Growing Up Catholic: PART THREE "Church Ladies on Steroids"

Stephen Arch                        


Getting back to the Church Ladies.  When the Pope declared that Saturday Evening Vigil Mass was "legal" and counted, it was a boon for just about everyone, including the church goers on my street.  What an event.  You could go to church and finally sleep in on Sunday, do chores, shop, visit, etc. without having to go to mass.  The obligation was fulfilled on Saturday night.  

At my church, St. Mary's Help of Christian Church, Saturday evening mass was packed to the brim.  Again, this is a huge church and if you didn't get there by the time mass began, you didn't have a seat.  You had to stand.  Yes, very dutiful ushers, seeing someone standing in the back of church would take that person and squeeze him into a pew next to someone else.  A pew that held 8 people would not be uncommon to have 10 people squeezed in.  This was particularly a problem during hot days - such a church did not have air conditioning.  It was hot.

But the Saturday 7:00 pm mass was THE mass.  If you weren't at the mass and had to drive somewhere, best one leaves the house before mass is over to avoid the mass exit of people and cars.  I lived on St. John Street, the same street as the church, and this was the major route to and from the church. After Saturday mass, after all masses, for that matter, St. John Street would be backed up for at least a half an hour or more.  

Catholics are a tough breed.  They go to church.  The want to go to church.  It is special for them.  Heaven help someone who didn't attend mass on Saturday or Sunday.

When I was a teenager, I hung around with several friends all who were Catholic and all who attended St. Mary's.  A common practice was to tell your parents you were going to church, and then some "lucky" young man would sneak into the back of the church, grab a handful of bulletins, and make sure we all had one.  This was the ticket to proving to our parents that we did indeed go to church, which we didn't.  But we had the bulletin, and if you had the bulletin, you had to have been in church.  I don't know if any parent every believed this, but to us, at least, it worked.  All of us were asked to see the bulletin by our parents.

My story is a little different.  I was scared to death of my parents - get to that later.  And, I equally wanted to be cool in front of my friends.  So, we did our "fake" Saturday night mass thing and went out and had fun.

Catholics are also a very guilty group.  And I emulated that guilt as much as anyone. Appearing tough in front of my friends was cool, but my parents finding out that I didn't attend mass would bear ferocious consequences.  Hence, I was "cool" skipping mass on Saturday, hung out with my friends, and loyally took the bulletin home.  However, I was so afraid of my parents finding out that I didn't go to church forced me to wake up early on Sunday morning, before anyone else, and go to the 7:00 am mass.  Had to.  No other options existed.  Of course, NO ONE knew of this scheme of mine.  I got to be one of the gang, skip church, and also attend church the next day.  That's just the way it was for me. I have no idea if any of my friends ever did the same thing, but I never saw them at the early Sunday mass.

Catholics believe that if you miss mass on Sunday (except in the event of illness), it is a sin. And, being a sin, if you didn't confess this sin, and your sins piled up, you definitely were going to hell.  No questions asked.  I can think of many great and wonderful people who aren't Catholic and never attended a Catholic mass; yet, I believe that they are so good, so innocent, so kind that I just can't see a just and righteous God condemning these good people to hell for all eternity.  

Attending a Catholic school for 8 years, it was literally and figuratively beat into us that you had to "Honor the Lord's Day."  This is something I grappled with as a youth and even today. Lets face it.  Jesus was Jewish.  According to Jesus' religion, the holy day, still honored by my Jewish brethren, was Saturday and not Sunday.  I know the biblical story that God created the earth and all its inhabitants in 6 days, and on the 7th, He rested.  I had to learn the bible in its entirety, and nowhere does it say in the bible that the day of rest is Sunday.  What if God started the creation on Wednesday?  That would mean that the 7th day would be Tuesday. Or what if he started His creation on Sunday and rested on Saturday?  We don't know this.  No one knows this.  And, as far as my understanding of the bible is that maybe the term "day" wasn't actually a "day?"  How long is a day for God?  We don't know that.  Methusalah, according to the bible, lived for 969 years.  Really?

I am not condemning any of these beliefs.  They are good.  They are rules.  They keep us honest.  But 969 years?  And I was taught that in grade school.  I was never, ever permitted to raise my hand and ask the "good sister" teaching me "did he really live 969 years?  How could this be?"  It was one of those mysteries that kept my classmates and me on our toes. I was told many things by the nuns who taught us, the good Sisters of Divine Providence, but was never permitted to question their teachings, even if it didn't make sense.  Just believe. I have a special blog post that I will send out to you about all of the "mysteries"  I learned growing up Catholic, but we can wait for later - that is another chapter.