As far as I know, all of my ancestors were Catholics. Being born into a traditional Irish Catholic family, and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, I attended Catholic grade school, and for a couple years went to the Catholic High School for girls. In elementary school, going to Mass every morning was a requirement, not an option. Sunday Mass attendance with my family was also a given. If my parents did not go for some reason, I was still expected to, and so on those Sundays my father would drop my sister and I off at the Church.
Our pastor’s name was Father O’Hara, a short, round man with a quick pace and a big, smoky cigar that perched in his mouth. He knew that our nickname for him was “Pops”. Most of the time, he was the one who would perform the daily Mass. The Mass was the “best place to get a rich share of the life of the Spirit of Christ”, ¹ and where, “Christ offers Himself, His Body and Blood, for you again”. ² It was also a time to ponder Mary. “At Mass, too, think of Mary, the Mother of Christ. Mary stood at the foot of the Cross. It was there in deep sorrow that she became your Mother and you became her child”. ³
My parents did their best to be good Catholics, and so they had me baptized when I was an infant. My official Godparents were chosen, and attended the Baptism, but I have never met them, at least not since that day. This Sacrament was the most important one, because without it, it would be almost impossible to go to heaven if I were to die. It certainly was not wasted, because I almost did die, twice. The first time, as a small baby, I became caught between the mattress and the foot of the bed, and was unable to breathe. My mother found me just as I began to turn blue. The second time, I was around two years old. My three-year old sister was smart enough to tell my mother that she had just watched me eat the whole bottle of tasty little orange morsels called baby aspirins. What would have happened without an ambulance and a stomach pump?
When I was seven years old, I made my First Confession and First Communion. At around age ten or so, I made my Confirmation.
Do not ask me what Confirmation is because I do not remember. I guess it did not make as much of an impression on me as the other Sacraments, Ceremonies, and Rituals did. All I know is that I had to choose an additional name for myself. I remember thinking how strange it would be to have four names instead of three. It was called a Confirmation name. To help with the decision, my mother presented me with a little burgundy-colored, hard-covered book called “Lives of the Saints”. This small encyclopedia was filled with short biographies of those who had been canonized by the Catholic Church as Saints. It even had an attached ribbon that I could use to mark my place as I read the stories of people who had lived their lives devoid of selfishness, and those who had died for their refusal to denounce their faith. It was hard to decide which Saint to pick but eventually I made a choice. The only problem is that I cannot remember which one it was, St. Catherine or St. Theresa.
One ritual that was repeated many times throughout those Catholic years was something called Confession. I learned to do this in second grade, and making my First Confession was a prerequisite to making my First Holy Communion that would take place shortly afterwards.
The Sacrament of Confession was critical to maintaining a right standing with God. It was a time to earnestly examine one’s conscience in the quiet of the sanctuary. The dim light of flickering candles and the fading smell of incense that still hung in the air from the morning Mass created just the right mood. Sitting in the pew, I would wait for my turn to confess my sins. With my eyes fixed on the confessional door, I felt a little afraid and perhaps a slight sense of shame. I would say a simple prayer before entering: “Dear Jesus, I know my sins. I am sorry for them. Give me the courage I need to tell my sins, as I should. Mother Mary, pray for me”.4
Finally, the door would creak open and a penitent sinner would emerge. Soon I would be cleansed, too. My soul would become as white as snow, except for that one stain of original sin that would never be removed. Entering the small dark cubicle and closing the door behind me, I became instantly aware of how alone I was in that very private, very personal space. Kneeling down in that sacred chamber, I felt like a sinner, and I knew I was. Nevertheless, I also felt peace, and an assurance that I would be forgiven. My slate would be wiped clean, and I would try harder from then on to be a better person.
