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Confessions of a Cynical Catholic: Holy Week

Jesus-Picture-On-The-Cross-It-Is-Finished-Crucifixion-WallpaperMost Catholics consider Holy Week to be the highlight of the Church year. The events commemorated are the cornerstone of our fundamental beliefs and culminate in an occasion more glorious than the coming of the Word made Flesh that we celebrate each Christmas.

Needless to say as a child, I was not a fan.

First of all, NOTHING in a child’s mind is better than Christmas! I mean, Easter is great and all but it always struck me as a watered down version of a much better holiday. If Spring Break corresponds with it, that’s a little better, but you only get one week off instead of two. There is the half day on Good Friday that public school kids didn’t get and that was kind of fun, but again…it’s like a consolation prize for a shorter break. There are fun scavenger hunts to go on and a small cache of toys involved, but then you also have to endure seven weeks of sacrifice and an entire week of Massapalooza, which centers on a rather grisly death before you even get to the Main Event. I just had a hard time looking at Easter as a “happy” time.

Don’t get me wrong, I understood that Jesus died for my sins and Lord knows my teachers liked to point out how He made this big sacrifice for our benefit, but I have to tell you…I would have been fine with a less gruesome sign of His love. However, if you are going to do something to save the world, I guess you have to go big or go home, right?

With time and maturity, my attitude toward Holy Week has mellowed considerably and I am pleased to announce that I actually enjoy it nowadays, but not to the same level my youngest son does. If you think my reactions to all things church related are unique, this kid is going to seem downright peculiar!

Vincent     I can’t remember a time when “Boy Wonder” wasn’t wacky for Holy Week….or more specifically Good Friday. From the time he was very little, I would often catch him staring at the illustration of the crucifixion in his Kids’ Bible fascinated by this particular style of Roman execution. I’m not kidding, he had that page of the book open so much, he broke the spine at its location so if you stood the book on end, it would open to that scene.

“Wouldn’t you rather look at another picture?” I asked. “There’s a really nice picture of Baby Jesus in His manger bed.” Honestly, I wasn’t trying to dissuade his interest, I was just concerned this was going to become an obsession.

“No Mommy, I like this one,” he’d say.

Although there was nothing wrong with his enthusiasm, it occurred to me that it might be misinterpreted by others who didn’t understand or were unfamiliar with the prevalent images of the crucifixion that exist in the Catholic Church. Sure enough, when he was four, I took him to a local Christian church that was having a big Christmas event including barn animals and a live nativity and afterwards the congregation invited us to stay and hear “the rest of the story.” Now, I suspected I knew where this was heading, so I took the kids into the sanctuary to watch what I correctly surmised to be a passion play.

Everything started out fine. Jesus rode in on a live donkey while people waved palm branches and sang “Joy to the World (The Lord has Come)” Side note: I really kind of thought that was a cool tie-in and would pay big bucks to see a Catholic Church sing that song on Palm Sunday for a change. The scene then shifted to the last supper, Judas’ betrayal and the trial before Pilate, who of course, sentences Jesus to death.

As the actor playing Jesus was stripped of his garments and “nailed” to the prop cross, some women sitting in front of us became so moved by the scene that they started crying. Not Boy Wonder. With his eyes wide and his mouth hanging open, he picked that moment to holler, “Check it out, Mom! They’re stringing Him up!”

Now, I don’t want to imply that he was delighted by what he was witnessing…but he was. This was his illustrated Bible, Jesus of Nazareth and every other Gospel-based movie he’d ever seen brought to life. It was dramatic. It was wrenching. It was real! I cupped my hand over his mouth to shush him, lest anyone get the wrong idea, but I’m sure there were a few people in the audience who were convinced I was raising a heathen.

“You know, you really can’t get that excited about the crucifixion,” I explained later. “People get the wrong idea.They think you actually LIKE it.”

“I do like it,” he told me. “You can’t have Easter without it.”

Astonished by his simple wisdom, I knew that I had been beat and every year, I can count on him to get giddy over Holy Week knowing he will hear his favorite Bible story on Palm Sunday, announce “Today’s the big day!” on Good Friday and ask me  if I think they actually commemorate this event in Heaven. (I’m not being sacrilegious when I say I KNOW that kid has visions of party hats, balloons and a cake that says “Happy Crucifixion, Jesus!”) He actually gets excited if the weather is gloomy on that day because he is convinced it’s God’s way of reminding everyone about His son’s sacrifice and I have to admit, more often than not, it is kind of gross and rainy on that particular day. Who knows? Maybe he knows something the rest of us don’t.

They say that the worst punishment a parent can get is having a kid that acts just like them, but sometimes think the greatest gift is having those who are complete opposites, because every once in a while they teach you a thing or two with that child-like faith Jesus admired so much.

Happy Easter Everyone!















