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Lenten Reflections From A Bad Catholic

I had no illusions that I would make it into heaven but figured I wasn’t bad enough for hell.

I think about being a bad Catholic this time of year. When celebrities like Mark Wahlberg are showing off the Ash Wednesday crosses on their foreheads. When good and bad and probably even middling Catholic kids are starting to think about what they’re going to give up for Lent. I think about what I’m giving up for Lent and it’s called nothing whatsoever but I used to really try at that part. Well sort of try at that part.

My mom raised us to be bad Catholics. My little brothers and I went to the Catholic school in our small town for several reasons and I don’t think religion was really one of them. The Catholic schools had buses, that was a good reason. She was a single mom and we lived in a few different places: an apartment, a townhouse, with my grandparents for the longest probably (three bedrooms and one bathroom, four adults and three kids but a pool in the backyard so who cared). Another townhouse after we all got too tall and big and loud for my grandparents. It didn’t matter where we lived, those Catholic school buses would pick us up wherever.

I think she also liked the religious songs being sung at the Christmas assemblies, the old ceremony of it all. The sit/stand/sit rhythm of mass when all of us kids went for our first communion, our confirmation. Dressing up. But otherwise she was an eye-roller of a Catholic. I’d sit beside her at church on Easter Sunday as the priest delivered a fiery mass about the dangers of sending kids to non-Catholic high schools for fear of the inevitable wanton sex we’ll all be craving. Eye roll and a firm head shake from my mom. “Ignore him,” she told me after.

It didn’t help the priests at our church that one of their members refused to baptize me because I was born out of wedlock. A bastard, ill-gotten fruit. My mother never forgot. She might not have been as vengeful as the God we learned about in Religion class every day after morning recess, but she never forgot how it felt to stand there in a cold church with her precious baby, all dressed up to get rid of her original sin, only to be told no. Not this one. She keeps her original sin.

Another priest baptized me. We liked him fine.

I had no illusions that I would make it into heaven but figured I wasn’t bad enough for hell. Purgatory was my sweet spot.

Still, I wanted to be a good Catholic, especially in the eyes of the strangers who seemed so invested in this for me: my teachers. The priests. The nuns who were our guidance counselors but in that modern way where they wore shapeless skirts with blouses so they looked like they could be anyone. We had the nice kind of nuns who made me think sometimes that being a nun wouldn’t be so terrible. They got to live in a nice house with their friends and not get married. That seemed fine to me. Plus I had an Aunt Maureen who was a nun for awhile because my great-grandmother told her this was God’s plan. Maureen got out of it by telling my great-grandmother God came to her in a dream and said, “You’re done being a nun now, you should marry that guy you like,” and so she did. I liked that God could give you outs like that.

In an effort to please Him I gave up things I kind of liked for Lent, like broccoli with cheese sauce, crunchy peanut butter (smooth was my second favorite and therefore still fine), and salmon salad sandwiches in my school lunch. I thought these halfhearted efforts would at least get me into purgatory, the runner-up to heaven. I had no illusions that I would make it into heaven but figured I wasn’t bad enough for hell. Purgatory was my sweet spot, a place I pictured as a giant apartment building with a very plain sort of landscaping and broken air conditioners. I could live in an apartment building like this for part of eternity and then maybe earn my way up to the big leagues of heaven by doing good deeds for my neighbors.

On earth I just tried to hit about a C+ as a child in God’s eyes. Like I paid attention to the nice stories in the Bible and never called them "stories" out loud. I loved all of the Old Testament stuff and thought of the New Testament as Jesus’ time to shine with his friends. In a good way. I went to confession with my class as a kid every month without complaint and always came up with three sins to report, the ideal number of sins for most priests at our church. Sometimes I would have to lie about my sins because I was a very nice child so I tried this trick: I would tell two lies and then my third sin would be “and I lie sometimes.” Boom. It was the perfect workaround. Three Hail Marys, four Our Fathers, and away we go.

Sometimes I miss the ceremony of it all, the cross on my forehead in ashes that did not budge all day. The drama of Lent, the relief of all that chocolate on Easter Sunday.

All the time I was skating that line between Good and Bad Catholic. I had my First Communion like a Good Catholic but was very disappointed in my gifts like a Bad Catholic. Too many crosses and my own personal set of rosary beads which I lost immediately. I liked my dress and my matching white hair ribbon and my curled bangs, I don’t know if this was a Good or Bad Catholic feeling.

By the time I was 13, I was tipping the scales to Bad Catholic, as were most of my friends. I skipped my Confirmation completely once I found out it was optional. Also I had been told I could choose a new name at my confirmation when I became my adult self in the church but was told “Morgan” (as in Fairchild) was not an option. Around this time I also found myself having some of those wanton urges that weren’t supposed to hit until I went to a secular high school. The timing was unfortunate, the boy I liked was unexpectedly devout. He was handsome and kind and when I asked him to kiss me in the cloak room one snowy afternoon he quite literally put a hand on his chest to steady himself. “We can’t,” he told me. “We’re just kids.”

My mildly wanton urges were wasted on watching a VHS tape of Risky Business over and over again. And with that, my half-hearted attempts at being a good Catholic disappeared.

I’m one of the lucky ones, I know. I had a mom who taught me to question things. An easy, progressive Catholic school where the priests tried to be cool and played electric guitar during choir practice, that kind of thing. The most glaringly obvious problems were a lack of education about birth control and pregnancy, leading me to ask in health class, “What’s a condom? Is it like living in a condominium?” in front of my equally clueless peers. Sometimes I miss the ceremony of it all, the cross on my forehead in ashes that did not budge all day. The drama of Lent, the relief of all that chocolate on Easter Sunday. The Holy Communion, the smell of incense.

But there’s no going back, I suppose. I’m not a Bad Catholic or a Good Catholic. I’m just not a Catholic at all anymore.