Thursday, September 18, 2008

Becoming Catholic: The Unbecoming

I mentioned it in passing here before, but once upon a time I was a Catholic. That's something that surprises people who know me, because I rarely bring this fact to light in general conversation. And for those who really know me, well my views on organized religion are well known, to put it mildly.

This all came about because my mother, for whatever reason, wanted to fit in with the largely Hispanic population living in our part of the south Bronx during the 70s and 80s. She was as Caucasian as the Queen of England, but in high school she hung with a mostly Latina crowd and I guess it rubbed off on her. She spoke Spanish fluently, but never took classes. I guess you could say it was "street" Spanish. In any case, she dressed and spoke like her friends, and had the same taste in men as them (which probably explains my f.o.b. Dominican father). I never did get the chance to ask her, but I think their religion rubbed off on her as well. Much to the chagrin of my little brother and I. For, sometime around the age of 4, we found ourselves being forced to attend mass on Sunday mornings. A year or so later, she also enrolled us in children's Bible study classes, which I did not exactly enjoy. I was never that kid who loved school, academic or otherwise. But in the beginning I remember being a devout Christian, pretty much believing everything the teachers and priests told me to believe.

Fast forward to age 7 when my baby sister was born. My mother suddenly decided that all three of her children should be baptized. We had to attend special preparatory classes for three months before the church would allow us the honor of washing away the sins of our souls. In the pic above, you see my brother Jose (right), my godbrother Angel (center), and me all dressed up on the day of the ceremony. My mother picked her best friends and their children to be our "god" family. These people really were a second family to us at the time, so I thought it was a swell idea, although by this time I had started to have doubts about the whole Catholic faith (more on that later). I would eventually learn that my mother's mother, my grandmother, was not so happy with the prospect, and that this caused a great deal of friction between the two. My grandmother is Protestant, you see. And I'm guessing she thought my mother was taking her little "Latina fantasy" a little too far by damning her grandkids' souls via idolatry.

Here you can see us before the water in that cauldron is poured on our heads. My godbrother (hidden behind the lid), me, and my brother are listening to the priest as he reads the important words that will save us from hellfire. My mother in the red dress seems downcast, as do everyone else for that matter. Maybe it was the solemnity of the ceremony. Or maybe there was some tension that us kids weren't aware of. My godparents are directly behind us, and my grandmother is behind them. I can tell just from looking at her face that she's upset, because I know her moods so well.

I have to laugh at my expression here. This is usually the face I make when either: (a) I'm annoyed; (b) I don't want my picture to be taken; or (c) all of the above. I hadn't yet completely turned against the Catholic faith at this point, but the beginnings of some tough questions were already forming at this age. My discontent with the religion, and eventually ALL religions, would come to a full boil after--wonder of wonders--my mother died so tragically.

I once asked one of the Sisters at the church if all people go to heaven.

No, she replied, only those who believe in Jesus do.

But what about if I'm good my entire life, never doing crime or being spiteful to others?

No, she repeated, only those who believe in Jesus will enter heaven. A man, no matter how good his deeds, cannot be with God at the final judgment unless he is baptized and saved first.

This did not sit well with me. I thought it didn't seem fair as a kid, like as if something was not right with the universe as I saw it. My grandmother echoed the Sister's explanation when I asked her the same question, which eventually led me to rejecting all religions. This was a major moment in my life, the asking of this one fundamental question. I believed in good and evil, and I believed that any moral being should do as much good in life as he can. I didn't see what saying rosaries, praying to statues, and getting doused by holy water had to do with having a happy afterlife.

So, ironically, although my baptismal was supposed to be the turning point towards a deeper understanding of my faith, it in fact served as the first step to my eventual removal from religion altogether.

Bet no one at our church had anticipated that.

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