Dear Catholic Girl,
I’m a 16-year-old girl raised atheist, but this past year I’ve been searching for myself through faith. I’ve tried all different dominations of Christianity, from United Methodist to Mormon to Congregational, but I’ve never thought to try Catholicism because I’ve heard so much about the rules in the religion. What if I have a different opinion than my church? Does that mean I can’t be Catholic? And since I wasn’t raised Catholic, will that mean I would never be a ‘true’ Catholic? How do I even become a Catholic? How do I learn everything about Catholicism? I have no one to teach me about Catholicism, because my whole family is atheist! What do you think?
Confused & Questioning
Dear Confused & Questioning,
I’d like to start by giving you a big kudos, a hearty congrats, and big pat on the back for beginning the search for your own spiritual path at your young age. I spent a lot of my life not searching, just idling down the path placed in front of me, and I wish I had found my individual faith sooner. It’s clear you have a very open mind and heart, which is a rare and beautiful thing in this world, and such a blessing for the people in your life.
There are a few of your questions I can answer quickly, so lemme get those out of the way:
No, you don’t have to be raised as a Catholic to be a “true” Catholic. Oftentimes, converts are the most enthusiastic Catholics around. (My dad is one, and we sometimes call him St. Terry because of his reverence and enthusiasm for the Catholic Church.)
As for who will teach you? To learn about Catholicism, you can begin by reading, and there’s enough out there that you can read and read and read forever, on Wikipedia, in books, in magazines. For the basics, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a big heavy book that explains the beliefs of the Church in the traditional format of question and answer. Last year, they came out with a youth version, called Youcat, which seems to be very popular. Might be worth checking out.
Because the faith is very old—the Roman Catholic Church cites St. Peter as the founder of the faith around 2,000 years ago, when Jesus said, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I build my church”—there’s a lot of material, some more essential, some less. If after reading up on your own and attending Mass (the name for a Catholic service) a few times, you decide you like it, you can then go through a program to learn everything you need to know to become a Catholic. It’s called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).
Normally in RCIA, you would attend classes once a week for about six months. You’d learn about the core beliefs of the Catholic Church, especially the heart of the Church: the Sacraments, which are the seven sacred rituals of the church. At the end of RCIA, you would participate in three of them: Baptism, Communion, and Confirmation. The process may seem long, but I’ve always sensed in RCIA candidates a growing excitement and a deepening faith commitment. It seems to me a real time of growth, and they enter the Church knowing what they believe and why they believe it. When they are finally confirmed into the Church, usually at Easter, it’s often very moving.
So now that we’re through the straightforward stuff, I’m going to weigh in on your other questions: about “rules” in the Catholic Church, about whether you have to agree with everything the church teaches.
In my experience, Catholicism doesn’t have more “rules” than other religions. As a Catholic growing up in the Bible Belt, I always felt that Catholicism was more lenient on individual behavior (stance on alcohol, dancing, music, etc.) than many other Christian religions. In many cases, the Catholic Church sticks to the principle of moderation. So drinking alcohol is okay, though drinking to excess is not good for you. (Seems like common sense, right?) It’s true that the Catholic Church has a very Puritanical stance on sex, especially outside marriage. But I don’t think it’s any more rigid than the many Protestant religions I’ve encountered.
One thing that is true is that Catholics do have a stricter policy about actually going to church—you are supposed to go every Sunday, as missing means you’ve missed an opportunity to take Holy Communion, which to Catholics is an incredibly meaningful ritual. In the eyes of the faithful, missing an opportunity to take Communion is like shooting yourself in the foot, and therefore, attending Mass is very important.
Which leads to the next point: you ask if you have to believe it all, or if you are allowed to have different opinions from what your faith teaches. (If, for example, you don’t feel compelled to go to Mass every week and take Communion, can you really be Catholic?) Some people would answer that question with a simple, “Yes, you have to believe everything to call yourself a Catholic” and “No, you cannot disagree with any part of Catholic teaching.” This is the way I was raised, and for many years, I believed it. But I don’t believe this anymore, nor do the other Catholic Girls.
I truly feel that this is something you have to decide for yourself, as you take what you learn and test it against your common sense and your life experience and your conscience and the innate wisdom at the center of your being. As I see it, God is bigger than every religion and cannot be contained by any. I believe that religion is something we humans have invented as ways to connect with the divine, but God is bigger than all of it. There’s a Buddhist expression that illustrates this: “The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.” It seems to me that what’s most important is to find what is going to get you closest to the moon. Too often we get hung up on the finger.
So I say, try the Catholic Church. If you’re looking around anyway, why limit yourself? There might be something about the Mass that you feel drawn to, as it offers an experience that is quite distinct from the Protestant services you have attended. I would recommend going with a Catholic friend or contacting someone at a local parish (what each individual church is called) beforehand, since the rituals of the Mass are sometimes confusing to a newcomer. Having someone help you through the service might make you feel less isolated.
But even if you decide you love the Catholic Church, or if it’s totally not for you and you love something else instead, this search for your faith will always be a process. I have always loved the tradition of the Catholic Church and the rituals that have been instituted over 2,000 years as a means of seeking the divine. But a few years ago, I began also studying traditional Indian yoga through the lens of Tibetan Buddhism, and found those practices enriched my experience as a Catholic. I found that on Sundays, as I sat in the pew below the image of Jesus on the cross, I could focus my mind and truly pray for the first time in my life. I could close my eyes as we sang together, and I could feel an awesome connection to the people around me. I could also feel my heart swell with something powerful, which stayed with me and, in the days that followed, allowed me to approach everyone I encountered with kindness and patience and compassion and love.
Which to me is what it’s all about anyway.
Best of luck in this confusing and wonderful search,
Carmen, A Catholic Girl