All right, let’s get this part out of the way.
I am an ex-Catholic. An ex-Cradle Catholic, in fact. This doesn’t mean that I harbor any sort of animosity towards religion. In fact, I’ve met a lot of very wonderful religious people, whom I respect very much. It makes me happy to see people who are kind to others, regardless of their differing beliefs. I’ve encountered quite a few Catholics, Christians, etc. who are truly humble, and do not believe that their beliefs are “better” than anyone else’s.
That being said, organized religion really isn’t for me.
I went through the motions in grade school, but had so many questions that I felt weren’t answered well enough. By the time high school and college came around, aspects of my religion conflicted with some of my core values, and I felt like a hypocrite going to Church. I asked myself: If my values were in total opposition to the Church’s, why was I there?
It was a confusing time. I came away with positive things I learned, and a few negatives as well. I thought I’d share a couple of the pros and cons I encountered throughout my six years of Catholic school.
I loved this. It seemed like every week, there was a new opportunity to volunteer somewhere. I helped paint people’s walls. I served food at a soup kitchen. I did a 24-hour lock-in type event, in which we fasted the whole time and all the proceeds went to hunger relief services. I wholeheartedly respect these kinds of projects, and I think they definitely show the good side of organized religion. I’d urge anyone, religious and non-religious alike, to participate in things like this. My school did a great job exposing us to service work.
Con: Not enough openness.
As much as the school preached being loving and non-judgmental, a little bit of prejudice always seemed to breathe through the teeth of the faculty.. I understand it’s probably not like this everywhere, and that people, are, well…people. We judge one another despite our best efforts. But the culture of the school wasn’t really all that accepting to other, less conservative points of view. No one talked about the important issues that we all had questions about. Sexuality? It was something For Marriage Only, and that was that. When we did talk about it, it seemed like it was always a laundry list of “don’t do this, that, and the other thing before marriage.” A lot of people I knew felt like they couldn’t even tell their friends about feelings they had, because they were afraid they’d be looked at as a “bad Catholic”, and not one of the group. We all came to find out later that we had the same feelings, the same questions. If only we’d felt more comfortable actually talking about them.
Pro: Our experiences brought us together.
I attended several retreats for school, and met a lot of my closest friends there. I was pretty shy back then. If I hadn’t been encouraged to sit with these people at the retreats and talk with them, I probably wouldn’t have done it. That sense of community, and the bonds that we formed, when done right, really is a powerful thing. I felt like I belonged, if not as a Catholic, then at least as a friend.
Con: Sometimes, the “bring us all together” part felt a bit forced.
At one of these retreats, they had our parents, family, and friends write us each letters. A lot of these were very, very personal. It was mandatory these personal words be shared with everyone. The teachers read them all aloud to our entire senior class. I understood in theory what they were trying to do, but it didn’t feel organic. It felt like the most private aspects of our lives were being shared with people we didn’t quite know so well. It was a very heavy-handed way to create intimacy. If I had wanted everyone to know my personal struggles with anxiety and depression, I would have told them once I trusted them.
Again, this is my personal experience, and I’m sure plenty of Christian retreats don’t have this requirement. I just felt like we should have been encouraged to share these things if we felt like it, not because “At this retreat, everyone does it. It’s part of the experience.” Telling the adolescent youth as they become teenagers that they must do something a certain way because everyone else does isn’t really something any teen wants to hear. That’s what made religion hard for me in the first place, and I knew plenty of others that felt forced into the whole thing like me, because of pressure from teachers, peers, and family.
In short, my Catholic school years still made me who I am as a person, and I wouldn’t change it. I learned a lot, and found I was passionate about volunteering. Maybe if everything became less rule-oriented in the future, I’d have less of an issue with being religious. In the end, it all felt too black and white for me, and I couldn’t do it. But that’s the point of freedom of religion, right? We’re allowed to choose what it is we believe. It all comes down to what we decide for ourselves in the end. And that, to me, is very reassuring.