Religiosity was a casual thing in my family. The only time my parents went to church was to attend weddings and funerals and the only apparent concession to their Roman Catholic upbringing was to abstain from eating meat on Fridays.
My religious education may very well have been non-existent but for the fact that the school system in Ontario during the forties was neatly divided (in the primary grades at least) between Catholic and Protestant denominations. It naturally followed that when it came time to attend school in St. Catharines I was to be enrolled at St. Joseph’s, the only Catholic school in the neighbourhood.
St Joseph’s was run by an order of nuns who dedicated their entire lives to teaching. They wore the traditional black habit with a starched white collar and a huge set of beads draped around their neck. These devoted sisters created an environment that was a perfect blend of love and firm discipline. Their passion mixed with an ever-present sense of humour guaranteed that learning would be a joy for everyone. The one exception was catechism, which to me seemed somewhat detached from the world I lived in.
Each day our class was assigned a few questions on religion, along with prescribed answers that had to be memorized word for word. The following day Sister Mary Rudolf would verbally test a few in the class in what seemed like a random fashion. If you were chosen and couldn’t answer correctly, you were in trouble. One day I brazenly tried to fake the answer to a question that wasn’t familiar to me. “Jules, you didn’t do the assignment did you”. I had to sheepishly confess that she was right. “What, pray tell, was so important in your busy life that you couldn’t take a few minutes to study yesterdays lesson”? I knew better than to offer up some lame excuse because Sister Mary Rudolf with her perverse sense of humour was sure to turn any reply I might make into a sarcastic comment and all the class would laugh. Better to just slink off to the cloak room at the back of the room and wait with the other boys for our predictable punishment. At the end of class Sister Mary Rudolf would administer a single perfunctory smack with a hard rubber strap to each outstretched palm and that was the end of it. The whole ritual struck me as mildly amusing but I suspect poor Eddy didn’t think it was funny. He never seemed to have the right answers and he would get the strap at least once a week. I can’t say whether it served any purpose except perhaps to scare the girls into doing their homework. Girls never got the strap.
Every Sunday morning we were obliged to attend mass where Father Podolsky would drone on in Latin for what seemed like an eternity. I can remember kneeling, then sitting, more kneeling then standing and on and on it would repeat. Totally boring, but this exercise did serve to keep me from falling asleep.
About once a month Father Podolsky would pay a visit to our school. He was greeted with much enthusiasm and excitement for we knew that he would regale us with stories from his native Poland. Each story contained a lesson about the importance of honesty, hard work, compassion and self discipline but the best part was when he would play the role of some historical figure from the past. Sometimes he would get willing class mates to help act out a scene that brought to life some notable event that changed the course of history. The one I remember best was when Father Podolsky donned a loose fitting gown and proclaimed that it was 325 B.C. in Athens and he was Socrates. As his followers we were encouraged to ask lots of questions. Father Podolsky loved teaching philosophy and rarely did he make any reference to religion.
The minutiae of catholic teachings were left entirely to the sisters who did their best to inculcate us by repetitious rote or by force if necessary. To me it was pretty boring stuff; until one day; one day we were introduced to sin.
We learned that there were two broad categories of sin. There was venial sin and there was mortal sin. Just about everyone, except for saints was bound to commit a venial sin from time to time but not to worry; you could easily be returned to a state of grace. This stain on your soul could be expunged by confessing to Father Podolsky and he would order you to do ten ‘Hail Mary’s’ and ten ‘Our Fathers’ and you were returned to state of grace.
But! If you should die with a venial sin on your soul before confessing it, you may have to spend some unspecified time in Purgatory. Your time in Purgatory depended on the nature of your sin and how many credits you may have accumulated throughout your life on earth. Apparently, time in Purgatory could be almost as bad as hell but eventually with penance, prayer, and as I understood it a measure of divine luck, ultimately, you would still end up in heaven.
Glorious heaven where you would be united with all your loved ones and your soul would float around in a state of bliss for all eternity. Sister, I asked, how about my pet Fox Terrier? What would heaven be without my very bestest friend? At first, it sounded rather hopeful that Jackie could be there too, but when I enquired about the rest of all the dogs and cats that inhabit this world and the various animals we eat on a regular basis the answer was less clear.
And then there was mortal sin! According to Catholic doctrine if you should die with a mortal sin on your soul you were doomed to burn in the fires of hell for all eternity. Having just burnt my finger with a match a couple of days before, I tried to imagine what it must be like to have your whole body engulfed in flames forever and ever. Surely, hell is reserved exclusively for the most degenerate criminals who have committed some unspeakable evil deed, a sin so heinous that our innocent young minds could not even comprehend.
Remembering Father Podolsky’s dictum to question everything and to think for ourselves, I raised my hand and asked. “Sister would you please give us a few examples” of mortal sin. Sister Mary Rudolf begins to rhyme off a list of horrific crimes that qualify as mortal sins. Hey wait a minute; did I hear our dear sister Mary Rudolf say that deliberately avoiding mass on Sunday is a mortal sin? “Sister how could that be” I ask with obvious incredulity? She repeats in a firm, authoritative voice. “Yes class if any of you should die with a mortal sin on your soul you are bound for hell”. Not quite satisfied with her answer, I offer up a hypothetical scenario. “Suppose next Sunday my parents decide, we would go as a family on a picnic and since they plan to leave early, we shall all miss mass”. “On the way to Niagara Falls we are all killed in a terrible car accident”. “Would we all go to hell”? “No Jules if your intention was to go to mass but your parents insisted you accompany them on that picnic you would be spared but your parents may not”. I tried to imagine my parents burning in hell forever and not being there when I went to heaven and I wondered if my parents were aware of this terrible fate that hung over them. “Sister I have one more question”. “What if I did want to go on that picnic and I died in that car accident”. “Would I go to hell”? Sister Mary Rudolf looked a little flustered. After a long pause she approached, put her arms around me, and whispered. “Jules we would pray for you but since you are a confirmed Catholic and can decide things for yourself, the catechism is clear, you would most likely go to hell”. How could that be I asked myself? I am only eleven, all my life I have been a pretty good boy, yet if I chose one Sunday to miss mass I would burn in hell forever. How absurd!
The seeds of doubt were firmly planted. From now on, I would view every religious doctrine with profound scepticism. So began a lifelong pursuit of knowledge that could shed light on mysteries that have challenged sages and scholars for millennia. I appreciate that Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin and Einstein are but a few of the great thinkers who dared to challenge conventional wisdom and have forever altered our understanding of the world we live in.
Today, science has shown to all with a modicum of curiosity that the earth is but a tiny, insignificant speck in the universe. It was formed over billions of years and all life upon it evolved from simple state to complex without divine intervention. To me this represents a revolutionary emergence from archaic ignorance into a realm more intricate, more sensible, and far more wondrous than anyone could have imagined just a few short centuries past.
As for my religiosity, I have studied the tenets and quirks of all the major religions and their many offshoots. I respect that religion can be a comfort to many and most contain worthwhile lessons by which to live life, but as a fount of wisdom attempting to explain the origin, the why and the how of humanity on earth, it is all muddled myth.
I enjoy with gratitude every day that unfolds and I accept with equanimity that there is no life after death. There may very well be a god but I cannot fathom any such concept and no; I do not expect to go hell.