Growing up Catholic: A Lenten Meditation

I have an odd religious history. I was raised in the North where the Churches of Christ are few and far between. The church of my youth was about 90-100 members. A small, tight-knit community.

The dominant religion of my hometown is Catholicism. Private school in my hometown means parochial school with kids marching off to school in their distinctively colored school uniforms. Yellow and green for Blessed Sacrament. White and blue for Our Lady of Peace. Brown and yellow for St. John's. Red and blue for Sacred Heart. And so on.

From K-5th grade I attended a public school. And when I hit 6th grade I left my grammar school to attend a large public middle school that was attached to a high school. This was a rough school in a rough part of town so I, as a little 6th grader, was pretty vulnerable on a school ground that mixed the middle school and the high school kids. One day, in the middle of the year, I came home crying from being bullied repeatedly. And that convinced my parents to make a change. They were going to send me to a private school.

So in the middle of my 6th grade year I showed up at Blessed Sacrament, the school that served the Catholic parish that included our address. I recall going to the special store where I got my forest green pants and yellow polo shirt. Two of each. I had my uniform for school on Monday.

For most of the day Blessed Sacrament was a lot like my public school experience. Class followed class. Subject after subject. But there were some things I had to get used to. To start, I had to get used to some oddly dressed teachers who were addressed as "sister." As in, "Sister Mary, can I get a drink of water?" My peers told me that these women were called "nuns" and they lived together in that building, called a "convent," across the street from the school. And they never married! Confusingly, there were some other sisters at the school who didn't wear black and white clothing. They seemed to dress "normally." So, I asked, are they sisters too? Yes, I was told, they were. Just from a different convent. Not every sister wears a habit. Which put me on the alert. Apparently, there were undercover sisters. Sisters passing as ordinary folk. And I remember walking around the mall trying to spot which normally clad female might, in fact, be a sister...

(Hint: Look for large cross necklaces.)

The other thing I had to get used to at Blessed Sacrament was having a religion class. Didn't have one of those at the public school. But as a Protestant I didn't have to participate in the class. Me and a Baptist kid could sit on the last row and do homework during the class.

I gradually learned that this class was helping my classmates get ready for something called "confirmation." I had no idea what that was. Walking home with my friends I eventually found out that each had already been baptized. As babies! They called it a "christening." Which blew my mind. How can you believe, confess, and repent as a baby? Don't you have to do these things prior to baptism? Apparently not. But you do, at confirmation, have to endorse ("confirm"), as an adult, your baby baptism. And that's what the religion class was helping with. It was something they called "catechesis." And again, I had no idea what that was. I knew what bible study and Sunday School were. But catechesis?

So it was whole new world. And it took me years to connect all the dots. Like why my friends prayed to Mary and why, in some perverse coincidence, we always had fish for lunch on Fridays.

I first heard of Lent in that 6th grade religion class. I recall Sister Damian going around the room asking each of my classmates "what they were giving up for Lent." I didn't know what they were talking about. I only knew the answers clustered around "TV" and "candy." The Baptist kid and myself were skipped. Thank God, I thought. It was not the first or the last time in my life at Blessed Sacrament that I was thankful for being Protestant.

On the walk home from school that day I quizzed my friend Billy about what this "giving up TV and candy for Lent" was all about. What, exactly, was Lent? Billy was no theologian so I didn't get a whole lot of clarity from his answers. But I got the sense that Lent had something to do with being sorry for your sins and getting ready for Easter.

And then Ash Wednesday came.

One of the benefits of going to parochial school was all of the Holy Days. On Holy Days we'd get out of class early and go to Mass. The entire school. Not that any of us loved Mass. But anything was better than school.

So that Wednesday we were told that we wouldn't be having our final period because it was a Holy Day and we'd be going to Mass. Hooray! No 7th period! It's a Holy Day!

And what an odd Holy Day it was. Everything was basically normal (I had been to mass before on prior Holy Days) until all my classmates filed down to the front and returned to their seats with something black smeared on their heads. I was totally freaked out. As a Church of Christ kid mass was spooky enough. Now they were smearing black stuff on their heads?! What kind of devilish, occult practice was this?

