Originally published September 26, 2014
I was baptized Catholic and attended Catholic grade school. Like a lot of other Catholic-school kids, I have plenty of “war stories a la Hogan’s Heroes” to tell. I do have some very fond memories of a couple nuns and am grateful to them for being especially protective of me when they found out in my seventh-grade year that my parents were going through a very nasty divorce. Still, the divorce had been a long time in coming, so it didn’t matter too much whether the nuns were kind or not, because my school desk and/or a church pew were ports in the storms. During the actual divorce-time, however, I seriously considered becoming a nun. Public high school soon dismissed any leanings toward that pious vocation. Years later, I realized I was only looking for an escape from reality.
Unless I was sitting (and giggling) with my girlfriends, Mass was just okay. After awhile, I really couldn’t get too excited about it because we attended it several times a week as part of our curriculum, and then there was the mandatory Sunday Mass. There was something very hypnotic, however, about the combination sounds of reverential Latin and bell-ringing. Incense Masses were my favorite. Inhaling the musty, sweet fragrance and following billows of curling, dense smoke up to the ceiling made a true spiritual convert of me — especially when the sun was streaming through the tops of the stained-glass windows and gently filtered through the rising, transparent smoke. (It was many years later, however, before I realized the difference between being a religious follower vs. a spiritual follower.)
Before I left Catholic school, I had received the sacraments of Confession, Holy Communion, and Confirmation. I was still fairly young when I decided that Confession was not for me. To be more specific … Confession with a priest was not for me. We were expected to go to Confession frequently so that our souls were purified before receiving daily and/or weekly Holy Communion. My apologies to devout Catholics, but I did not believe that I was sinful enough to make a confession as often as we were made to do. Perhaps you’ve heard some Catholics joke about making up “sins” before Confession? About having to put a number to those “sins”? As in, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I argued with my sister … umm, five times; I didn’t clean my room … umm, seven times; I lied to my Mother … umm, three times.” And, so on, until we ran out of “sins.” I felt fortunate to get off with short penance prayers: a Hail Mary, an Our Father, and a few Glory Be’s. I really felt badly for anyone who was “sentenced” with the rosary. Oh My God, that would take forever! (To be honest, I don’t think I would’ve remembered the order of the prayers on the beads. Needless to say, I was not a very “good” Catholic. But, for the record, I prefer to talk directly with God about my sins and to “do penance” by making amends to those I’ve wronged.)
Holy Communion seemed fun for a few years because many of us would suck on the thin, Communion bread (host) until it dissolved in our mouths. (I think there may have been a competition to see who could keep from swallowing it first.) And later, when we were older, we could receive a sip of wine with the host. I remember the angst leading up to Confirmation. For one thing, we weren’t little kids anymore; more was expected of us. After being anointed by the Holy Spirit, we were supposed to be models of Christian behavior and defend the Church. Honestly, I was most excited about picking my saint’s name. I picked Veronica, after the woman who had wiped the face of the tortured Jesus as he struggled with carrying the cross to his crucifixion. When we were asked why we chose our saint’s name, I responded that she was kind and brave, and I hoped to be like her. This was true. I was proud of “my saint,” but there was more. Confession time: I also liked how “Veronica” sounded when I said my full name … Nicola Joan Veronica Kelley. As it rolled off my tongue, “Veronica” sounded and felt so grown up to me.)
Regarding my first name: Nicola (pronounced Nik-oh-lah) … My Episcopalian Mother likes to tell the story about the priest who baptized me and “butchered” my name. He said, “Nik-co-ka-la Joan,” and she was not only upset about that, but also upset that my Father-the-Catholic didn’t correct him. In fact, to this day, my Father will address me, with a wink and smile: Nik-co-ka-la Joan.
I am now a lapsed Catholic, but when I was a kid, I was definitely glad I was baptized. During those formative years, we were taught that if we had died before Baptism, our souls would’ve gone to Limbo — a “place” outside of Heaven and Hell. We would’ve stayed there forever, having died with the stain of Original Sin on our souls. We couldn’t enter Heaven because of this sin we are born with — “thanks” to Adam and Eve who disobeyed the one rule God gave them, to not eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. (Limbo, by the way, is another “one” some of us Catholics will joke about with each other. Just imagine precious little babies floating around for eternity in Limbo … Considering that Limbo would be a somber place, would the babies be allowed to smile and coo at each other?)
I must admit that I’ve been Googling frequently during this post because I don’t remember a lot of details from Catechism classes. (I’m sure I wasn’t paying attention.) In the course of becoming reacquainted with some of my Church’s teachings, I’ve been glad to learn that Limbo is not an official doctrine of the Catholic Church. But, it has not been officially rejected by the Church. Basically, theologians have been in a quandary over this one since it was first proposed in Medieval times.
I’m actually enjoying this research, but this post is well beyond the ideal length, and I’m planning for a monthly spiritual post … so, I’ll wrap this one up quickly with these last thoughts:
- Unnecessary guilt and the Vatican way of doing business aside, I’m glad that I was raised Catholic;
- I’ve often told people how appreciative I am of the education I received at the hands of most of the nuns, highly educated and high-spirited women;
- I did pay attention to the lessons about “free will,” and I embraced early on the belief that we are free and rational beings — responsible for our own thoughts and actions, and our spiritual journeys are ours to choose; and, finally …
- I am a firm believer in the the Trinity: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — three distinct entities of the “whole God.” My relationship with “them” and how that filters out into my everyday life and other relationships — like the sun’s rays spreading out from my transparent soul — is my religion.
* Photo credited to author.