Monday, September 7, 2009

Religion vs. Faith

At this point in my family history, I feel that I must discuss this topic. I can still remember in the 5th Grade when the nun who taught us religion drew this family tree of religions to prove to us that since the Catholic religion was first, that we could conclude that it was the "one true faith." I also remember that same year that the nun made it very clear to me that I had "misunderstood" when I said my parents, one Protestant and one Catholic, were married during a Mass at their wedding. This is the first time I really understood about the supposed "problems" associated with a "mixed marriage." That's when a Catholic marries a non-Catholic -- at least that's what the term meant in the 1950s.

I was confused. Yes, my Dad was not Catholic, but that had no meaning for me. He attended Mass every Sunday with his family, belonged to the Holy Name Society at Nativity and worked all of the time to afford Catholic High School tuition. He was more "Catholic" than most "Catholics". Yet the nuns succeeded in making me feel that somehow my parents' marriage didn't quite measure up.

Dad's Mom, Norine, was very Catholic. St. Rose Church was her rock. I'm told that the Church was named in honor of St. Rose, the patron saint of seamstresses. Jan loved to sew. Rosemary even told me she was "named after the Church." On the other hand, Pop was a Protestant, Episcopalian I believe, although Dad claimed to be Presbyterian. How did that work, I wondered, because my Dad had to sign papers agreeing to raise any children Catholic. So why wasn't Dad raised Catholic?

This is where I would love it if those who read this post would leave a comment, because I'm telling the story as I know it. I'm sure your recollection is different from mine -- just as being the oldest in my family made my life experiences and recollections totally different from those of the younger members of my family.

This is the story as I recall it. Jan and Pop were married by the priest at St. Rose Church. Since Pop was not Catholic, they had to get a "dispensation" to be married in the Church. I've got a copy of the Church record where you can see they were given the required dispensation -- if you can read Latin that is.



Only someone raised Catholic can understand how they drum it into you how important it is to have a baby baptized as soon as possible. They used to teach us that babies who died before they were baptized went to "limbo" -- a place that was neither heaven nor hell, where the unbaptized innocents would remain for all eternity. I understand that recently the Church dropped the idea of limbo. So Jan, being a woman of strong faith, took her first-born Edith down to the Catholic Church to have her baptized. The Zins, from whom they rented, were the sponsors.

The way I remember the story, Pop was not happy about this. He wouldn't even have been so opposed to the baptism, but objected to not having much of a say about it. They then came to an agreement that all boys born of the marriage would be raised Protestant, and all girls would be raised Catholic. The score ended up being two Catholics and three Protestants.

When my Mom and Dad got married, Dad obviously had no negative feelings about Catholics -- his mother and two sisters were Catholic. From his point of view it was more important to go to Church as a family. And that we did.

Being Catholic was just the way it was. I was born into it. No room for or need for questions. But at the old age of 60, I guess I've realized how often someone's faith is not a matter of choice, but an accident of birth. In doing genealogy, I discovered that my husband Bill's grandmother was Catholic and disowned by her family for marrying "out of the Church." Bill, who long ago chose to convert to Judaism, is still thought of as "really being a Catholic" by my Aunt Evelyn because his grandmother was. Bill didn't even know he had Catholic roots until he was 67 years old, so how does that make sense.

In the process of discovering all of my roots, it is clear that I have a strong Catholic heritage. The Ryans, Cronins, Daileys, and Proberts were all Irish Catholic. The von der Heides were German Catholic, an accident of geography following the Thirty Years Wars between the Protestants and Catholics in Germany. One peace treaty required that everyone within a given district had to follow the same faith as the ruler. It just so happens that the majority of northwest Germany is Lutheran, with the exception of Oldenburger-Munsterland from whence my ancestors came. We could have just as easily been Lutherans.

On my family tree I've found Methodists, Episcopalians, Catholics and several other religions. In my own family, several family members have chosen to go a different direction than the Catholicism they were born into. I'm sure that was challenging for my parents given the times in which they were raised. But in my old age, I guess I'm more comfortable with the idea of "faith" vs. "religion". I feel there is more than one path to God and that a faith that is meaningful to the believer is the most important thing. Faith should never be reduced to an accident of birth, but rather be something actively chosen by the person.

Jan used to love the hymn "What a Friend We Have in Jesus", and hearing it would bring tears to my Dad's eyes. He always felt the connection to his mother when he heard it. I guess I'm just happy to have had ancestors of "faith" who passed on strong values to all of us -- including respect and tolerance. And by the way Sister Mary Alice, my parents were married at a Mass.

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