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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Growing Up Catholic

I was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church. It was to be expected. My parents came from Lithuania, a devoutly Catholic nation. My mother’s faith was deep and unshakeable. She personified Catholic guilt, and was possessed of a profound fear of God’s damnation and hellfire. My father was not particularly religious during my early years, but he faithfully observed church rules in deference to his wife, and for the sake of his children. He grew to be a pious lover of Jesus in his later years.

We practiced a strict faith, an Old World faith comprised of rules, obligations, penance, ritual, abstinence and fear of God’s wrath. We fastidiously fasted during Lent and Advent. There was never meat on Fridays; there were always evening prayers, rosaries and Mass on Sundays. My faith was breathed into me from Day 1.

I attended kindergarten at St. George’s parish. The church itself was an old, gothic-style cathedral. It was hauntingly beautiful. It was capacious. There was room for my soul to soar and soar it did…I attended Mass daily prior to class. Nuns were my first teachers. I did not regard them as people. In my child’s eyes, they were spiritual beings, magical human-angel hybrids. I trusted them implicitly as they taught (and I memorized) the Baltimore Catechism. I simply assumed everyone was Catholic. I could not imagine that anyone could believe in anything else. This was Truth. This was God’s will.

Mass was conducted solely in Latin in my youth. The language felt ancient, the rituals profoundly mystical. I believed I was participating in rites practiced for thousands of years - that Christ, Himself, had dictated that it be so. I soon came to know the words by heart, but not their meaning:

Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto…
Dominus vobiscum…Et cum spiritu tuo…
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
Kyrie eleison…Christe eleison…
Gloria in exceslis Deo
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini. Hosanna in excelsis.
Pater noster, qui es in coelis. sanctificetur nomen tuum: adveniat regnum tuum: fiat voluntas tua, sicut in coelo, et in terra…
Per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.

Their meanings came later (even today, as I type these words, I feel their weight and majesty). I loved Mass. I loved the incense, the Stations of the Cross, the statues of Joseph and Mary and…most of all…I was awed by the figure of the crucified Christ. I was a devout Catholic. I BELIEVED that all nuns and priests were holy. I BELIEVED in the infallibility of the Pope, Christ’s representative on the throne of Rome. I BELIEVED in Heaven and Hell. I BELIEVED that the communion wafer and chalice of wine were, truly, the body and blood of Christ. I fervently prayed to be pure and holy myself.

I experienced the first quake in my faith in 2nd grade. I was walking to school with a classmate and asked where he was baptized. He replied that he never was. A cold fear ran through me. He was damned to Hell! I could not understand why my friend would eventually be made to suffer so. I was terrified for him. For the first time in my life, I questioned why God would do something like that.

As prescribed by the Church, I learned the rites of confession, and searched my soul for sin. I received my first Communion and, thereafter, devoutly went to confession each week so that I could accept the body of Christ come Sunday. I imagine that parish priests must delight in the confessions of children; my early “sins” were laughable. I’ve truly sinned since. There is a world of difference…

When I was in 6th grade, my mother asked what I wanted that Christmas. I told her I wanted a Missal. She was perplexed. “Missile? You want a MISSILE!?!” “No, mother, I want a Missal, M-I-S-S-A-L.” Her eyes revealed her surprise and joy. I found a Missal under the tree that Christmas, and I loved that book. I read it each day. I assiduously followed the liturgical calendar, earnestly pondering each day’s gospel and epistle. My faith was the foundation for my daily life. I began to read extensively about my faith and my Church. Therein lay the seeds of my faith’s destruction.

Although I was not aware of it at the time, the priests and nuns had noted my pronounced piety. I aspired to be a priest, and my parents and teachers were gently nudging me along that path. I was shocked at my 8th grade graduation to learn that I had been granted a full scholarship to attend a Catholic high school. I was not aware of any particular reason why I, and my family, would be so blessed. You see, my parents could never afford the tuition, so this was a blessing indeed. Decades later, my mother explained that I had been earmarked for priesthood, and that the Church hierarchy decided to invest its faith and funds in me. I did not know that then.

My silent benefactors must have been sorely disappointed in the outcome.

* * *

(to be continued…)


Blogger PattiKen said...

And you have no idea how this resonates with me. Almost every step of the way, I have a common memory, though mine are often not so... um, pious.

Maybe one day, I'll write a piece based on this, answering each of these memories with mine.

If I can drum up the courage and stop thinking about the lightning bolt that might be at the ready.

Sun Mar 27, 11:22:00 PM  

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