Tears trickled down my cheeks as I stared at Jesus’ broken body on the wooden crucifix, high on the wall of my second-grade classroom. It was Lent, and Sister Mary Camillus was describing the suffering of Jesus.
“He went through it alone, betrayed by his friends.” As she strolled among our desks, the oversized rosary beads looped around her waist clicked together, and the tips of her polished shoes peeked out from beneath her floor-length black habit. A band of starched fabric encircled Sister Mary Camillus’s chubby strawberry-milk-colored face, and a forbidding wall of white stiffness rose tall from her forehead. She tucked a stray curl under her black veil.
“He did it for you.” Her gaze traveled from one stricken seven-year-old to the next. The graphic images that Sister painted haunted me—the scourging with balls of thorns, the ripped flesh, the hands and feet gored by nails. I could see it all.
Not all of my Catholic education with the Irish nuns of St. Apollinaris School was so heartbreaking. True, my second-grade classmates and I shared responsibility for the death of Jesus. That was a heavy load. But God would still smile upon us if we worked hard to live a good life. And our Catholic schooling taught us to do just that.
A good life was relative; as mere humans, we obviously could not aspire to be divine like Jesus, who was one with God the Father. But on the second-highest rung of the spiritual ladder was Mary, Mother of God. She was more in our realm, given that her dad—unlike Jesus’s dad—was just a regular guy and not the creator of all humanity. Perhaps I could mold myself to be like her.
“Mary was fully human, just like us,” Sister Camillus explained one day, to nods of understanding all around. This was empowering. Someone like me had been chosen to be the Mother of God! Perhaps I, too, could be selected by God for something. It was like when the Mayor Art Show called our house, telling Mom that our index card had been plucked from the rotating bin, and my three siblings and I could go to San Francisco for the taping of the children’s TV program. Common people were sometimes hand-picked for special privileges. Why couldn’t I be chosen by God?
Then Sister Camillus continued. “Who remembers what we celebrate on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception?”
Hands shot into the air, waving with frantic urgency and accompanied by desperate hissing.
Tina Baldini was a silent paragon of patience. Her white Oxfords rested flat on the tile floor, her arm raised straight and still, and a serene smile glowed from beneath her wire-rimmed glasses.
“Mary was born without sin. She didn’t have sin like the rest of us.”
“Yes, boys and girls, Mary was such a fitting choice to be the Mother of God. She was the only human ever born without the affliction of Original Sin on her soul.”
Catholic kids knew that certain mysteries of faith couldn’t be comprehended and had simply to be accepted as truth, but my mind really grappled with this one. Mary was fully human like us, and not divine. But how did one human end up being born without sin? Did God choose her before she was born, and then erase her sin? Or was it Mary’s sinless purity that had led God to select her out of the entire human race to be the mother of His Son? Either way—how was she really just like us? It didn’t seem fair. Of course, Mary had won the “Who Gets to Be the Mother of God?” contest. The rest of us bumbling humans never had a chance. Mary had a huge leg up on us, given that every last one of us was born with a stain on our infant souls. In my mind, God had made the only logical choice.
It was easier to silence my internal questioning than to figure out new answers, so I grew to accept the Mary teaching. But it was painful. Catholic kids understand the heavy truth that we were all born with Original Sin, so I was deeply aware of my own sinful birth. It became demoralizing to compare myself to Mary’s impeccable self since I’d already been dealt a losing hand. So I turned my attention to the third rung down the ladder, below Mary but still above the rest of humanity.
That was where the saints perched. Saints were regular humans, born with neither divine genetic material nor a sinless soul. Saints loved God deeply. So did I. I’d been taught that God the Father, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus were all one, like the three leaves of a shamrock, and I endeavored to love them all equally. But Jesus was the most tangible, the one I talked with the most. My prayers out of the darkness each night were to Him. Imagining His kind eyes, I’d ask Him to take care of my dead relatives.
Saints weren’t born that way; they became saints by virtue of how they lived. I wondered: Could anyone achieve sainthood if they tried hard enough? At some point in my second-grade year, this narrative became the stationery upon which I began to write my spiritual life’s story. I would become a saint.
