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Lessons Learned Growing Up Catholic Once Was A Lot More Mystical Experience

Sat., March 16, 1996

Somewhere there is a nun in a gray flannel suit with a 12-inch wooden ruler shoved up her sleeve, waiting, just waiting for some clueless third-grader to step out of line. …

Lent. Oh, how I remember the Roman Catholic traditions that shaped my youth.

And while growing up Catholic is different today from what it was 40 years ago, some old habits die hard.

Once, there was great mysticism in the Catholic Church. The language was Latin, the lighting was low and the smell of incense pungent and sweet. Large men with heavy hands and nuns dressed in black with stiff white collars dispensed discipline and truth in the same motion. If the message wasn’t clear, more than one doubting Thomas was persuaded by the power of a righteous hand or wooden ruler.

And there was sin. It was as easy to sin as it was to be forgiven. The occasions of sin were everywhere, and the punishment was designed to fit the offense. If you committed a little (venial) sin, such as fighting with your brother or sister, the sentence was light:- five “Our Fathers” and five “Hail Marys.” If you were guilty of a big (mortal) sin, such as eating meat on Friday, you were nailed with a couple of rosaries.

If you died while in the state of sin, eternal life could be especially gruesome. Venial sin put black spots on the soul, sending you to purgatory with the promise of eventually being released to heaven.

But mortal sin turned your soul into charcoal, and you were hellbound to have your eyes gouged out daily by laughing demons.

Sin was always waiting.

If you looked at Betty Lou and some sex thing popped into your head, bingo, sin. Having bad thoughts about that kid who always filled his Lenten bank in less than a day? Sin. Plotting to fix Father Kipping’s wagon once you got bigger? Sin. Curious as to how babies are made? You’re toast.

Catholics could be sentenced to hell in a heartbeat. Thankfully, the church also provided plenty of escape valves. There were plenary indulgences - points earned by performing certain acts of charity or by saying lots of prayers. They could be accumulated like savings bonds and used later to buy needed grace.

Short prayers didn’t amount to much, but doing the stations of the cross was worth a million.

There were certain types of medals that could be worn to deny the devil. One of these was the scapular - a cloth type worn around the neck that depicted an image of the Blessed Virgin. If you had this on and death came a-knockin’, your soul would wing its way to heaven, even if you had just committed some awful sin.

If you made a sincere act of contrition just before death, all sins were forgiven. Hurtling off a cliff in your ‘55 Merc might give you a little time to make a quick one. Being struck by lightning pretty much eliminated the time option.

The church - with dark aisles lined with huge icons, soft murmurs of voices in prayer, the shuffling about of humbled believers and the business of stern-faced nuns preparing the altar for ceremony - all worked to enhance the mysterious. It was in this atmosphere of the unknown that real and imagined punishments often shaped young lives for better and for worse.

Even the architecture of the modern Catholic Church is less severe. Gone are the walls reflecting tongues of flame from 500 votive candles. Gone are the altars that stretched to the heavens. Priests are regular people, and nuns wear gray flannel business suits.

And sin … it still happens. But the threat of laughing demons is mostly fantasy. For some, the old beliefs and superstitions have been replaced by a kinder, less punitive God, and that is good.

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