Have you always been Catholic? How did the instruction and mentoring you received help you – or prevent you – from having a personal relationship with God?
I was born in 1957, and during my first eight years I steeped in the Catholic universe of South Louisiana.
Before I was old enough to go to confession I would accompany my father when he went to confession. This was before I was in first grade, and had not yet received any formal catechesis. I was, however, already very well catechized my extended family, such that I understood that in confession, Jesus forgave a person’s sins. In church I was optimistically expected to behave while Daddy was in the confessional. But I was curious why no-one entered or exited from the middle part of the confessional, just the ends. So on one occasion I stuck my hand under the middle curtain to find out just what was in there. Maybe you can imagine the shock of Jesus grabbing my hand! If that was not shocking enough, I actually saw Jesus’ hand as it gently and firmly put my little mitt back outside the booth. I never said a word about this to another soul until I was an adult.
In a strictly physical sense, that was not Jesus in the confessional; but close enough for a kid who was raised with a sacramental worldview. The world has always seemed to be soaking wet with God. I never didn’t believe what the Church taught. There were many years when I didn’t want to hear it, but I always accepted that the Church was right. Priests, Nuns, Saints, Angels, Satan, Mass, Purgatory, Trinity, Keys, Relics, Miracles, Bible stories; all were part of the visible and invisible reality that I swam in.
Truly, I can’t remember a time that Jesus wasn’t Right There. I used to think I could grab Him right out of the nothing that lay within my reach; and who knows, maybe I did. I owe that natural, vivid faith to my parents, my extended family, the Marianite sisters, and the Louisiana culture. Unlike later ethnic Catholic immigrant enclaves in America, Louisiana (1702) predated the United States, and was not part of the US until 1803. So there was no impetus to ‘become American’ by diluting our Catholic distinctives.
Then my family moved to Greenville, South Carolina when I was 8. Culturally it was a bigger leap than spending a graduate-school semester in Italy. Catholics were worse than mere outsiders: to some, we weren’t even Christian. But gentle (and not so gentle) prodding by concerned Evangelical and Fundamentalist friends and neighbors gives Catholics an incentive to know the Biblical reasons (versus catechetical ones) for being Catholic; and accustoms us to talking about Jesus and religion in a very direct, even blunt, way. It has been a real blessing to live here. On the other hand, the Church is not where it needs to be regarding Scripture and evangelism; and poorly-catechized Catholics remain easy marks for the Biblically literate.
In your parish, how’s your retention rate? What percentage of 8th graders in your parish are still practicing the faith at age 18?At age 24? Do young adults in your parish stay in touch with their childhood faith community, or do they drift away to an unknown fate?
Oh man, I dunno. Just considering the kids I’ve catechized over the last 9 years, many families moved away; the kids that turn 18 here often leave to go to college; and of those, many won’t return to Greenville; and of those who ultimately stay, many will attend another parish, as my eldest son does. At Mass I do see a few young adults I taught years ago; then again, we have 5 Masses each weekend. But our parish is healthy. We have a school with full enrollments, run by the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia. Youthgroup content is substantial and orthodox. We receive a constant stream of Fundiegelical converts. And our pastor steadily nudges the parish toward an explicitly Scriptural-evangelistic worldview.