Bowing my head, I rested my folded hands on the ledge of the tiny window in front of me, praying as I waited. The window was covered with a black metal screen that separated me from the priest who sat behind it. It would not be long, and soon the silence would be broken. I would hear a faint rustling, or a quiet cough… and then he would slide open the window, exposing the translucent shade behind the screen. His blurred silhouette would appear through the soft glow of light that filtered in from the other side. As he pressed his ear to the shade, I whispered softly, and said, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was one week ago”. Humbling myself, I would begin to confess my secrets and sins to this Holy Priest who I could not see, the mediator between my God and me.
When it was all over, I felt a sense of relief as the priest would pray for me in Latin, absolve my sins, and prescribe my penance. I remember hoping that he would not give me too many prayers to say. Then I would go back to the pew, kneel down, and taking out my Holy Rosary, begin to recite the prescribed number of Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s. It felt good to be forgiven, but I would be back the following week to repeat this ritual.
I do not remember much about my First Holy Communion, other than preparing for it by learning how to make my Confession and how to receive the Holy Host. A prescribed prayer was said, part of which went like this: “O good Jesus, I believe that you, the great God of heaven and earth, are present in the Host which I am about to receive.”5 And, “Now I shall go to the communion rail to receive You into my heart. Come, my Jesus, come. Dear Blessed Mother, Mother of Jesus and me, give me just a spark of the ardent desire you had when you received your own Son in Holy Communion.”6. I wore a special white dress with a veil, a child’s version of a wedding dress. Unfortunately, I do not remember what the significance of it was. My First Holy Communion was a cause of celebration and the relatives were invited over for a party afterwards.
One of my favorite ceremonies was the spring festival in honor of Mary the May Queen, the Blessed Virgin, Mother of Christ. This was a special time. On a warm sunny day, we would be taken out of class, and gathered together in the beautiful garden that stood between the church and the school. Lovely, fragrant bushes enclosed its lushness, and the focal point was a large shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Standing in front of the beautiful statue of her, we paid homage with a special time of prayer, and sang a special song to the May Queen. I remember feeling awed in this place and drawn into the mystery of worship. Then we prayed the Holy Rosary while slowly encircling the inside perimeter of the garden, breathing into our souls the intoxicating scent of all the beautiful May flowers that were in bloom.
In fact, I was so enthralled with Mary at that time that one day I decided to make a shrine to her at home. Setting up a little table in my bedroom, I draped it with a pretty cloth, and placed my parent’s statue of the Madonna and Child on the table and surrounded her with all the colorful plastic flowers that I could find.
I also loved the Holy Rosary, and had several sets over the years. The best ones were those that had been blessed by a Bishop or Cardinal. I loved those colorful, gleaming beads. To me they were like sparkling gems. My favorite set was the one with the clear, light pink, cut-glass beads. Just the sight of them filled me with a sense of wonder. Many nights I would fall asleep with that Rosary in my hands, feeling the beads one by one in the dark. Praying one Hail Mary after another, I felt that she was near and watching over me.
Another favorite ceremony was called the Stations of the Cross. Practicing the Stations of the Cross was a source of special “Indulgences” granted by the Pope. One of which was the “Plenary Indulgence” which could be applied to the souls in Purgatory, shortening their stay. Unlike the May Queen ceremony, this was a very somber time. Looking back, this was the only devotion that actually brought the person of Jesus Christ into focus. At each of the fourteen stations, colorful, graphic images in my little handbook depicted His suffering as each step brought Him closer to his execution. I would feel increasingly sad, the closer He came to the Cross. In my mind, I can still see the cover of that book with the portrait of Jesus, blood dripping down his face from the crown of wicked thorns that was embedded into His head. Yet, in all His suffering His expression was one of peace.
During all those years of religious training, I never really understood that Jesus died for me personally. I am not sure what I thought. I knew that His death was a horrible thing that had happened, and that because of it, I could somehow, maybe be a better person. It was not clear to me what Jesus’ role really was. Mary, on the other hand, was the Queen that was worthy of my adoration. Jesus seemed to be a martyr, an innocent victim of evil men. Mary was the victor, the Glorious one. She was the one who imparted that feeling of hope, safety, and comfort. It was Mary that could be called upon when I was afraid, and when I had a need. Even though she too, suffered death, she somehow seemed to be more alive than Jesus. Even though He was a man at his death, Jesus had been relegated to the position of a child... the babe in Mary’s arms. He was never allowed to come into His own…to become greater than Mary. She remained the Mother, the Protector, and the Nurturer. Jesus paid the price, but Mary got the Glory.
