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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Pray for us, sinners

May 25, 2015 at 12:00 am | Posted in 1960s, Australia, Health, Immunisation, Polio epidemic | 13 Comments
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This story tells of a time in 1961 when everything changed for our family.

October 1961

There’s a tiny pebble beneath my knee and I open my eyes a fraction. Reaching down, I brush it away, impatient at the distraction. I must keep my concentration total, or my prayers won’t be effective.

It’s difficult to stay focussed on the Mysteries of the Rosary when I am so worried about Dad. I’m not saying the Joyful Mysteries. They don’t seem right. Neither do the Glorious Mysteries. The Sorrowful Mysteries fit the situation much better. The rosary beads pass through my fingers, one for each Our Father, ten Hail Marys, and the Glory be at the end of each decade of the Rosary. I’ve done The Agony in the Garden. The next decade is The Scourging at the Pillar. But my mind refuses to focus on the sufferings of Jesus.

Rosary beads

Rosary beads

“Please don’t let Dad die. Let him come back home soon.”

My concern for my earthly father constantly interrupts my address to the One in Heaven, and again I have to force myself to concentrate.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us, sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

I can hear my older brother, Peter, in the kitchen. My sisters, Pauline and Sheelagh, are probably there too, though I can’t hear them. I’m in the lounge room, in the dark so nobody will see me. I don’t know why I don’t want them to see me, because we all know how important prayer is – and this is an especially important time for prayer.

The carpet is rough on my knees, but I’m used to kneeling on all sorts of floors. I’ve done it for most of my thirteen years, and I can ignore the discomfort. However there’s usually the back of another pew in church,  a desk at school, or my bed to lean against. It’s hard to ignore the ache in my back from having no support for most of the Sorrowful Mysteries. I stretch, then say another Hail Mary, feeling guilty that I can’t keep focussed on Jesus and His Mother. My mind soon wanders again.

Mum’s at the hospital. I don’t know how she got there because there are no buses at night. It’s very hard for her. She always worries so much about everything, even little things. Now we have a really big worry. She’s already had to go to the hospital every day for the last two weeks to see my little brother, David. Now Dad’s in the isolation ward too, in the adults’ part, not the kids’ part. It’s pretty hard for us four as well. We have to wait at home, not knowing what’s happening. What will we do if Dad dies?

That’s what the prayers are for. Surely Jesus and Mary will help us. We’ve always gone to Mass and kept the Holy Days. But what if I’ve done something bad and God won’t listen to my prayers? I haven’t been able to go to Confession, none of us have. Not since we’ve been isolated in the house to stop the germs spreading. Surely Jesus will realise that. We can’t even go to school. I close my eyes tight and hold my breath, sending my prayers up to Heaven.

Polio quarantine sign

“Please listen, God. Even if I’ve been bad, Daddy’s a good man. He loves you and keeps the Commandments and goes to Mass. We don’t have much money even though he works hard. Please, don’t take him away from us. I’ll do anything you want me to.”

Hoping God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Ghost – and Mary too – are all listening, I begin the next decade of the Rosary, The Crowning With Thorns. I think about how that must have hurt Jesus. Then I think about David, and wonder why a three-year-old like him has to suffer.

It was Tuesday two weeks ago, and he was kneeling on the stool at the kitchen sink, playing in the water with his little boats. He wasn’t feeling too good and he fell off. Then he couldn’t stand up. Mum took him straight to the doctor. She had to carry him all the way, about a mile. Even though he’s only three he must have been heavy. The doctor sent him straight to the isolation ward at Wollongong hospital.

It’s Tuesday today as well. Mum said Dad was driving to work in his truck this morning when he felt sick and weak. So he went to the doctor’s surgery instead. By the time the ambulance took him to the hospital, he could hardly walk or even sit up. It sounds like he’s really bad. Oh, why didn’t they have the vaccine like we did? They wouldn’t have got this awful disease. Me and Peter and Pauline and Sheelagh walked from school down to the Council Chambers to get the needles. Salk vaccine it’s called.

We had our needles before people started to get polio around here. But for the last couple of months, polio has been everywhere, all along the Illawarra Coast, and it’s been really scary. They call it an epidemic – that’s when lots of people get it. Some people have even died. Now Dad has it as well as David, and we don’t know what will happen to them, or whether they’ll get better. Mum didn’t have the needles. Gee, I hope she doesn’t catch it too. I begin another decade of the Rosary.

rosary-tattoo

Peter pokes his head through the door and sees me kneeling there.

“What are you doing?” he says.

“Saying the Rosary for Dad. Want to say it with me?”

“Nah,” he says. “I’m hungry. Where’s the tin of jam?”

I sigh and make the sign of the cross, putting my rosary beads away in a little bag. I’m hungry too, though I hadn’t noticed it until that moment. I get to my feet and go into the kitchen.

“I’ll cut the bread,” I say, picking up the knife. “I cut it straighter than you.”

(c) Linda Visman

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