Lesson One: Meet the Saints
My third-grade teacher was Sister Mary de Chantal, another of the St. Apollinaris nuns who’d emigrated from Ireland to instruct us in Catholicism. I adored Sister de Chantal, with her cat-eye glasses, her dancing green eyes, and her musical brogue. She glowed when she told us stories of the saints. These stories were no Disney fairy tales; the people had lived hundreds of years earlier, and stories sometimes concluded with the grisly death of a martyr. But a happy ending was built into every one. Each protagonist had been born a sinner, yet had achieved sainthood. These stories filled me with hope.
As she spoke, I’d imagine myself as a stand-in for the respective saint. Sister told of self-sacrifice, mystical healings, and miraculous appearances, spinning them into hypnotic tales that left me breathless. With each story, I’d wonder: Could that one day be me?
One morning, my tattered third-grade religion textbook was open to the story of Saint Thérèse, a.k.a. “The Little Flower.”
The pen-and-ink illustration showed not a stern old woman, but a fresh-faced girl. She had lived to age twenty-four, but her youth was so emphasized in the story that she seemed a mere child. Thérèse was so relatable. And we were practically contemporaries; she had been born in 1873—yesterday, by saint standards. Her dark, floor-length dress hid everything but her face and her hands clasped in prayer. She knelt with her face upturned, smiling in ecstasy at something the book didn’t show.
Frankie McDonough voiced my question. “Why was she called The Little Flower?”
“Ah, boys and girls, Thérèse gave glory to God by being her simple, beautiful self among all the other flowers in God’s garden. She was filled with joy. Lovely, isn’t it?”
The vocabulary of our religion included words like “transubstantiation,” “crucifixion,” “beatification,” and “transfiguration.” “The Little Flower”—even the simple words describing Thérèse made her accessible. It was refreshing.
The brevity of Thérèse’s life was tragic, which made her joyfulness extra noteworthy. Her most fervent belief was in the nothingness of humans before God, and though that confused me, I loved Thérèse, so sweet, happy, and pure. Besides, her nickname was so pretty. I had always been tall for my age, and felt awkward. I wished I could be known as a little flower.
Lesson Two: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary
Another heavy hitter in the line-up of saints was Saint Bernadette. Her story was an account of a fourteen-year-old French child who’d been visited eighteen times by a “small young lady,” presumed by the devout townspeople to be the Virgin Mary. The lady decreed that a chapel be built on the spot of her visitations, the same speck of earth from which a spring with miraculous properties began to bubble, which thus came to be the healing waters of Lourdes.
Mary appeared to Bernadette and two other kids when they were out gathering firewood. One second they’re tripping over rocks and grabbing twigs, then bam! Mary, Mother of God, right there in front of them. The Irish nuns of St. Apollinaris School were wise to teach us about Bernadette. A child who was so pure of heart that Mary appeared to her instead of to an adult? A kid who’d received a message (via Mary) from God? This was big stuff. Toss in some magic water that could heal the sick and restore sight to the blind, and it was a very thrilling story for us young Catholics.
Lesson Three: Manifestations of God on Earth
My favorite story was that of Our Lady of Guadalupe. In the 16th century, Mary appeared to a Mexican peasant named Juan Diego and left with him a mystical robe imprinted with her own image. Mary’s skin was dark, both in person and on the peasant’s cloak; the message was that she and God loved the common, indigenous people. It was comforting to know that the Heavenly bigwigs cared about what was going on down here with us simple folk.
Part of the thrill of the Lady of Guadalupe story was that Mary appeared to Juan Diego in Mexico, not so distant from my California home. But the robe was even more exciting. When Catholic kids puzzled over the faith’s most confounding beliefs, we were told simply: “It’s a mystery.” Juan Diego’s cloak, with its color image of Mary, was still on display in Mexico City centuries after the mysterious events took place. Such physical proof of God’s existence was rare indeed, given that this was back before Jesus began appearing on grilled cheese sandwiches and breakfast tacos. Thanks to our Lady of Guadalupe we had concrete evidence of God at work.