The Falling Away
This Catholic education continued throughout my childhood, but at the same time, my home life was falling apart. From around the age of ten, I lived in a war zone. Those rosary beads became a lifeline on many nights as I huddled alone under the covers terrified of what was happening downstairs...the yelling and shouting, the pushing and shoving...wondering if my parents were going to kill each other. Clutching my rosary, I whispered those prayers, hoping that Mary would keep me safe.
Eventually, though, by the time I reached the teen years, the hypocrisy in this religion became evident. I became aware of the great gulf between religiosity and real life, at least in my world. I began to see it for what it was...a show, a pretense with no practical application in my life or the life of others. I began to rebel. I dreaded going to Mass before school. I had no use for “Pops” as we called him, or the mean, bitter nuns. I would stall in the morning, and be late...missing Mass on purpose. On Sundays, after being dropped off at Church by my father, my sister and I would walk the few blocks to the downtown drug store. We would sit down at the lunch counter, tear open our offering envelopes, and spend the money on a nice cold “Green River” to drink. Sometimes we would run into friends there and hang out for a while. However, we had to be careful to time our escapade just right. We would have to make it back to the Church on time for my father to pick us up, and no one would be the wiser.
I will spare you the hedonistic details of those wild, rebellious teen years, and go right to the part where I fled home when I was eighteen, at the first opportunity that came along. That opportunity happened to be my boyfriend of two years, and the man who would become my future husband. I snuck away in the middle of the night, with all my belongings packed into 2 or 3 boxes, and moved in to his apartment. I had been so afraid that this plan to escape would be discovered and foiled, but when we pulled out of the driveway,...I knew I was free!!!!!!!! What surprised me later was that my parents did not seem to be the least bit shocked that I had left.
During the following six months that I lived with my boyfriend, I could not shake the guilt of “living in sin”. My father refused to speak to him, and would not allow him to come to my parent’s house. He constantly condemned me for the way I was living. Unable to take the pressure any longer, I simply told my boyfriend that we should get married...it just wasn’t right to be living together. He said ok.
One More Try
Quickly we planned a small, makeshift wedding. We were both Catholics, although by this time neither one of us was a practicing Catholic. Nevertheless, it was only appropriate, and expected, that we should get married in the Catholic Church. One of the pre-marriage requirements was to go to confession. Now it had been a number of years since I had gone, and I was not looking forward to it. So many sins had piled up since then. Where would I even start? Nevertheless, it was a necessity. I told myself that maybe it was time to try to be a good Catholic again. After all, I was going to be a married woman...at the ripe old age of eighteen.
The time had come, and off we went to the church one evening to make our pre-wedding confessions. I nervously waited in the pew for my turn. Being there in the sanctuary brought back all those hallowed memories of the early years. I started to think that maybe it would not be so bad after all.
Soon it was over, and kneeling there in the dark in front of that familiar little window, I waited for the priest to prescribe my penance. Instead, he began to ask some questions, saying, “Are you using any form of birth control?” Stunned by his probe into my personal life, but believing I was obligated to respond, I replied, “I’m taking the pill”. He then informed me that, “The Catholic Church does not permit the use of birth control”. I immediately felt threatened and defending myself, I said, “But I’m too young to have a baby. I don’t want to get pregnant right now.” Unmoved by my protests, he replied, “If you do not agree to stop taking the pill, I will not be able to grant you absolution for your sins”.
