I was raised Catholic. I’ve experienced 5 of the 7 sacraments (Baptism, Reconciliation, Eucharist, Confirmation and Matrimony). I’ll never experience Holy Orders (Ordination of a priest, deacon or bishop) and some day will likely receive the Anointing of the Sick.
Yet, I openly admit I know very little of my faith-the largest Christian group in the world.
This paucity is really no one’s fault.
Being Raised Catholic in Rural North Dakota
I attended CCD (religion classes) Wednesday nights in our rural church hall. Classes were taught by parents who shared what they themselves knew. In high school, Father John Bacevicius taught at least one winter.
I recall reading assignments in advance and the anxiety of being called on during those hour-long classes to answer questions, usually through memorization.
I looked forward to each week of “Sister School” where the Sisters of Saint Francis Convent in Hankinson, North Dakota sent two nuns each summer to teach us in the un-air-conditioned church hall with dim lighting. They were mostly tasked with preparing our young souls and minds for receiving the sacraments.
To this day, I can recite memorized prayers and even recall where I sat at the rectangular tables. I fondly remember the joy of filling my lunch box each morning during that week. [A lunch box was a treat. We ate hot school lunch during the academic year in town.] Recess was a competitive game of softball. Wood outhouses marked the third baseline. 3 PM mass ended each day of that week. A parent was always waiting in the graveled parking lot after to collect us.
One’s first holy communion, first confession and confirmation happened immediately after “Sister School.” Everyone trusted the nun’s preparation of our young minds.
I don’t recollect anyone asking me if I was ready for and fully understood the meaning of the sacraments. We all went through the process. That’s just the way it’d always been done.
I literally can’t remember a thing I was asked to memorize in preparation for these momentous special occasions. Ironically, however, I do recall shopping for and wearing the special attire purchased for the day.
I was most likely too young to fully understand or grasp the deeper meaning of each of the sacraments that preceded my 1992 marriage. I know I dreaded the Bishop asking me a question as I stood before him in front of the entire congregation to prove I was ready for Confirmation. I shuddered with the idea he would slap me on the cheek when I was worthy of being confirmed. (This practice was eliminated in 2012 with the reformed rite of confirmation. And, it was more of a tap than a slap.)
Fear was an underlying emotion before and during each of these ceremonies. Memorization was the method of preparation and testing to coast through these sacraments being bestowed on me, and the dozens of other kids in our parish.
Catholic Family of 11
As a family we were ever-present at first Friday masses, Benediction, all holy days of obligation and, of course, Sunday mass. This was not exclusive to our family. Church was the center of the St. Boniface community and fellow parishioners were sincerely concerned about one another’s whereabouts if you were absent for any of these services.
My father was in the Knights of Columbus. My mother in Christian Mothers. My sisters and I Catholic Daughters and my brothers were Squires. As a family we vied for the coveted “Catholic Family of the Year Award.”
The priest was like an extended family member, joining us for meals and sporadically popping in for coffee and home-made desserts. He could stop in any time and was welcomed by my parents and my siblings as well.
He was a Lithuanian immigrant who escaped Communism and served his farming parishioners with devotion and kindness for nearly five decades. He had a loyal and compliant family of parishioners.
Most of us knelt before lit candles in our family living rooms and prayed the rosary during Lent. I’d venture to say all of us said grace before meals. We cleaned pews. Mowed the cemetery grass. Decorated the church for Christmas and looked after one another.
What I didn’t do was learn the deeper meaning of Catholicism, the sacraments or the basic church teachings. I can recite everything in the Missal by memory but not offer an explanation for the Order of the Mass or many of the other traditions and rituals.
I’m not afraid to admit this. I most certainly know I’m not alone in this.
I say my Catholic upbringing has been in my hands and in my heart. What’s missing is the head-the understanding part. And, I’m working on that.
Catholicism on My Own
I attended Mass throughout my college years. Again, looking back on it, I never fully committed to the doctrine or reached for a deeper understanding or meaning. No one would have described me as a “critical thinking Catholic.” I went to mass because that’s what I always did. Followed ritual.
