1964 epiphany: The day the curtain pulled back
The scales fell from my eyes one day when I was twelve years old, as I looked away from the priest, scanned the appalled faces of the girls seated around me and thought, “Oh, I don’t think so.”
The wisdom I acquired that day didn’t arise from scripture, or from a priest or nun. My moment of awakening, my perverse epiphany, occurred because a girl in my Catholic Confirmation class, Sharon Mahoney, did something that required considerable bravery.
The result was a Wizard-of-Oz moment that changed everything.
We had been behaving ourselves, listening to what Father Mackin had to say about our upcoming Confirmation. The girls in this class of seventh-graders had been obedient for some time, showing up for these preparation classes, nodding in agreement with whatever the priest told us. And since, back then, we knew we’d be headed straight to hell if we missed Sunday Mass, we all showed up for that every week, too.
If there were any questions or doubts, I never heard them. It was 1964, and any challenges to Church authority were subtle or nonexistent.
In second grade, preparing for our First Holy Communion, we were told that the host literally becomes the flesh of Jesus Christ, and that the wine becomes his blood, for real. We listened, we internalized that belief, with scarcely a thought about how utterly bizarre it would be to consume human flesh and blood. It was true because the priest said it was true. Good enough for us. (The obvious conclusion, that we were engaging in cannibalism, never occurred to us.)
And then there was that Saturday morning Confirmation class. The girls were separated from the boys for these classes. (We never questioned that, either.) Father Mackin was telling the girls what paths in life are acceptable in the eyes of God. He said we had just two career choices, as we approached womanhood: We could be mothers, or we could be nuns.
Dolt that I was, I was passively taking all this in, mentally checking off the “mother” box.
That’s when Sharon Mahoney raised her hand and begged to differ.
Bear in mind that Father Mackin was a formidable presence at St. Thomas of Villanova. Rotund, with a few strands of white hair combed over the top of his head, Father Mackin could command everyone’s attention with his fire-and-brimstone sermons. His face often turned totally red in the passion of the pulpit.
I can recall, through the years, hearing in his sermons three different ways that his Aunt Minnie died. One involved drowning, and being found with the imprint of her rosary’s crucifix in the palm of her hand. Poor Aunt Minnie also perished in a fire and in a car accident. In all three scenarios, Minnie was headed for glory, because she died wearing her devotional scapular.
Father Mackin represented the hand of God in our parish, and to cross him was unthinkable. You can bet that no one ever called him on his Aunt Minnie’s multiple deaths.
On that warm spring day we sat in Villanova Hall, in our metal folding chairs on the scratched oak floor, with the French doors behind Father Mackin– doors that led to the inner hall, where we couldn’t wait to attend CYO dances once we entered high school. Even now, decades later, I can close my eyes and inhabit that scene.
Father Mackin had just given us our two acceptable career paths when Sharon slowly raised her hand.
“But, Father, I don’t think that’s right. I’ve heard about women who don’t have children, and they aren’t nuns. Women who go to Africa and help sick children, and bring food to hungry people there. There’s nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with living a good life and helping people. We don’t have to be just a mother or a nun. I don’t believe that.”
I held my breath and waited for the verbal torrent that would surely follow.
Without a trace of anger, Father Mackin slowly shook his head and told Sharon she was mistaken. Nun or mother. Those are the choices. No rage. Merely dismissal.
Suddenly, we were glancing around the room, each of us wondering whether we were the only one who was incensed by this. Had we dared, I suspect we all would have muttered something along the lines of “What a crock.”
And if the specified career paths for women were ridiculous, what else about the Church was ridiculous? Well, being tortured in hell for all eternity for skipping Mass and not being sorry about it – that suddenly qualified for the “ridiculous” list.
This moment marked the end of my life as a hook-line-and-sinker Catholic. Revisionist thoughts raced through my mind as I realized God had given me a brain with which to decide what is real, and what is a crock.
From that moment on, I saw the Catholic Church as, essentially, a men’s club, where any rules they dreamed up did not apply to me.
Nevertheless, I still wanted to please my parents (it was, after all, 1964), so I wore the red beanie and long white robe, along with my classmates, and accepted the oil cross on my forehead and the bishop’s hand on my cheek.
The Catholic Church could technically count me as part of their flock for a few decades after my epiphany, because I was married in the Church (by Father Mackin) and we raised our kids as Catholics.
But if the truth be told, from the moment Sharon Mahoney made her declaration, my heart was no longer in it. I knew that I was free to decide, without penalty of eternal damnation, how to live my life.
The Church was suddenly superfluous in my life, and Father Mackin now appeared to be about as powerful as the Wizard of Oz, frantically manipulating the controls to the smoke and illusion from behind his curtain.
Once that curtain is pulled back, it’s over.
Janis Jaquith writes for (but doesn't have a face for) radio.Read more on: catholic church