My parents were Catholics when convenient. They baptized us as infants because it was expected and demanded by family. Going to church, however, didn’t begin until it was time to enroll my older brother in Catholic elementary school. The parish checked tithing records and saw that my parents didn’t donate regularly. Once they established a pattern, then my brother could attend.
I enrolled a year later, no questions asked.
School began with daily mass. Prayer occurred at regular intervals. Massive school-wide processions took place with regularity, rain, snow or shine. Students were disciplined with ruler, clicker, social isolation and words. We studied the saints and wrote countless reports about our favorites. All art was related to church and church teachings. No frivolous country scenes. Only crucifixions or stained-glass windows.
We read the bible, not contemporary literature except for the occasional Dick and Jane and see Spot run. We were conditioned to believe that church was our life now and in the future. Every year priests and nuns and missionaries spoke to our entire school about a life of service.
Throughout all these years I often attended Sunday Mass, but only if there wasn’t an excuse to skip it. It crops had to be planted or harvested, no Mass. If it was too snowy, icy or rainy, no Mass. Too hot? No Mass. Memorial Day? No Mass only endless visits from one cemetery to another. Relatives to visit? Well, you get the picture.
My parents made sure we received our first Communion. We processed in with our classes, hands neatly folded with a white prayer book nestled between and a white plastic rosary draped over the tips of our fingers. My brother got by with a white school shirt but I was stuffed into a stiff Communion dress and a tight-fitting veil pinching my puffy cheeks.
Once that milestone was accomplished we once again attended Mass when my dad saw fit. Interestingly enough, ten cents out of the quarter weekly allowance was handed back to my dad as our donation to the church we never attended.
My brother and I stayed at the Catholic school through Confirmation. My teacher, a strict nun, made sure I understood that this sacrament sealed my commitment to a life of service to God and church. I took it quite seriously. When the annual recruitment took place, I was ready to sign up for a monastic life of solitude and prayer. I envisioned myself in a place of peace, a place of reflection, a place devoid of the tension which was my home life. My parents wouldn’t let me go.
When we moved to California in 1964 my dad began his search for the fastest mass in town. He took us over the hills to Half Moon Bay and Pacifica where the priests spoke of fire and brimstone, damnation of everlasting hell. They terrified me.
We tried churches in San Mateo and Burlingame. We didn’t fit in those well-to-do parishes due to our extreme poverty. He found one in San Bruno that he liked until the priest asked for regular donations. There were two in South San Francisco: one which was supposed to be our assigned parish and the other, a tiny one, with a thirty-minute mass. That’s the one my dad chose. In and out, over and done.
When away at college I discovered the Neumann Center, a tiny chapel on campus with a welcoming atmosphere. The music was contemporary with drums, guitars, keyboard and cymbals. Dancing in the aisles. Hallelujahs and lots of praise be to God. I fit in.
My husband grew up in a family that attended mass faithfully regardless of whether even when they had to sludge to church through downpours. Going to church was part of who he was. It influenced his thinking, his behavior, his attitude toward others.
His beliefs built our family into who we are today. If we were camping, he found a church. Skiing? Church. Traveling? Right, church. Sometimes we drove for miles to find a church, but we got there nevertheless.
For almost 46 years Sunday Mass has been an integral part of our relationship. In fact, when I travel on my own, I seek out church and attend.
Not being able to attend due to the coronavirus takes me back to my childhood days of any excuse to miss going to Mass. Except for one caveat: this isn’t voluntary, but enforced.
We found a Mass on television, which is a nice substitute, but there’s a huge difference between sitting in your family room and being in the church building. There are stained glass windows in the TV church and statues and the readings and the service, but the lack of physical presence takes you away from the reverence, the spirituality.
Today things changed for me. I was asked to be the lector for today’s Sunday Mass. I put on a dress and necklace. Studied my readings. Made sure my hair was neatly combed. Put on my mask when I entered the church. Three others were there: the parish secretary, the parish office manager and the choir director. The church felt hollow. Voices echoed.
But the pews were there. Candles, flowers, statues, stained glass windows, all the things that identify that church as mine. When the priest entered and the service began I was filled with awe. Several times my eyes filled with tears. Singing with the director took me back to a few weeks ago when I’d be standing with five other choir members, lifting our voices in praise. Now there was just two of us.
The priest shared a time when he had strayed from God and how, when the call came, how powerful it was. His words carried me back to my childhood when it wasn’t me that chose to stray, but circumstances beyond my control, and how powerful it was when I found God in my late teens. He spoke for all of us, reminding us to talk to Jesus.
Next Sunday we’ll watch the television Mass once again. It won’t be the same, but I’ll share the experience with my husband, the man who taught me that attending church was a powerful connection to our faith in God.
In these times we need reminders that there is someone up there, someone ready to listen when we’re ready to pray.