What is Catholicism?

IMG_1217Disclaimer: I will not be able to answer that question in the span of this post, or in any span anywhere, at least not right now. Perhaps a year from now (perhaps ten) I will have a better sense of what the religion is all about. At that time, I will write an addendum to this post, entitled: “What Catholicism is.” Until then, we stick to question marks and confusion. 

A lot of my friends are Catholic. In fact, three of the six girls I lived with my freshman year were practicing Catholics. My best friend, who does not identify with a religion, and I used to joke that we would write a sitcom called “Our Life With Catholics.” Things like advent and lent needed explanation. We found ourselves eating alone (together) on Sundays because the other girls were at 10 am mass. We were the lone agnostics, possessing not an ounce of religious interest. Welp, for one P.J. Fitzgerald, that agnosticism has taken a turn for the Eucharist.*

That’s right, folks, yours truly has decided to launch herself into a religious awakening. I’m taking this year to discover new parts of myself and the world, and religion seemed like a pretty solid way to learn, to meet, and to connect. So why Catholicism? Between the heat that it’s been getting in the media, and the excitement over Pope Francis, it seems to be the religion of the hour. Neither of these affected my decision, however. Rather, I chose Catholicism because I was baptized Catholic at the ripe age of three weeks old, and I’ve been to approximately ten Catholic services in my twenty-one years of life, so it seemed the most natural choice. Plus, next to Judaism, the Catholic student community at ****** is the most pronounced. Perhaps most importantly, my brother got me a rosary bracelet and a necklace of the Franciscan cross when he went to the Vatican last year. I like wearing them, and it didn’t seem right to wear them ignorant of their symbolism.

So, how exactly am I plunging into Catholicism? “Plunging” may be a bit presumptuous a term. It’s more like I’m standing knee deep in the lake of Catholicism looking around for shiny stones beneath the surface. But, hey, this is a blog, there’s room to dance with exaggeration–I like to waltz with the what-if, do the pachanga with impossible. So for excitement’s sake, let’s say I’m plunging into the Catholic religion. The first step in this process, after deciding that I wanted more God-time, was to attend mass. As I mentioned, I’ve gone to church about a dozen times in the span of my life. My grandmother’s side of the family attends regularly, though, so I have had some exposure to Catholicism despite spending my Sundays watching cartoons instead of reciting scripture. I had the basic terminology, words like, priest and confession and Catholic guilt and holy bible and even communion and confirmation were not wholly unfamiliarCould I explain the last two terms to you? Probably not. But I know Hallmark has a whole section of cards with little folds in them that read “insert cash here,” so that when you attend a celebration of either event you have an easy way to transfer a crisp twenty dollar bill, and congratulations, of course. Needless to say, I have a lot to learn.

For anyone who has not attended a Catholic mass, it’s important to know that there is a lot of sitting, standing, kneeling, singing, raising-of-one’s-arms, and greeting-of-neighbors. It’s not a passive hour, rather every minute is packed with some sort of movement or prayer. I am slowly but surely learning how to enter pews and wish my Catholic peers peace at the appropriate moments. I hope to soon know the words to the regular songs & prayers, because I know my friends hear me trail off into vague mumbling half way through the “Our Father.” But looking back, one of my first exposures to the Catholic church was a horrifying and traumatizing experience, so it’s been pretty easy to let the little mishaps slide by, mostly unnoticed.

Throwback to 2000: My great grandmother had just passed away. We were in the front pew, it being my mother’s grandmother and all. The priest held up the Eucharist and a cup of wine and said, “This is the blood and body of Christ.” I was a queasy seven year old, and had not been to church for a good five years, so this announcement, that a man in robes was holding someone’s body and blood, put me in a state of shock, awe, and mass discomfort. So uncomfortable that my own blood vanished from my face and I slumped down into my mother’s lap. My  mother responded like any mother does when their child faints; she freaked out. Smelling salts were acquired…I was out cold. When I reawakened, the whole family applauded, nervously? I ran outside and puked in the parking lot, all but missing my black “funeral shoes.” One would think that public humiliation of this kind would be hard to top. But, one has not met PJ Fitzgerald…

I mentioned religious vocabulary earlier. Well, we can stick the word pallbearer in the column entitled: Words for PJ to Learn. My very Catholic friend sent me a text message which read, “I’m going to be a pallbearer on Wednesday. This should be a very moving experience.” Now, despite owning a smartphone and being an individual who generally likes to learn new things, I did not look up this word, and rather just assumed its meaning. I thought it was someone who carried flags at mass or like, I don’t know, helped the Priest with something-or-other. So, I responded to the text with the following, “I don’t know quite what that is, but woot!” He pings back quickly, “A pallbearer carries the casket at a funeral.” (⊙_⊙) Oh my god. Face palm. Face palm. Face palm. What an idiot, here I was saying “woot!” as if he had just scored an extra bag of chips from the vending machine, when really he was telling me that he was going to be carrying his great grandfather’s dead body. I tried to redeem myself with about 15 apologetic text messages, but he decided it would be better to share this delightful tale with all of our friends this week at mass. My face returned to that same, seven-year-old pale, and I coined a new acronym for myself: NRBG, or, Never Respond Before Googling. This, friends, is how we learn what words like pallbearer mean. Piece by piece, word by word, homily by homily, I will come closer to the meaning of Catholicism, or at least my interpretation of it.


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