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Above: In my First Holy Communion white suit with my brother Stephen and my parents. My father was about to turn 63 and my mom (here channeling her best Jacqueline Kennedy look) would soon be 27.

When I teach James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, my students view the rigorous religious upbringing of the protagonist Stephen Dedalus as of some exotic and strange and distant time and place. But my upbringing was much the same until the Roman Catholic Church changed dramatically starting in the early to mid-'60s. It was at that point that Pope John XXIII introduced the Second Vatican Council. Here is the Wikipedia blurb about this historical moment:

The Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, commonly known as the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, was the 21st ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church. The council met in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome for four periods (or sessions), each lasting between 8 and 12 weeks, in the autumn of each of the four years 1962 to 1965...The council was opened on 11 October 1962 by John XXIII (pope during the preparation and the first session), and was closed on 8 December 1965 by Paul VI (pope during the last three sessions, after the death of John XXIII on 3 June 1963).

Pope John XXIII called the council because he felt the Church needed “updating” (in Italian: aggiornamento). In order to connect with 20th-century people in an increasingly secularized world, some of the Church's practices needed to be improved, and its teaching needed to be presented in a way that would appear relevant and understandable to them. Many Council participants were sympathetic to this, while others saw little need for change and resisted efforts in that direction...Vatican II was record-breaking. "[Its features] are so extraordinary [...] that they set the council apart from its predecessors almost as a different kind of entity":[2] its massive proportions,[3] its international breadth,[4] the scope and variety of issues it addressed,[5] its style,[6] and the presence of the media.[7] Its impact on the Church was huge.

Above: St. Peter's Basilica

But prior to the implemented changes, the masses I went to were said in Latin, with the priest largely facing the altar--not the churchgoers. In school, we learned many hymns in Latin. Nowadays, one needs to abstain from food or drink for only an hour before receiving Holy Communion. Prior to that, it was three hours, and when I was a young boy, one needed to refrain from eating twelve hours before, meaning that one had a large incentive to attend early mass on Sunday. It was not uncommon to see people in church feeling faint or lightheaded because they needed sustenance. We ate no fish on Fridays, and we gave up pleasures during Lent. Self-abnegation and sacrifice were important elements in being a young Catholic.

One day, my first-grade teacher, Sister Christian, reminded us that our Guardian Angels were always by our sides, silently and invisibly sheltering us from the “occasion of sin” (as they put it). How lucky I was to have this spiritual protector!  I imagined mine in all white robes with flowing, flaxen locks, sword and shield, ready to do battle with Lucifer’s minions. My teacher suggested one day that we might show our appreciation by shifting a little over in our desks (you know those minuscule wooden desks for first graders) to make room for our angels to sit comfortably. I thought my angel certainly deserved a bit of a break after his round-the-clock watch on my behalf, and never satisfied with half measures, I shoved myself over so far and stayed pressed against the metal support bar so long that later that afternoon when I took off my uniform I could still see the inverse imprint of some iron foundry in Ohio tattooed on my thigh. As I crawled into bed that night, inspired by the earlier events of the day, I thought my Guardian Angel could catch a little shuteye while I was sleeping, so I moved over in my twin bed to give him 40 winks.  I even gave him the big half of the bed. But I remained troubled.  Weren’t Jesus, Mary, and Joseph also deserving of consideration?  Listening to me praying to them all day must be hard work! So, I scooted over to my now 20% of the mattress and made plenty of space for my superiors.  Even then, it felt insufficient.  Who was I to deny sleeping quarters to the twelve apostles?  Especially Peter. After all, it was upon this rock that the church itself was founded.  It must have been really awkward for Mary at this point, but what did I know? It might seem to you that I was a little naïve about my faith. You may even think my sacrifice a little disturbing, but sporting my baseball pajamas I quite innocently tucked in the sheets on both sides of my bed as firmly as I could and the next morning when my mother came in to wake me for school, she found me wrapped cocoon style dangling over the side of the bed in some sort of pupae stage. I trust my guests slept soundly.

We were asked to recite by rote the answers to the questions in our catechism. Chapter by chapter we reviewed this material in religion class and were expected to stand up when called and confirm our beliefs verbatim.

Here is a section from the beginning of our catechism. So, my teacher would say something like: "Douglas, why did God make us?" And I would rise and say from memory "God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven." And then I would sit down and await the next question. I guess a reasonable parallel today would be found with those of the Jewish faith preparing for their Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah.

