I WAS RAISED CATHOLIC
I WAS RAISED CATHOLIC
I was raised Catholic. I grew up in a not-so-great neighborhood, and in order to keep my sister and I away from the metal-detector-using and armed-police-employing city school system, my parents sent us both to Holy Sacrament– a local catholic elementary school. If you don’t know anything about Catholicism, just think regular Christianity with an extra helping of unwarranted guilt, a dash of self-loathing shame, and less singing. My second and third grade teachers were nuns, and strangely enough the women who were denied the ability to experience sexuality, reproduce, or raise children were not the most apt at nurturing young minds. Although I had been startled into paying attention by a yardstick slapping my desk on numerous occasions, I was never actually hit with a ruler or anything like that; but these nuns were old school, as in when they started it was perfectly acceptable to beat the shit out of a crying child with a wooden stick. Instead they reverted to mental abuse. In Catholic school, humiliation was the name of the game–gotta start building that shame right? If you were upset about something, Sister Antoinette would call you a baby in a mocking tone in front of all your peers as you cried. Now here’s where it gets dicey: my parents weren’t devout Catholics or really super religious in any way, yet they were raising a kid who was all in, a religious zealot.
It’s when I reflect on my early worldview that I know I will never introduce my children to any religion before they reach their age of reason. Little kids are black and white creatures; theology is not. When you tell a 5 year old that lying is a sin and sins make you go to hell (a fiery place of everlasting torture), the 5 year old doesn’t realize that fibbing over a stolen cookie at grandma’s house doesn’t really qualify you for eternal damnation. You tell them that God is all knowing, all seeing and they believe you. I spent the first cognitive years of my life in constant fear and guilt. My mom would ask why I was crying and I’d say, “I was thinking mean thoughts, and now God’s mad at me”.
She’d say, “sweetie it’s okay to think mean thoughts inside your head as long as you don’t say those mean thoughts out loud. We all do it!”
“But God knows anyway!” I’d cry.
I was paranoid, and why shouldn’t I have been? These ideas were presented to my young mind as fact, so to me it seemed foolish not to be constantly worried about your eternal soul. No 5 year old should be watching Dora while worrying because he truly believes he’s going to hell for annoying his older sister. Its mental abuse whether it’s intentional or not.
Now back to the nuns. Another issue with exposing your kid to religion early then sending them to a Catholic school in which clergy members double as educators is: when their teacher is angry or disappointed in them they feel as though God is angry or disappointed in them. And again why shouldn’t they? You told them these women are literally (well figuratively, but kids don’t understand figuratively) the wives of Jesus Christ and direct representatives of heaven. Because I was so afraid of going to hell (as a child!), I decided I was going to be a priest. It seemed like the only sure-fire way to reserve my spot in heaven. From about 2nd to 5th grade I was obsessed with religion. I prayed multiple times a day everyday. I felt guilt for any and every transgression I ever made regardless of how minute. I had a crucifix on my wall and a portrait of Pope John Paul the Second hanging beneath it, a man who has since been accused of committing “crimes against humanity” for relocating so many pedophile priests during his reign. My sister is 7 years older than me. When I was still in my young obsessively religious state she was a blossoming teenager figuring out her sexuality and place in life. My sister is a lesbian, and obviously she was a lesbian back then too but no one knew it. I remember she brought the topic of homosexuality up at the dinner table once and my parents didn’t really show an opinion either way until I piped up and said “its Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve, God says homosexuals go to hell!” I was in 4th grade. I literally had no idea what a homosexual was. I was just repeating a sound bite I had heard. Where did I even hear that? It certainly wasn’t from my hugely accepting and relatively liberal parents although when they heard what I said they never denied that idea to me or my sister. They more or less said “yeah that’s what a lot of religions believe”. I saw my sisters face drop. I still think about the pain that must have caused her, knowing the people who were supposed to care about her most, didn’t accept who she was. It’s one thing to expect that from some baby-boomer aged people; it’s partly what they were raised to think, but your younger brother…. I’m still disgusted with myself. I’ve thought about that moment a thousand times since then and it still puts that metallic lump in the back of my throat. I would do anything to change what I said at that dinner. How much more heartache, confusion, and self-loathing did I help instill in my already struggling sister? I hate myself for being so evil in that moment and I hate religion for making me believe it was, not only an acceptable, but a pious way of thinking.
Enter the heathen years: I believed in Santa way too long. I understood him to be the incarnation of Saint Nicholas, a very real figure in my faith. Also the same people who sold me on the “god fairytale” were peddling the Santa one. Why shouldn’t I have trusted them? The idea of a magical man descending chimneys and leaving gifts is no more unbelievable than a virgin giving birth or a man walking on water; and these ideas were fact in my perspective. It wasn’t until I moved to East Syracuse in 5th grade and started attending a public school that my fellow students articulated the absurdity of the concept. Strangely enough as I lost my faith in Santa I lost my faith in everything else. It was the first time I was struck with genuine disillusionment. Parents, and teachers, and trusted family members could just lie to you? Who knew? I went home and discussed my newfound Santa realization with my mom. She sat me down and said she didn’t lie to deceive me. She said Santa is a tool used by parents to help kids behave all year and feel some extra excitement during the holidays. “He knows when you are sleeping, He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!” Sound like anyone else you’ve heard about? It was in that second that I had understood a concept I couldn’t yet put into words, because I didn’t know the right ones. Santa is to children as god is to adults. I realized that the “Santa tool” is a microcosm of the “god tool”. When you break it down the similarities are almost laughable. There’s an invisible man who is constantly observing and judging you, only instead of presents as an incentive to behave, he holds paradise over your head; and instead of coal being the deterrent of poor behavior, eternal torment is the disincentive. With one swift dose of logic and objectivity, I did a complete 180, and thus an atheist was born.
