My family’s Catholic faith dominated every aspect of my childhood. My mother was so devoted she would drag her four children to holidays that were no longer Holy days of obligation after the reforms of Vatican II. My favorite obscure Catholic holiday was the holy day of St. Blaise. We would kneel before the priest as he crossed two unlit candles across our throats and chanted away in Latin. Saint Blaise was the patron saint of throat ailments. This ritual was meant to ward off disease, yet we got strep throat every year immediately after this ordeal. Because it was no longer a Holy day of obligation and it didn’t improve our throat health, there was no reason to attend this mass yet we went, year after year, without fail.
My mother would also drive us to Catholic shrines and Holy relics all over Missouri and Southern Illinois. We once visited a statue that was on route across the country. It was making a stop in St. Louis at Lambert International airport, and for whatever reason could not leave the airport. A tiny group of the truly devoted from my parish went down to Lambert to gaze at yet another statue of the Virgin Mary still half-encased in its shipping crate. According to its legend the statue had cried once, it didn’t cry that day as we huddled around it, no matter how much we prayed for tears.
Catholics love statues. Special anointed statuary traveled from home to home to multiple families in our parish. We had statuary in our front yard, we had crucifixes in every room, and at the top of our stairs was a full color bust of Jesus complete with bloody thorns piercing his head. As a child this confused me as there was clearly a “Thou shall not worship graven images” commandment. My parents explained that we weren’t worshiping the statue, but the saint the statue represented. But it confused me because we would go to visit statues that had cried, and bled, so what were we worshiping again? The saint or the magical statue?
My entire family attended mass every Sunday without fail. We also went to nearly every parish function, carnival and fundraiser. Catholics love to gamble, at least in the form of Bingo, and I was an expert bingo player by the time I was five. At night just as we were tying to fall asleep we could hear our parents chant the rosary. Their voices muttering the same prayers repeatedly with great speed, trying to get it through the prayer cycle as quickly as possible. My parents strictly enforced the restrictions of lent, and no one never would even dream of eating anything but fish on Fridays.
My parents gave us illustrated books of the saints complete with more blood, gore and self-inflicted torture that a child could hope for. I knew by the age of six or seven that St. Peter requested he be crucified upside down, that St. Sebastian’s body became riddled with arrows yet he miraculously survived, and how Saint Lawrence’s tormentors roasted him alive on a grid iron. Many of the female saints would now be considered sufferers of anorexia, and other forms of cutting or self-mutilation. In the Catholic tradition this self-inflicted torture was not questioned or a cause of concern, but held up as example of divine holiness.
A memorable story, was of St. Maria Goretti. The brutal tale repeated throughout my childhood, was a cautionary tale for young girls. St. Maria was 12 years old when faced with a rapist armed with a 10 inch blade. She refused him sexually and he stabbed her fourteen times because she wouldn’t submit to him. On her deathbed she forgave her attacker. He went on to become a lay-brother who worked in a monastery while her action of forgiveness was held up as a shining example of purity and devotion. All I got from it was that it was better that she was fatally stabbed than raped. I didn’t think any 12-year-old would invite a rape by a 20-year-old man. And did the poor girl have a choice? Wouldn’t he have just stabbed her anyway? Most children, Catholic or not, would have reacted as Maria had. I didn’t think a pagan child would exactly welcome forcible sexual violence. Or was the lesson – when in doubt remain a virgin for God even if it means your life or your virginity? It seemed like a lot to swallow for a story intended for children.
Then there were the pro-life rallies. As I was born in 1973, the same year as Roe vs. Wade my class and everyone younger than myself were known as the children of ’73. The priest would actually group us together and then speak of how all of us had narrowly escaped death in the womb. In my case it was a bit absurd as I my mother was seven months pregnant when Roe v. Wade became law. My mother, always a bit morbid, liked to remind me that during my pregnancy, her non-Catholic friends told since she already had a boy and a girl and times were hard, that she should throw herself down the staircase and induce a miscarriage. My mother would reassure me that the thought had never occur to her. Funny though how she felt the need to tell me that story, and tell it to me more than once. At the rallies bloodied images of aborted fetuses were everywhere. The most startling image was of a baby doll spray painted red, rammed through a pitchfork held high above the frenzied crowd. My first rally, I must have been around three or four, marching along with my fellow children of ’73 to raise awareness of the abomination.
