Monday, July 29, 2013

You Have to Go to Church (Unless You Don’t Want to)

My mom took us to church every Sunday. I don’t recall my dad ever going, or my grandmother. I never wanted to go. You had to dress nice and behave yourself. We sat in the small section of the church reserved for families with children who weren’t yet reliably respectful. It was separated by a wall that was glass two-thirds of the way down so you could see what was going on in the big section. 

My brothers were both altar boys. They had to wear altar boy vestments over their clothes and hang out with the priests. One priest was incredibly old. He was a monsignor. He pulled my oldest brother’s hair once and told him to get a haircut. 

The masses were so long. I would try to keep track of how many times I had stood, kneeled and sat for clues as to when it would end. After mass, we got donuts. This was the highlight of the whole affair.

The church was affiliated with our school, so we saw the same priests, nuns, parents and kids there that we saw at school during the week. We also attended mass at school sometimes, for special holy days and whatnot. It got really out of hand around Lent and Christmas. Then they’d start adding in rosaries and the stations of the cross. 

They’d clear all the tables out of the cafeteria and set up the chairs in rows, just like at church. A few days prior they would have offered confession. Confession was optional, but most everyone went. I had a stock set of sins that I would recite because you couldn’t just go in there and say nothing.

One day, not long after my dad died (I think I was in the 3rd grade), my mother sat me and my brothers down for a talk. This never happened for anything good and we were all a bit wary. Then she asked if we wanted to keep going to mass on Sundays. She explained that if we didn’t want to go anymore, we didn’t have to. So we stopped going to church. Just like that.

I wish I had asked why we had ever gone. Or exactly what else was optional that I hadn’t been told about. I would never have chosen church over cartoons or lying around in my pajamas, and yet I had been made to go. Along with many other reluctant children as evidenced by the large glass wall necessary to contain their displeasure.

But I was a little kid and was happy to just accept this new arrangement. I added “missed mass” to my list of regularly reported sins. Things went along just fine for a while. No one said anything. It didn’t seem to matter one bit. Then one day I went to confession at school and the priest was the same very old monsignor who had pulled my brother’s hair. 

The screen set up between me and the monsignor was a length of black fabric about the size of a bath towel. When I got to, “I missed mass,” that scary old fuck whipped the curtain open and slapped my hand. I was so stunned I just shook for a second. I don’t remember stumbling through the Act of Contrition (a prayer I never quite managed to commit to memory), but I do remember fighting tears when I returned to class. I haven’t been to confession since.