Thursday, July 17, 2008

Leaving The Church

I was born into a very large Italian-catholic family that had made its home in the south. My grandfather was a very successful businessman and a self-made millionaire, and because of my grandparents' incredible generosity and community spirit they are regarded by most people in our area as some kind of local royalty. They have also been very generous with the local catholic churches, and have a very large plaque on their wall (allegedly sent by the pope himself) thanking them for their good works for the diocese. They have eight children who all live in the area and 30-odd grandchildren who are all mostly within driving distance. My mother was the baby of the family and we wound up living in the same subdivision throughout my early life. Growing up, I was the catholic princess. Every Sunday we went to church in our Sunday best and sat in the front pew with my grandparents. I went to the local catholic school (they insisted) where religion was a class, we sang hymns in music class, and masses were performed every Tuesday and Thursday morning at 8 a.m. Every so often the assistant pastor would come in and take confessions from all the kids in the equipment room in the gym. Faith was everywhere…we lived it, breathed it, and ate it in our Friday fish dinner.

And yet, the older I got, the more I started to notice things that just didn't make logical sense. I remember one day when I was in the second grade; I was discussing a Presbyterian friend of mine with my best friend at catholic school, and she made a comment that we were luckier than her because, since we were catholic, we were assured a place in heaven, whereas my protestant friend would have to work hard to earn it. That really bothered me for a while, because I was afraid that if that were true, my friend might not be able to join us in the afterlife, for no other reason than an accident of birth and what her parents chose to teach her.

My first communion was an utter disappointment; I simply could not wrap my brain around the idea of transubstantiation and the cracker we got didn't bear the vaguest resemblance to flesh. If they had been passing out tuna sashimi….maybe then it would have been believable, but even at age 8 I knew the difference between meat and something that was not meat. I could buy the idea of symbolic transubstantation, but you try bringing that up in a catholic youth group and see what kind of a reaction you get. My first confession felt like a joke…I was a sheltered kid that knew nothing of the so-called sins our teacher had given us as examples. I couldn't think of anything to tell the priest, so I made something up. My penance was to say the Hail Mary prayer 10 times. In the fifth grade, our teacher was a French-canadian grandmother who had been raised in a convent. One of my clearest memories in her class was the day she lectured about Moses parting the water. To the shock and horror of most of the kids there, she explained that she thought it was silly to think Moses caused a miracle when the area where he probably crossed is notorious for drying up and then flooding with the changing of the seasons. Her point was that it was more likely that Moses knew the riverbed might still be dry and that the Egyptians were just victims of bad timing. I still miss that lady. She was the only teacher at that school who encouraged independent thought.

I think the final straw for me came when I was 16. The former bishop of our diocese was a jolly, grandfatherly sort of man who was a close friend of my grandparents. He visited the family on a regular basis, and was practically an extra grandparent to me when I was small. Around the time the huge catholic sex scandal started making the news, he was called to take over a larger diocese in florida whose bishop had been exposed as a child molester with numerous victims. Before he left, he said a final mass in which he preached against the evils of arrogance and the abuse of power and how it was a poison in the clergy that had to be removed. Six months later, a somewhat younger priest came forward and accused our former bishop of coercing him into performing sexual favors while he was his student at the seminary. Apparently, the charges were true; the bishop admitted to doing this and resigned. I was scheduled to undergo the sacrament of confirmation later that year, and although I was strongly opposed to it, I was given no choice by my family. I skipped all but three of the weekly confirmation classes and went to the mall instead. When the big day came, I hated myself for standing up in front of 500 people and lying.

Later catholic condemnations against abortion, birth control (!!), and homosexuality only further convinced me that I wanted no part of the Roman mess. I've dabbled in other religions over the last ten years, but I always eventually found the same old flaws and ran away screaming. Today, you could probably describe me as a weak atheist. I am happy to say that I have not set foot inside my old church in four years, and the last time I saw the inside of a confessional was in 1994. I'm done apologizing for nothing. It's probably worth noting that our original parish church burned down the day after I was baptized in 1982. Talk about foreshadowing…


JohnB said...

"My first confession felt like a joke…I was a sheltered kid that knew nothing of the so-called sins our teacher had given us as examples. I couldn't think of anything to tell the priest, so I made something up."

I also went to a Catholic school, where confession was compulsory, and being a rather well-behaved 12 year old, hardly old enough to have sinned at all, I also made something up for my first confession. I laugh about it now, but it bothered me at the time that I had to sin (lie) in order to confess my--up until then, nonexistant--sins.

the chaplain said...

Nice post.

Brian said...

It's incredibly brave for anyone to reject the religion of his/her parents. I was raised a Jehovah's Witness and the part about feeling bad about lying to 500 people, I can completely relate.

It's good you're out now, able to live your life without fear of a juvenile, petty God's punishment.

The Brutal Gourmet said...

I was raised Mormon, and one of the last straws I had with the church was when I was a youth leader and was called upon to pad out a meeting by bearing my testimony. Well, I had been talking to the guy who asked me to do this the previous week about how my testimony had gotten pretty shaky, and he told me to get up and say positive things, and that if I said them enough I would believe them. So I got up and lied to the congregation. I felt horrible about it afterward and it was not much longer before I left the church.

If you are not familiar with Mormon testimony-bearing protocol, it usually goes something like "I had a problem/question/issue, and I prayed about it and god gave me a solution/I felt a burning in my bosom/I felt better, so I know this church is true!"

I always hated the "I know this church is true" line...

Psykhe said...

Remember that "weak" atheism is the strongest position. The stonger an assertion, the more likely it is to be false.

flatpicker said...

I grew up in the 60s in the UK in a religious family (CofE), sang in the church choir,then the cathedral choir, choir school, Grandfather was a priest, etc etc. I was totally surrounded by it all.

It took me years to shake it all off, and the last and hardest thing I had to let go was how upset my mother would be if I didn't join the family in church at Christmas, years after I left home.

The wonderful thing now is that religions have become so polarised and dogmatic - extremist? - it has forced non-believers to come together on great sites like this, and I'm only sad that this support wasn't available 30 years ago - a cleaner break would have come sooner for me.

Keep up the fantastic work!