Then there was my Catholic school. The building itself was depressing enough with cracked linoleum floors, poor lighting and mismatched desks. Every detail of Sacred Heart Elementary was beige or gray. The hallways were lit by two huge opaque skylights that on cloudy days let little light in, blanketing the entire school in darkness. Coats and playground equipment were housed behind a cinder-block wall in the back of each classroom. The coats thrown on hooks and our only playground equipment: two red rubber balls and two half-rotted smelly jump ropes, were kept in a over-sized metal trash can. Once behind the wall there was essentially no light so occasionally children would push and fight among the coats. Hazing and bullying was also rampant. Our playground was the parking lot, not even a swing set was available for the first graders. When we would watch film strips the screen was the window screen complete with holes and stains that would obscure the picture. The bathrooms hadn’t been renovated since the 1950′s the stalls were all dark wood, and only the girls bathroom had stalls. The boys bathroom had one long urinal in which everyone would relive themselves at the same time. One particular priest who would run up and quickly whip his penis out to urinate in full view of the boys some as young as age six. This same priest was accused and later convicted of child sex abuse. Yet when my brother complained of this behavior his complaints were not given any credence.
There were no rules it seemed against physical abuse against students with, teachers mildly shoving kids against the wall, rulers slapped on desks, and of course the yard stick that hung prominently behind the desk of our pastor who also our principal. Directly behind his chair there was a yard stick and a large paddle. The stories of beatings by both implements of corporal punishment were epic. The wild tales mostly involved transgressions by boys. I don’t know how many of these stories were true, or pure fiction, but when we transferred to public school the idea of a teacher or principal hitting a student was unheard of, no one even joked about it.
The girls also had to endure a daily uniform check. The teachers forced each girl to stand up and lift her skirt in front of the class, if her shorts were not the uniform issued maroon polyester her parents received a letter. This practice went on until one six-year-old had a breakdown during the hideous ordeal. It was abruptly stopped after her parents complained. To further terrify us, it was standard practice that at any time during the class, our pastor, with his paddle and yard stick, would listen in on any classroom via the intercom. The teachers literally put the fear of the omniscient God or voice of God in the form of our principal watching and waiting for the slightest slip up.
When I was in the fourth grade, my family finally debated removing us from the school. My younger brother suffered from a learning disability and his teacher’s solution was to shove him in the hallway. For most of the school day he sat in a desk by himself with nothing to do and no one teaching him. His cruel and inept teacher had given up, and this was her preferred method of dealing with her problem student. My mother fought to the point of complete exhaustion to get some extra help for my younger brother and eventually gave up and put us all in public school.
I was once publicly humiliated because I threw away an apple my mother put in my lunch. The fact that I had braces on my teeth and I wasn’t supposed to eat apples had no baring whatsoever. My pastor interrupted and summoned my entire class to the parking lot while a large trash can was drug from the church basement. As they stood in a large circle they watched as I hunted through the tossed away lunches and half empty milk cartons to find my discarded apple. Once I found it, covered in garbage and slime, the pastor forced me to eat it before the assembled crowd. As I stood there humiliated and ashamed I cried uncontrollably while my gums and mouth bled from the torturous ordeal.
When I told my mother about the incident when I got home, she sided with the priest. To make my situation even worse she would still absent mindlessly give me apples in my lunch. I became a skilled master at throwing them away before I made it to the lunch room. Luckily by the end that school year we transferred to public school where no one cared what we ate or didn’t eat.
Then there was the incident during a mass when I was 12 years old. Our new pastor became bent on building projects, including adding another very expensive statue. Since my parish was in a poor community the projects could not be built without massive fundraising campaigns. Every week the sermons focused on nothing else money. I grew increasingly annoyed by these constant pleas, my frustrations peaked when a deacon delivered an anti-protestant and antisemitic joke involving a “cheap Jew”. I walked out immediately after the comment and refused to go back.
