It all began when the stork dropped my buns down a working class chimney in New Jersey in 1961… after which I was raised in a minority rite of the Catholic Church known as Byzantine Catholic.
The church I “belonged” to had three masses every Sunday… each in a different language: Hungarian, Old Slavonic, and English. The congregation was comprised almost exclusively of Eastern European immigrants, their children, and grandchildren (me included)… most of whom dutifully accepted manual labor, marriage, child-rearing, and the church as their callings in life.
During that time, I did more than just “go to church”. I saw and did it all… baptism, confirmation, confession, communion, Sunday mass, holy days, rosaries, stations of the cross, processions, vigils, weddings, funerals, and more. I also “served” in many ways… first as an altar boy, then as a member of the choir (by the way, my dad was choir director… a stressful, thankless job that I always respected him for… and still do). As an adult, I donated generously to the collection basket. In my mid-twenties, I became church treasurer, and eventually music director, following in my father’s footsteps.
Along the way, I never missed a Sunday, except in my teens, when I worked at the car wash on Sunday mornings and went to the “liberal” Roman Catholic Church on Saturday night instead.
In addition to all my early church-going, I attended Catholic grammar school (K-8) run by heavily-habited nuns and all-boys Catholic high school (grades 9-12) run by Irish monks with cauliflower ears and Brooklyn accents. I understand and appreciate my parents’ good intentions and the many sacrifices they made in order to send me there and I respect them and thank them for that.
Indulge me now as I share some particular and random memories of my life in the faith…
Every morning at school, we dutifully recited the Lord’s Prayer with hands clasped and the Pledge of Allegiance with right hand over our hearts.
My first confession, at age seven, was done face to face. No confessional. No screen. I remember feeling terrified for days beforehand… and wondering what kind of sins can a seven-year-old possibly be guilty of?
Speaking of confessions… I spent most of the time sitting in church daydreaming in order to pass the time during each ponderous, lifeless service.
Once a year, on Saint Elias day, we had holy water sprinkled on the cars for good luck.
I played center on the Church’s basketball team. If I was a girl, I would have been a cheerleader, like my sisters.
Meatless Fridays were standard practice all year long.
It was a big deal when the bishop came to town. His dress was always more flamboyant than our regular priest. Giant gold crucifix hanging around his neck. Bigger, fancier hat too. But the best part was the ring. I remember lining up after church to kiss the bishop’s ring. Even at the time, I thought it was weird and stupid, but I got in line like everybody else and kissed it anyway. I guess I can forgive myself so many years later, recognizing that I was only eight years old at the time.
I started catechism classes as a teenager, when I was gifted a copy of the Catholic Bible (no more children’s bible for this boy). I still have it. Only decades later did I come to realize that none of us actually read the darn thing. More on this in future posts.
More than once, I heard racist remarks from some of the church elders. Can someone tell me how I can still hear the word “black” in my mind’s ear… delivered with a tone of disgust… in both Hungarian and Slavonic… to this very day?
Sometime in high school, I realized what a creepy, terrorizing “sacrament” confession was. As long as I lived at home, I pretended to go once a month, purely out of deference to my parents.
I have seen the back of an angry hand (that feigned, but did not actually strike me) for simply asking why we did what we did. I never asked again.
I’ve had my hand wacked with a ruler by a nun because the book I returned to the cubbyhole had an “ear” on one of the pages. I can still take you the very spot it happened half a century ago.
I’ve had my face slapped by a priest… for disobedience to a nun’s petty demands. And I can take you to the very spot where it happened a half century ago.
I was branded as a troublemaker in fifth grade simply for defending myself from a bully nun on a power trip. By the way, I don’t think that nuns, by definition, are stupid or bad people. As for the priests, I am not so forgiving.
At age twelve, I got “busted”… falsely accused… for fighting in church. That’s when I learned that my word carried zero weight against the word of the nuns who branded me a problem child. Most of the rest of that story must remain untold.
Every Good Friday, I crawled on my knees before a life size image of the crucified Jesus before kissing his feet.
In fifth grade, the nun challenged my class to answer: What we would do if the commies held a gun to our heads and ordered us to flush Jesus on the crucifix down the toilet?
Being an altar boy was fun… especially when I got to play with fire… lighting and snuffing out candles, cranking up the incense burner… or when I got out of school to serve at a funeral… when I got to ride in a limousine, crack up to the jokes of the funeral director on the way to the cemetery, and then get a $2 tip for my trouble before being returned to the classroom.