Lesson Four: Miracles
The path to being canonized a saint is complex. For starters, two miracles must be attributed to the deceased holy person. For example, if a sick person prays to a dead pre-saint and begs for her intercession, any subsequent and inexplicable healing can count as a miracle.
I misunderstood the “post-death” qualification, and was mesmerized by miracles that occurred during the life of a sainthood contender. Miracles felt like magic to me. Water, robes, appearances, healing—I could listen to those stories all day. And in my tangled understanding of Catholicism, I thought that if I stumbled upon unexplainable phenomena, I would fulfill a prerequisite for sainthood.
I was in search of a miracle.
I figured it was plausible that a miraculous event could somehow find me. Wasn’t that what “magic” meant? That anything could happen?
And after all, I was probably miracle-worthy. At school, I always folded my hands on my desktop, waiting for permission to speak. I never carved into the grooves that previous years’ students had gouged into my desk, and the Monsignor never had to whack my hands with the metal edge of a ruler. I did my homework, read my book during our mandatorily silent lunch period, and wore my blue-and-brown plaid uniform beanie.
I believed that a miracle could happen to me, and had even selected the one I wanted.
The miracle I most hungered for was to see a statue cry. From the moment Sister Mary de Chantal told us of pious believers who had witnessed religious statues crying, there was nothing I craved more. Every Sunday, perched on the wooden church pew where my family of six sat all in a row, I’d fix my gaze on Mary with her upturned hands outstretched. Then I’d stare at the carpenter Joseph on the other side of the altar, Jesus’ Earthly dad who’d played second-fiddle to the real dad, God the Father. As the priest droned on, my eyes darted from one statue to the other, willing those plaster eyes to shed a few tears for me. Tears would confirm my saintliness, as if God Himself had stamped a Heavenly inkpad and pressed it firmly against my forehead: Approved! Some saints had even had statues bleed for them; at times, the blood and tears combined to form bloody tears. But blood was too much to hope for. I wasn’t that good.
The tears never came. So I put my focus on more attainable goals, things over which I could actually have some say.
Lesson Five: Suffering and Sacrifice
By my figuring, there were two main routes to sainthood. One was to have the random luck of Bernadette and Juan Diego. (Juan Diego was not yet a saint when I was a child in school. But I knew where he was headed. He’d hung out with Mary, for God’s sake. Sure enough, he was canonized in 2003.) I was sure they were fine people, but let’s be honest. They had won the lottery, having been chosen to witness Mary’s miraculous appearances. I had no control over that path to sainthood. If Mary was going to visit me, the ball was in her court.
Saints who weren’t lucky enough to have Mary come visit seemed to have achieved their extreme holiness through sacrifice and suffering. At least this was within my realm of possibility. We knew that suffering—accepted freely and borne without complaint—was a good thing, because by “offering up” our pain, we willingly shouldered some of the spiritual load of others, and the world was better for our efforts.
Lesson Six: Lent
Sacrificing during Lent was something I could do, since we all had to give something up, to do some good by sacrificing pleasure for the forty days of somber companionship with Jesus.
The year I was ten, I gave up sweets. Not once did I cheat. I didn’t bust into the locked cabinet where Mom hid Ding Dongs and Ho Hos from my dad. I politely declined my friend’s offers of pink frosted cookies with rainbow sprinkles. My friend Lisa claimed that Sundays during Lent were “free,” a day when Lenten sacrifices could be ignored, but I didn’t buy it. Not once did sweetness pass my lips. My resolve was unshakable.
Lent ends on Easter morning, along with whatever form of self-denial we had embraced. My sugar-fast that year had paid off doubly. God granted me major points for the difficulty factor of my sacrifice, and I lost several pounds from my round frame.
But my suffering that year did not end when I tiptoed to the kitchen on Easter morning, eager to tear into the sugary treats waiting in my basket. My heart plummeted when I saw the basket next to my name card. Instead of the foil-wrapped chocolate-malt eggs that my brother and sisters received, the all-knowing Easter Bunny had bestowed a healthier gift upon me. Tucked into my basket’s tangle of fake green grass was a lonely box of Calgon Bath Oil Beads.