Walking home with Billy I found out, as he wiped his forehead clean (again, Billy wasn't very devout), that the black stuff was ashes. And why, I asked, are you smearing ashes on your head? Isn't that kinda weird? Billy agreed that it was strange but that the ashes were symbolizing the start of Lent, a time of sorrow about your sins. It also signaled, Billy sadly reported, the start of his TV fasting.

And more surprises were in store. On Friday we headed back to Mass to celebrate what my teacher called "The Stations of the Cross."

Now I'd never really noticed it before, but around the Blessed Sacrament sanctuary were pictures. Well, I had noticed the pictures, with their candles in front, but I'd never noticed how the pictures were connected. The connection became clear as the priest, along with cross and altar boys, moved from picture to picture as we read aloud a meditation at each stop. Soon it became clear that the pictures were moving through the Passion. Jesus is condemned to death. Jesus is given his cross. Jesus falls the first time. Jesus meets His Mother. Simon of Cyrene carries the cross. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. Jesus falls the second time. Jesus meets the daughters of Jerusalem. Jesus falls the third time. Jesus is stripped of His garments. Jesus is nailed to the cross. Jesus dies on the cross. Jesus' body is removed from the cross. Jesus is laid in the tomb.

Much of this I knew. But some of the stages were unfamiliar. I'd never heard of Veronica. And I'd never heard of Jesus falling exactly three times on the way to Golgotha. In fact, I found out later, only eight of the traditional fourteen Stations are found the the bible. The rest come from church tradition. (Recently, Pope Benedict approved an alternative to the traditional Stations called the Scriptural Way of the Cross where all 14 Stations are connected to the biblical testimony.)

To this point, as I've recounted, my experience with Catholicism had been characterized by confusion, shock, bafflement, and foreboding. Nothing about this faith attracted me. But that changed after The Stations of the Cross.

I was floored. Emotionally. Theologically. Spiritually. Nothing in my experience had prepared me for walking with Jesus, step for step, stumble by stumble, word for word, to the cross. And then through his dead and burial. By the end of the service I was transformed.

And then it ended. Jesus was laid in the tomb. And the service ended.

Wait a second!, my heart screamed out. That's not the end! Aren't we going to get to the good part? The resurrection?

Apparently, we weren't. We were going to end on Station 14, Jesus laid in the tomb and the stone rolled over the grave. Service over.

And next Friday we did it again. Same depressing conclusion.

And again. And again. And again. Jesus is dead. Dead. Dead. Dead.

Every Friday of Lent we would go to Mass and go through the Stations of the Cross. It was a shattering experience. For a child who was told in the Churches of Christ that we remembered the death of Jesus every Sunday around the Lord's Table this was something unprecedented. Never had I experienced such an intense, prolonged, and sustained spiritual reflection. Slowly, very slowly, the whole notion of Lent was starting to come into focus in my young mind...

I remember going to church that Easter in 6th grade, after waking up to my Easter basket full of chocolate, and just being very, very happy. Unusually happy. I knew that my church wasn't going to celebrate Easter in any meaningful way. In fact, we might intentionally ignore it. Collectively protest against our surrounding Catholic culture. Worse, I knew I might get a sermon that would attack Easter.

But it didn't matter to me. For I knew it was Easter. Alone in my church I had gone through the Stations of the Cross week after week with my classmates at Blessed Sacrament. Even if no one else did, I knew what day this was. And I was happy. After weeks of ending on Jesus being laid in the tomb I was ready for some Good News. Today was Easter! The stone had been rolled away! Jesus was alive!

And that's how I celebrated Lent for the next six years. After middle school I went to a Catholic High School. And every year I went through Lent, the silent Protestant kid at the Mass, with my Catholic friends and teachers. And every year I would sit in the Church of Christ on Easter Sunday with a very different frame of mind than my brothers and sisters around me.

Eventually, I graduated and went off to a Church of Christ college. I left Catholicism, Mass, Holy Days, and the nuns behind. That first year I hardly noticed autumn turning into winter and winter moving into spring. Like most freshmen I was preoccupied with school, sports, girls, and goofing off with friends.

So that spring I was surprised one Sunday at the Church of Christ I was attending when someone greeted me with a "Happy Easter!"

Wait? Today is Easter?, I thought.

And I'll never forget the very next thought I had.

It can't be Easter. I'm not ready.

And in that moment, I realized, how very Catholic that Protestant kid had become.