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Confessions of a Cynical Catholic: The Problem With Purgatory

Purgatory-Traffic-SignI was nine-years-old before I ever heard the word “Purgatory.” I playing some elaborate pretend game with a friend of mine when she announced that her character was going to die and that she would continue to interact with my character from the hereafter. (Believe me, It made perfect sense in the context of the story and if you knew anything about the two of us at all, you would understand that we were a tad…unconventional to put it mildly. LOL)

So of course we staged this dramatic death bed scene in which I hugged her, told her character how much I would miss her and then laid her to rest near a bush in the backyard that quite frankly, looked like it should have been a tombstone. A few minutes later, I watched as she stood in front of the bush with her arms out like she was waiting for the mother ship to beam her up and said, “What are you doing?”

“Getting my sins burned off in Purgatory,” she said, solemnly.

Where? I wondered. She said it so seriously like it was a real thing, but the only place I had ever heard of where fire was possibly involved was Hell. I assumed she had made up the word. “But your character was good. She wouldn’t have gone…Down There.”

My friend looked at me like I was crazy. “I didn’t go Down There, I went to Purgatory. You have to wait there for a while before you can go to Heaven.”

This was a new one on me. Prior to this conversation, I was only aware of two final destinations and none of them involved what sounded like a celestial equivalent to a doctor’s waiting room. “Let me get this straight,” I began. “God’s in charge of this Purgatory place, so it’s not like where the Devil is.”

“Right. It’s not a bad place to be, but it’s not Heaven either,” she told me.

I ran that one around in my head a few times. “So how long do you have to stay there?” I wanted to know.

She shrugged. “It depends on how bad you were here on Earth. If you die with a lot of sins on your soul you could be there for millions of years.”

Millions of years? Oh, she had to be pulling my leg. “I don’t understand. Why do your sins have to be burned off? Can’t God just take them away?”

“It’s not like that kind of fire,” she informed me, as if she had personal experience with the place. “It’s not hot. It’s warm and it makes you better. It doesn’t burn you up.”

My mother called me in for dinner after that and my friend went home, but the conversation stayed with me all throughout dinner, as I took my bath and got ready for bed that night. When my mom came in to tuck me in, I came right out and asked, “What’s Purgatory?”

“Where did you hear about Purgatory?” She wanted to know.

I offered her the five second explanation of what went down in the backyard, but before I could ask for any clarification, she dismissed the whole thing by saying, “Oh don’t worry about that. You’ll go to Heaven.”

But I wasn’t so sure. So, naturally I went to my father. “What’s Purgatory?”

My dad looked a little uncomfortable as though I had touched on something forbidden or taboo. “It’s a Catholic belief,” he said simply.

“So you don’t believe in it?” I asked.

He shook his head. “No, I don’t.”

I thought my parents had a very strange attitude where this Purgatory place was concerned and it wasn’t helping me at all. My dad was pretty smart and even though I knew there were some “differences” between his faith and mine, this seemed like a pretty big thing to disagree on. I didn’t like the idea of believing in something that my dad seemed fairly confident wasn’t there. And what about my mom? Dad said that Purgatory was a Catholic belief, but my mom dismissed the idea of it so fast, I couldn’t help but wonder if she DID believe in it. After all, she had been Methodist before she was Catholic. Maybe she didn’t believe in Purgatory either.

And if this place was so important, then WHY hadn’t I heard about it before now? I was in fourth grade. I had two sacraments under my belt, a phenomenal amount of prayers committed to memory and logged more hours in religion class than I could count. How had I missed the Purgatory discussion?

After giving it considerable thought and reading the section of the Bible where the concept is drawn from, I decided it was too loose of an interpretation for me to buy into. Now, I know this will not make me popular with hard core Catholics, but I stand my ground. The issue of Purgatory was very difficult for me to write about in The Idiot’s Guide to Catholicism because I just wasn’t sure. It was as if I couldn’t do it with a straight face or without rolling my eyes. It’s not that I didn’t want to, I just…struggled. At one point, I called my former religion teacher in desperation and said, “How am I going to sell this to the populous if I don’t believe it myself?”

“Wait a minute, why don’t you believe in Purgatory?” She asked.

God love this woman. She listened as I recounted the tale, laughing at the idea of two little girls talking about this over a game of pretend and how frustrating it must have been for me to ask my parents and come up empty on an answer. “No wonder you don’t believe in it. You grew up in a post-Vatican II world where no one talked about it. You lived in a home where it wasn’t discussed and then all of a sudden you heard about it and couldn’t confirm it? Why would you believe in it?”

She put on her “teacher hat” and began to explain Purgatory to me from the ground up. She didn’t tell me that I had to believe in it, but she gave me food for thought. I still struggle with the idea but if you haven’t believed in something for four decades, it’s a little hard to suddenly buy into it overnight. Thankfully she understood that and encouraged me to pray on it.

