When I was a kid, I wanted desperately to be Jewish. I read every one of the All of a Kind Family books multiple times. I knew the characters like they were my own family and I liked them much better. The holidays! The cooking! The traditions! It seemed like such a comforting life compared to mine, which included daily mass, nasty-tempered nuns and catechism that left little open to interpretation, if you know what I mean.
The only Jew I knew firsthand back then was my sister-in-law, who was so much nicer to me than my actual sisters were, that I was certain there was something special about Jews. As far as I know, there was only one Jewish family in the little southern Ohio town where I grew up. Since I went to the Catholic schools, we never had much of an opportunity to mix. Once we started having holidays that included my sister-in-law's family, I discovered wondrous new foods like creamed herring, noodle kugel and lox. This only added to the allure of Judaism.
As I worked my way through 12 years of Catholic school, I never lost that fascination. And Catholic school for me was no bed of roses, either. I never really got the "sit down, be quiet and play along" part. Couldn't keep my big mouth shut.
I was busted in 5th grade for trying have a seance under the fire escape on the playground at recess.
"But I was trying to summon the ghost of Bloody Mary! She was Catholic."
Oddly, that argument did not help my case. That may have been the time I was ordered to kneel in the hallway in front of a life size, technicolor replica of the Pieta and hold my hands out at shoulder height, "So you can see how Jesus felt when he was dying for your sins."
The nuns had discovered that writing out lines, over and over, hundreds of times ("I will not argue with Sister Cecelia. I will not argue with Sister Cecelia. I will not argue with Sister Cecelia.") didn't have much of an effect on me.
Then there was the time that Sister Jude found my tarot cards. That didn't go over particularly well, either, as I recall.
Things were a little better in high school, but not much. In 10th grade, we had a unit in our religion class titled "Respecting Ourselves" (Hah!), taught by a handsome young priest. I will never forget his apoplectic look when I raised my hand and said, "Can we just cut to the chase here? Exactly how far can you go without it being a sin?" I knew it was the question on everyone's minds and I was less afraid of hell than the others, so I had to be the one to ask. I knew they would all thank me later.
I think it was in 11th grade that we covered history of the church. They left a few things out in our curriculum, focusing more on martyrs and less on inquistors. I never bought into the whole stigmata thing. In my mind, the poor hygiene of the Middle Ages probably explained it. Still, I remember one exchange with my religion teacher, a priest, quite vividly. Thinking like the salesperson I was later destined to become, I noted,
"Father, the church could attract a lot more members if it would just be little more flexible about certain things."
"Miss Pauken, the Church does not need to be flexible because it is the CHURCH. The ONE, HOLY, CATHOLIC, CHURCH."
(Well, if you want to be that way, I'll just save my marketing strategy for someone else. Sniff.)
Now that the Catholic Church is facing massive church closures and dwindling membership, maybe the Vatican would like to hear my latest idea. (Drumroll, please.)
Yes, I said accessorize.
For too long, all the good stuff has been reserved for the priests - the chalices, candelabras, vestments - you name it. If you want to generate enthusiasm, get the bling out to the people! Once again, Jews have gotten it right. Take a look at the The Source for Everything Jewish catalog. I have purchased gift items for friends and family from it; it's a great resource. There is so much cool stuff. Catholics need an equivalent. Make being Catholic fun again!
There is a game called "Kosherland" in the catalog. Why couldn't Catholics have something similar, say, "Martyrland"? You select a little avatar and make your way through a treacherous, winding path, beset by blood-thirsty monsignors, helpful saints and nuns wielding rulers. Collect rosaries, crucifixes and prayer cards as you go along. Draw cards to see what happens next:
"Burn mark on the back of your hand mistaken for stigmata - move 10 spaces ahead."
"Caught staring at Colleen Gallagher's bustline - go back 5 spaces for impure thoughts."
"Prayed the rosary every night for a week, move 5 spaces ahead."
"Accidentally bit down on the communion host - go back to start."
The focus always seems to be on the "major" holidays. Christmas is over-commercialized already, but what about the other holy days? Maybe an "Immaculate Conception" special edition set of champagne flutes? Pentecost fireworks? Feast of the Assumption "cloudlike" pavlova dessert mix? Spread the joy throughout the year.
One local Judaic store in Cleveland used to stock "Famous Jew" trading cards. Why not "All Saints" bubblegum cards? I can see it now:
"I'll trade you a Saint Dymphna for a Saint Anselm; I've got 3 of her already."
"Oh, man, I got Saint Francis of Assisi! The gum is shaped like a lamb!"
For the lady of the house, there is china. The Lenten dishware set would include mismatched, cracked and chipped plates, while the four-week Advent set would have three weeks of purple dishes and one week of pink.
The possibilities are truly endless.
I am still fascinated by and respectful of Judaism, with its emphasis on family, tradition, self-reflection and compassion. Although I no longer attend mass and don't identify myself as Catholic, I still respond to the beauty and mystery of its rituals and value its tradition of outreach to the poor. Plus, there are some pretty fabulous religious educators out there, too, like this one.
I don't know if I need the Catholic Church at this point, but I am pretty sure it needs me.