My disappointment was great. I bore it silently.
But giving up sweets wasn’t my most supreme Lenten sacrifice ever. No, it was much more painful—and therefore, more meaningful—the year I was nine, when I gave up watching Batman for Lent.
Each Thursday evening, when the clock on the wood-paneled wall showed 7:59 p.m., I rose from the faux-leather couch and scuffed my slippers along the braided rug, sliding the pocket doors closed with a thunk. As my family watched Batman and Robin fight crime, I sat on the other side of the doors, rocking vigorously in my dad’s olive-and-orange upholstered chair, sometimes stopping to press my ear against the door. With every muffled “BAM!” and “KAPOW!” they administered to the Penguin, Catwoman, and the Riddler, I comforted myself with the knowledge that I was doing it all for Jesus.
Lesson Seven: The Sinful Human Condition
Catholic kids know that we’re born with sinful souls. I pictured my soul like a white cloth napkin hanging inside my chest, with Original Sin like a big round ink blot staining the cloth. Baptism washed away our Original Sin, but still—the soul in my mind looked worn, no longer crisp and new. Catholic kids were always aware of our sinful nature, whether its birthmark was discernible or not.
Because of this sinful nature, an eventual trip to Purgatory was a given. No humans—except possibly the saints—would go straight to Heaven without a detour, so Purgatory was our best short-term option after death. Purgatory was not Hell, with furnaces blazing and terror lurking around every corner. But it wasn’t Heaven either. It was an in-between place of long-lasting unpleasantness before our admission to bliss-ever-after. It was like being forbidden to plunge into a sparkling swimming pool after lunch until having waited an hour.
Since Heaven was to last for all eternity, it seemed plausible that Purgatory could last for decades, maybe even centuries. Therefore, whenever possible, it was crucial to slash time off our eventual Purgatory sentence.
And thankfully, it was possible. We were taught that if we attended nine of twelve first Friday Masses in a calendar year, time was cut off our stay in Purgatory. It wasn’t clear how much time; I was just happy to accrue credit. Obey Mom and Dad, do my homework, refrain from stealing—hack off a few more years.
Children can learn complicated procedures; they just want to know the rules. The rule-intensive Catholicism taught to us did the job.
Lesson Eight: Inventory of Sins
One rule was that if you messed up, you had to pay the consequences. In the confessional, “consequences” translated into the penance dispensed by the priest. To my eight-year-old brain, Confession was sort of a spray-on stain remover. Confess your sins, be contrite, serve your penance, and voila! You were good to go.
There was just one flaw in the “confess your sins” system. If a kid was out there lying and stealing and punching siblings right and left, it wasn’t likely that the same kid was dutifully charting daily sins. But you had to say something inside that dark closet. So I did what most Catholic kids did (if you could believe a bunch of confessed liars). I made sins up.
It was a simple process. I’d do a mental run-through of the Ten Commandments and compose a feasible list of kid-appropriate sins. Adultery and murder were way out of my league, and the only theft I ever committed was when I swiped chocolates from my sister.
“Thou shalt not bear false witness” and “Honor thy father and mother” were the commandments I claimed to violate most frequently. My weekly take of fake sins would include approximately four lies, three instances of disobeying my parents, and five episodes of fighting with my siblings. Although there was no official commandment against yelling at siblings, it was what we were scolded for most often at home, so it seemed appropriate to include it in my confession. It never occurred to me that by making sins up, I should have added one more lie to the tally.
Lesson Nine: In the Confessional
St. Apollinaris students became skilled in admitting when we’d messed up, because we were given frequent opportunities to do so. Before the first Friday of every month, all kids above second grade traipsed over to the church for Confession. During Lent, it was every Friday. And in our respective families, including my own, many of us hit the confessional on weekends.
