Just as we were parking our car the anxiety waves started. I could feel them from across the street where a small group was gathering in the dark in front of a sign that clearly stated “Parish Office.” Nobody was talking to anyone else and trying not to stare at each other. Two groups were being defined: we were all either Catholic or trying not to be found out that we weren’t Catholic.
This particular adventure started a few years ago when my son was born. I kept having dreams where my Great Grandmother was trying to talk me into baptizing my new baby. In the dream we finally settled on the agreement that if I were to ever have a girl I would baptize both our children. I left satisfied and sure I would never have a girl and she walked off with a smug smile. This dream was reoccurring over and over the next few years. I finally pitched the idea to my husband and his response was “Sure, why not.” And closely followed by a concerned, “will it be a problem that I am not Catholic?”
I had a girl. Now here I am standing in a parking lot pulling her out of our car while she cries like a banshee.
The first step to being baptized I found out was both parents and the godparents have to attend a “class” about baptism. My brother and his wife are the godparents. My brother is like me and was raised strict Catholic. We were scooted off to church every Saturday (sometimes Sunday), attended catechism (a supplemental bible school for Catholic children), tried to avoid the looks and hisses when we crossed ourselves before prayer with our “Christian” friends, and tried to not fall asleep while attending Mass. I was recovering nicely from my childhood experience and hadn’t remembered the tension of Catholic gatherings until now.
My husband and sister-in-law, however, are not Catholic. My husband admits that all he knows about Catholicism he discovered in the riveting Dan Brown novels: The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons.
We stood outside the office for an awkward minute before the teachers of the class directed us across the street over to the school. Apparently there was some sort of communication error and we were all locked out of the original meeting place. Once inside the school I began my count of Virgin Mary’s – one statue at the base of the stairs, one hiding in a picture above the door, one on a small card in the room. YES! Three in under thirty seconds! I hadn’t lost my touch.
Sorry, this a little game I play with myself: the first religious figure I see I try to find three more of the same as quickly as possible. The game gets really hard when the first one you see is Saint Francis of Assi. Secretly I sometimes cheat and pretend I didn’t see him.
The class begins and the married couple teaching the class introduce themselves and we all begin to introduce ourselves. I could tell the Catholics from the non-Catholics right away. The non-Catholics were nervously darting their eyes around the room as if they weren’t sure whether they should instantly give up their opposing religious position or pretend a bit longer for the sake of the Catholic friend or family member. I had two non-Catholic attending and as a bigger transgression both my brother and I had been non-practicing Catholics for a very long time. We had a very good reason to be nervous and yet we were by far the least nervous in the room.
It was easy to tell those of us who were born Catholics in the room, because we all looked guilty. Also we were all staring off into the distance. I was expecting a droning zombie like “Amen” to simultaneously blurt from each of our lips when we finished each prayer.
Ella, my daughter, either had sensed the tension in the room or was struck by the power of the Holy Spirit and was letting out random and yet inappropriate cooing noises. Under any other situation I would have described the noises as cute. Every once in a while she would let out a loud grunt like she was trying to test the boundaries of her empty diaper. Usually the grunts would coincide with the mention of “Jesus our Lord and Savior” remarks. It was like her own little baby drinking game except instead of taking a drink she was threatening a bit more and I prayed for the first time in ten years that she wouldn’t follow through with her intention. Tyler eagerly offered to walk with her over near the door. I think he just wanted to be closer to an escape if the opportunity arose. I gladly gave her over; a lady over in the corner of the room kept giving me the evil eye. I wasn’t sure if it was the fact my baby wouldn’t keep quiet or she too was worried about my baby disrupting the air quality in the room. Ella continued to speak in tongues over by the door, but it was now not as noticeable.
A nice couple asked all the questions my husband was burning to ask, but was afraid to because it would definitely give him away as a non-Catholic. “Do we have to tip the priest/deacon?” “How much?” “What should everyone wear?” Followed by endless questions as to how the ritual would be performed, who says what where, will they ask me for proof that I am Catholic or not? Ok, they didn’t ask the last one, but the questions were so innocently asked and it was obvious that neither parent nor the Godparent attended Church, ever. At the end of the class the teachers passed around a sheet of paper for everyone to write their name and number and this particular couple paused when the sheet got to them. The dad suspiciously poised his hand with the pen above the paper and narrowed his eyebrow as he asked, “What is this for?” But what I really heard in his body language translated into “uh, shoot… you aren’t going to call my house and check up on me and make sure I take my child to church every week are you?”
By the way, contrary to popular belief Catholics are not as strict as they would lead the general public to believe. The fact our party was only fifty percent Catholic was not a problem when I signed up for the class. I think this is in the hopes that someday you remember that they let you into their special club with obvious handicaps and either give a generous donation or slowly wear you away until one day you are bringing up the Gifts in Mass and wondering how you became a “regular” again.
Soon the class was over. And in less than forty-five minutes! A Catholic event record. The room perked up a bit. Ella suddenly was miraculously quiet. And as we walked out the door my brother and I made jokes to my husband and sister in law that everyone in the room noticed that they didn’t cross themselves. We also teased that others noticed they didn’t touch their forehead a special way when trying to pretend to cross themselves as people looked their way.
I was relieved to feel a step closer to my promise.