(Note: This essay may present some peril to your immortal soul. Before reading it, please take the precautions of wrapping a rosary around your hand, dipping your fingers in holy water, and crossing yourself at least three times.)
Though my parents did their damnedest to make a Catholic out of me, somewhere in my teens I misplaced my childhood faith. I believe it was the year I gave up Catholicism for Lent.
When I made my first Confession, my parents presented me with a Catholic Bible. Like all Catholic Bibles, it was edged in guilt.
In case you don’t know, Confession involves going into a 3-person closet and whispering a list of all your sins to a consecrated man in a black dress. The priest then metes out a penance, often a requirement to say a certain number of “Hail Marys” and “Our Fathers.” Once the priest absolves you, your soul is restored to its pristine holy state. In other words, no matter what you’ve done, if you say a few prayers, you get a clean slate and no longer have to suffer agony in Purgatory. Theologians call this tenet the “Hail Mary Free Pass.”
Though some consider this offering of Catholicism to be the deal of a deathtime, it was a deal breaker for me. Can you imagine as a 13-year-old having to count up the number of times you had impure thoughts? Is “infinite” a number?
One day at my Catholic high school, Father Cuddy guest-taught our religion class. He put the 15 of us in a big circle and asked what we thought about transubstantiation (the doctrine that during each Mass the priest performs the miracle of transforming bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Jesus). Unanimously, we explained our belief that what the priest did was profoundly symbolic but not really a miracle. We didn’t believe that when we took Communion we were literally chewing on Jesus’s flesh. After listening to all 15 of us, Fr. Cuddy said matter-of-factly, “No, we believe it’s the actual body and blood of Christ,” and then he moved on to the next topic.
Not only priests but also nuns were instrumental in my Catholic education. Sister Elizabeth, my high school Spanish teacher, for one example, taught me a lot. About three weeks before Christmas when I was a junior, Sr. Elizabeth asked me and Brian Cherer to make a Christmas display on the counter in her classroom. She asked us because we were her two best juniors and because the one senior she had first asked hadn’t done anything. Now it’s true that Brian and I dragged our feet, but when we failed to do this non-curricular chore, don’t you think the next fair step should have been for Sr. Elizabeth to ask three sophomores? That’s not what she did. Instead, she gave me and Brian an early Christmas present—an angry tongue-lashing and a threat that if we didn’t quickly deliver, she might lower our grades in the class. Brian and I received this threat like a knee to the groin. Can you really say you’ve fully lived if you’ve never been verbally knee-groined by a nun?
Now that Brian and I were properly motivated, we decided to end our nightmare as quickly as possible. That very evening we spent our own money to buy some cheap plastic X-mas “decorations,” and we installed them the next day. Sr. Elizabeth taught us how to truly celebrate Christmas: we rushed around in a panic, spent money we hadn’t planned to, made a garish religious display, and were relieved when it was all over.
One Catholic sermon I’ve never forgotten focused on an ecumenical service sponsored by the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO). For five minutes the priest shamed the CYO teens for their poor recruitment since they had succeeded in getting only 12 non-Catholics to attend the special Mass. I have to agree with the priest on this one. Where would Christianity be today if Jesus had started out with only a measly 12 disciples?
I went to excellent Catholic schools for eight years. It occurs to me that by supporting good schools, the Catholic church is working at cross purposes with itself. Cross purposes. Get it? Ha ha ha.
Catholic schools encouraged us to think, while the entire concept of doctrine required us to not think. I’m not Catholic anymore, but, hey, it’s their own fault. They educated me too well for me to be comfortable ever again breathing the doctrine air.
(P.S. If you read this, I’m pretty sure you’re guilty of a venial sin. Please tell your Confessor. And all your Facebook friends.)