What happened next is somewhat of a blur, but it was the turning point in my religious experience. Shocked and outraged by his words, I stormed out of the confessional and when I saw my fiancé sitting there waiting for me, I burst into tears of anger and distress. Dashing out the door of the church sobbing, I described to him what had happened. I was humiliated. I had just confessed all my sins, and for what? After going through all that preparation for the confession, gathering my courage, and looking forward to starting married life with a clean slate, my hopes were now dashed. I felt crushed and betrayed, and the worst thing was that ……I remained unforgiven.
That night, what I had hoped would be a new beginning, turned out to be the end of my relationship with the Catholic Church. Although I could not yet understand the significance of what had happened, I knew that it was somehow a life-changing event. It was as if in one instant I became aware of the fact that the Holy Priest hiding behind that little screen in the dark was only a man! I imagine this must have been how Dorothy felt when the curtain was drawn back and the mysterious Wizard of Oz was exposed for what he really was. I didn’t realize it at the time, but as I emerged so shaken, from that dark confessional into the dim light of the sanctuary, I was being set free from the darkness of the teachings of the Catholic Church into the soft glow of the promise of a new hope. I did not know it then, but I had just been rescued, and it would not be too much longer before I would meet my Holy Hero.
Well, the wedding took place in St. Raymond’s Catholic Church. I did go off the pill after being on it for just a few months. Not because the Catholic Church disapproved, but because I felt some nondescript side effects from it. Our son was born almost two years later.
After his birth, the Catholic Church would have one more appearance to make in my life. Even though I had emotionally disconnected from it, I was reluctant to dismiss the necessity of having our son baptized…it was my duty as a parent. What if it was true that if he was not baptized and something happened to him, he would not make it to heaven? I could not take that chance. So again, I half-heartedly told myself that this might be a good time to give the Catholic Church another chance. After all, I was a mother now, at the ripe old age of 20. I had to protect my child from any chance of spending eternity in hell.
Shortly before my son had been born, my sister had gone into the hospital for knee surgery. While she was there, my mother became friendly with my sister’s roommate. This woman’s name was Lynn, and she was a Christian, a born-again believer. She held bible studies in her home and she invited my mother to attend, which she did. At that time, I had never even heard the term, “born-again Christian” and would have had absolutely no idea what it was even if I had heard it.
My mother continued to attend this Bible Study for a while, and one day she invited me to come with her. At this point, my son was only a few months old, and I was suffering with depression. I was a little hesitant at first, having never read the Bible, but it did sound somewhat interesting. Even though the Catholic Church did not encourage Bible Study, we did have a big white leather Family Bible at home. It had a beautiful picture of the Blessed Virgin with Child on it, in the middle of the front cover.
When I was a child, my mother had some interest in the Bible, and although I do not recall actually seeing her read it, I do remember her commenting on a few “prophetic” verses...especially the one that said...
“Behold, I show you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump; for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” 1 Corinthians 15:51-52.
I could not get those words out of my mind. “In the twinkling of an eye”... they had planted themselves deeply in my heart, and would never be shaken loose. Occasionally they would come to the surface, as if they were beckoning me to come closer, to know more, to discover the Person behind those Promising Words. However, reading the Bible was just not something that Catholics did. Now I know that it was discouraged because the Church was the only one who was qualified to interpret Scripture.
Although I was curious, the idea of a Bible Study seemed strange. I was only twenty-one and could not picture what it would be like to be with a group of older women studying the Bible. I decided to go anyway. Little did I know that I would soon be ushered into the Kingdom of God. Soon I would experience the new birth. This would be the day that I would meet my Hero, the Bridegroom. This would be the day I would meet the One who had rescued me that night at the church. This would be the day that Jesus would come out from behind Mary’s shadow.
Lynn made me feel welcome as she sat me down at the table with the others. They seemed happy, cheerful, and peaceful sitting there in the dining room with their bibles open and drinking coffee. She quietly began to explain the gospel to me. I do not remember now the details of what she said, but all I know is that I believed what she was telling me. Without hesitation, I simply said, “Yes”, when she asked me if I would like to receive the Salvation that God was offering me. There were no bells, and no whistles at the moment I said yes to Jesus Christ on May 15, 1975, just a quiet assurance in my heart. As I sat there, for the first time in my life, I began to read the Bible. I felt a sense of peace. Something real had happened; something was new, including a new sense of hope and purpose. As I began to read the simple story in one of the Gospels, I felt like I had just discovered a hidden treasure. I felt that my eyes had been opened. I had found my home. I had been born again.