Losing my faith as early puberty took over my body was not the most cathartic of experiences. I felt so much anger for having been completely and wholeheartedly duped. As well as contempt for the trusted adults who fed me this lie. I felt existential dread. If the church didn’t have the answers to life’s big questions then who did? No one? Could I live with that? I was spiraling into crisis. If there’s no god then life has no meaning, or so I thought. After a couple years of grappling with these ideas (a little maturation helped as well) I realized that I had actually been set free. If life has no predetermined “purpose”, no master plan then that means your purpose or place in this world is entirely up to you. Your life is in your hands and your hands alone. Invigorating isn’t it? At first I was so preoccupied with what losing my faith had taken from me, I never stopped to consider what it had given me in return. It gave me free thought and objectivity. It gave me compassion and respect for all humans, not just the ones favored by my preferred magic book. It removed all the unnecessary guilt and that constant fear of sin and eternal damnation. It felt so good to be free of it. It was like bookshelf being removed from my shoulders; like that first breath you take after surfacing from the bottom of a pool, right as your lungs just can’t take anymore. I was finally living my life for myself and not for some hateful, invisible entity. I was finally free.
A few years passed. I was in 10th grade at this point, well beyond my disheartened atheist stage and well into my invigorated nihilistic one. “All I know is: I don’t know! All I know is: I don’t know nothin!! All I know is: I don’t not know!!! All I know is: I don’t know nothin, and that’s fiiiiiiine!!!” Poison Ivy, Lagwagon, Rancid, The Misfits. These punk bands and several others helped save my life. They showed me the freedom that lies within this uncertainty we live in. They helped showed me that life’s purpose is determining one. More than anything else they taught me how to stop giving a shit about what others think and to simply be the person you want to see the world filled with. Conformity is the antithesis of punk rock, and nothing says conformity like attending a cult meeting, excuse me, I meant church sermon. Knowing these anarchist anthems were essentially the soundtrack of that point in my life, it’s easy to see that sending me to Confirmation class at my old church was a good choice for anyone involved. To give you a better description of my outward appearance at that time: I had a legit six inch mohawk, bald on both sides, and I was always trying to put a crazy color in it but my hair was too dark. I wore only jeans or cut jean shorts with band Ts. I was really about it. I played guitar in a punk band my best friends and I started. We called ourselves “Chunk o’ Fuck”. AKA “Chunk o’ Whatever” when we played the one school function we ever did. A few students loved that performance but as the band and I walked off stage we were all immediately suspended– But that’s a different story for a different time. My point is I was NOT the type of kid you sent back to church school, that’s for sure.
Regardless of my religious or social opinions, Confirmation class was in my future. “You want to be able to get married in a church, don’t you?” I didn’t; but again none of that mattered. I was going one way or another. I remember our first class meeting. It was in the cafeteria of my old elementary school. The second I entered the cavernous room the smell of cheap floor disinfectant, broken pencil tips, and a slight undertone of natural gas flooded my olfactory glands, taking me back to when I was a scared 4th grader, sitting in those seats worrying about things that should never have weighed on the mind of a child. The twitching fluorescent lights laughed at me as if they were chanting, “We knew you’d be back.” Mrs. G was the Confirmation instructor. She was an angry mouselike woman, about 4 ft 9 with cold grey eyes and a little mouth that was always pursed contemptuously as though she was attending a screening of Gone With The Wind at which the projectionist secretly replaced the film reel with porno. This woman hated my guts at first glance, and that was fine with me. Surprisingly, I didn’t dress the way I did to make friends with conservative 50 year olds. If my appearance wasn’t enough for her to find me distasteful, my in-class contributions were. I just kept asking why; asking how. I found out religious people really don’t like it when you ask the tough ones. For example, I was attending this class when the Sandy Hook tragedy occurred. It really affected me. It was just so unfair and so evil and random. I asked my instructor how her all-powerful god could allow a man to mow down 20 innocent children. She said that was a negative way of looking at it. I was stunned and furious at this response. If this is what you truly believe, is there any other way to look at it? She followed it up with “God works in mysterious ways”.
To which I replied, “That’s just a cheap cop out. How come anytime something wonderful happens we praise god but when something horrible goes down he dodges accountability with his mysterious ways?”
She was notably angry at this point and retorted, “God gave man free will.”
I said “oh yeah my favorite contradiction: the all-controlling entity also has zero practical control over anything, I almost forgot!”
“That’s not what I meant!” she said through clenched teeth.
