect for all people and nature, doing the right things and being kind and generous to all. I am not anti-religion, it’s just not for me. I believed it’s important that we all choose our own true path, and there are so many options. I have a great deal of respect for the ideas in each religion and for those who live their lives according to the teachings of their chosen religion and great disdain for those, including many of our politicians and leaders, who talk a good game but live their lives contrary to what their God would want. If you’re going to talk the talk, you’d better be willing and able to walk the walk.