I considered myself a Catholic until age 20. My mom’s family has been Catholic on both sides for as far back as anyone can trace. I was baptized as a baby, I had my first Communion at age 7, and I went to catechism (somewhat analogous to Sunday school in other branches of Christianity, but not on Sundays) through most of elementary school. But I always found church somewhat boring. I typically went to Mass once or twice per month. I stopped going to catechism around age 12, mostly because the other students were just as mean to me as the other students in school. I never went through confirmation as a teenager. I made an effort to go to Mass every week once I started college, and I continued this for another two years, when I began attending an evangelical church.
I still go to Mass once a year, on Christmas. This is because I am always with my Catholic family on Christmas. This year, I also attended Mass with Mom the weekend after Christmas, since I was still visiting my family at the time. As I said, I found Catholic Mass boring as a child, but as an adult, I don’t find it nearly as boring. The primary reason is that now I understand what is going on.
Catholicism has a lot of interesting reputations among people who aren’t Catholics. One that tends to come up often among other Christians is that Catholic Masses involve a lot of elaborate rituals, as opposed to a more personal relationship with God among evangelicals and mainline Protestants. This is definitely true, there are elaborate rituals in a Catholic Mass, but this does not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive with knowing God personally. The Catholic rituals and prayers have their roots in deep and meaningful worship experiences. The candles and incense and elaborate stained glass windows create a mood of reverence to honor God, his Holy Scriptures, and the presence of Christ in the bread and wine, as Catholics believe. Many of the words in the Catholic prayers and songs come directly from the Bible. “Glory to God in the highest” — these were the words of the angels in Bethlehem the night Jesus was born (Luke 2:14). “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna! [Save!]” — these were the words of the crowds when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (Matthew 21:9; Mark 11:9; John 12:13).
I understand this as an adult, now that I have learned more about the Bible and about the history of Christianity. But that begs the question… why did I not know this before? And why do so many people lack so much knowledge about what they believe? Of course, I may have learned some of this eventually had I continued with catechism and confirmation. And I probably would have continued with catechism and confirmation had I not felt bullied and ignored at church. My mom taught catechism and confirmation for many years, and she often had stories of students who were only there because their parents made them go, with no effort or involvement from the students or their parents. These were the kind of students who bullied me. And I don’t mean to criticize my catechism teachers, but I don’t remember any of them really making an effort to reach out to me, at least in the way that some of my regular school teachers did. (Not all, but some.)
This is not just about Catholicism. I know many people who claim to be adherents of a particular religion, yet they do not always know or understand core tenets of what they say they believe. As a result of this, their lives do not show that they have been transformed by their belief systems. This results in inaccurate perceptions and stereotypes of certain religious belief systems. I don’t have children, and I imagine it is quite difficult to find the balance of teaching children accurate truths about one’s belief system, in an age-appropriate manner, while not watering it down to the point of losing its meaning. But parents and faith communities who want their children to have their lives transformed in the same way that the lives of the adults have been must find a way to do this.