Tracing tiny crosses on my forehead and lips and chest before the gospel, bowing during a specific part of the Credo prayer, reciting responses to the priest as part of a single, larger voice, made me feel special, as though I had gained entry into an ornate cave of secrets with special codes and talismans—the copper rosary ring on a finger, the blue plastic miraculous medal around a neck.
On slow Sunday evenings, I sometimes went to Benediction, where I found the church sparse and dim with mysteries. The Latin hymns sung a cappella were achingly beautiful, and they seemed to me the sound of grace.
My teenage years brought a restless, searching skepticism. I was around 16 when I heard about the couple prohibited from receiving Holy Communion because their adult daughter had married a divorced (non-Catholic) man. This, according to the priest who banned them, was canon law. At communion, when others walked to the altar, I watched the couple kneel at their seats and bow their heads in what looked like shame. A devout couple, both wore scapulars around their necks. Communion was the glimmering, sacrificial center of Mass—it was the raison d’etre of Mass. Why would this couple be so severely punished for the actions of an adult daughter?
All this puzzled and angered me. I was full of questions, in a church that did not encourage questions. I turned to books to mend the holes in the fabric of my faith. I read about Church history, the Second Vatican Council, Liberation Theology. In the many Protestant vs. Catholic arguments we had at school, I was the dedicated Catholic apologist, spouting words I knew my adversaries did not understand: synod, magisterium, transubstantiation.
Those fights, unformed and childish, were legacies of the Irish Catholic and English Anglican missionaries who came to my ancestral Igboland in the late 19th century. They established a viciously partisan Christianity; intermarriage and socializing between Catholic and Anglican converts were almost taboo. The tensions faintly linger still. Even though I was forceful in my defense of Catholicism—I selectively quoted scripture that supported the sacraments, I made a case for purgatory—I did not always believe myself.
Gradually, the rites of Mass began to lose their sheen. It suddenly seemed arid and mechanical that the priests always read from a book. I saw how close to gaudy melodrama the majesties of Catholic rituals could be. I recoiled at how quick the Church was to ostracize and humiliate, how the threat of punishment always hovered, like a hard fist, ready to strike. The family of a man I knew was refused a Catholic funeral when he died—because he owed church dues.
I was alienated by the Church’s emphasis on money-collection, the swaggering power of priests, the heaving gap between doctrine and the lived lives of people. Here was a Church afraid of itself, of looking inward, which instead basked in hollow certainties.