Some of the teachings carried with them the potential for a lot of guilt feelings. The presence of sin, both venial and mortal, seemed to be everywhere. The phrase "the occasion of sin" means that even the possibility of temptation should be acknowledged and avoided. Today, a comparable parallel can be seen in former VP Mike Pence, whose faith prohibits him from being in the same room if a woman is the only other person in the room. I remember once when I got home a couple of minutes late for dinner and my mom asked where I had been. I had ridden my bike to a sweet shop in order to check out the new comic books at the front of the store and had looked at them just a little too long. My mom asked me if they had pinball machines in the store, and I said I thought there was one in the back. Just the prospect of me being around a pinball machine (that's how young hoodlums got their start, you know--playing pinball) prompted my mom to take away my bicycle for a month. The occasion of sin.

According to the Church, what constitutes a grievous offense--a mortal sin--might surprise people today. Most people seem to think that one must initiate a serious offense to warrant a charge of committing a mortal sin (one that if you have it on your soul when you die will send you to Hell for all eternity). But that was not the case. Look at the designations below:

You can see in question # 69 that there are three components to a mortal sin. Notice that even thinking about a serious offense without trying to rid your mind of it constitutes a mortal sin. In other words, if I imagined, as I was going through puberty, the physical pleasures I might experience with the girl in the next row or movie bombshell Raquel Welch, and I took pleasure in those thoughts, I would be in a serious state of sin and would need to high-tail it to Confession! We were constantly warned about the potential for sin everywhere, and in my catechism, a particular illustration laid on the guilt big time:

I think even the Church viewed this drawing as a little over the top in its graphic imagery as it was removed from later editions. Ultimately, I tried to follow the right path and was wracked with guilt if I did something wrong (as all people do).

I firmly believed in all this simply because adults told me what to believe, and adults were always right.  Once, I was invited to a neighbor child’s birthday party.  My hair Brylcreemed back and my suit freshly pressed, I arrived bearing a gift.  When I entered the house, I was startled by how dark it was and how unusual and exotic the smells were that emanated from the kitchen.  It was nothing like my house. There were twelve children in this family, a sizable dog and cat sanctuary, and that’s before we tallied the guests and relatives.  My dad always referred to the place as a menagerie.  I stood paralyzed in a fog. I looked over to one side of the living room, and there in a plush wing chair sat an uncle, smoking a Lucky Strike, eyeing me up and down.  My stomach dropped when he beckoned me with the crook of his finger. The dim lamp light distorted his face.  But he was an adult.  I had to obey.  As I stood before him, he gave me a command.  “Open your mouth.”  This was troubling, but I did.  “Wider. Stick out your tongue. Come closer.”  He put down his cigarette, clasped me by my shoulders, and peered down my throat. “Ah-ha!” he exclaimed. “You’re a liar!”  I was stunned.  “No, I’m not.” “Oh, yes you are,” he insisted.  “I can see black spots in your mouth and throat. There’s one for each lie. Obviously you lie a lot.” I was aghast. I couldn’t wait for this interminable party to end. When it did, I rushed home and waited until my parents were in the kitchen.  I sneaked into their bedroom and opened up my father’s chest of drawers, where I found his flashlight.  I ran into the bathroom and locked the door.  With the lights out, I turned on the flashlight and opened my mouth wide.  In the mirror, I saw teeth and gums but no black spots.  I needed to check my mouth from a higher angle, so I climbed up on the counter next to the basin.  I opened my mouth so wide that it hurt, and tried to get the proper angle for the flashlight beam.  I could see my uvula dangling in the back like a deflated punching bag and the odd molar—but no black spots.  But they must be there. An adult had told me so.  They must be too far back in my throat to see.   What if my parents noticed them?  Dinner was an ordeal.  I ate so many rolls that night! I was petrified that my secret would get out.  For two weeks I went to bed trying to identify anything that could pass for a lie. Had I given an inaccurate excuse for being late to class? Had I really finished all my homework when I told my mom I was done? Eventually the anxiety wore off, but I had no doubt that I was in the wrong. I was, indeed, a liar and I had been shamed. If I didn’t go to confession before I died, I was going to hell for all eternity….and eternity is a very long time.

The great poet Philip Larkin discussed this obliquely in his poem "This Be the Verse". Excuse the language.

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had And add some extra, just for you. But they were fucked up in their turn By fools in old-style hats and coats, Who half the time were soppy-stern And half at one another’s throats. Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can, And don’t have any kids yourself.


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