Being Catholic in the 1950s and 60s (6): Some Things I Learned as a Catholic Child

October 26, 2015 at 12:30 am | Posted in 1950s, Catholic doctrine, Catholicism, Education, Memoir | 8 Comments
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Religion – the Catholic Church – was always an integral part of my daily life until I was in my mid-teens.

As well as Sunday Mass, there was regular Confession, attendance at special rites and rituals, and saying the Rosary – that last one was every evening especially in the bad times. A statue of the Sacred Heart (Jesus) always stood in a prominent position. It had been a wedding present to my parents (I think it was from Mum’s parents), and I have it now as part of our family history artefacts.

The Sacred Heart statue that stood in my parents' home for 72 years

The Sacred Heart statue that stood in my parents’ home for 72 years

We all had our missals (Mass books) with the words said by the priest and altar boys in both Latin and English. The congregation did not respond to any of the ritual in the Latin Mass. We also had the Green Catechism, from which we learned by heart the basic dogma of the Church, in the form of questions with answers. Eg, Q.1: “Who made the world? A:”God made the world”.

Latin-English missal

Latin-English missal

We were instead taught to accept everything the Church told us as irrefutable Truth. This dogma, well learned and integrated into young lives, was aimed at creating good Catholic children who would do good in the world and eventually carry the word to others. Here are some of the things that I learned and accepted:

The green catechism

The green catechism

  • God was omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent.
  • The Pope was Christ’s representative on earth and the repository of God’s truth, therefore infallible; the priests & nuns  were the teachers of this Truth to their, with the priests (bishops, etc) being the only ones who could forgive sins on God’s behalf.
  • We are all born in a state of original sin due to the sin of Adam and Eve.
  • Christ died for us, but it was our obligation to live a pure life; we would go to Hell when we died  if we weren’t pure or committed a mortal sin that we didn’t confess, or to Purgatory if we had small sins on our soul.
  • Satan was always there to tempt you to sin and you had to stay away from ‘occasions of sin’ so you would not be tempted to do wrong.
  • We were given a Guardian Angel who we should always ask to help us stay away from sin. It was nice to think a lovely, white-robed angel with big white wings would always be there to help us, but I never felt really protected.
Guardian angel

Guardian angel

I always had feelings of inadequacy because I was not perfect; I wanted to be like the angels and saints, but thought I must be a bad person because I often sinned by getting impatient or angry or fighting with my siblings or disobeying my parents, etc, etc. I feared Hell but desired Heaven, whilst believing I was not good enough to go to Heaven.

Saint Michael the Archangel Vanquishing Lucifer by Francesco Maffei

Saint Michael the Archangel Vanquishing Lucifer by Francesco Maffei

  • God’s Word in the Bible was to be interpreted for us by the Pope. We had only short readings from the Gospels and Epistles within the Mass, and were never taught what the Bible actually said apart from that. The Pope was the one from whom the Word of God came down to the people.
  • If babies died before being baptised, they would go to Purgatory because they were in a state of original sin.
  • Non-Catholic Christians could not enter Heaven because they did not conform to the original teachings of the original Church. I think they went to Purgatory too.
  • Those who did not believe in our God had no hope of Heaven and would, instead, spend eternity in Hell.
  • If we prayed to the Virgin Mary, she would always help us. She was a powerful ally and would speak to Jesus for us.
  • If we said lots of prayers for the souls in Purgatory, and made little sacrifices for them, they would be allowed into Heaven more quickly.
Virgin Mary holy picture

Virgin Mary holy picture

We were constantly told of God’s love, but I at least always lived in fear of committing a sin. I didn’t question, but somehow lived with the inconsistencies of what we were taught. Also, because we were not to question any Catholic teaching, I never learned to question anything.

Our lives were focussed on religion – church, school, praying the Rosary at home, at school & at church, reading the lives of the saints. The only movie I saw until I was in my teens, aside from those on TV, was “The Miracle of Fatima”, based on the appearances of the Virgin Mary to three children in Fatima, Portugal, between May and October 1917. I wanted to be one of those children, even though they were treated badly by the authorities. I firmly believed the Miracle of the Sun had happened and that Our Lady had truly appeared to those children – and to Bernadette at Lourdes.