All of these things disillusioned me long before I learned of the pedophile in my parish and the pedophile in the neighboring parish, and the life destroying court trials that accompanied the abuse. Eventually I also discovered the dark history of the Catholic church: indulgences, forced conversions, harassment and assassinations of scientists, the crusades, the inquisitions, the hundred years war, the suppression of women, and the suppression of knowledge, the fear and distrust of human sexuality and widespread antisemitism, and the long line of corrupt popes, cardinals, bishops, monks and priests.
The modern church with its pope, regarded as infallible in regards to church doctrine, who preaches against condom use in AIDS riddled Africa, denounces birth control in over populated impoverished nations as well playing an instrumental role in the cover-up of child abusing priests. According to Catholic doctrine it is better that six baptized children die before the age of five, that it is to have two children live and thrive into adulthood. It is not about the quality of human life, but the number of Catholic souls.
The most disturbing quality of my Catholic upbringing was the suppression of free thought and questioning authority. Priests were held up as being above mortal humans with shortcomings and frailties After all every Sunday they turned ordinary bread and wine into the spiritual body and blood of Christ. They were also the only ones who could absolve sins through the sacrament of confession and could even exorcise demons from the damned. This mentality is exactly why the church was able to cover-up the child sex abuse for as long as it did. Parents of the victims would think nothing of leaving their children alone and unprotected with a celibate adult male, as they were after all magical spiritual men of the cloth.
The saddest part for me of losing my faith, is that in my youth, I was a believer. I would pray to the Virgin nightly as the images of a bloodied half-naked Jesus always terrified me. The sweet face of Mary in her gilded blue robes and her arms outstretched while crushing a serpent beneath her feet gave me solace. She was my hero, my sweet face in the evening to look up to and to put my life’s prayers and fears into her never-ending loving face. I would have dreams of her hovering over my bed with light pouring from her eyes telling me everything was good and that I had nothing to fear. The fighting in my household would stop, the Russians wouldn’t nuke us to oblivion and that one day I would be able to get out of that tiny bedroom and sleep on a bed on which I couldn’t feel springs through the mattress. I was so proud at my first communion at age 7 when I held my beautiful shiny statue of Mary that I picked out myself at Catholic supply.
The only peace I get now from Catholicism is the music inside the great old churches. Some of the greatest composers wrote almost exclusively for it. The music that would fill the church was magical and still leaves me teary and nostalgic for the dream that imprinted in my mind at such a young age. Huge choirs singing at their fullest and enormous pipe organs playing such beautiful melodies that I could feel them in my bones.
I just can’t forgive the church for its many sins. The Catholic church hasn’t learned from its mistakes, nuns are now forced to beg for donations for their retirement while abusing priests have attorneys defending their cases paid for by the Vatican. I can’t stand the hypocrisy. I can’t stand the dumb blind belief in anything that is not provable. I don’t believe that telling my sins to a corrupt priest will cleanse my soul, or that chanting verses repeatedly will save me from the fiery depths of hell. I don’t believe in hell and I don’t believe in heaven either. I don’t believe in any one being holier than anyone else. Or in any religion being one true path. I believe we are human, and we are the smartest animals on earth, but like any animal we have traits and habits that are predictable and we are all very flawed and primal when exposed to the right stimulus and environments. I also believe that we are both angels and animals. Capable of great art, music, compassion and kindness but also of great terrors and base instincts. So despite all of those trips to visit statues, the lovely songs, and dramatic stories the corruption and abuse was too much for me to stomach. I have met priests that I admire, and Catholics that I truly love deeply within my heart, but I gave up on the institution long ago.
I am not here to tell anyone how to live or what to believe. If you love the Catholic church and you think it does beautiful things through charity and the spiritual life for its believers, then its your right. If the church brings you a sense of peace and love, then by all means worship as you see fit. But it is also my right to reject that faith, and reject it openly.