Little Catholic — reluctant doubter

Growing up half-Italian in England after the war was one way to be marginalized; trying to be a good Catholic boy in a Protestant country was another. My attempt to reconcile the two helps explain how I went ‘off the tracks,’ as Mum put it. This extract from an early draft of The Novice revisits my bizarre education.

Yes, the slit-eyed angel (left) was once me, but look at the boy on the right, gazing up at Jesus. His back is straight as an arrow, his demeanor demure, his eyes beseeching, his hands pressed tightly together. This was who I should have been. If you ever knew me, you’re laughing your head off by now.

It wasn't that I wanted to be a troublemaker; I just wanted to understand. Let me explain:

On a mission to save their pupils’ souls, the nuns of Saint Michael’s laid out the basics. I learned that the simple event of birth comes with the unavoidable original sin of Adam and Eve. So, expired fetuses and infants couldn’t enter heaven; their best bet was Limbo. Along with the good heathens (not too many), they'd be spared eternal punishment but never see God’s face, poor souls.

Where’s the justice in that? I sensed the question would be unwelcome, but asked anyway. I was told to sit down and be quiet.

I learned more: what washed away original sin and separated hopeless heathens from the elect was baptism, which provided protection until the age of reason. Once we were seven years old, our transgressions would no longer be mere errors, but momentous sins. From then on, we’d need a mechanism to cleanse ourselves regularly; sin is to be expected, even as it’s to be avoided.

That mechanism is communion. It qualifies you for heaven – as long as you die before your next big sin. A venial (little) sin risked purgatory (temporary hell); or, a mortal sin (murder, skipping Sunday mass) got you eternal damnation. Confession removed the sin; communion polished the soul into a state of heaven-worthy grace. Death held no threat for the pure.

I thought of all this as we were prepped for our First Holy Communion. The class was ushered into the school hallway for a practice communion line when a possible loophole occurred to me. “Sister,” I asked, “What if we confess our sins and receive absolution but die before we can take communion. We’re baptised Catholics without a stain on our soul. Surely we don’t have to go to Limbo?”

“I’m sure Saint Peter will let you into heaven,” she said, her mind on other matters.

“So what’s the point of communion?” I asked.

She glared at me. The class was in disorder and other children hadn’t heard my impertinence, much to her relief. “Stephen Schettini – where do you get such notions?” she asked without wanting an answer. “God forbid!” she added. “Get into line now.”

“God forbid what?” I wondered.

Sister pretended to be the priest. She was allowed to handle the communion wafers because they were unconsecrated. A woman could never touch the real body of Christ; once a priest said mass over them they’d be sacred. The sisters were content to be unequal to any priest. They were role models of subservience. “See,” their actions said. “We know our place; know yours.”

I got into line behind Marcus Williams. Sister held out the host and he opened his mouth. “Open a little wider,” she prompted. “Put out your tongue so I can place the host on it. That’s it; keep your head up.”

Marcus was nervous. She had to tell him three times before she got it into his mouth. He put his hands together and walked back to his place with his head down; he was supposed to be full of grace. Now, my turn.

Sister said: “Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi,” and held the host before my face.

I wouldn’t be like Marcus Williams. I threw my head back, opened my mouth wide and stuck out my tongue as far as it would go. Sister pulled the host back and said: “Mr. Schettini, no priest in his right mind would put the body of our Lord into that gaping maw.”


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