I have, but so far I have not reached a conclusion. While I would love to be a good Catholic girl with a rock solid faith, like it or not, God made me this way and He seems to like challenges. Who am I to deny Him of a great Fixer Upper project like me?

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Confessions of a Cynical Catholic: “My Mind Is Clearer Now”

jesus-christ-superstar-1974-film-soundtrack        Taking part in the 8th grade spring musical was something I’d looked forward to since I was six-years-old. Ever since I saw the “big kids” put on The Music Man, I became enamored with the idea of being on that stage and singing my heart out in the starring role.

Over the years, there had been quite an assortment of offerings: Oklahoma, The Sound of Music, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, Godspell, and The Wizard of Oz. Although the class didn’t know what it would be until late February or early March, it was widely suspected that ours would be Annie.

Then came the announcement: Jesus Christ Superstar.

The idea of doing some religious show was about as appealing as root canal surgery. I had already suffered through countless Christmas pageants, endured Mass at least once a week for the last eight years – I got it – I’m a Christian, did we really need to drive this point home in the final quarter? Not only that, but as I understood it, JCS was an opera. Did the powers that be actually think 60 eighth graders had enough talent to pull THAT off?

I have to say that they had more faith in us than I did.

“They can’t be serious,” I told a friend of mine after we heard the news. “Are there any girl parts in it?”

She informed me that the main roles were Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene, but that our teacher said he was willing to cast some girls as apostles. Considering that the girls in our class outnumbered the boys by a fairly large margin this wasn’t a progressive decision, but a practical one. Still, why choose a musical that was predominately male in the first place? I didn’t want to be an apostle. I didn’t want to be a member of the chorus and given all I had heard about her (supposed) dubious reputation, I sure as heck did NOT want to be Mary Magdalene!

I wasn’t the only person who was unenthusiastic about this and when it became obvious to the teacher that he might have a mutiny on his hands, he told us that he would rent the tape so that we could see it for ourselves and then decide if we hated it. “I have a feeling that you are going to change your minds.”

The next day, we all gathered around the rolling TV cart to see what it was that our teacher had gotten us into. The movie started and as I suspected, something reminiscent of The Ten Commandments came on the screen. However, unlike Cecile B. DeMille’s classic, it was accompanied by a searing electric guitar lick. What the heck is this? I wondered as a tribe of hippies jumped off a bus and began putting on costumes. One guy had round John Lennon-style sunglasses. Another donned a hat that looked like the Taj Mahal. There was the man who sat on a throne like he was some kind of a king and another guy who quickly separated himself from the group. He must be Judas, I surmised. By the time the chorus members began their strange huddle dance around the central character, we were all bopping our heads in time with the music. (Some of us were even playing a little air guitar, but I’m not naming names.) Finally, I heard the familiar fanfare that everyone knows and saw Jesus rise out of the crowd. Oh, I am so in, I decided. This is going to be the best play ever!

JC Gethsemane           There was only one problem. I still didn’t want to be Mary. I wanted to be Jesus. When I heard Ted Neely wail “Whyyyyyyyyyyyyy?” during Gethsemane, I wanted to sing it. It was so primal. So Robert Plant-esque. Still, even if the teacher was willing to have a few girl apostles, I knew it was unlikely that he would go completely off the rails and cast me as the Son of God.

So I set my sights on Judas. Although it may seem a bit strange, I really identified with that role. I’d never given Judas’ story much thought before, but having watched the movie, I now thought that there was something oddly human about him. Here was a guy who was excited to be part of this movement, but when things seemed to be spiraling out of control, he tried to stand up to his friend and reel Him back in. I didn’t get the impression that he wanted Jesus dead. In the movie, it all seemed less calculated than that and a bit more naïve. Maybe he felt that if Jesus cooled his heels in prison overnight, it might end his delusions of grandeur and then their group could get on with doing good works. I don’t think he honestly thought it would end the way that it did. But then again, the road to Hell is always paved with good intentions, isn’t it?

Despite my spiritual epiphany while watching the tape, there was no way that the teacher was going to let me be Judas either. “Come on,” I pleaded. “Don’t you think I would make a fantastic demented apostle?”

“Well yes Julie, I do, but you still cannot be Judas,” he said. “Why don’t you audition for Mary Magdalene?”

         Because I don’t want to act like some kind of Jesus groupie, I thought to myself. I didn’t tell him this of course, and naturally that is the part I ended up with. I liked the songs well enough, but this was the first time I’d heard whispers that there was something else going on between Mary and Jesus and I didn’t like it. It flew in the face of everything that I thought to be true.

“I don’t know about this line ‘I want him so,’” I commented during a rehearsal. “It sounds like she is in love with him or something.”

“She was,” he said simply.

I’ve never found an official reference to that fact, and believe me when I say that I did a LOT of looking after that statement. Turns out it’s a pretty popular notion and maybe it’s not that far-fetched, but it seems like a flawed theory. Regardless of her position in Jesus’ life, it’s clear that she is an important character in the story. So important that someone felt compelled to try and diminish it by labeling her a prostitute-turned-Christian. Though it still pained me to act as if I were “gaga” over God…I tried to sing her part with as much dignity as a 13-year-old can and in the end, I enjoyed it.