“Then what did you mean Mrs. Genero? Because if he has any power here, any power at all, and he doesn’t use that power to prevent kindergartners from being torn to shreds by a mad man’s machine gun then he’s a worthless and evil piece of shit. What about the Holocaust? 6 million people and that’s just the most famous one… how mysterious of him.”
Naturally, I was removed from the class and asked to never come back, which was also just fine by me.
Cue a sobbing Nona convinced you’re going to hell. One day, a couple weeks after my Confirmation class banishment, I received a phone call from my, now late, grandmother. She was crying and she said she had heard what happened. Before I could make any excuses for myself she continued.
Through tears she said, “if you don’t get confirmed God won’t let you into heaven and I’ll never get to see you again once I’m gone.”
Oof! That one hurts. What had I done? Was it worth it? Was it worth it to sound like the smartest one in the room for 2 minutes? Was it worth your grandmother’s tears? So pretentious and self-centered. I had come full circle. I had become as aggressive and close minded an atheist as I had been a Catholic. I realized I wasn’t being confirmed for me, I was being confirmed for my loved ones who believed such things were of utmost importance. People like my poor old Nanna. I knew I had to get back into that class. In what is maybe my greatest display of discipline to date, I swallowed my pride and called Mrs. Genero. I begged her to readmit me to the class. I apologized for my comments and swore I wouldn’t cause any more issues or ask any more loaded questions. She let me get through my whole spiel, likely enjoying every second of me with my tail between my legs, before replying, “You made your bed, Jack. There’s nothing I can do about it.”
But that wasn’t going to work for me. I had a crying Nanny on my hands and was going to do anything in my power to change that. I started writing letters to the priest of Holy Sacrament and even to the Monsignor of the entire local Diocese. Eventually after days of trying every avenue I could think of, my phone rang. It was Mrs. Genero. Sounding more than a little annoyed about it she said, “Father O’Connor seems to think you deserve another shot. *relief* Under one condition.. *uh oh*.. Instead of 10 hours of community service (which is what was required of everyone else) you’ll be doing 30. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Mrs. G. Thank you for the opportunity.” I patronized, knowing damn well she probably fought tooth and nail against Father O’Connor over this one.
“Yeah, yeah, we’ll see what you do with it. And one more thing: if you think, for a second, you’re gonna get up on that alter with your hair looking like that, think again.” *click, Buzzzz.
Mr. Richard was a close family friend. He grew up with my mom and I grew up with his kids, the standard Eastwood circle of life. He was also a custodian at Holy Sacrament and with a few calls I was working with him every day for a week, or until my 30 hours were up. When I was a Catholic I cared about too much. When I was an atheist I didn’t care about enough. Neither is a happy way to live a life. It was Mr. Richard that showed me a person could exist in a space somewhere between the two. Standing at about 6’2, Mr. Richard was a stocky man who perpetually smelled like a cocktail of bleach, sweat, and Old Spice. Although he wore thick glasses and had that milky configuration around one pupil, he had a friendly and approachable face; one that many students at Holy Sacrament looked to for some paternal guidance in a building filled with a primarily female faculty. Mr. Richard had heard about my recent “crisis of faith” and my angry outburst in class. One day while we were cleaning some windows with knock-off Windex and newspaper, instead of telling me I was being inappropriate or wrong, Mr. Richard told me it was a good question. I was taken aback by this. I had always assumed the Richards were religious, seeing as how all 4 kids went to HS and he worked there. He said, “Want to hear a secret?”
“No one knows the answers, bud. And anyone who tells you they do is lying to your face. That goes for Father O’Connor as well as the surest atheist you ever heard speak. The bottom line: anyone who says they know for certain what this thing is (he held his hands over his head and formed an invisible semicircle as he dropped them back to his sides), is bigtime full of shit.”
It hit me like a brick to the teeth. I had never considered that perspective: saying you know for certain there is nothing else out there is just as arrogant as saying you know there is. That being said, I’m pretty positive ancient humans didn’t take a shot in the dark 2000 years ago and accurately guess the secrets of the universe.– if I was a gamblin’ man I’d bet against that likelihood. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t occurrences I can’t explain. Questions I’ll never be able to answer. Questions I don’t feel the need to answer anymore. Some things just are. Uncertainty: A concept that once fuelled my nihilistic tendencies, is the same emotion that melted the layer of ice I tried so hard to build up inside. The wall I erected, so no one would be able to pull the wool over my eyes ever again, cracked just enough to let some of life’s wonder shine through. I’m reminded of the quote by physicist Richard Feynman “Keep an open mind – but not so open that your brain falls out”. You put that in conjunction with the following Poison Ivy lyrics: “All I know is: I don’t know! All I know is: I don’t know nothin!! All I know is: I don’t not know!!! All I know is: I don’t know nothin, and that’s fiiiiiiine!!!” and ya get something close to my current worldview. The only one to ever bring me lasting joy.
Jack Mungo was born and raised in Syracuse, New York. He is currently perusing an Environmental Studies major and a minor in Rhetoric Writing at the SUNY School of Environmental Science and Forestry in his hometown. The above essay is his first submission to the public sphere and he plans to further pursue his writing in the future.