The Catholicism of My Youth

I still consider myself Catholic but a very different one from the Catholic I was as a youth. That Catholicism was heavily based on guilt and fear with a great emphasis on sin. At some point during my efforts to read the Bible, it occurred to me that perhaps a fear and guilt-based faith was not what Jesus had in mind. Perhaps He wanted to establish something based more on love and compassion.

For many years, I used my grade-school experiences as an excuse for why I was ambivalent about Catholicism. I was reminded of that recently while reading through a book written by the brother of a friend. The author was discussing his days at St. Paul grade school and mentioned a nun he recalled fondly. When I read her name, I froze. My experiences had not been anywhere near as pleasant with this same nun who was my eighth grade teacher.

Organized religion can at times wound us, a reality that can be testified to in recovery programs. I too have heard stories in the therapy room of persons reaching out to a Catholic professional for help only to receive judgment instead. In my own case, I recall being labelled “a leader in badness”. And I recall a fourth-grade classmate being forced to kneel in his urine after the nun refused to allow him to use the restroom.

On the other hand, I have also heard of religious professionals offering wonderful healing. I think of a young woman dying of cancer who wanted to make peace with God and the Church, in part because of an abortion in her past. The priest I referred her to welcomed her with compassion. She died at peace with her Church and her God.

Confession was a big part of the Catholicism of my youth, given its emphasis on sin. I can recall a few confessors who were compassionate but many were also indifferent, even bored. Nonetheless, those times of compassion and welcome stand out as I have moved on from the Catholicism of my youth. But in my memory those dark cubicles were just a little scary.

There were a few moments of enlightenment that helped. When I took a break from Catholicism, I saw that many of the writers I admire — C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, and Henri Nouwen among others — were not afraid to question their own faith. My involvement in dealing with the sexual abuse crisis dramatically confronted me with the humanness, fallibility, even dishonesty of my Church and convinced me that perhaps renewal was needed.

As I reflect on painful memories from grade school, I realize first of all that I wasn’t exactly an easy child to deal with. My ADHD issues created multiple behavioral challenges for teachers such that I spent a lot of time sitting right in front of the teacher or even out in the hallway. Telling a nun to go to hell was not exactly a moment of passivity.

But I also recall the words of a priest I knew in Indiana when I asked him how Catholics could heal from wounds received by nuns at Catholic grade schools. He smiled and said “Maybe that person needs to stop blaming well-meaning old women for their current spiritual struggles.”

As some face the Catholicism of their youth, they may make the brave decision to follow a different spiritual path rather than cling out of guilt to the past. Still others remain spiritual while rejecting organized religion.

The Catholicism of my youth was flawed and at times abusive, traits shared with other religious traditions. But I choose not to live in fear and guilt and to focus instead on aspiring to Jesus’ call to compassion and forgiveness. Yes, sin exists and I am as big a sinner as anyone I know. But I like to think that I am forgiven and that, rather than dwelling on the fears of hell, I need to focus on today.

Reflection: 1. How does the faith of your youth impact your current spiritual journey?