Amen, I guess?
Figuring out what "church" means to a lapsed Catholic
“Forgive me father for I have sinned, this is my first confession.”
I was sweating through my cotton-blend blouse and thick-wool jumper in the St. Ann’s confessional. We’d been preparing for weeks for First Confession, also known as Penance, or Reconciliation. We had spent several religion classes learning the differences between original and actual sin, mortal and venial sin. Confession would be the first sacrament that I and my fellow St. Ann’s School second graders would be old enough to remember. We made lists of things we’d done wrong and examined our consciousnesses in our nightly homework assignments. We had to receive penance for our sins before we could partake in the Eucharist for the first time in a few weeks.
St. Ann’s confessionals had an option to do a face-to-face confession or kneel behind a partition. I had taken the easier, less stressful route, with a blind confession. My hands were shaking as I held the little quarter-sheet of paper with the lines I was to recite. The only sins I can remember telling the priest that day were “hitting my brother” and “calling my brother stupid” (a word my mom told me I wasn’t allowed to use). The priest read out a list of prayers that I should say as my penance, and I ended the sacrament with an Act of Contrition Prayer:
“O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you, and I detest all my sins because of your just punishments, but most of all because they offend you, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve with the help of your grace to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin. Amen.”
After I exited the confessional, I walked to the pink-carpeted steps that led up to the altar. I knelt and mentally recited my penance, which was probably some combination of Acts of Contrition, Hail Marys, and Our Fathers. My eight-year-old soul now wiped clean and bare, I was ready to receive the Body of Christ, whatever that meant to me.
As a kid, I understood St. Ann’s – or Roman Catholicism – in rituals, recitations, and traditions. I understood it in the smells of must in old hymnals and the sound of a poorly tuned organ. Everything about St. Ann’s was normal, familiar, and safe. The crucifixes in St. Ann’s classrooms looked just like the ones hanging in my grandparents’ house, and the candles burning in the back of the church looked just like the ones on my grandma’s mantel. I said the same prayers in the same church that my grandma, my grandpa, my mom, and all of my aunts and uncles had for years. I think for me, and probably for most of my classmates, the concept of faith wasn’t something we could understand at an elementary-school age. I prayed at night before bed because that’s what Catholics did, and I was Catholic, because my parents were Catholic, because their parents were Catholic. There was little to question in the traditions that I saw had existed in the church — and in my own family — for years. It wouldn’t be until I grew older, and I started to revisit what I learned at St. Ann’s, that I began to grapple with ideas around Catholicism and faith. When I was little, St. Ann’s was a home of familiarity and family. When I was an apathetic teenager, St. Ann’s was a chore that made me feel guilty. And now, as a lapsed Catholic, I’m in the process of figuring out a relationship with a place that stirs up nostalgia and comfort at the same time as it does hostility, doubt, and mistrust.
St. Ann’s is a small Roman Catholic parish on the top of a steep hill in the town of Emmaus, Pennsylvania. There’s one large building that houses all of the K-8 classrooms and a gymnasium with very rickety, collapsible wooden bleachers. The priests live in a rectory only a few feet away from the school, and the church sits about 100 yards from both. The nun’s convent is on the opposite side of the road from the main campus.
The parish was founded in the early 1900s by a Slovak Catholic immigrant priest, and the school was built in 1954, staffed fully by the Sisters of St. Francis. The school building doesn’t look much different than I assume it did in the 1950s, aside from the addition of a computer lab and new pre-school classrooms in 2000. The color scheme is brown and dark mustard yellow, and every hallway has distinct smells of mold mixed with lime-scented floor-wax. It’s always clear when you’re walking into the newly-added portion of the school, when the wall tiles change to a bright, light blue and the air smells sort of crisp — like a dentist’s office.
I started pre-school at St. Ann’s in 2001, and continued my education there until I was in fifth grade, when my parents moved me to into public school. When I asked my mom why she sent me to St. Ann’s, which was about a 15-minute drive from our house, instead of the public elementary school around the corner, she said wanted me to have “a good Catholic foundation.”
My mom, Mary Grablick (at the time she was Mary Durkin) spent her third through sixth grade years at St. Ann’s, over 40 years ago. My grandma and grandpa moved my mom and her four brothers and sisters from Scotch Plains, New Jersey, to Emmaus, Pennsylvania, in 1972, when my grandpa got a job opening a local brewery. Their little three bedroom house in Emmaus, which my grandpa only recently moved out of after my grandma passed away, is about a 3-minute drive from St. Ann’s.