It’s interesting how an event I didn’t want to take part in became one of the most profound religious experiences of my life. Maybe it was my connection to the rock and roll-style or a more poetic interpretation, but Jesus Christ Superstar changed my life forever. I’ve seen it several times and take it personally if it is not performed well. I have been lucky enough to see Ted Neely in the starring role and to meet the late Carl Anderson (Judas). Not only that, but it is the show that led to my own lip lock with the Lord (in the form of Sebastian Bach) in his SUV in 2003.But that’s another story for another day.

Maybe there is a little bit of the “rumored” Mary in me after all!


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Confessions of a Cynical Catholic: That Certain Undefinable “Something”

Cathbook    I knew I was in trouble the minute that I had to define “faith.” I knew the definition I had learned when I was 11 watching Miracle on 34th Street, “Faith is believing in something when common sense tells you not to,” but somehow I knew that wouldn’t fly as it pertained to the Catholic Church.

Two days ago my latest book, The Idiot’s Guide to Catholicism was published and as I celebrate this accomplishment, I have had several people ask me some of my thoughts on the writing of it now that some time has passed. As I have said before – and will repeat time and time again – the fact that I was even asked to do this is proof positive that God has a sense of humor. After all, I was the one with all the questions…who was I to start offering answers?

One of the things that surprised me the most in writing this book was how little I felt I DID know…even the definitions that I had memorized fell apart under scrutiny leading me to wonder more that I care to admit if some of the things I professed to believe were nothing more than a game with words. Think I am kidding? Try defining “sacrament.” Go ahead…I’ll wait…

Chances are, you learned some variation of the same definition that I did: “A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of inner grace.” Wonderful, but what does it mean and how do you explain it to someone brand new to the Church if you aren’t even sure you understand it yourself? I don’t mind telling you that I  spent hours trying to pick that one apart until I felt like a dog chasing its own tail and finally called a former religion teacher to try and get her to explain it to me in plain and simple terms. “If you know of a way to do that, you tell me!” She retorted. (Somehow I wasn’t comforted.)

We eventually figured it out, and the explanation is in the book, but it wasn’t easy. Neither was writing a brief history of God. Although He  has quite an impressive list of accomplishments to his credit, God’s actual biography is more than a  little hard to track down. Don’t even get me started on that kid of His. FOUR men tried to put the life and works of Jesus in to writing  and could only agree on two things: that He was baptized by John the Baptist and was ultimately crucified by Pontius Pilate. (Yes, there are other similarities within the Gospels but I am focusing on what all four attest to.) As for the Holy Spirit…well, I admitted that this part is the hardest to grasp and offered a less-than-helpful anecdote involving St. Patrick and the shamrock. Beyond that, you’re on your own.

Heaven, Hell and all that might be in between were another fun section I battled with. While I understand the concept of Purgatory, I am one of those weird Catholics that is not sure she believes in it. (But I’ll save that saga for another post.) As for the process by which someone enters these various locations…there seem to be a lot of loopholes. I was told as a child that good people, of course, go to Heaven while bad people went to Hell. It seemed pretty cut and dry to me early on but then the questions started. Why do you have to be Baptized to go to Heaven? What if you were a baby who just died suddenly? Well of course God would look out for them. What about a mentally disturbed person who killed someone but didn’t go to confession? Would God have mercy on them? What about all of the countless stupid-but-not-too-awful things I did throughout my life? Did reconciliation really wipe those away or am I going to have to answer to a highlight reel of all my shortcomings on Judgement Day? What about Hitler? What happened to him? (This is the go-to bad guy most of us assume didn’t make the cut for Heaven and who we assume we have a better chance than for admittance.)

My point is that writing this book was HARD! Harder than anything I have ever done in my whole life. Like it or not I was forced to confront all of my cynicism, make peace with it and find a way to take everything I didn’t understand and couldn’t explain and….somehow find a way.

There were subjects I wanted to tackle, like saints and Mary, for example. I never understood what is so hard to grasp about all of that, but it is a sticking spot for some people and I really wanted to try and make sense of it all. After all, my father was Baptist, and while I am sure that he had his reservations about it, he never told me that I was wrong or that I was worshipping false idols. I really tried to step out of my comfort zone on that chapter and look at the whole thing from another point of view. Maybe if I wasn’t Catholic it would look weird to see a guy who was alive only a decade ago canonized on live TV and revered by billions of people as if he were something other than human.