Our Lady of Fatima appearing to the three children

Our Lady of Fatima appearing to the three children

Making my first Confession and First Communion were special days that I believed would make me holy. I loved getting holy cards with pictures of Jesus, Mary, the saints, angels, etc. These would be given as rewards for doing well at school, for good behaviour and for doing special, extra things to help the nuns. I felt guilty if I missed Mass, even if I was ill,

Looking back, I have often realised that my Catholic upbringing had both positive and negative aspects. The major positive influence was the inculcation of a moral code together with development of a strongly developed conscience. I do not regret that aspect.

However, my religious learning was mostly based on fear, and what that created (in many others besides me) was a child ridden by guilt who had no ability to question what I was taught. The constant striving for perfection against the forces of evil, and especially the guilt of not achieving what I felt I should, adversely affected me in many ways and for many decades. But that’s another story.

(c) Linda Visman


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  1. The idea that the Pope is the link with God has been much undermined by the right wing Cardinals. Just watching the latest Synod, which has just finished, one realises just how much of a political organisation it is, which is hypocritical.

    It seems that fear is something which is common to religion and makes it somewhat of a peer group with the pressure to conform. Much of what we see in the politics nowadays. Politics has become religious in sense and does not allow for all the other shades of gray which we know exist. Those people who are even just a little bit non conformist are painted with the brush of “Gentiles”, just as Judaism does.

    It is the Gentiles however, through their gentleness however, who seem closest to God. The original Aboriginals seem a perfect example. They are the most humanistic and natural people I have ever met and they make us modern people look very inadequate and despite not having the same modern education as we do are more moralistic. The word, forked tongue, the native Indians gave to the invading whites seems very appropriate.

  2. Fascinating, Linda, and how hard for a child to navigate. I wasn’t raised in a religious family, and I remember my friends telling me that unbaptized babies went to hell. Even at a young age, I thought that was rather elitist and cruel. Now that I’m older, I have great respect for religious men and women who practice the loving words of compassion and forgiveness. So much of it comes down to the individual (just look at the Popes). Thanks for sharing your story here. I always look forward to your posts.

  3. This is an amazing insight into a time where questioning was not allowed. It will be interesting to see what happened when you went to high school with those condemned to Purgatory or Hell.

  4. The whole structure of the Church is built upon fear and guilt, isn’t it? I can’t forgive the indoctrination of children at so vulnerable an age. It is making a virtue of their susceptibility and using it with cynicism: there’s no real room for humanity in there. It would seem the penalty for such introspection is at last being revealed to us unbelievers – the terrifying regimes of the nuns in those Irish institutions for illegitimate children, and the strange old priests with their creepy intentions towards the choirboys….ugh!

    I know the Catholic Church is not all bad, but it is an anachronism – it has lived beyond its time, at least int he Western world.

    • There can be a place for religion I think, Frederick, but once it grows, the desire for power and the means to exercise that power seems to grow and take over.
      There are certainly many less Catholics in the West now, but it appears that Africa and S-E Asia are taking up the mantle that they have dropped. I have seen and heard of quite a few from those regions who are now filling the positions here in Australia that European priests once did.

      • What an interesting subject this becomes, once one aligns scrupulous religious observance with power and wealth! Belief in a god becomes a conduit for abnegating personal responsibility and Catholicism holds the golden ticket, does it not – a carrot for the ruthless and a stick to beat down any aspirations in their victims. No wonder I’m an atheist! My first marriage was to a Catholic. Her family did it for me!

      • You have it right there, Frederick! I have gone through agnosticism to atheism. I am positive it was men who created god/s, not the other way around. I would rather take the responsibility for my own actions and do some good than escape into denial by claiming “forgiveness”. I look at so many so-called Christians today & see how they do terrible things in the name of their religion. I hate that with a passion.

  5. Somehow your gravatar image led me to this post. My teaching as a Mennonite instilled me with fear too, but it was a fear mellowed by grace, I later learned. Nothing I can do will ever make me good enough for heaven. Because I have received God’s grace, I am assured of His love, and though I try to do my best, I’ll leave being perfect to the next life ~ eternity in heaven.

    Thank you, Linda!

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