My grandparents, as my mom’s explained to me and as I’ve witnessed in my 22 years of knowing them, were devout Catholics. My grandpa, Bartolomeu Durkin, is a by-the-books Irish Catholic, and my grandma was never seen without her Miraculous Medal around her neck. Growing up in Emmaus, the Durkin clan didn’t miss a weekly mass at St. Ann’s. There was a strict no-meat-on-Fridays policy throughout the entire year, and my mom said that my grandma didn’t let them listen to the radio during Lent. When my mom’s older brothers got a record player, my grandma would ban certain records from being played in their house.
My mom is the only one of her siblings that stayed in the area after she went to college, and when my brother and I were born, my grandparents helped take care of us so my mom could go back to work. My brother was a colicky baby that rarely slept at night, and my mom said my grandma would hold him for hours during his afternoon nap, just repeating the rosary and saying novenas.
I spent a lot of time in my grandparents’ house when I was little, either on snow days or nights when my parents worked late. Looking back now, the place was almost comically Catholic, but at the time, the presence of religion wasn’t something I noticed. There was a giant painting of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” hovering over their kitchen table, a print of Salvador Dali’s “Crucifixion” that met you when you walked through the front door, and above my grandparent’s bed hung a (terrifyingly huge) framed portrait of the Veil of Veronica. Stacks of prayer cards and ceramic dishes with curled rosaries cluttered the coffee table, and little statues of Mary could be found on almost every piece of furniture.
The house looked (and smelled) a lot like St. Ann’s did: old and filled with religious iconography. Everything about Catholicism felt familiar to me, because it wasn’t just something I saw at school or at Mass, but it was a defining characteristic of the way I understood my family. My dad’s parents both died before he met my mom, and he didn’t have relationships with his brothers, so my mom’s family and their faith was all I knew.
The classes at St. Ann’s school were small, and I spent first through fifth grade with the same 18-20 kids, give or take a few who switched to public school or moved out of town. We started every morning with the Pledge of Allegiance and an Our Father. During the month of May (the month of the Blessed Mother) we would be walked over to the church to say the rosary, and we went to morning mass every First Friday. I played CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) basketball in third through fifth grade, and before every game, we huddled and said a prayer. I performed and participated in these routines without much thought. Saying an Our Father after morning announcements was about as automatic as slipping on my knee-high socks, half-asleep, every morning. I did all of the Catholic things because it’s what I was supposed to do. I prayed because I was supposed to, and because that’s what “good” kids did, not because I understood divinity, or faith, or really felt a connection with God.
I don’t remember taking an interest in the deeper meanings of the priest’s homily at Mass, or spending pensive moments in self-reflection before receiving the communion wafer. But towards the end of my time at St. Ann’s, maybe fourth and fifth grade, I found myself more intrigued by the rituals that happened for centuries within the church, and for generations within my family. The traditions around Lent, specifically, and the general bleakness of the season, were always puzzling to me.
Every Wednesday afternoon, from Ash Wednesday up through Easter, all St. Ann’s students would go to church for the Stations of the Cross, a 14-step devotion that follows the Passion of Christ, starting with the condemnation from Pontius Pilot and ending with Jesus being laid in the tomb. The Stations of the Cross are depicted in framed mosaics along the far left and far right walls of the church. The priest and two altar servers walk along the mosaics, and stop at each station to recite the meditations. After each station, the congregation kneels, and recites “We adore you O’ Christ and we praise you because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the World,” as the priests swings the thurible back and forth, a little boat of incense on the bottom of a gold chain. At the twelfth station (the one where Jesus dies) the congregation kneels, or genuflects, for an extended pause after the priest reads something along the lines of “he breathed his last.”
Instead of feeling sympathy for Jesus’ pain and suffering, or grateful that he was nailed to a cross to “save us from our sins,” I found myself taking interest in the whole eerie procession, in the same way I find myself taking interest in true crime now. (When I think about it, the Passion of Christ is sort of like the New Testament’s own true crime story.) I remember wondering how Matthew, or Mark, or Luke, or John, could’ve written this whole thing, and how their story lasted so many years. Who could’ve actually been there to hear Jesus cry out “my God my God why have you forsaken me?” I would get chills in the moment after the twelfth station, but only because the whole church fell into this haunting silence, enveloped in the smell and smoke of the incense. I didn’t understand how Jesus could’ve come back to life, and the idea that he ended up as three people (God the Father, God the Son, the Holy Spirit) was something I couldn’t wrap my brain around; but it felt cool to be a part of this mysterious and fairly creepy history that generations of my family, and centuries of Catholic people, had recited for thousands of years.
