I was raised in a non-religious family. My dad grew up vaguely Catholic, but gave it up early in his life. There was no formal denouncement, he just stopped going to church as soon as he had the option. My mom was raised with no religion, and transitioned into a believer in energy healing as an adult. That isn’t to say that a person can’t be religious while also believing in the energetic power of life; she just doesn’t ascribe to any formalized religion. The extent of religion in our household consisted of a nativity scene set out at Christmas, the “Now I Lay me Down to Sleep” prayer from time to time, and a Bible on the bookshelf, just because.
However, despite this lack of religion, my siblings and I attended private, Catholic schools for thirteen years apiece. From kindergarten through senior year of high school, I was exposed daily to Catholicism in all its various forms; religion class, all-school Mass, prayer before sporting events, before the school day started, before we could leave for lunch, before we could go home at the end of the day.
I can remember perfectly the first moment when it crossed my mind that not everyone took Catholicism at face value. It was after school one day, in kindergarten or maybe first grade, and my dad had picked me up and taken me home. I was telling him about my day, and mentioned that we had read the story of Noah and the Ark that morning. My dad responded with something along the lines of, “Oh that’s good. But you understand that it’s a made-up story, right?” Well, no, actually. I was six years old and trusted my teachers implicitly. I thought it was as true as math and phonics and learning how to spell my own name; I had no idea that there was a facet of my education that was not necessarily historically factual. And from then on, I wrestled with the ideology of Christianity, trying to understand what I believed and what I didn’t, and having no idea whether that indecision was acceptable.
In the Catholic religion, confession, or reconciliation, is one of the sacraments. In our school, this meant that roughly twice a year, our class walked over to the church and, one by one, confessed our sins to the priest du jour. This consisted of reciting the Act of Contrition from memory, then spouting off a list of the sinful things we had done in the last six months. The priest would then absolve us of our sins and give us a penance; as in, go back to your church pew and recite ten Hail Marys, and you’re all good until next time. This sacrament is practiced for the first time in first grade, when children are roughly six or seven years old. Seven year-olds are (for the most part) not very sinful. I said the same things each and every time, reciting my list of sins from memory just as much as I recited prayers. “I fought with my brother and sister, I didn’t always respect my parents, I stayed up past my bedtime reading, and I didn’t go to church every Sunday.” The average person would read these “sins” and laugh, thinking they are the perfect example of the innocence of young children. However, because of what I was taught in school, I believed they were real sins that I would one day, at the end of my life, be punished for. For five or six years of my life, until sometime in middle school, I absolutely positively 100% believed that when the time came, I would be going to capital-H Hell, because I didn’t attend church with my family every Sunday morning. I believed this because my teachers taught it as fact. Not attending church on a weekly basis is considered a mortal sin, because the sinner is aware of what they are doing and knows they shouldn’t be doing it. In this instance, it was the absence of an act – not attending church—that would send me to the fiery underworld. I was an innocent, happy child, but I was convinced that I was headed to hell for not being born into a devoutly Catholic family.
I am now twenty-four years old, and I haven’t willingly attended church since our last all-school high school mass at age seventeen. I’ve attended Catholic weddings and funerals, and will for the rest of my life, but my attendance has nothing to do with a belief in God or Jesus or the Holy Trinity, and everything to do with my love for the person being married or buried. None of my three siblings were married in a church, and I won’t be, either. Religion is not part of my adult life, and although I believe in many of the tenets of Christianity (the Golden Rule, kindness, charity, etc), I don’t believe that Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sins, thousands of years before I even existed.
But here’s the really messed up part: even writing that sentence, admitting that I don’t believe in a formal God, still makes me feel just the slightest twinge of guilt. Not because I don’t fully believe what I’m saying, not because I’m on the fence, but because I was taught, for thirteen years of my life, that not believing was not an option.
I’m not trying to say that I think Catholicism is bad. I’m not saying my teachers and priests were evil, or that they ruined my childhood innocence or something like that; I fully believe that they fully believed every bit of what they were saying, and that’s okay. I also understand that my family was paying tuition for me to attend those schools, and my attendance carried with it the assumption that I was a Catholic believer in Christ our Lord and Savior. There are many beautiful parts of Catholicism, and much of the Bible makes for lovely reading; I just know, with my full heart, that Catholicism is not the religion for me.
Consciously, I recognize that I am not a religious person; however, learning to let go of it subconsciously has been incredibly difficult. For instance, Lent. I have always hated Lent. I hated the idea of giving up something I loved, I hated the antiquated rule about not eating meat on Fridays, I hated having to honor the hours between noon and 3pm on Good Friday, since they were designated as the three hours when Jesus was dying on the cross. But I still did those things dutifully, each and every year. This Lenten season, at age twenty-four, is the first year of my life where I haven’t even bothered to pretend to give up something for Lent. I haven’t once remembered on a Friday that I’m not supposed to eat meat, and then done it and felt guilty about it. For the first time in my life, I can feel the Catholic guilt seeping out of me. And I couldn’t be happier about it.
I believe in treating those around me with respect, and I believe that kindness is the most important attribute a person can possess; but finally, finally, I don’t believe that it makes a difference whether I go to church on Sundays or not, or whether I eat meat on Fridays or remember to keep Christ in Christmas or give ten percent of my income to the church. Those things, which are basically just rules of religion, do not dictate whether I am a good person or not. It has taken me almost twenty-five years to learn that, to really truly believe it, and I thank (the potentially existent, potentially non-existent) god for that. I am not going to go to hell because I don’t go to church; none of us are.
There is, admittedly, one vestige of Catholicism that has carried over into my adult life, and that is prayer. I don’t feel it is something I have to do or that I should do; I simply find the act of prayer to be a beautiful form of meditation. When I say a prayer (always in my head, never out loud) before bed, or when I’m flying over an ocean and the plane starts to get a little bumpy, I don’t actually think of it as me sending up a request to a higher power; I just think of it as a comfortable ritual. I don’t get on my knees and pray, and I don’t get mad if I fall asleep halfway through. I do it exactly as I want to, because that’s what it means to be an individual. It’s the one piece of Catholicism that has stuck with me, and I don’t feel guilty about that at all. I don’t think I’m being sacrilegious or inconsiderate for being a non-religious person who prays. At the end of the day, it is up to each of us individually to decide what we believe in and how we want to celebrate that, and for me that means meat every day of the week if I feel like it, and doing my best to be a good person. Whether or not that story about Noah is true.