I’m working on a memoir at the moment, and so from time to time I’ll publish a story from that manuscript as my weekly “Reflection.” Today my post will recount how and when I left the Catholic Church. In the following scene, I’m about 12 years old and living in Homer, LA, with my father, sibs, and paternal grandparents. I had been raised in the Catholic Church by my mother and was trying to continue attending the Church after we kids were separated from her.
One of my main problems with Catholicism was with the idea that the bread and wine really turn into the body and blood of Jesus after the priest blesses them. I went to talk with the local priest, Father Goubeaux, about this. “You mean, the wafer really, actually becomes flesh and blood? I mean, inside my stomach, it does?” I asked him. He assured me that it did.
But this young empiricist wanted proof. I imagined someone taking communion and then being operated on, to see if in fact the wafer had become flesh. Try as I would, I simply could not believe that this physical change would take place. My doubts frightened me. Against my will, I was becoming a non-believer.
The other practice that bothered me was that of confession. There were so many sins to be aware of–and not only were there real sins, but if you thought something was a sin and it wasn’t, just your thinking that it was, made it a sin. If you neglected to mention even a venial sin when you went to confession, you were then guilty of a mortal sin and in danger of hell-fire. But my major problem was that I felt that some of my sins were in bad taste and therefore unrepeatable. There are some things you just don’t tell anyone else. Well, God, maybe. But not the priest. I stopped attending church when I was thirteen.
Father Goubeaux noticed the absence of us three children, and called my grandmother to see what was wrong. “Marilyn Jane says she’s not going back,” Granny said over the phone. The priest asked if he could come for a visit, and Granny allowed that he could come the following Saturday morning.
Father Goubeaux arrived, and we were left alone there in the living room, so we could speak in private. The priest sat on one end of the sofa and I, on the other. He didn’t lean back, but rather sat on the edge of the sofa as he spoke to me. His silver hair stood out like little wings from the sides of his head, and his teeth, which never all quite fit into his mouth, seemed even more prominent than usual. His black cassock carried the whole weight of the Church. Wasting no words, he began, “Marilyn Jane, you must come back to St. Margaret’s.”
“But, Father, I don’t believe anymore. I can’t help it.” My fingernails dug into my clasped palms. I tried to explain about communion and confession, but he would have none of it.
“Who are you to think that you know more than the Church? The Church is the way to God, Marilyn Jane, and the only way. If the Church tells you that the communion wafer is the flesh of Christ, then that is what it is. You are only a child. It is your place to learn, not to question.”
“But I don’t believe anymore. I would like to believe. I really would. But I don’t. I can’t help it.”
He leaned forward, measuring each word, and his eyebrows seemed to grow darker and to knit together between his eyes. “You must come back to the Catholic Church. Unless you return, you will be doomed to burn in hell for all of eternity.”
Burn in hell for all of eternity! That’s a long time. And yet I could not deny myself. “Father, do you believe that God knows everything?”
“Yes, of course, my child.” The eyebrows relaxed.
“He knows every thought in my mind and every wish in my heart?”
“Yes, my child.” The smile broadened, and the teeth appeared again.
“Then it will do me no good to pretend to believe, will it? Because God knows what is really inside me. I can’t come back to St. Margaret’s because if I do, it’ll be like telling a lie to God. I’m sorry you’re upset and Mother will be upset, when she hears. But how can I tell a lie to God?”
Another soul slips away.