Late on most Saturday afternoons, my mom would pack my two sisters and me into our 1960 Ford Ranch Wagon, and trundle us off to church to be forgiven. Pulling open the creaky church door, I’d check for the little red light above the confessional. If it was on, a sinner was inside, and I’d kneel in the pew between my mom and sisters, waiting my turn to have my soul cleansed.
When the red light went out, I’d tiptoe toward the confessional door and avert my eyes until the freshly-confessed person passed. Then I’d enter the tiny dark space.
Alone in the darkness, my confession would begin.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been one week since my last confession. These are my sins.”
After reciting my list of sins—always totaling twelve, which seemed a reasonable number—and assuring the priest that I was sorry, he would chime in.
“For your penance, say four Hail Marys and three Our Fathers.”
I never wondered if he did penance-math the way I composed my lists of sins, reaching the same sum but jumbling the addends.
Then the priest would assert God’s forgiveness, ending with, “Go, child, and sin no more.”
I felt lighter coming out, especially if I’d recognized Father Albert in the voice whispering out of the darkness. Father Albert wasn’t the priest who punished the bad kids at school; he laughed with us at recess, playing jump rope and basketball. I’d imagine him smiling, and I’d feel even more forgiven by God.
At some point before high school, I stopped begging statues to cry. But I can still feel the mystical magic of hoping that they would. Of believing that they could. It would have thrilled my childhood self if I’d brushed tears from cheeks of hardened plaster, or rubbed my fingers against a modern version of Juan Diego’s robe. To be dazzled by a visitation from Mary, her healing waters bubbling up over my bare feet, planted in the soil of my Napa Valley home. But those miracles never came to find me.
In high school, the nuns wore white habits instead of the black I’d stared at for eight years at St. Apollinaris. Early in freshman year, my religion teacher spoke casually of metaphor and symbolism, how “of course” the Old Testament could not be taken literally. That was when it occurred to me that some teachings had been shaped to help young children understand, molded to fit around us, to receive our weight like a pillow.
I felt the rush of possibility. If we were not permanently bound to the literal statements on the page, then maybe the meaning of those words could be broader than I’d ever imagined. But I also felt hurt. Why were they only just now telling us the truth? I was humiliated and insulted, convinced that I could have handled truth if my religious leaders had trusted me, instead of dispensing in bite-sized bits what they thought I could digest.
It took many years more for me to awaken the questioning part of my mind, to encourage whispered wonderings instead of smother them, to challenge my life’s authorities. When a trusting child asks hard questions and is repeatedly quieted with “It’s a mystery,” the muscles of the mind waste away, until they force themselves to learn new ways to move.
I never became a saint, and bear no resemblance to the saintly ideal of my childhood. I am judgmental and hotheaded, prone to impatience. Nowhere in me is a quiet Little Flower, joyful, sweet, obedient. My voice is loud, yelling out in frequent protest—sometimes through a microphone—and my hands rarely rest peacefully upon my desk, instead waving wildly when I argue for what I believe.
And sometimes I ponder: what do I believe?
My adult relationship to Catholicism is complicated. When in my early twenties, I assumed that my life’s work would always be with the Church. But with each passing year, more and more I hardened like a statue at certain words from my childhood. Accept. Be silent. Obey. By the time I was twenty-nine and began teaching, all I knew was that I would stick with public schools and never work within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
I closed the church door for good in my mid-thirties. At a priest’s ordination, a long line of men in their satiny vestments processed up the center aisle, the swirling clouds of incense choking the air the rest of us breathed. Thunderous organ music filled the cavernous building and vibrated the wooden pews as the congregation stood for the parade of men. The pageant that excluded women felt distinctly unsaintly, and I knew I could no longer sit in a church only to feel indignation grip me. I pulled open the heavy wooden door and stepped out into the sunshine.
When the widespread sex-abuse scandal exploded into the light shortly afterward, I discovered that several of the local pedophile priests were well-known diocesan leaders who had trained me twenty years earlier when I’d worked for the Church as a youth minister.
Then there was the institutional cover-up. Homophobia. Hypocrisy.
Accept. Be silent. Obey.
