“Sorry,” the pastor tells me. “You’ll have to sit in the back pew again.”
The holy wafers don’t look all that tasty.
It’s about ten o’clock on a Wednesday morning. I’m at school, shuffling my way to the back row of wooden pews. Outside, the weather is warm and inviting. Spring is in full force. The school year is almost over.
But for now, I’m stuck in here.
Oh right. I forgot to tell you. I’m at a private Catholic school. It’s called Holy Family. I’ve been attending this school my entire life. It’s a pretty great place most of the time. Our classes are small. Our teachers are strict, but fair. And they’re really good at teaching.
The one small complication: I’m not Catholic. Nor do I believe in God.
I’m also the only student among several hundred who hasn’t been baptized.
Of all the stunning gothic churches in the greater Chicago area, it figures that the one I’m in is ugly. From my seat, I can see stained-glass windows, the pastor’s dais, and the little metal box they call the tabernacle.
But this place has no towers, no sharp spires reaching for Heaven, none of the classic Catholic architecture.
It’s cold. It’s boring.
I can’t wait for Communion to end so I can go to recess.
The other kids file past me. They’re all wearing their special uniforms. Their robes are white and black, their shoes fancy. But for me, it’s the same yellow shirt and navy pants I wear every day.
It’s cool. They’ll have to change clothes before playing kickball today. I won’t.
Lounging in the back row, squinting to see what’s happening up front, I stick out like a sore thumb. When my friend Tricia walks by, I make her giggle, but both of us are quickly silenced by Sister Alvina. The nuns here are all-powerful. No one giggles on Sister Alvina’s watch.
Not even me.
Communion continues. It’s a quiet affair, considering the room is stuffed with parents, kids, altar boys, and nuns. I’m not really sure what the fuss is all about. I guess I’m not all that curious, either.
The kids march up to the pastor in single file, eat a pale wafer, and sip some red juice. The pastor says, “Body of Christ, blood of our savior…” and some other important-sounding stuff, and then it’s done. Next kid up. Next soul in line for Heaven.
Is it really this easy? I wonder.
Is that all it takes to get into Heaven?
If I didn’t love this school so much, I’d have begged out of this place.
My friends are being indoctrinated.
And they don’t even know it.
If today was the only day I had to sit in the back pew, everything would be fine. I can get over one little day. For an eight-year old boy, I’m as patient as they come. If I can sit still for twenty more minutes, I’ll be out there in the sunshine, kicking the hell out of rubber balls.
But this is the tenth time I’ve been stuck in here. Watching the other kids. Not allowed to dangle my finger in the holy water. Not permitted to wear the sweet-looking holy ropes. Not sure whether the red stuff in the pastor’s cup is Kool-Aid or actual pinot noir.
I might not know what pinot noir is yet, but I’m pretty sure I could use some.
If my dad were here, he’d probably remind me for the hundredth time about his decision not to have me baptized.
“…let you make your own choices,” he’d have said.
“…can change your mind when you’re older.”
The last few kids march past. They’re mostly Irish, just like me. They’ve got names like O’Conner, McDonnell, and Thompson. They don’t look at me today. I don’t look at them.
Everyone knows the deal.
I’m not allowed to play with wafers and sip fake wine because no one splashed me with the magic water. It’s all good. Any sense of curiosity I feel is dulled by my exclusion. The nuns don’t pity me, which is good.
I’m pretty sure they’re wary of me. As if I’ve got a disease. I don’t belong here, and everyone knows it.
Finally, it ends. The pastor utters a few holy words, and the kids disperse. Across the aisle, Tricia’s parents smile and glow. I’m just glad none of my family are here. My expression isn’t something they’d be proud of.
I’m hovering in the grey space between sleepiness and boredom. It’s written all over my face.
A few minutes later, I’m outside. There’s not a cloud in the great blue sky. A field of suntouched grass awaits me and my classmates. We’re not thinking about holy wafers and blood-wine any longer.
It’s time for kickball.
And yet, as I await my chance to crush the bouncy red ball into oblivion, I can’t help but wonder. It’s something Sister Alvina said. It’s something Miss Calvin has repeated. And though they’d never admit it, it’s something most of my family has signed up for.
Since I’m not baptized, I’m not really a Catholic.
And if I’m not a Catholic, I’m going to Hell. You know – that place where the souls of the damned burn for all eternity.
I wonder if the other kids believe it. I question, even though they’re willing to play kickball with me, whether or not they think I’m going to roast forever in a fiery pit.
I guess it’s easier if we don’t talk about it.
* * *
To continue the story, go here.