But there were also subjects I wanted to avoid like the plague…one in particular that I kept successfully dodging until I could not sidestep it any longer. For weeks I felt like a slime ball for not facing it head on and at one point I wondered if I might take the cowards way out and eliminate it completely. I don’t mind telling you, if I had…it would have been my biggest regret. However, one morning last spring the perfect opportunity presented itself and thanks to one of the finest documentaries I have ever seen, God showed me how I could be “Both” true to the Church, “And” true to all that I believed in.

That’s the only hint you are getting…read the book and you’ll figure it out.

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Confessions of a Cynical Catholic: The “daughter” of Man

womangod    It remains the finest moment of my eighth grade year, not to mention, my most controversial one. As you may have figured out from some of these posts, when I was a kid, I tended to have a healthy skepticism about a wide variety of religious matters, despite my upbringing and often grilled my religion teachers on a variety of issues that were long on faith, but short on logic.

Such was the case the day that my religion teacher told us how important it was to recognize Jesus’ return the minute the Second Coming got underway. He suggested that as good Catholics we would have no trouble with this because our faith would not allow us to question and doubt Him the way the Jews, Romans and other first century factions did.

As you can imagine, this didn’t sit too well with me. After all, if I understood the story correctly, the people who were waiting around for the Messiah to show up had a very definite image of what He would look like, what He would say and more importantly, what He would do. They were certainly not banking on a carpentry major from Nazareth whose birth story was tantamount to tabloid fodder. Think about it, when Jesus began His public ministry he was known for being a headstrong pre-teen who went off on His own in one of the biggest cities on Earth, making wine at a friend’s wedding, and having a loud-mouthed cousin who ate wild locusts and invented his own sacrament. Call me crazy, but does that SOUND the like the resume of a deity to you? I’m just saying.

So I couldn’t really fault people for not exactly “getting it” the first time around, and I thought it was rude to condemn a whole population for not jumping on the bandwagon right away. After all, whose to say we wouldn’t act the same way in similar circumstances? I brought this point up to my teacher, saying that it seemed pretty human to err on the side of caution and be suspect of anyone claiming to be the Messiah.

“Well, perhaps, but we won’t make that mistake,” he assured me. “When Jesus returns, we won’t question it, we will know.”

Hmmmmm….exactly how would we do that? I wondered. It seemed pretty easy to get things wrong from time to time. After all, only a few years before I had been duped right in Mass if you recall, so I didn’t have a lot of faith in myself to recognize the Second Coming if it were staring me in the face. I’d also heard of countless stories in which folks blindly followed crazy people that they believed to be God including Charles Manson and Jim Jones. It seemed to me that there was nothing wrong with their faith, it was just placed in the wrong thing. How would we somehow know the difference? “So let me get this straight,” I asked, “So, if I am walking home from school today and someone tells me that he is Jesus and He’s back, I am just supposed to drop everything and follow Him?”

“Yes,” my teacher told me.

This flew in the face of every “don’t talk to strangers” lecture my mother ever gave me. Not to mention, I could be following a lunatic. Yet, here was my religion teacher actually encouraging this behavior. I let it go for the time being and allowed him to continue on with the day’s lesson, but it continued to eat at me. A few minutes later, I raised my hand and he called on me.

“Yeah, OK…I didn’t want to bring this up before, but I’m Jesus…I’m back.” I told him.

The room fell quiet. There are certain things that you just don’t do in life.  You do not yell “fire” in a crowded theater. You do not say “bomb” on an airplane. You don’t tug on Superman’s cape and you do not claim to be the Son of God if you are a 13-year-old girl attending a Catholic school. I knew that I was treading on dangerous ground and I couldn’t help wondering just how much trouble I could get in for making a statement like that. Still, I knew that there was something wrong with this teacher’s theory and I would not rest until I had made my point.

“No you’re not, Julie,” he told me, his face growing red.

“Oh yes I am,” I countered. “Where is your faith? You aren’t supposed to question it, you are supposed to just follow.”

He tried telling me that I couldn’t be God’s “Son” but I was ready for that argument. “I’m God, I can be whatever I want. Isn’t that what you are always telling us? I know I was a boy before, but….now I am going to get it right and be a girl.” (The girls in my class were delighted with this pronouncement of course.) I told him that if he would like, I would make him an apostle like some of the boys in the class who were known for clowning around. True to form, they rose to the occasion and got behind my new “movement.”

I can’t imagine what was going through my teacher’s head at the time, but I suspected that he would have loved nothing better than to smack me. Looking back on it, I really couldn’t blame him if he did. I was wayyy over the line, even if my comments were justified. I was just so mad that he was promoting blind faith and maligning others for having their reservations.  We ask for proof in every other aspect of our lives, why not this one?

In the end, he could not prove that I was not the daughter of God and eventually he dropped the argument. (The class period was over by then anyway.) Unfortunately he never quite learned that some blanket statements should not be made. A few  years later, my son ended up in his class and came home all excited that his new religion teacher told the class that if they ever had a faith-based question, they could come to him and he would answer it.