I left St. Ann’s after fifth grade, a little nervous to enroll in the large public middle school down the street from me after spending the past several years with the same small group of kids. But the transition went smoothly; I found a group friends in sixth grade who are still my best friends ten years later, and my 12-year-old self myself reveled in the newfound freedom of the public school system. Kids could wear jeans everyday if they wanted to, and I was able to ditch the boring navy blue flats and Mary Janes that St. Ann’s uniform required.
I still had to go to Mass with my parents every Sunday, and my mom enrolled me in CCD, a sort of knock-off Catholic education system for children who don’t go to the school at the parish but want to be confirmed in the church. CCD classes were usually an hour or so on weeknights, in a depressingly dark classroom at St. Ann’s. Most of CCD was a joke, and I did the bare minimum I needed to receive the sacrament of Confirmation in 8th grade. I didn’t know what that sacrament really meant; I understood it to be a baptism round-two, a re-do where I was supposed to be “confirming” that “Yes, I want to be Catholic.” In middle school, my interest in religion fell into the background; my tween brain was consumed with my new Facebook account and who I was hanging out with on the weekend.
By the time I reached high school, going to Mass became more of a chore than ever. I would skip a week here and there, if I stayed over a friend’s house or had a track meet. But the “Catholic foundation” my mom had hoped St. Ann’s instilled me, that at one point felt familiar, and at another sparked curiosity, started to appear in different ways.
Despite dozing through homilies and only “praying” when I wanted a good grade on a test (the “God, I’ll never doubt you exist again if you just do this one thing for me” type of plea), I still operated throughout my teenage years under this notion that doing bad things makes you a bad person. I’ve always been a textbook “goody-two-shoes,” because at St. Ann’s, being “bad” didn’t just mean getting in trouble with my teacher, it meant I’d somehow disrespected God, and the Church, and my family. I was terrified of breaking the smallest rule, like asking for a water cup at a restaurant and filling it with soda or cutting in line. The idea of someone being mad at me because I had done something wrong was terrifying.
I started dating a boy during my sophomore year of high school who was on the student newspaper with me. He, coincidentally, had also gone to St. Ann’s, but was a grade above me. We were actually on the same bus for a few years, and I always a small crush on him. He, unlike me, had not internalized the teachings of St. Ann’s in this “good” and “bad” binary. He smoked weed, he drank, and he lied to his parents. By the time we started dating, he’d already had sex with several girls. The story of how I, a meek 15-year-old who still decorated her flashcard holder with stickers and had never even seen a penis in real life, ended up dating this boy is another story, but I remember the way I felt when I started to do “bad things” with him. I went from never having kissed a boy to having sex within a month of dating him. I smoked, and drank, and did the normal, coming-of-age high school experiences to prove to him (and to myself) that I wasn’t the lame rule-follower I’d grown up as. During the two years that I dated him, I would sit in Mass on Sundays, irrationally paranoid that everyone in the congregation could feel my sin and disgrace. I didn’t believe having sex was bad, or believe smoking was bad, but there was a sense of shame in showing my face at St. Ann’s, mumbling through prayers and softly singing hallelujahs next to my mom, her crucifix glued to her clavicle.
The repeated interactions with Catholicism that I never thought much about in childhood had ingrained in me an understanding of what it meant to be “good” only in relation to what St. Ann’s had taught me was “bad.” The iconography from St. Ann’s followed me to my grandma’s kitchen, and to the pastel-painted cross that mom would never let me take down from above my bed, even when it didn’t match my new 12-year-old style. They were all reminders that I was Catholic, my family was Catholic, and Catholics should be “good,” and if they aren’t, they need to apologize for it.
I continued to go to Mass almost weekly with my parents until I left for college. When my mom dropped me off at GW in August 2016, she said she found a Catholic parish on Google Maps that was only a few blocks away. I never went.
A few weeks into my first semester at GW, news broke that the 67-year-old Monsignor of St. Ann’s who had come to the Parish when I was in fourth grade had been arrested for possession of child pornography. He had asked a tech-savvy parishioner to update his laptop for him, and in the process the parishioner found a recycling bin full of images of naked children, folders with labels like “Small Boy Nudes,” and internet searches like “boys handcuffed.” (These details come directly from the criminal complaint.)