Shortly after that, my husband came to know the Lord, and we were both baptized by immersion at the local Bible Church.
That was twenty-six years ago. Since then, there have been good times and bad. One of the memorable times was having the privilege of being a part of the founding of a new church. I was twenty-four then, my husband was twenty-eight, and we were living in a very small town in Northern Wisconsin with our young son. We were part of a group of young Christian couples that had found each other and began meeting for Bible Studies at each other’s homes. We became one big happy family, something I had never experienced before. It was one of the happiest times in my life. God blessed us and our group continued to grow. We selected a pastor and the next thing we knew we were starting a building program. The Northland Bible Baptist Church was built and is still there today.
Before and since those eight years we spent there, we have moved frequently, fifteen times in thirty years to be exact, making it difficult to really put down any roots. At the current time, we are attending a Baptist Church.
Over the years, there have been more than a few failures in my walk with Christ, especially in those early years. My former lifestyle without Him had been deeply ingrained, and for many years, I struggled to let go of it. Even so, Jesus has always been faithful to me even when I was not faithful to him. He has been with me all the time. He has patiently waited, as I have taken side trips off the straight and narrow path, getting lost and tangled in the bramble bushes of sin and despair. He has been with me in the darkness, as I lay curled up on my closet floor, not wanting to live anymore. He has delivered me and set me free from my bondage to cigarettes and alcohol. He has been with me in the loneliness, pain, and suffering that I have felt. He has led, guided, and protected me. He has never let me get very far away, even in the worst of times.
He has brought some wonderful blessings into my life that I am eternally grateful for. In fact, I am grateful for everything that has come into my life, good and bad. It does not really matter what happens in life, because I know that He is working something out in me that will have eternal value.
Although I was not aware of it then, from a very early age I had a sense of emptiness and longing for something or someone who could make me whole. When one is starving and dying of thirst, I guess it is easy to swallow whatever is offered, even if it is not the Truth.
Ironically, my mother, the one who planted those seeds of faith many years ago, has not yet been able to embrace the simple Gospel. Although she is fascinated with prophecy, she cannot seem to break free from the false teachings of the Catholic Church. At times, it appears she is finally starting to see the Truth, but then she falls back into the arms of the “One True Religion”. She and many other relatives of both my husband’s and mine have been trained from childhood to believe that Salvation is a process, achieved through grace and a complicated system of Sacraments and works. They seem to have a hard time understanding the priceless “Gift of Grace”.
Lately I have come to realize the seductive power of the Catholic Church. It is a religion steeped in the spirit of sensuality. Just as its doctrine promotes grace plus works, its sacramental rituals and luxuriant adornments, are designed to appeal not just to the spirit, but also to the flesh, creating an ecclesiastical stronghold not easily broken. Grand churches and architectural wonders are filled with beautiful works of art, paintings, stained glass, statues, carvings, gold objects, and worship utensils. Fine fabrics… silk, linen, brocade, tapestry, and beautifully embroidered garments clothe the priests and the altar, color-coordinated for each occasion. Sounds of chanting, litanies and repetitive prayers, the Latin language that no one understands, but is mystified by, and the bells that ring during Mass are hypnotic.
Sweet-smelling incense fills the sanctuary and soul, intoxicating and lifting the spirit to a higher plane. The Holy Host is dispensed by a Holy Priest, and placed on the unholy tongue of the sinner, with the promise of nourishment and eternal life to the hungering soul. Praying hands caress the rosary, as fingers grasp each bead and whisper Hail Mary’s to the Glorious Mother of Christ. Holy and pious men with outstretched arms and open hands, beckon the sinner to come and partake as they offer a feast for the senses.