At the age of eleven, on Holy Saturday Resurrections service, I held a massive gold-encrusted gospel with my outstretched arms in front of a full church, forearms burning and screaming for mercy, as the priest and his alcohol breath read from it some epic, unpronounceable nonsense in five languages.
Lent was a time of self-denial and lots of church-going with depressing music.
Easter a time to celebrate and stuff your face after six weeks of fasting.
Christmas was always wonderful…. thanks mostly to my mom and dad. Manger scenes, Christmas trees, Christmas Carols… and Santa Claus…. all among my most treasured childhood memories. A confession: I still believe in Santa Claus, still enjoy Christmas Carols, and still have no problem wishing everyone “Merry Christmas!” to this day.
Sometime during my adolescence, I ran into the priest at the time (who will remain nameless), at the side entrance of the church. He gave me the creeps. He never touched me, but he did give me the creeps, although I had no language to describe it at the time. In fact, I remember several other occasions where he gave me the creeps. Enough said. Rumor is he died from AIDS in his forties.
As an adult, while serving as the church treasurer… noticing that we were perfectly solvent… I suggested to the priest that we spend some of the money doing some good in the wider community. OMFG! You would think that I just farted in Jesus’s general direction! Enough said.
We prayed for world peace every Sunday, a standard part of the litany, but never actually did anything for world peace.
For thousands of days, the messages were delivered loud and clear… sometimes explicitly, but more often not in so many words…
- The Catholic church if the one true church.
- Missing church on Sunday is a mortal sin… punishable by eternity in hell.
- Taking communion without confession is a mortal sin.
- The pope is infallible.
- Heaven and hell are real.
- Good boys and girls are obedient and silent boys and girls. Period.
- Obey the rules or else.
- Atheist and other-believers are to be feared…. and sometimes viewed with contempt.
- And a host of other nonsense.
I lost track of how many times the authorities told me to shut up, sit down, and do as I am told.
Fear, not love, was the way order was enforced and things got done.
To be fair, and to my knowledge, none of this soft-core barbarism damaged me permanently.
To be fair, I have lots of happy memories, too, but… NONE of those memories have anything to do with the teachings of the church. NONE.
But what really stands out about my life in the church are the things I don’t remember… not because I forgot them… but because they didn’t happen.
- I don’t remember a single inspiring sermon. Not one.
- I don’t remember any Christ-like role models.
- I don’t remember doing a single service project. I don’t remember even being invited to contribute to a single service project. Every project seemed focused on one thing: making money for the church and only for the church… courtesy of bingo, fifty-fifty raffles, bake sales, rummage sales, and the hard work of the Pirogi ladies.
I and we all served the church. I and we did not serve beyond the churches property line.
That’s probably enough to paint the picture… back to the point of this posting…
I lost track of how many times my fledgling bullshit detector fired as boy and young adult… although I did not yet have the cognitive development to process it fully. Even if I could understand it, I still did not have the language capacity to put the insanity into words.
I do now.
Which brings us to one fateful Wednesday evening during Lent in 1990… right in the middle of a special service to commemorate the passion of the Christ. For reasons I cannot trace, as I was leading the singing, a “miracle” occurred… and the simplest of questions hit me like a ton of bricks: Why am I here? Why am I doing this?
The curious thing is that I knew the answer right away… and realized that I had known the answer for some time… without ever even explicitly asking the question.
But, until that moment, the obvious truth lacked the power to penetrate my consciousness. No matter. I was finally able to admit to myself that the “reasons” were not reasons at all, but duty, tradition, habit, ignorance, obedience, conformity, guilt, anxiety, mimicry, ego… and last, but not least: FEAR.
Anyway, to make that long story short: Without missing a note, I finished the singing the service like nothing special had happened, knowing… not suspecting… knowing… that I was done with church forever. The next day I wrote my resignation letter to the priest and congregation and dropped it off beneath the bell tower with all the music I had collected and transcribed over the years.
Since that fateful day, I have not stepped foot in a church as anything but a tourist, wedding guest, or to pay my respects for the deceased and to support the survivors at a funeral.
Up to that point, for twenty-nine years, I believed in God…
… or at least I thought I did.
To be honest, I was not yet an atheist, but for the very first time in my life I started to ask questions… about everything… and had no idea just how much I still had to learn… about the wider world… about myself… and especially about the insidious ways that my immersion in superstitious nonsense stifled my intellectual and moral development for decades.