Yes, I am writing this on Good Friday.
I was raised in a strict Roman Catholic family. For me, Good Friday will never be just another Friday or just a day off work. It symbolizes the entire weight of my religious upbringing.
Our style of Catholicism had its pros and cons.
On the plus side, both sides of my family were Catholic, and it was something I shared with all of my grandparents, aunts, uncles and 18 cousins, whom we saw often. More than half of my neighbours and classmates were Catholic, so I always had friends at church and in my catechism classes. I liked the rituals, the stories and the hymns. My parents’ group of friends attended the same church, and all of our families went camping together each summer. It was our culture – and since we didn’t identify with any nationality, it was our only culture. From Sunday School and from Bible stories at home, as well as nightly guided prayer, we knew a personal God and a friendly Jesus.
On the minus side, there were iron-clad rules about attending Mass: we never, ever missed a week, not even on vacation. We went twice a week during Lent. Prayers had to be said solemnly and in a certain order. We had to go to confession at least twice a year, and we were usually terrified. We often heard adults talking about church politics – whether this or that priest was holy or on a power-trip. As in all church communities, we saw people act one way at church and another out in the real world. When I was very young, all of this just seemed natural, but later, like all teens, I had a keen eye for hypocrisy.
It wasn’t until I asserted my independence that the system fell apart for me. The things I needed to do as a teen to gather information, make my own decisions, and live with the results were seriously impaired by my parents’ religious views. Despite having always followed The Rules, now I couldn’t think for myself without being told I was committing sins, and being made to feel shame. Things like flirting, staying out a little too late, or not reporting my whereabouts promptly enough, weren’t just testing my boundaries, or mild disappointments to my parents, but sins against God. Yet in my overwrought adolescent fashion, I was convinced that if I followed their rules to the letter, I would end up just like them, and no self-respecting teenager thinks that is acceptable!
My brother and sister and I are so close in age that my parents raised three teenagers at the same time. Their faith must have given them a lot of comfort, and a sense of structure for family life.
Today I’m looking back on the way I was taught about sin, guilt and shame, and how I think of them now.
My earliest memories of “sins” were things like sneaking a cookie from the cookie jar and saying I didn’t (despite the cookie crumbs on my face, I’m sure!) They centred around fears of being caught and punished. It wasn’t long before transgressions caused shame instead: even if mommy wasn’t mad at me, she would get that look on her face like she was very disappointed in me, and not say anything. That was worse! Which begins a cycle of guilt: “I shouldn’t have whined and pleaded for that game. I know they can’t afford it. Now I’ve made them feel bad.” As a teen, I harshly judged myself if I taunted someone or told a secret or took undue advantage of good will. But at least I had figured out that sinning meant hurting others.
My parents told me that to sin was to turn away from God. So now I felt that if I did something wrong, I was disappointing God, too. Gradually, reason sparked, and I developed a more intellectual understanding. Yes, I could drive too fast or not pay my taxes. But society would fall apart if everyone else acted just like me!
Between the ages of 16 and 24, my brother and sister and I put our parents through the wringer with all our offences: Smoking! Drunk driving! Sex! Teen pregnancy! Living in sin! (I won’t say who did what!) And they did not handle it well – and we had turned our backs on God for sure.
After leaving home, I moved far, far away and took, oh, about 10 years to process it all. I became a college existentialist, did an about-face and was ultra-religious for a time, and finally reached my own day of reckoning when I realized I was not going to raise my child Catholic.
So what do I think now?
They were right. Not 100% right. Not with their methods of anger and shaming, but something at the core was true. I don’t use the word “sin,” but when I’ve done wrong, it is because I am not in Right Relationship any more, with others or with the world. Ultimately, I do believe in sin. If I were to drink Pepsi from a Styrofoam cup and then drop it on the ground, I would feel profoundly that I had sinned – in this case, against nature (and against the cells of my own body, LOL!) If I made a mistake at work and didn’t own up to it, and one of my co-workers took the heat for it, I would feel guilty, and appropriately so. I’m glad attention was paid to my moral development. Too much so, maybe, as I had to work hard to undo some of it!
The difference is in the types of “thoughts, words and deeds” that I think are sinful or shameful. In my world, it is not a sin to have kids and bring them up with or without someone else – in any order. It isn’t a sin to be gay or trans. It isn’t a sin to go out for brunch on Sunday morning instead of church. I worry more about sins of omission – did I stand up for what was right?
And you know what? My parents have evolved with the times, and so has their church. Every Catholic I know has a personal philosophy of “Take what you need (i.e. of church dogma) and leave the rest.” Everyone in their generation has gone through the same things with their kids, and of course, they are not judgmental about their dear grandchildren!
It’s funny that now, I have an extra bond with my parents, because I am the only one of their kids who goes to church (albeit a Unitarian one) and we often discuss church life. But would I ever invite them out to brunch at 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning? AS IF!
PS – Luckily, we were never taught we would be damned, and in fact, the church of my childhood barely believed in hell. Whew!