Many other facets of the Catholic Church are appealing. It provides just the right balance of spirituality, sensuality, and many opportunities for man to participate in his own Salvation. It provides him with a Mother and a Father, and a baby Son who is perpetually restrained in the arms of His Holy Mother, while the Pope replaces Christ, the God-Man, on earth. Conveniently, the Catholic Church places its authority above the Word of God, appealing to those who would rather not face their own personal accountability. It acknowledges a Triune God, yet denies the all-sufficient saving power of the second Person of the Godhead, Jesus Christ. A seducing spirit indeed.
The Catholic Church is also filled with the spirit of confusion. Not only does it believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there are other entities that are also worshiped. Mary is hailed along with Christ, as are the angels, and even Joseph, Mary’s spouse. The following is a portion of a prayer that was said after Mass. It illustrates the concept of more than one Redeemer and the other confusing issue about Mary and the Catholic Church both being our Mother.
“Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness, and our hope! To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve; to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us”.7
“Pray for us, O holy Mother of God. That we many be made worthy of the promises of Christ”.7
“…and by the intercession of the glorious and Immaculate Virgin Mary, Mother of God, Saint Joseph, her spouse, of Thy blessed Apostles, Peter and Paul, and of all Thy Saints, in mercy and goodness hear our prayers for the conversion of sinners, and for the liberty and exaltation of our holy mother the Church”.8
“Holy Michael, the Archangel, defend us in battle; be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil”.8
The Catholic Church offers: One God; One Holy Spirit; Two Jesus’ – (Jesus the Baby and Jesus the Crucified); Two Redeemers – (Jesus and Mary the Co-Redeemer); One Mother of God; Two Mothers – (Our Mother Mary and Our Mother the Catholic Church); A Replacement for Jesus on Earth – (The Pope). There is no other religion quite like this one... a complex system that entraps and entangles man in a lethal web of highly sophisticated deceit. I am more than thankful that God has rescued me.
One of the greatest truths I have learned since becoming a Christian is that God’s grace even provides the power to truly forgive others who have deeply hurt me, and love them in return.
One of the biggest obstacles in my path has been my attempt to control my own life. Little by little, God has patiently shown me that I do not have to worry about anything. I have nothing to fear because He is in control. I am learning to wait upon Him and trust Him to meet all of my needs.
One of the greatest lessons I have learned is that God is not some distant entity that has no interest in my life. He is a real Person, having thoughts and feelings and desires. He can feel joy, anger, and grief. He is unbelievably patient and long-suffering. He is a God that can be known.
One of the greatest revelations I have experienced is the Truth of God’s Word. There is no other book on the face of the earth like the Bible. It is alive, an interactive connection to a loving God who wants to be known by us. He wants to be desired and loved. We are made in His image. God understands our pain, longings, and loneliness. The only way we can truly get to know Him is by reading His Word. This is how we become conformed to His image and take on the mind of Christ. The more time we spend with Him, the more we become like Him. The pages of the Bible are where He reveals Himself to us and where he holds up the mirror that shows us who we are.
My greatest hope and expectation is the return of Jesus Christ. I can honestly say there is nothing in the world my heart desires more, than to be with Him, the One who rescued me. The lowly carpenter, who was born in a stable, came into this world to take my place, and pay the penalty of death that I deserve, so that I could be set free and have Life with Him eternally. There is no greater love than what God has done for me.
“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God—not of works, lest any man should boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9 “
Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” John 14:6 “And call no man your father upon the earth; for one is your Father, who is in heaven.” Matthew 23:9
“For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man, Christ Jesus, Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.” 1 Timothy 2:5-6
“But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the pagans do; for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.” Matthew 6:7
Footnotes: 1-8 The Marion Children’s Missal by Sister Mary Theola, s.s.n.d. 1 pg 5; 2 pg. 5; 3 pg 6; 4 pg 132; 5 pg 133; 6 pg 134; 7 pg 78; 8 pg 79.