Growing Up Catholic: A Lenten Meditation

In 2011 I wrote an autobiographical post about being a Church of Christ kid who started going to a parochial Catholic school in the 6th Grade. On the surface it's a story of theological culture shock. But deep down it's really a meditation on the power of liturgy and how liturgy shapes us, especially the rhythms of Lent.

The post was entitled "Growing Up Catholic: A Lenten Mediation":

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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6 thoughts on “Growing Up Catholic: A Lenten Meditation”

  1. I appreciate all you share here. I was the Methodist kid in the back. I loved the nuns and the liturgy and all that somehow got under my skin in those few years I matriculated with my Catholic brothers and sisters. A contemplative by nature, I think what I gained there has been my saving. I instantly trusted the old ways when presented to me again. And those are what have held me through a long and difficult deconstruction of all I thought I knew. BTW, Ash Wednesday is my favorite Holy Day. How I have loved introducing it to my students in Evangelical Christian schools. (They loved it , too.)

  2. This made me smile.

    Until I was 7, I lived in Butte, MT, which was still quite Euro-ethnic even then, after the influx of immigrants at the turn of the last century. There were 10 Catholic parishes in the 1950s/60s, and most had K-8 elementary schools. For high school, the students went on to Boys Central and Girls Central; these later merged into just Central High. My family's parish was St Patrick's, the oldest in town, founded of course by Irish miners, and I went to St Patrick's School for K-1 (dark green plaid wool jumper & white blouse for girls, dark green pants & white shirts for boys). I was quite happy to have grown up Catholic. After I left in college, I never turned into a Catholic-basher, thank God.

    Richard, you might enjoy this site for a good, short daily read:

    I believe the site owner is Catholic; interestingly, he seems to concentrate on the Greek Fathers. Scroll down to March 15/John Climacus post. Part of it brought to mind your thoughts on vomiting as emptying.

    Have you ever read St Patrick's "Confession"? I have it as a little book published by Liguori/Triumph, with a nice introduction. On the above blog for today's entry, Mark gives an excerpt from it, and a link to it at CCEL for on-line reading.

    Holy father Patrick of Ireland, pray for us.


  3. For anyone looking for a rich liturgical life without leaving protestantism, the Episcopal Church welcomes you.

  4. This showed the richness achieve with a blending of traditions in this natural way in childhood before sides are chosen or being different becomes suspect. Like natural seletion I hope spirtual traditions expand in this way instead of contracting to harden into the narrower viewpoint.

  5. I've been blessed by your personal sharing...and I find it so heartwarming to note that after all, you've realized in the very Catholic that Protestant kid had become... indeed, makes one appreciate too the gift and richness of the Catholic faith....thank you for sharing this inner perception of yours...and kindly allow me too to share these two links which you may find an interesting source of meditative and tangible reflection of what is being a Catholic too... and God bless you and keep you!

  6. I also went to Catholic school despite not being catholic. We had to draw all the stations of the cross in religion calls during lent. I got in trouble for putting a penis on Jesus in my "Jesus is stripped of His garments." drawing. Good times.

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