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11 thoughts on “Growing up Catholic: A Lenten Meditation”

  1. That's beautiful. I've only ever done the Stations on Good Friday itself, though we're encouraged to do them both individually and collectively during Lent. It seems appropriate that you'd talk about them too, given that they are, in essence, a fourteen-panel comic strip, even they're not as obvious instances of comics as 'Peanuts' and 'Calvin and Hobbes'.

    Just one thing, though, and apologies if you know this and are just representing your childhood thoughts above. Although most people tend to think that at Confirmation we confirm our infant baptism, this isn't the case; rather the thinking is that God Himself confirms and strengthens the grace he gave us at baptism. Although we in the West tend to divide the two sacraments, the Orthodox retain the older unity of the two, so that Eastern Christians usually receive the same sacraments of baptism and chrismation (their name for confirmation) in the ceremony, when they're infants.

    I know, people are sometimes scandalised by this, as even those who accept infant baptism can balk at infant confirmation. The standard refrain is to ask how we can possibly understand the sacraments as infants. I'm inclined to counter by asking whether we can possibly understand them at all.

  2. I love this. I was the methodist kid in catholic school. So thankful for what that particular church taught me, if obliquely.

  3. Thanks for the clarifications about confirmation. I blame Billy for any misunderstands I have about Catholic theology and practice.

    Truth be told, I got a lot of odd ideas in my head--from sex to the sacraments--on the Blessed Sacrament schoolyard. I'm still sorting it out.

  4. It's posts like this that remind me how it is important that sacraments and traditions are often very valuable things. Personally I believe we can't put TOO much weight into them, but there are a lot of times we need some "disciplines" into our lives to help us remember that our Faith is not something we believe, but something we experience and live through.

  5. Due to the beatings my Dad took from Catholic school nuns, he abandoned Christianity in all its forms. He never relented in this even into death. This is the primary reason that your comments on Universalism interest me...because I would like to think that all-means-all, and that I will see him again.

    It is interesting to see these threads come together. Also healthy to learn a little more about Catholicism.


  6. Yes, sometimes there is a miss-understanding and people think that we confirm our infant baptism, when is God that confirms the grace he gave us at baptism. Even most catechists I know got it wrong. I had two posts about confirmation trying to clarify this and suggesting to advance confirmation before communion, at about the age of 9 or 10 years old. You can find my arguments here:

  7. Wonderful. Thank you. I had much the same experience as an adult--a Congregational minister's daughter, doing a master's degree in Pastoral Ministry (long story) in a class of nuns and deacons at a Catholic college, discovering liturgy and the mystics. It was eye-, spirit-, and mind-opening. A very great privilege. And yes, Easter will never be as pastel as before.

  8. Having been born on Easter it is truly my favorite holiday. Growing up Baptist I had a fairly decent understanding of Palm Sunday and Easter but it wasn't until a Catholic friend asked for some help in doing a drama of the 14 stations that I understood what Lent really was. I fell in love with not just Easter, but the entire season. Beautiful post as always, thank you!

  9. I loved this post...and just about everything here. We are doing a book study at church of Phillip Yancey's "Soul Survivor." and during discussion our leader asked us to reflect on some authors both living and dead who have positively impacted our faith. You are in my top 5. On this blog I find encouragement, challenge, some ideas that I can't accept, and others that touch me deeply and resonate with my experience. I appreciate your hard work and study and the synthesis between theology and humanity and how they are inseparable. Really glad my buddy (an ACU grad) turned me on to your blog. I almost always check it daily. Thank you.

  10. I just stumbled into your blog today. I have to say that your closing comments about not being ready for Easter are much of what I experienced the first year I wasn't at a Lutheran church for Easter. I hadn't been in the Lutheran church for long, but had not found a good one when my family moved so we ended up in a Presbyterian church and then suddenly, it was Easter! I felt so "unprepared for it"!

    Thanks for the good words!

  11. Dredging up an old post, but your experience as a 6th grader was my experience at the first Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday Mass I attended (we smoosh them together for some reason). They laid Jesus in the tomb..and that was it. I too was beyond shocked. The passion story always always culminated with the resurrection when I was Baptist. Also, durung Lent, the Gloria is not sung in Mass. Usually our parish employs a deeply mournful Kyrie Eleison.

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