I was an atheist in high school.
Well, the first year or two.
What pushed me away from the One, True Faith? I’d chalk it up to home, culture and a friend.
I can remember being little and my mother teaching me how to say the Sign of the Cross. But she never took us kids to Mass until I hit first grade. She didn’t like boisterous kids in church, and in her mind, she wasn’t going to be part of the problem by bringing hers’.
We went to the anticipated Sunday mass on Saturday afternoons. I eventually became an altar boy. Sunday wasn’t the Lord’s Day. Sunday was laundry day for mom.
My father did not go to church with us. He stayed home and took a nap. He grew up Catholic and attended Catholic schools all the way through college. But apparently he fell away at some point in adulthood. I do not know why my father wouldn’t go to Mass with us. We’d try to ask, but wouldn’t get a response. After a while you realize it’s just “one of those things” that you don’t ask about. It just “is” and you accept it.
He goes now. My mom’s a certified Church Lady at her parish (regrettably, a “Eucharistic Minister”) so I think she shamed him into going. “How is it going to look if I’m going and my husband isn’t?”
But my family wasn’t overtly Catholic. My mother never talked about the faith, or tried to catechize us. I’ve never seen her pray the rosary. She never took us early for confession. Maybe they presumed school was handling that for us ( It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s and started to come back to the faith that I realized –and it pains me to admit this– that Easter is a bigger holiday / holy day than Christmas.
Traddy sidebar: The priest in our parish built a new church when I was in second grade. It embraced the “Spirit of Vatican II” with a semi-circular layout, and a Masonic-style “priest throne” at the center of the back wall with the tabernacle to his right and a shelf with Pope John Paul II to his left. Our pastor said the Eucharistic Prayers in Latin. That was “normal” to me. He also had a small crucifix facing him on the altar. But there was no crucifix on the main “back wall.” Instead, they had a bare wood cross above PJP2 and took the corpus from the old church’s crucifix and attached it directly to the brick wall over the tabernacle. So Jesus appeared floating or nailed to the wall, depending on your perspective. They always had organ music during school masses and Saturday masses. The few times we attended Sunday mass, such as for Palm Sunday, they had a guitar group. That always struck me as inappropriate. I took communion on the tongue, never the hand.
The Faith was not weaved into our home life or family life.
I also came of age during the 80s, the Gordon Gecko Wall Street age where “to get rich is glorious” and everything in the culture reinforced materialism and satisfying yourself. Reaganomics. BMWs. Not fertile ground for a young Catholic boy to grow into a young Catholic man.
Lastly, Woodstock. I entered high school in 1989. It was the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Love and tie-dye t-shirts made an alarming resurgence. A grade school friend got sucked into the nostalgia and by way of the Beatles, discovered Hinduism. He left the Church. I soon followed, determined to piece together my own religion, borrowing from Buddhism and other faiths. It was taking Cafeteria Catholicism to a new level. I also developed an addiction to checking my horoscope in the morning newspaper before school.
It would be an understatement to say my parents were not pleased. I was forced to continue attending Saturday mass. I was asked, “Why should you get Christmas presents if you don’t believe in God?” My mother required the family to “say the blessing” before dinner. But nobody sat me down and talked to me, tried to reason things out and pull me back into the fold. In the back of my mind, I told myself I would eventually circle back to the Catholic Church.
Within about two years, I did. What brought me back? The Catholic high school I detested. It was a cold, oppressive environment. I’m not making this up: My high school had no windows and the classrooms had no clocks. A cousin got suspended for dress code violations. But the religion classes were pretty solid. My freshman year, we were shown videos, GRAPHIC videos, of abortions. In my junior and senior years, we had a very orthodox teacher who was a grandfather but tried hard to engage us. It was the first time I heard that being Catholic was counter-cultural.
In my head and my heart, I was Catholic. In practice? We’ll explore that in a future post.