There are so many people I know who all have their reasons why they don’t like the Catholic church or any of the Christian denominations. Most of those reasons are political, noting the sexism or the racism or the homophobia that prevails within them or at least the congregations that their families were a part of while they were growing up. That is a valid point to a certain degree, we all have experienced those aspects at some certain point and time. But that statement is also a non-answer. You know, one of those polite statements people can say in place of the real reason(s) they don’t like their former church. We are all guilty of making these polite non-answers when we don’t want to get deep with personal reasons why. And that’s completely understandable, after all – why get deeper with information than we really have to?
This is one of those times I’m going deeper. I don’t want to say I don’t like the Catholic church because it’s a racist, sexist, homophobic institution. There is a reason or two more. This is a more personal reason. It started back when I was in kindergarten. This was when Father Turner was the priest residing over Saint Joseph’s Catholic church in Edgerton. My memories of Father Turner are few and far between. I mostly remember him on Friday nights at the bar in Tibbie’s, a supper club that was a block away from my house in beautiful downtown Indianford. He was an older priest, in his 50’s I believe and rather dysfunctional from what I remember. His homilies rambled and he always looked and talked like he just woke up. Nice enough guy, though.
Now all good Catholics take their children to catechism, and Father Turner had set up a catechism plan for all the children of the congregation. If you want to call it that. What was called catechism in the Father Turner era was splitting the kids up by grades, pairing them with volunteer teachers – who just happened to be the old women members of the church – and let whatever happen, as long as it was justified by Father Turner. Translated, this meant a room of fifteen children with an old woman rambling on about whatever she felt like talking about. We might have learned how to pray, we might have colored, we more often than anything sat in a chair, listened to the old woman talk about how she lost her rosary, prayed to St. Michael, then found it.
So, as a kindergartener, Mom signed me up to attend catechism. Every Tuesday afternoon for Lent or for that first week of August when the Assumption was on, I went in the first grade class. Yes, you heard me, in with the first graders. It was bad enough that I spent the first part of my kindergarten day with the first graders in their reading class. The other kids hated having me in their class and always called me the punk. I tried to make the best of the reading class, but I understood why I was in there. That whole Tam the Ram thing where I read the story, wrote what I read and all the teachers looked at each other in horror. But this was catechism. This was something completely different from school.
But that didn’t stop the other kids from hating me. They picked on me for being in kindergarten and wanted me to leave. I didn’t blame them. I didn’t want to be there either. I asked Mom why I was in catechism and she said I was supposed to be in there. I told her I didn’t belong there, because all the other kids were in the first grade and I’m not. She said those other kids didn’t need to know that. You just say you belong there and that’s that. That didn’t help matters. There were other kids from my school there and they told the other kids who weren’t in my school and everything was worse. No one would let me sit where I wanted to sit, so they would push me and my chair so I had to sit next to this girl, Tamie Uglum, who always smelled and always had her thumb in her mouth. I would tell Mom week after week how bad catechism was, and what the other kids were doing but she turned a deaf ear to the whole thing.
When I was in the first grade, the classes lined up and we went to our classrooms. After roll call, I raised my hand and told the teacher I’m in the wrong grade. She took me to the class where the first grade class, I was added to the roll call and all was good. I liked being with the kids in my grade. I belonged somewhere…even if the class was boring and no one liked it. I was where I was supposed to be.
I was very proud of myself. I corrected a problem. Part of the catechism was a Mass. So after sitting in the classroom with the other kids doing who knows what for an hour, we sat in Church for another hour doing nothing but acquiring boredom. Mom was sitting in her usual pew, the back pew in the middle section on the right hand side. She drove my sister and I home where she had dinner ready but to heat it up. At the dinner table I told her how I’m no longer in the wrong grade and how proud I was to solve the problem. She wasn’t. She yelled at me at the dinner table. I said plain as day, “But Mom, I’m in the first grade. I don’t belong with the second graders.” All she could say was, “Well, now I have to go to church and talk to your teacher and make sure you’re put in the right grade. What made you think you could do something like that? That is SO AWFUL!” I didn’t eat supper that night. I barely spoke to anyone for the rest of the week. I didn’t understand why I had to be a grade ahead of everyone else.
The following Monday it happened. I was with my class, and this session, we all had to meet in the church before we go into our classrooms. My mom was in her pew, and she walked over to Mrs. Geary, my teacher. She gave her a hard tap on the right shoulder then covered her mouth. I turned away from them, looked down in fear of what would happen, and wanted to disappear. Next thing I knew, I felt a pull on my right arm and I was taken over to Mrs. Ogle’s 2nd grade class. When the church was let out and all the classes went to their rooms, it started all over again. And I hated it. The other kids hated me. And even the teachers knew I wasn’t supposed to be in there. It wasn’t my fault.
That night at home, Mom said, once again, I belonged in there. I knew she was wrong. The other kids knew she was wrong. The other teachers even knew she was wrong. But it didn’t matter. She demanded I be a grade ahead in catechism.
The summer before 4th grade, there was an announcement the church was to receive a new priest. Catechism was to coincide with the school year and we’d have actual books and lessons. We received the list of classes and teachers. Sure enough, I was at the top of the list of the 5th grade class with Mr. Vogl and all the boys. From that moment on, I begged and pleaded with Mom to fix the mistake. She kept demanding no for the longest time. But on the Monday when we were there, she came into church with me. We entered the hall, she looked at me – mad as hell – and walked over to the women in charge who organized the new catechism classes. After a few minutes, I was escorted over Mrs. Fox’s 4th grade catechism class. When my friends asked me what I was doing there, I said “I was on the wrong grade.” Mom left the church hall, head down looking embarrassed. From that day until I graduated high school, I was in the correct grade.
Years later, Mom and I got into a heated argument, mostly about how controlling she was. During this argument I brought up catechism and why I was a year ahead when I was in grade school. I point blank asked her, “Did you not know how much that messed me up?” and “What were you thinking doing that? Did you not care about my feelings?” She looked at me completely upset and told me how one summer, when Julie was in catechism and we all went to the Mass for the blessed assumption, I was so upset when I noticed she was gone and she was in the parade that all the kids in catechism were in. I bolted out the door to find her and joined her in the parade. She thought maybe catechism would be good for me. I looked at her and said, “But you’re a Mom. You’re supposed to scold me and tell me sit down and that Julie would come right back.” The fight was over. There were no winners or losers that time. Both sides went their separate ways.
I never brought up the topic again, nor did Mom. That whole incident has remained unmentionable and unsolvable. I’ve thought back on that period of time and wondered on my own why she did put me a grade a head in catechism. From an adult’s perspective, many things make sense. Like her needing an afternoon to get housework done without the kid around. Like her son needing to be around other kids for socialization skills. Like her feeling one of her kids was an accomplishment – he’s a year ahead in reading, math and catechism. Like her want to teach her children about God and being a good Catholic.
But as time grew on, what would become are questions without answers but with much contemplation. Those questions became heavy, weary and tiresome. Those questions became rote and repetition, like the Sunday Mass, where everyone shows up to repeat the same prayers in the same places. Or stand, sit or kneel in the same places and times. Time for communion, have your hands out, the body of Christ, Amen. You say all the polite statements that you’re supposed to make at the appropriate times without creating any conflict, just like the non-answers that sound good without any explanation. And move on as if nothing happened.