I shunned religious zealots and those who claimed to be holier than others just because they attended every mass. To this day, I shy away from Catholics claiming to be closer to God and heaven by their church attendance when I’ve seen, and sometimes experienced, their outside-the-church behavior and actions.
I am disappointed by priests, church staff and parishioners who do not welcome all into their flocks. It’s unnerving and disconcerting to receive monetary pleas without ever being greeted by or spoken to by a priest or deacon.
It makes me wonder how parish leaders think they will grow their parishes and retain parishioners without creating an environment emphasizing the church mission, creating a culture of service and gratitude through prayer.
It rubs me the wrong way when parents of students attending Catholic school think their child(ren) are superior to public school students. Worse yet when they think they can do no wrong. Yet, sometimes these parochial students lack the simple manner of gratitude expressed in a thank you note.
Our marriage was blessed by a Catholic monsignor and our son baptized by a Catholic priest. Both have been implicated in the church sex scandal.
Though these behaviors and actions are disappointing, I still believe and attend. I’m somehow capable of ferreting out the disappointing and illegal behavior and actions of the few from the overall meaning. I’m not saying it’s easy though.
It’s been hard, sometimes impossible, to proclaim I’m a Catholic. I’ve felt sickened by the way the Catholic leadership has handled the scandal and will admit I’ve sometimes gone underground about my faith, ashamed by these matters.
My husband joined the Catholic church after attending Mass with my son and I during our entire marriage. As an adult professional, he went through the faith development program-RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults)- prior to joining the Catholic Church.
He might know more about the Church teachings than I do as a lifetime Catholic.
Seeking Community Through Church
I’ve lived in eight states and attended Mass at untold number of churches. I’ve yet to settle into a church where I sense the type of love and community, I felt at the former St. Boniface church in rural Kintyre, North Dakota. [The Diocese of Fargo closed and then burned the church down intentionally in 2007, completely misunderstanding how it was the center of the rural community.]
Recently I wintered in Camp Verde, Arizona and attended Mass at St. Francis Cabrini. This is the closest I’ve ever felt to my childhood longed-for sense of community in a church.
Wednesday mornings after mass, I gathered with parishioners to clean the church and scrub vegetables delivered for the food bank. Parishioners here reminded me of those from my early North Dakota days.
They acted with heart and hands. There seemed to be a genuine sense of caring for one another. I miss that.
I’m at a place and age in my life where I truly understand that searching for deeper meaning and purpose is a lifelong journey.
This exploration applies to my faith journey as well.
Ken, my husband, and I are going through Alpha https://alphausa.org/ at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Omaha, Nebraska.
It’s a world-known program with a series of interactive sessions that explore the basics of Christian faith. Attendees are Catholic but also from other faiths. Some are agnostic and atheist. What each of us shares in common is our search for deeper meaning and understanding.
What’s led to the program’s wild success is its openness and non-judgmental approach.
Attendees share a meal together, enjoy fellowship with real connection, watch a video and discuss the content without judgment or pressure of involvement.
Alpha deals with the larger faith issues. Facilitators lead by asking questions, guiding conversation and offering insight into deeper, more specific issues.
I’m forever grateful for my St. Boniface Catholic Church and family of parishioners. The meaning of church was defined for me there. A very high standard was set. Church needs to feel like community to me.
I’m not a fan or supporter of shrines of worship. I’m an advocate for and participant in heart and hands of church through good works and stewardship in the community.
I’m working on the head part-the understanding of my faith.
In all honesty I will forever place greater priority on the heart and hands part of Catholicism but never shun learning the meaning of the many teachings of Catholicism.
How about you?
Questions for You
What’s your church upbringing experience?
If you were baptized Catholic, are you still a practicing Catholic? Why or why not?
How have you navigated your faith with the church scandals?
What do you most need from your church?
Share and Comment below.
©September 2019. Linda Leier Thomason
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Linda Leier Thomason writes freelance business and travel stories along with feature articles. Her work experience includes a Fortune 500 corporation, federal government, entrepreneurship and small business. Read more about her background and qualifications by clicking on the “Meet Linda” tab above.