Growing Up as a Reluctant Catholic

As a quiet toddler in 1967 suburban Denver, I didn’t mind an hour in church once a week. It was mostly a chance to wear my special clothes—I remember the particular excitement, one Easter Sunday, of being buckled into a pair of white patent-leather Mary Janes—then roll around seatbeltless in the back of the family station wagon, a white Ford Country Squire with blue vinyl upholstery.

Those oblivious years slowly gave way to a more big-girl awareness of how things worked in the Catholic world: nuns wore black sacks and sat over there; priests wore colorful robes and got to be in charge of everyone; girls wore lace veils for their first communion; only boys could be altar boys and help with mass. And everybody had to sing.

Singing meant opening your mouth and letting other people hear your voice go up and down while you praised God. That seemingly innocent activity unearthed what would turn out to be my two biggest phobias that stuck around well into adulthood: making my voice heard, and telling anyone how I felt.

And that is when I learned to lip-sync.

But there was a different stressor in church that, by the time I was twelve or so, became impossible to avoid: the moment when our fusty old priest asked the congregation to exchange a “sign of peace” with those around them. The standard procedure consisted of a few simple words accompanied by a warm handshake. Once the fringe-and-tambourine Folk Mass Era of the Peace Hug came upon us, however, it was possible to find yourself in an embrace with a stranger. I was too old to hide my face in my mother’s sleeve, and if I found a sudden need to tie my shoe, people would politely wait for me to finish. I could not get around the requirement to grasp the hands of strangers right and left, raise my gaze to about tooth-level, and mumble, “Peace be with you.”

I get it: it’s a part of adulthood, learning how to look another human being in the eye and say hello. What’s the big deal? Well, here’s the thing. Even now, as a fifty-year-old woman, I might need months of regular contact with someone before I feel comfortable enough to say a modest “How are you?” and actually mean it, much less say something so personal and heartfelt as peace be with you, accompanied by a clammy handshake or, God forbid, a cuddle. It hinges, for me, on feeling seen by the other person, and not being treated like I’m a piece of furniture they’re politely stepping around on their way to the door. In the case of handshakes, the best ones happen when each of us puts something of who we are into them and we get a moment of friendly recognition in return.

I think I just described how dogs get to know each other at the park.

I learned to fake it pretty well, as most introverts do. It’s easier when you know what’s coming, and church services are nothing if not predictable: there’s plenty of time to breathe into a paper bag and visualize keeping your palms dry. But for me—a lip-syncing pre-teen introvert—church was a place I was beginning to dread. On top of the forced singing and intimacy, it took me away from reading books or bouncing a ball against the side of our house. Instead of working to develop the same inner fortitude I would later use to smile and slowly close the door on people selling magazine subscriptions, I began looking for any excuse (stomach aches were at the top of the list) to skip church altogether.

My mom was more deeply introverted than I was, just not quite as desperate to stay home and play soccer with herself. She could navigate most social situations by standing behind my garrulous father and falling asleep with her eyes open. So when I started begging not to go to church, she didn’t seem to get why I was being such a wuss, nor did she have the skills to discuss what made the budding feminist inside me uncomfortable about our religion or help me get past the painful social aspects of it. My father, on the other hand, didn’t get what my problem was in the first place, and I couldn’t explain it to him while he was standing over me, yelling, “What’s the problem?” His ultimate answer to my behavior—which he could have perceived as either a lack of faith or sheer laziness on my part—was to bear down even harder and sign me up for confirmation classes.

The seven sacraments of the Catholic church, if you’re not up on these things, are baptism, communion, confession, confirmation, holy matrimony, ordination (if you’re becoming a priest), and last rites. The confirmation ceremony confirms you as a full, committed member of the church. It’s kind of a big deal.

My church had two confirmation classes for kids my age. The early class was full of teens eager to go straight to church after school: outgoing, well-adjusted future church-members who enjoyed making flash cards of the mortal sins. And then there was my class, the class that didn’t want to go to church until after they’d watched an episode of Gilligan’s Island, drank a Mountain Dew, and ate a bag of Doritos.

After six weeks of class, on the day before the confirmation ceremony, we all met in the church for dress rehearsal and confession. This was going to be my first confession, and I had no idea what to say. I went over to the cookie table, grabbed a stale pecan sandie, and took a seat in the last row of pews. Kids were lined up along a wall, waiting to go into the confession . . . cabinet? chamber? and speak anonymously to the priest. But to tell him what? Confession seemed like it was for big things, like murder, and more murder, or at the very least the things I imagined the kids in my class seemed ready to admit: cheating on tests and smoking shoplifted Kools behind 7-11. I hadn’t done any of that! What was I going to say that wouldn’t make some fresh-faced young Jesuit priest snicker into his cassock—that I didn’t always put my full effort into my homework? Or worse: what if everyone could hear through the plywood confessional screen that once I had sexual thoughts about a cooked bratwurst wrapped in tinfoil? The idea of telling anything remotely personal to a strange man in a dark box was incomprehensible. But what was the alternative: to lie? Lying to a priest would have turned me into a smoking pile of ash right then and there! My parents would have had to bury me inside a Dustbuster.

I slid a little further down the pew, closer to the door. I was pretty sure I’d stuck around long enough to pretend that I’d already confessed—no one seemed to be keeping track; I hadn’t given my name to anyone with a clipboard; and no one in my class seemed to care. So I scooted all the way down the last row until I was right across from the door to the parking lot. Then I slipped on my coat, walked out into the cold, wet spring afternoon, unlocked my bike, and pedaled home through the slush.

If you are Catholic, you might join my brother in being upset that I did not suck it up and confess and that I went through the confirmation ceremony the next day holding that lie in my throat. I’m sorry. I should have said something. I should have confessed my bratwurst sins as I stood in front of everyone in church, my father behind me blocking the exit while the priest declared me an adult (an adult whose behavior was setting her on a path straight to hell). But I didn’t.

Once I was officially confirmed, we stopped going to church every week—my father said the pews hurt his back, but my guess is that he felt that he and my mom had done their duty. And yet, despite my lack of interest in conforming to his faith, I was curious about what faith itself was trying to explain. He showed me that he knew me better than I thought he did when he bought me two books the following summer, one about astrology and one about dream archetypes and symbols. As we occasionally talked about our dreams and what they might mean, we drew closer in a new way, and I began to develop a mystical bent. Then, for my sixteenth birthday, he gave me a pack of tarot cards. I don’t know what inspired him; a serious Catholic wouldn’t dream of buying his child such an implement of heresy. Maybe it was his way of acknowledging my independence and encouraging me to keep looking beyond the boundaries of the faith we’d both inherited. After he died, I found a few books about Zen Buddhism on his shelves, so I guess he kept looking too.