“So, he still thinks he has all the answers, does he?” I sighed, feeling that rebellious teenager rise inside of me. “Great, tomorrow I want you to go in there and ask him if Adam and Eve had belly buttons. That will make him squirm”

My son did as he was told and sure enough the teacher took the bait. Of course the whole class was perplexed by the question which prompted a discussion about evolution vs. creationism. Eventually he had to admit that he did not know the answer to my son’s question, but he was fairly confident from where it came. “By the way Chris,” he concluded. “When you get home tonight, please tell your mother I said hello.”

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Confessions of a Cynical Catholic: Who was Jesus Talking to?

JC Gethsemane

Although I have a lot of fond memories from my sixth grade year in Catholic school, one stands out above all others. We had just finished a unit on Hebrew history, culture and traditions and to celebrate the completion of this unit, our teacher decided to host a watered-down Passover meal and invited one of our priests, Fr. Rick to join us and to recite the words that Jesus said during His Last Supper with His friends.

As we passed the loaf around, ripping small portions from it to eat and sipping Hawaiian Punch from minuscule Dixie Cups, Father offered his knowledge about Jewish customs and asked us what we had learned. Near the end of the event, Father said that he had a few minutes to spare and was willing to open the floor to any faith-related question that we might have since it was pretty rare that we ever had the chance to grill a priest on religious matters.

Now as you might expect from a group of 11-year-olds, most of the theological queries were a bit…shallow. Some kids wanted to know if Father was expected to wear black all of the time. Another kid asked if he had a curfew. Some wanted to know if the Pastor of the parish could “ground” him for coming home late or if he could get in trouble for eating dinner with a woman without a chaperone. Worried that I may never have another chance like this again and with time running short, I tentatively put up my hand.

“Yes, Julie?” Father asked.

“Well, I kind of have two questions,” I told him.

He nodded. “That’s fine, go ahead.” I’m sure he was bracing himself for more of the same kinds of things he’d been asked before.

I took a deep breath. “If Jesus was Jewish and the Jewish people do not believe that the Messiah has come yet, how could Jesus believe in Himself?”

The room fell silent and Father stared at me. “Uh-huh…and your second question?”

I sighed. “OK…if Jesus is God and God is Jesus, exactly WHO was Jesus talking to in the Garden of Gethsemane?”

I felt like the world’s biggest blasphemer, but once the words left my mouth, there was nothing I could do about them.

“You’re a very deep thinker, aren’t you?” Father commented like he was amused.

I shrugged. “I guess so.”

For the life of me I cannot remember how he addressed these two critical issues of faith, but I do remember my parents’ reaction when I told them what went down in religion class that day.

“You asked a priest WHAT?” My mother cried at the dinner table. Needless to say she was not a big fan of my calling into question the very foundations of Catholic belief. My dad, on the other hand thought it was great.

“What did he say?” Dad wanted to know. Although he was a man of faith, he always encouraged my questions.

I cupped my chin in my hand and thought about Father’s rationale, which was about 10 years beyond my comprehension…at least. “He had a big ole explanation for it,” I commented, “But I don’t think he really knows either. I guess it is just a question of faith.”

I looked so sad that my father tried taking a crack at the answer, but his logic didn’t make any more sense than Father Rick’s. No matter how many ways he tried to tackle it, it was a concept I couldn’t wrap my brain around. After all, I was baptized and initiated into a religious organization and I understood that part of the process included the acceptance of certain established tenants as one’s own.By believing Himself to be the Messiah, wasn’t He going against the grain a little and running the risk of being excommunicated from the Jewish faith?

As for the other issue, the one about the garden, well…that one was even harder to figure out. Both Father Rick and my dad tried telling me that Jesus was talking to God the Father as if that explained everything, but I wasn’t satisfied.If God and Jesus were one in the same then the whole thing seemed like a pretty pointless conversation. Looking back on it, I guess I was seeking an explanation on the Holy Trinity, not a bunch of biblical mumbo jumbo.

It would be another two years before I “got it.” I saw Jesus Christ Superstar for the first time and fell in love with the song “Gethsemane” in which Jesus flatly says that He wants out. He doesn’t want to die. Though it doesn’t stray too far from the Biblical account, it is devoid of the Shakespearean language and showcases a guy scared out of His wits. This was God trying to talk Himself out of it, wondering if it would all be worth it, asking if submitting to an all-too-human and grisly death would be enough to save these people from themselves and what would happen if it wasn’t? Suddenly, I no longer wondered who Jesus was talking to. I just knew. Andrew Lloyd Weber’s show stopping number solved a mystery my priest and my father couldn’t  explain and gave me an answer that my way-too-human mind could get behind. Although it would not be the last time I would question the faith, it would prove that God will provide the answers in a way that speaks to you when you just “have to know, have to know, my Lord.”








