I was looking at my near-life-sized bronze bust of Pope Francis this week. He currently spends his time in my garage, sitting on a pedestal and providing comfort to whatever small critters roam among the boxes and
projects I store there. And, not for the first time, I asked myself aloud, "Why did you make this huge, expensive piece of sculpture?" I've settled on the reality that, no matter how many decades it's been since I've considered myself a full-on Catholic, elements of that childhood faith remained embedded throughout my life. Once a Catholic, always a Catholic? So, here are a few characteristics that stayed with me from my earliest encounters with Franciscan Nuns in elementary school to today, as I collect Social Security.
Growing up Catholic means some of us have a lifetime of guilt to carry around forever. And, if you were raised by a grandmother like mine, your burden would be on your back like a sleeping baby gorilla.
Let me first say that Catholic school, attending Mass several days a week, regular Confession, and the whole Papal package imbued me with many fine characteristics for which I am grateful. And though I'm no longer a Holy-Card carrying Catholic, I still – as you will note from my need to capitalize almost every word associated with the Faith (did it again) – live with that education and religious discipline every day of my life.
There was a great deal of mystery in the Catholic education I received from the church and from my Polish Grandmother, who was essentially the head of our three-generation household. Those mysteries were bound up in fear. Fear of what could happen should we disobey, wander, waste food, or trust people who were not family or nuns, or priests. (Whew, I got through that without capitals!)
From Catholic elementary school in the 1950s, we learned to fear retribution for an endless list of sins – things which are legitimately not good human behaviors – lying, stealing, bigamy, murder, lust, and taking the Lord's Name in vain (oops). I also learned to be terrified of the Priest who heard my weekly confession because I often believed I'd committed no sins. Consequently, I had to make up one or two sins to tell the murky image behind the confessional screen – thus committing the sin of lying, for which my penance was the recitation of five Our Father and Hail Mary prayers, plus an Act of Contrition. It also gave me a legitimate sin to report at the next week's confession.
Fear was an essential principle of growing up Catholic. Almighty powers commanded retribution that could take young sinners down like a lightning bolt. We never knew when or how we'd be punished for sins that ranged from Venial (nasty human frailties) to Mortal (as in deadly, you will go straight to Hell). Of course, the magical escape door of Confession (darn!) was always available to wipe sins away with the recitation of prayers equal to the gravity of sin shared with the shadow in the adjacent box. The confessional was like a dark, windowless phone booth that smelled like frankincense, instead of stale cigarettes.
The Faith also saturated my home environment. My grandmother (Polish Catholic) was acutely aware of dangers lurking absolutely everywhere – in the basement beneath our little house, near the railroad tracks just across the street, with the hoboes who rode the rails, inside the home of anyone she didn't know, under the bed, in the act of crossing the street, going barefoot, talking to strangers, choking on chicken bones and (for girls) not covering your head when entering the church.
I believe fear is a close cousin to guilt, and, as I previously mentioned, sin lurked around every corner. So being guilty of something you never did was natural. Consequently, saying "I'm so sorry" was never hard for me. I can apologize to you for the heat wave/flood/ freeze you may or may not be having. (I'm sorry, do I sound insincere? I'm sorry you feel that way).
The Nuns in Catholic grade school reinforced the idea that children were basically dimpled little sinners needing warnings and stern (sometimes physical) guidance. God, the baby Jesus, Lucifer, and my grandmother were watching. I took their message as Gospel Truth. (Did 'truth' need to be capitalized?)
The flip side of being born with sin on my little soul (as are all mortals, they say) is the ability to accept responsibility, comfort the harmed, help the helpless, be truthful, cheer for the underdog, believe that people are basically good (despite evidence presented on the daily news feed that indicates otherwise) and to apologize. (Sorry if that seems repetitive).
I'm convinced that people who turned their backs on Catholocism as young adults never truly left it behind. Here I am as a rational elder adult who has not attended Mass in many decades, suffering guilt for sins I've not committed, feeling responsible for life's inequities – still motivated by the messages of Nuns, the Catechism, and the Shadow behind the confessional screen (If shadow stands for Priest it should be capitalized). Even more incongruous is the year I spent sculpting a bronze bust of Pope Francis – this, despite all I've just admitted to you.
This week I'm feelin' particularly guilty about the war in Ukraine, so I felt the need to share this false sense of responsibility with you. So, I'm sorry if I've offended anyone with this Confession. I'll be sure to do a Penance in keeping with the severity of my transgression. Amen.
PS – If you know a good Catholic who would like to leave a beautiful legacy gift to their Catholic Church, please have them contact me. Pope Francis is yearning for human company. We are waiting at firstname.lastname@example.org. Blessings.
Thanks for spending time with me - I appreciate your attention and the feedback you send me. I hope you're all ready for a lovely Fall Season - free of natural disasters and personal trials. Our nearby latest big fire was mercifully doused with three days of good rain. We get to breathe cool air and watch the leaves on our Aspen trees turn a shimmering gold. Email me with your thoughts at email@example.com
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