In the 50s and 60s, we Catholics divided the human race into two groups: Catholics and non-Catholics. Non-Catholics included Christians of other denominations, which we lumped together under “Protestants.”* We didn’t know the difference between Episcopalians, Seventh Day Adventists, and Pentecostals, They were all heretics, anyway. Even if your best friend from next door went to one of those churches, you couldn’t go along as a visitor, unless you just sat there, refused to take part and plugged up any part of your mind that wasn’t already locked shut. This discouraged anyone from inviting us to their churches because we were such wet blankets.
Non-Catholics also included Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists and “pagans.” Pagans included Hindus, Buddhists, and other assorted heathens who didn’t know any better. We were taught heroic and hair-raising tales about Catholic missionaries in exotic places and all the miserable, awful, painful stuff they went through, including being offed in ways more gruesome than those on Criminal Minds. It was considered the height of privilege to be a martyr for The Faith, although that was a privilege all of us hoped we would never get. This was supposed to inspire us, but more often than not it just made us have nightmares.
Catholic sinners had an advantage over Protestant sinners. If a Catholic did something really bad, like kill someone, bonk someone else’s spouse, rob a bank or skip church on Sunday, we could get automatic forgiveness by hiding in a confessional and whispering a confession to a priest who we hoped couldn’t figure out who we were. The only catch was that you had to be sorry and promise not to do it again. Confession was a prerequisite for forgiveness of any of the juicy sins. Protestants who committed the same sins were probably not going to be forgiven because they didn’t have Confession, the prerequisite. For that reason, we Catholic kids figured there were probably a lot of Protestants roasting down below, people like the skank who lived up the street or the appliance salesman who sold your Mom that lemon.
The feeling was mutual. A lot of Protestants, especially the Fundamentalists, thought that the best way to end up in Hell was to be Catholic. We prayed for them to come around and they prayed for us to come around, which probably meant that our prayers were canceling each other out. So much for that.
Protestants said the Our Father the wrong way and didn’t say the Hail Mary. At Christmastime, they said, “Peace on earth, good will toward men,” instead of our words, which were, “Peace on earth to men of good will.” It didn’t occur to any of us that God could have good will toward men (i.e. people) in addition to offering peace to men of good will. In other words, we were both right, but neither side would admit that.
If you were a Catholic female back in the 50s, you had to have something on your head when you entered a Catholic church, even if you were only going in there for a few minutes to genuflect, say a couple of prayers, genuflect again and leave.** On Sundays we wore hats. At other times, if we found ourselves hatless, almost anything would do in a pinch. Many a female walked into church with a handkerchief on her head, secured by a bobby pin. If you didn’t have a handkerchief, you used a kleenex, preferably a clean one. You hoped that any non-Catholic who saw you put a kleenex on your head wouldn’t look at you as if you didn’t have all your brain cells.
Men and boys, on the other hand, had to take their hats off before entering a church.
The reasoning behind both rules went back to antiquity. In other words, we didn’t know why we kept this up because there was no logical reason to do so. Catholics were gluttons for tradition, though, so we girls wore hats and the guys didn’t.
Our masses were in Latin, which meant that if any of us became world travelers we could go into any Catholic church anywhere and know what was going on. On paper this was logical. In reality, most of us probably didn’t know what was going on, anyway, which was why you would always see some old ladies praying the Rosary during mass. At least they could say the Rosary in English.
Protestants wouldn’t be caught dead holding a service in an old, dead language, which was very Protestant of them. It took Catholics several centuries to come to the conclusion that it also made sense, so we finally got to have the mass in a language we could understand.
The old Rosary-praying ladies weren’t happy, but the rest of us were.
*Also “Publics,” because their kids went to public schools, where they got an inferior education because they didn’t study religion. That was our story, and we stuck to it like tomato sauce on a white blouse.
**We didn’t know what would happen to us if we didn’t genuflect, but we weren’t about to try to find out.