The parishioner, instead of calling the police, called the Diocese of Allentown, which oversees St. Ann’s. The Diocese immediately informed the authorities, and investigation went on for six weeks before the Monsignor, John Mraz, was eventually arrested. But during the period of investigation, the St. Ann’s congregation was led to believe that Mraz was staying in a rehabilitation facility for his heart condition. Even the fellow priest at St. Ann’s, Father Dominic, didn’t know what was happening. For six Sundays, while authorities dug through lewd images on this man’s computer, the people of St. Ann’s sat there praying for his health.
This was the man who visited my grandmother’s house for three years when she was bedridden. This was the man who performed the Anointing of the Sick sacrament for her in her hospital bed at Cedar Brook Hospice Care, days before she passed away in 2014. The man who was supposed to be in charge of a church, a school, who was supposed to be leading people in their faith, had been “bad” the whole time. For years, second graders like myself walked into a St. Ann’s confessional and said “forgive me father, for I have sinned.” People asked him for forgiveness.
The day I saw the article, whatever weird connection I still had with my Catholicism fractured completely. I thought back to all of the afternoons sitting through the Stations of the Cross, the day in second grade when we learned the difference between venial and mortal sins, the fleeting moments of guilt I felt whenever I wanted to do something wrong. Every ritual looked pointless and performative. I thought about my grandma, who in the days before her death, anxiously cried to my mom about how scared she was to die. This woman, who had spent her entire life being “good,” who had spent hours and hours praying in preparation for her salvation, lost her faith at a time when I would think she needed Jesus, or God, or whatever, the most.
I decided that day that Catholicism was a total sham.
The day my local paper broke the story, I remember texting my mom the link to the article, and saying “yeah, I’m never going back to St. Ann’s. I hope he dies in jail.”
I only went to St. Ann’s twice during my freshman and sophomore years, both times, reluctantly, for Christmas Eve Mass. My mom briefly considered switching to another parish after the Mraz incident, but I think she was too comfortable in the church she’d spent 40 years worshipping in. I would ask her how she could sit through Mass every week, or how she still kept any faith at all, after seeing the rampant sexual abuse in the Catholic church manifest in her own parish. I would tell her I thought religion was pointless, and that being a “good” person had nothing to do with how many Our Fathers you said before you went to sleep, or how many Sundays you spent in an uncomfortable pew reciting worthless platitudes.
My latest stage in my relationship with Catholicism, or faith, or St. Ann’s, or maybe all of them intertwined, happened after I discharged from residential eating disorder treatment. My dad, who had started skipping Sunday Mass in lieu of a new work schedule, told me that my mom would go alone, and stay after an extra 20 minutes to light a candle for me. I laughed at first, thinking “yeah, if it were only that easy!” When I asked my mom about it, I joked, “Sorry mom but I don’t think God is going to fix my eating disorder.” She looked hurt, and said “you’re the first thing I pray for every night because I don’t know how else to help you sometimes.” She told me that despite how she felt about the Diocese and St. Ann’s parish, sometimes her faith was the only way she could find hope.
When she said that, I think I felt real guilt, not just internalized Catholic guilt. I pictured her sitting alone in the pew that used to be populated with the Durkin clan, then the four Grablicks, praying for me, the person who was causing her the pain, and the person who criticized the only way she found some sort of relief from it.
In his “Kid Gorgeous” Netflix stand-up special, comedian John Mulaney talks a lot about his Catholic upbringing. He has a joke: “I don’t know if you grew up going to church and now you don’t. Because it can be a weird existence. Because I like to make fun of it all day long. But then if someone like Bill Maher is like, ‘Who would believe in a man up in the sky?’ I’d be like: ‘My mommy! Stop calling my mommy dumb!’’
That pretty neatly summarizes how I feel now about St. Ann’s, and religion, and this very confusing thing called faith. Since I’ve discharged from treatment, when I’m home I’ve started volunteering to go Mass with my mom, not because I’m searching for the voice of God, or because I'm seeking absolution for my laundry list of sins. Now it’s more for the comfort – for the feeling of closeness to my mom, and her mom, and my small self. St. Ann’s still smells the same, and we still sit in the pew on the left side of the church. I can recite all of the responses and prayers and hymns from memory. I say them not because I believe what I’m saying, but because it feels familiar, and nostalgic, and I want to do it with my mom.
I still have a lot of problems with the Catholic church, (reproductive rights, homophobia, rampant sexual abuse, lack of accountability) and I doubt I’ll raise my kids in it. But I guess as I try to work out what St. Ann’s really means to me, it doesn’t mean much about performative rituals, or sins, or forgiveness, or being “good,” or being “bad” anymore. It just means it’s a place that provides comfort for my mom, and for my grandma, and in a weird and different way, comfort for me too.