Not me. Not ever.
Catholicism, with all its deep flaws, has also shaped my understanding of what it means to be good in this world.
As a freshman in a public university, I was exposed for the first time to Christians who were not Catholic. On Friday nights, when the thin walls of my dorm throbbed with the Stones, Springsteen, and the Police, my new friends and I would close the door, strum guitars, and talk about God.
“Yeah, I’m Christian,” I’d sigh, puzzling at the question every time. “Catholic” was a subset of “Christian.” How could so many of my non-denominational Christian friends not understand that?
“But have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”
This, I found baffling.
Many of my new friends seemed to believe that those words would save them. Some believed that they were selected before their birth to gain admittance into Heaven.
But neither words nor circumstances of birth meant a thing to me. I’d sacrificed watching Batman, for God’s sake. It was all about action. I’d knelt in a dark box each Saturday and enumerated my sins, begging forgiveness for acts of wrong I’d done unto other human beings. My family headed down our country lane every Sunday to pick up the old lady at the board-and-care home and drive her to Mass with us. The hair-sprouting mole above her lip gave me the creeps, but I sat next to her on the church pew because I believed I could feel her loneliness. Everything in my Catholic bones knew it was the right thing to do.
My parents were not saints either. Dad’s explosive temper once led him to charge onto the court at my little brother’s church-league basketball game, furious over a blown call. As the coach lunged after Dad and gripped him in a bear-hug, Dad shouted at the volunteer referee, a gentle soul who sat behind us at church each week. My usually gentle mother smacked us if she couldn’t wait for Dad to get home. But my father delivered food to poor people, and Mom visited strangers in nursing homes. At school and at home, the adults in my life embodied the teaching: despite our sinfulness, we must strive to do good in this world.
When I was young, I thought Saint Francis of Assisi was cool because pictures showed him petting squirrels and goats, with fluttering birds alighting upon his shoulders. But as an adult, it was his radical anti-war stance that appealed to me, his life lived in voluntary poverty, his rejection of the wealthy privilege into which he was born.
Two Catholic priests, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, raided a draft board during the Vietnam War and used homemade napalm to burn Selective Service records. These brother-leaders of the radical anti-war movement served lengthy prison terms, after which they spent decades protesting nuclear weapons, in brazen acts which included the pouring of blood. Along with other churches and synagogues, the Catholic Church was at the heart of the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, defying federal law by providing shelter to refugees from Central American civil wars. Catholicism fueled the lifework of Dorothy Day, the suffragette, anti-war, social activist who co-founded the Catholic Worker movement during the Great Depression. Until her death in 1980, she devoted her life to the poor and to social change. Cesar Chavez, civil rights leader and farm labor activist, stated that at the very base of his will to struggle was his Catholic faith. When I think of these activist Catholics, my own private saints, their fierceness fills me and I rise tall and proud, sure of the ground on which I stand.
There are many branches of the gnarled tree that is Roman Catholicism, and the branch to which I clung, and from which I launched into my own life, was the social justice branch. When I think of harm that the Church has done and continues to do, I feel shame, disgust, and rage. But the words “social justice” still fill me with energy, conviction, fire, and hope. The drive to obliterate injustice is still a living force in the Church, though tangled overgrowth from the rest of the tree sometimes obscures that aged and righteous limb. It’s still alive. It’s all part of the same tree.
From the time I learned what the words meant, I have been one sort of activist or another. I’ve been arrested while protesting nuclear weapons, and have participated in more demonstrations than I can count. For most of the thirty years I’ve been a teacher, I’ve been deeply involved in union leadership and in taking on the powers that threaten public education. In my third-grade classroom, I emphasize Freedom of Speech when teaching about U.S. Government, and we study activist leaders who fight for human rights.
Would I have found my social justice icons, my activist heroes, my inspirations and my teachers, if my childhood hadn’t been rooted in Catholicism? If I hadn’t been raised to worry about how deeply our actions affect each other, to constantly come face to face with my failings, to repent and beg forgiveness? To believe that sacrifice can better the world as we help shoulder someone else’s burdens? To feel the pain of others as if they’re inside our own skin?