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Confessions of a Cynical Catholic: What to do when Jesus Returns

jesus_communion    It started out as an ordinary Mass on an ordinary Sunday. The only thing outside of the norm was the presence of extra chalices on the little table next to the altar signifying that the Blood of Christ would be distributed at this particular service. While this is customary now, it wasn’t the case back then and it was something of an occasion when a little kid like me got to partake in a dab of wine. To this day I have no clue how my parish determined which Masses would have wine and which ones wouldn’t but needless to say it felt a little like winning a raffle to see the extra cups lined up for the service.

Of course it also meant that there would be extra communion ministers processing in during the entrance all wearing long while robes similar to the kind that the servers wore. This usually meant an extra verse to the entrance song, but I learned early in life that sometimes, you have to take the good with the bad. I was getting to drink illegally, I could handle an extra few measures of “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.”

At the start of the consecration, the Eucharistic ministers all took their places behind Father as he said the prayers over the bread and wine and that’s when I saw….HIM. Standing a little to the left of Father’s shoulder and looking very pious was a young man about 30-something with longish brown hair. He sporting sandals along with a mustache and beard and to be honest, he looked like every picture I had ever seen of, well….HIM. You know who I am talking about. Jesus. Christ. JC, God’s only begotten Son!!

Now, no part of this should have surprised me. I had that rapture-minded softball coach who warned me that this could occur at any time and at any place. I supposed if He was going to come back on that particular day, it made plenty of sense that He wouldn’t start with the Vatican but rather  a random Catholic parish on the East Side of Indianapolis. After all, my world was a LOT smaller when I was eight.

I looked around to see if any of the other parishoners were witnessing the same event that I was but no one seemed to notice. The Second Coming is getting underway, people! I wanted to shout. I was convinced that at any moment, He was going to take over for Father and speak the lines that He made famous during the Last Supper. However, Jesus didn’t do that. He was polite and let Father do his job. Talk about having a servant’s heart!

When the consecration was over and Father passed out the communion bowls and chalices, he handed one of the implements to Jesus but once again, there was no moment of recognition. He must be waiting until announcement time to tell everyone, I thought to myself as I watched Jesus bring His bowl of wafers to my side of the church.

To say that I was flabbergasted is putting it mildly. Jesus was going to give me communion! What would he say, “Body of Me” or go with the usual line? I had no idea but I have to confess I have never been so prayerful as I approached the altar. Looking into His eyes, I don’t know how I got through it, but somehow I did. I went back to my pew and continued confessing every sin I could think of. After all, if I was being taken to paradise, I wanted to be ready. No point in Jesus second guessing His position on me.

Needless to say, “Jesus” never took over the Mass and I left a little disillusioned. I said nothing during the entire ride home and it wasn’t until we pulled into the driveway that I carefully asked my mother, “Did you happen to see that one guy behind Father?”

She didn’t have to ask who I might be referring to. “Yes Julie, I thought he looked like Him too,” she said.

Oddly enough I never saw that particular communion minister again. Perhaps he shaved and cut his hair. Maybe he was visiting. Maybe he was scheduled at other Masses from then on. I have no idea. However, in my quietest moments, I can’t help wondering if maybe, just maybe I saw something extraordinary that day even if no one else wanted to admit it.

Then again, maybe it was the wine.


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Confessions of a Cynical Catholic: “Was that a Trumpet?”

michelangelos-last-judgment-2      As Catholics, we don’t put a lot of stock into creepy Apocalyptic tales found near the end of the Bible. It’s not that we don’t “believe” in it per se, but we tend to think that the Book of Revelation is largely symbolic and written for a first or second century audience. So you can imagine my surprise when my softball coach “enlightened” me about this unique book and told me all about the battle that would get underway shortly after the rapture and what would happen to those who were “left behind.”

I’m not a big fan of scary stories as a general rule, but this one took the cake. During an end-of-season slumber party, my coach told me and a friend all about how the end of the world would come like a thief in the night. She told us that it was entirely possible that Jesus would send his signal,  grab everyone who he wanted regardless of what they were doing at the time and leave the rest of the poor fools standing there with no clue as to what happened. Babies would be spared of course, but when we pressed about what would happen to ordinary grade school kids like us, she wasn’t reassuring. It appeared that one wrong move would cause us to be stuck here on Earth without a prayer, branded with some number and thrown into a fiery pit. Nightmares, anyone?

“Do you believe that?” I asked my friend who like me, was a bit of a night owl and heard the same story.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I know Revelation is kind of creepy, but I’ve never heard any of that.”

“Me either. Do you think she could be wrong?

She shrugged. “I don’t know. She seemed pretty specific about how many people would be taken. I don’t think she could have made that up.”

“What about that movie?” I asked, referring to the hideously made 1970’s A Thief in the Night that churches showed to scare the crap out of their young congregants, including our coach. “Do you think it will happen like that?

“I’m not sure, but I’m here to tell you, I am going to start listening for trumpets,” she told me.

“Me too.”

