AROUND THE KITCHEN TABLE
By Maureen Weber
When Vatican Council II got underway on Oct. 11, 1962, I was four years old — not quite old enough to remember the Baltimore Catechism as my husband, Russ, does (he said the compulsory study of it at church ruined many a perfect Saturday afternoon in summer) — but old enough, considering the time it took for transition to take place, to remember other aspects of the pre-Vatican II church.
Some people now pine for the good old days of certainty and majesty, but my memories of the way we were elicit no such longing.
When I was old enough to go to church regularly, but not old enough to attend school, I was certain that a “catholic” was some sort of hat. My mother’s closet was filled with boxes that contained “catholics” to match each of her dress-up outfits. Mostly they were pulled out only on Sunday when she went to mass. I can remember sitting during the long services, looking up at all of the women with their catholics on, their heads sort of cocked to one side, listening with an intensity I could only hope to achieve once I was old enough to wear something really fetching — like the turquoise feathered ones the bridesmaids wore at an aunt’s wedding. When I was four, the only catholic I had was a white brimmed one with grosgrain ribbon. It was plain, but I felt all grown up when I wore it.
Once I got to school I realized that “Catholic” was what we were, not what we wore, and it was driven home that we were much, much better than those who did not attend our church — the “publicans,” we called them, because they went to the public school and didn’t have sacraments or holy days of obligation. It seemed they had a whole lot less obligation than we did, and I can’t say it made me feel much, much better, especially in Lent when my days of obligation extended to mass on weeknights in spring.
Publicans also didn’t have God’s number — 8-cum-spiri-2-2-0, a direct line — only I hoped nobody answered. I didn’t want to attract the attention of the Angry Man who appeared to be concerned only with what I did wrong. Sombre line-ups at mysterious confession booths with heavy burgundy curtains were proof of that, and I did not look forward to my own turn when it came in Grade 3.
Before that was first communion, a much more interesting line up at a railing for something to eat, and I was oh so curious about how it would taste. But you weren’t supposed to eat it, exactly, because you weren’t allowed to bite it under pain of, well, something unpleasant. I wasn’t sure what. The host was supposed to melt on our tongues, not be broken, lest we break Jesus. My skeptical nature told me it was silly, Jesus couldn’t possibly be that fragile, and of course I bit it. It was crunchy — what kid wouldn’t?
By the time I was eight years old, it was to be my turn in the dark cubicle known as the confessional. Some of the kids in Brownies and figure skating were “publicans” and they didn’t have to go to confession. I envied their carefree existence, given what I had to worry about. My prayer book included pictures of children with pure white heart-shaped souls and Jesus smiling down on them. Those with a few sins had black spots on their souls, and the devil could be seen lurking nearby. Those with black souls had the devil right over their shoulders. The image terrified me. Even worse, I figured God would not be appeased by the paltry sins I confessed (sometimes I tease my brothers and sometimes I talk back to my parents) and would certainly see through to the truth of my black soul. It seemed only a matter of time before the devil would be touching my shoulder too.
To this child of the 60s, God had a terrible face, and I didn’t know if I had a friend in Jesus. Supposedly the message was of love, but I couldn’t reconcile that with the fact that the nice girls from the public school couldn’t be included in it because they were born into the “wrong” families. Maybe there was secretly something wrong with me too, and God darn well knew it, because he knew everything.
The church of my childhood had all the answers, in stark black and white. Answers but no questions. It should have been easy, but even as a child life had many shadows.
It’s a relief that the fear and exclusion prevalent in the church of my childhood has dissipated like the smoke from incense, and so when I hear of young people longing for a revival of something they never had, such as traditional devotional practices and worship styles, I worry that they are mistaking excessive piety for depth. Perhaps they seek a transcendent experience to alleviate the societal pressures of being on 24-hour twitter call, the dehumanizing marketplace where people are disposable and worth is measured by possessions, the uncertainty of tough economic times and the pressure to compete in a high-priced world. And that’s OK. Prayer is necessary, but it was never meant to supply us with railings of false security, or thick curtains that ultimately can’t be drawn against real life. It is meant to pull us into the mystery of the questions, knowing that though there are no magic answers, we need not be afraid.