I ask myself: Am I glad I was raised Catholic? The answer is yes, but it is an agonized “yes.” I can’t divorce the question from the appalling harm that Catholicism has inflicted upon so many, including my own friends. I do feel that pain inside my own skin. There’s no way not to. It’s what Catholicism taught me to do.
A friend recently commented on an activity that I did with my third-grade students.
“You sure bring out creativity in kids!”
“Not really,” I said. “It was all them.”
Then she chided me. “You have the hardest time accepting compliments. When you do something that rocks, you downplay it.”
I giggled, and then immediately felt the urge to apologize, as if my rejection of her compliment had hurt her. The idea that sometimes I’m good at what I do—my inability to believe it made me feel guilty.
Another friend observed that I pepper my speech with “we” instead of “I” when discussing Catholicism. I experimented, curious to see if I could stop. I couldn’t.
Both of my friends are right.
When you’re taught from a young age that you are born with sin and you must constantly work to make up for your sinfulness, it can be hard to accept praise. After all, if you spend your childhood striving to be like the saints, then how good can you ever really be? Never good enough, that’s how good.
One aspect of Catholicism that I most appreciate is that we are a “we.” There is a bond I instantly feel upon learning that someone was raised Catholic. Immediately, I know that the person will speak my language, that confusing, value-laden language. We can laugh together about bizarre Church teachings. We understand the comfort of community, the cushioned embrace of a multi-generational congregation that shows up for funerals and doesn’t shy away from pain. We lament the guilt that plagues us still.
As I write this, I worry that my words will cut deep into friends who’ve been profoundly harmed by Catholicism, whether they’ve been raped by priests, excluded from community due to divorce or abortion, or condemned for being gay. Will they feel abandoned or betrayed by me if I haven’t denounced Catholicism harshly enough? And I worry that friends who still identify as Catholic will be hurt by my words, feel personally criticized or mocked for their beliefs. There’s so much to worry about. The capacity for guilt—it’s where my Catholic upbringing really shines.
But all those years of examining my soul and tabulating sins have counted for something. Though it’s very hard to compliment myself, I confess that I’m pretty good at recognizing my failures, apologizing, and asking for forgiveness.
Time for Lesson Ten.
Lesson Ten: Forgiveness
May I be forgiven for any hurt I have caused those who adhere to the faith of my parents, the faith of my childhood teachers and friends.
May I be forgiven for deepening any wounds carried by those who’ve been harmed by the Catholic Church.
May I be forgiven for any failure to accurately represent—in its dichotomous totality—the Catholicism that helped shape me into the person I am.
And may I learn to forgive others. To accept that none of us has achieved sainthood.
Over and over, my long-ago classmates and I repeated the words taught us by the nuns of St. Apollinaris School:
“The Church is the people, not the building.”
The Church—that fallible, sinful, flawed bunch of humans. Awfulness filling some, and astonishing goodness overflowing in others. Most, somewhere in the middle.
When people ask me my religion, I no longer say, “I’m Catholic.” But I have to say, “I was raised Catholic,” because the tangled complexity of Catholicism can never be extricated from who I am. It has permeated and become a part of my lineage, my thought patterns, my emotional make-up, my strengths and weaknesses. It’s practically in my cellular composition.
And it’s in my actions, the good and the bad. I’ve long since accepted that I’m just not saint material. But often, I am kind. And I commit wrongs daily. There are endless opportunities to get better at admitting those wrongs and forgiving others theirs, and I’ve got a long way to go. That’s not very close to sainthood, but it’s as close as I’ll ever get.
I’m okay with that.
Amen. Let it be so.
Sue Granzella’s writing has been named Notable in Best American Essays. She was runner-up for the Bechtel Prize, and has won two contests, as well as numerous prizes in the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition, a contest for which she now judges humor submissions. Her writing has been published in McSweeney’s, Masters Review, Teachers and Writers, and Gravel, among many others. She has completed an essay collection about teaching, and is searching for a publisher.