And  I did. For the next two weeks, I strained to hear Gabriel sound out the beginning of the end and I prayed like never before. I freaked if I came home to an empty house out of fear that my parents had been taken to the Lord while I was left behind with the godless heathens. (Which seemed to include a phenomenal amount of good people! ha ha) Finally, when I lost enough sleep over the whole thing, I told my mother everything and asked her thoughts on the subject.

“Julie, quit listening to that crap,” she said, matter-of-factly.

“But Mom,” I protested. “It’s in the Bible.”

“So is ‘Don’t have sex with goats,'” she mumbled.

“Huh?” I asked, confused.

“Nothing,” she amended. “The point is that you simply can’t worry about all of that stuff. No one knows how the world is going to end or what Jesus will do when He comes back any time soon, but it is a pretty safe bet that you could not have done anything so bad as to keep you out of Heaven.”

I felt a lot better. After all, I trusted my mom’s assessment of Armageddon better than a coach and my father, who was Baptist, just like my coach certainly had never mentioned anything about a rapture so I assumed she was just trying to scare me. It certainly worked, but after talking to my mom, I was over it…

Or so I thought…not long after this event, I would experience something that would convince me that perhaps my softball coach knew more than my mother did. But that’s a story for next week!

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Fabulous Fridays- Fighting the Father, Son and Holy spirit

HolyTrinityWindowLevelled  I am sorry that I have been remiss in my Fabulous Fridays postings, but as some of you know, I have been commissioned to write the Idiots Guide: Catholicism for Pearson.

If this doesn’t prove that God has a sense of humor, nothing does.

I have been a Catholic since I was six-years-old. I have only attended Catholic schools and quite frankly, lacking a habit or holy orders, I thought I was pretty qualified to write this thing…until I realized what I was being asked to do. I was being asked to put the entire body of Church thought into a piece of prose that could be easily understood by the masses.

Am I the only one seeing a problem here?

I can’t help wondering if somewhere in heaven God and Satan have not made another wager on humanity like they did with Job and that somehow I became the pawn they are betting on. In the brief period of time I have been working on this manuscript I have found myself fighting the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in such a way that I would not be a bit surprised if I am not an atheist when this whole thing is over.

My former religion teacher, who is truly one of the most amazing people I have ever met, said that she doubts it and that somehow, she suspects my faith will be even stronger. I hope so, but this sure isn’t easy. Being called to write something on His behalf is a little like being appointed an ambassador of a country you’ve lived in all your life and yet you know nothing about. I have had to define things like “faith” take on the issues of creationism and evolution, struggle with the issue of humanity and divinity where JC is concerned, and try to reel myself back in before going over to the dark side and deciding that we made the whole thing up in order to feel a little less alone in the universe.

On the other hand, I am actually being paid to think about these great mysteries and I have to say, it’s got to be the closet thing to nirvana that I have ever felt. I was the kid in religion class who had all of the questions, “Where did Mrs. Cain come from?” “Exactly WHO was Jesus talking to in the Garden of Gethsemane if not Himeself?”…and now I am charged with offering some answers. it’s a tall order and all I have to say is that I sure hope He knows what He is doing, because quite frankly…I wouldn’t trust me if I were him.

So, for the time being, if my Fab Friday posts are a little hit or miss, just know that I am probably knee deep in some philosophical question that you wouldn’t want me riddling out on here. If you are a person of faith, I am accepting all prayers that I get through this project in one piece and if you are not…I’ll take a simple wish of good luck. I’m pretty easy to get along with. (Don’t ask my family for validation on that, though…they have been known to lie.)

Take care, keep rocking and Fab Fridays will be back in full swing before you know it!!


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Buy It, Borrow It, or Bag It- Killing Jesus By Bill O’Reilly

Killing Jesus     I tried. I really did, but sometimes…maybe there are some subjects that are best left alone. Especially if that subject is none other than the most influential person to have ever lived and whose backstory is less “biographical” and more “biblical.”

Killing Jesus is an attempt to look into the historical life of Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified around the age of 33 under the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Most of what is known about the Jewish carpenter is contained in four books of the New Testament known as the gospels and for the most part, everyone agrees that there are holes in the story that can only be filled by speculation and contextual clues that can be found in historical documents and archeological artifacts of the time period. However, none of the historical documents and archeological clues will conclusively prove (or disprove) who Jesus was and who was ultimately responsible for his downfall. It’s an impossible task and no matter how you approach the story, there will be members of the audience who can and will shoot down any “conspiracy” theory with the theological get-out-of-jail-free-card: “It was God’s will.”

I really wanted to like this book but it was a tedious read made even more difficult by the inclusion of footnotes sometimes longer than the text on the page. I do appreciate that O’Reilly and his co-author Martin Dugard qualify their work by admitting that as devout Catholics, they are well aware of their limitations, but there is so much conjecture and narrative speculation that I lost interest rather quickly. Bag It.

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