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How Not To Raise a Catholic

Let's just get this out of the way: I went to a Catholic middle school, a Catholic high school and a Catholic college. My father was a non-practicing Baptist. My mother was a non-practicing Catholic who believed that everyone else should be Catholic.

We never went to Mass. In middle school, the priest held up the Eucharist before me and said, "The body of Christ."

I said, "Thank you."

I didn't get the body of Christ. I had to stand there until the kid behind me poked me and whispered "Say AMEN."

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"Mom," I said, when we got home. "Did I have my first communion?"

"If you took the wafer today, then that your first communion."

My nun teacher wanted us to write essays reflecting on the readings at Mass. Not one to be outdone, my mother snuck into the church every week and stole the missalette.

"There are your readings," she said, flinging it onto my bed.

"You mean I have to go to CCD because you're afraid of getting haunted?" she asked incredulously.

Later in life, my mother lived with our family. We still never went to church, and I was skeptical about many Catholic teachings. There was a horrific argument about where to send my kids to school; my husband and I liked the public schools in our area, my mother thought they were "inferior" to Catholic schools. Because I was too weak to deal with the emotional drama, we struck a deal: We were "allowed" to send the kids to public school as long as they took CCD classes until 8th grade Confirmation.

I said to my kids, "It won't kill you, right?" They didn't look so sure.

It didn't kill my mother, either. Cancer did. In the terrible process of grieving her loss, the family slowly became aware that we were technically free from Catholicism. But I wasn't, not really. I could feel my mother's glare every time I thought about pulling the kids out of CCD. The guilt was overwhelming.

"You have to keep going," I told them.

My older son just bore his cross silently, but my 12-year-old daughter, Jillian, was a different story. She came home with questions. Questions I could not answer nor defend.

"Why do they not believe in birth control?" she asked.

"I think they believe pregnancy is the will of God," I said. "Or maybe they just want you to have more Catholics?"

"Seriously?" she said.

"Just keep going," I said.

"Why don't we go to church?" she asked. "It's a sin to skip Mass."

"Well, I don't really believe a lot of what they say," I said.

"Then why are you sending me to CCD?" she asked quite reasonably.

"Just keep going," I said.

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She questioned the meaning of already-written prayers, the idea of confession and the existence of the Holy Ghost. She quickly pointed out my sins: the taking of the Lord's name in vain, the "gluttony" of taking another cupcake, the "lust" I felt for UPS men. I was feeling like a miserable, sinful wretch, which meant she was learning how to be a good Catholic.

Finally, when she self-righteously pointed out my sinful "wrath" after she again forgot her homework and I hurled back the commandment to "honor thy father and mother," we had it out.

"Look," I said, "It's true I don't believe in much of this stuff, but I promised your grandmother you'd go to CCD through Confirmation."

"Why did you promise that?" she asked as if I were the stupidest person on the planet, which I already sort of felt like.

These complex bonds of maternal devotion have spawned generations of eye-rolling and genuine moments of WTF?

"It was important to her. And also, I'm afraid if you don't go, she might haunt me." I was speaking the truth.

"You mean I have to go to CCD because you're afraid of getting haunted?" she asked incredulously.

"Yes," I said.

"So you believe in ghosts?" she asked.

"Well, I mean, maybe?" I answered tremulously.

"So you believe in the HOLY ghost?" she demanded triumphantly.

"It's possible, OK? It's possible there is a Holy Ghost and a ghost of your grandmother and our dog Vivian and the hermit crab that you killed. If they do exist, why not keep them happy? C'mon Jillian, throw the ghosts a bone!"

"OK," she said after a long pause.

"OK?" I asked unbelievingly. "Oh, God, thank you! Thank you so much, Jillian."

"You just took the Lord's name in vain," she said.

"Look, it's really up to you what you want to believe," I said. "Listen to what they say, compare it to what's going on in your gut, and then decide how you feel. As long as you're kind and generous toward people, I don't think God really cares. I mean, I don't know what God cares about, but it seems like a nice way to live anyway, right? Just, please, hold on till the 8th grade."


"It would really save me a lot of fear and guilt," I added meekly. "And honestly, I know I'm a sinner. You don't have to keep pointing it out."

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Mother-daughter relationships are some of the most complicated, emotional, soul-transforming things that exist. I do certain things because of my deep-inside love for my mother (bless her irrational soul), and Jillian also does certain things because she loves me (bless my irrational soul.) These complex bonds of maternal devotion have spawned generations of eye-rolling and genuine moments of WTF?

But ever since we had it out, Jillian and I have a better idea of where the other is coming from. We've felt closer and more compassionate with each other. And honestly, it has sparked more discussion about religion than we likely would have otherwise had.

Maybe that is the will of God? What do I know?

Nothing. As it was in the beginning, is now and forever shall be.

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Image via Xiquinho Silva

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