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Author: toni

~ 05/01/19

There are moments in life that define you.  You don’t always know those moments as they occur. Sometimes it takes years, introspection, and retrospection.

I remember the moment I decided to leave the Catholic Church. It is one of the clearest memories of my childhood. Yes, I said childhood, because I was in 4th grade when I made that decision. You might say that a 10 year-old does not have enough understanding of the world to make such a huge decision. But I say that depends on the 10 year-old and the situation.

My mother was Italian. She grew up in a Roman Catholic household in Lucca, a little town outside Pisa, and had a deep faith in the church. So deep that, despite marrying an American Southern Baptist who brutally commanded obedience in virtually all matters (that is another story of male toxicity), she somehow managed to convince him to raise us kids in the Catholic Church. And so from the time of our births we were exposed/subjected to all the rituals of Catholicism. Baptism, weekly church, catechism classes, first Communions, etc.

There were four of us all in a row. Me, then three brothers. One after another. You can guess why, given the church’s stance on birth control. Every eighteen months or so, with regularity, my mother gave birth. The last two births were difficult ones, resulting in C-sections and had profound and lasting effects on my mother’s health.

You see, she was a child of WWII. In Italy, she grew up among the bombings and poverty. She knew the fear of hiding in the dark recesses of the wall that surrounded her medieval hometown to escape the bombings. She knew what it was to go hungry and traveled the countryside with her mother, older brother and uncle, artists all, eking out a living by performing marionette shows and songs (she had a beautiful soprano voice) and collecting coins thrown their way. She told stories of sleeping in abandoned, bombed-out villas, playing dress-up in the elegant gowns that were left behind in the panic to run from the invading forces. She watched an uncle, a Partisan who fought against Mussolini and the Nazis, slowly die from a gunshot wound to the eye. And she recalled joyously the liberation by American troops, signaling the end of the war as they passed out Hershey bars to the jubilant children.

And in the midst of the horrors of war, living in less than sanitary conditions, unable to get medical care, she contracted rheumatic fever which damaged her heart and gave her mitral valve prolapse from which she suffered for the remainder of her days (through three open heart surgeries) and which would eventually lead to the congestive heart failure that killed her at the age of 74, one day before her 75th birthday.

So by the time I was 10, a fourth grader, I had seen my beautiful young mother struggle with her health and heart issues. I had more than a few times been the one with her when she passed out in the course of the day,  while doing housework or caring for her brood. And I was the one to call the ambulance,  my brothers running around in diapers in the background.

By the time she had my third brother, the pregnancies had taken such a toll on her already damaged heart, that her cardiologist sat her down and advised her against ever getting pregnant again, as it could kill her. He advised her to go on the birth control pill to avoid the life-threatening pregnancy. I think you know where this is going.

I came home from school one day to find my mother weeping. I went to her to ask her what was wrong. And she told me.

Now some would argue that an adult woman had no business telling a 10 year-old girl what she told me. But you must understand that I had long been in a role of a responsibility in our home. My mother, who learned English late in life, had trouble navigating the English-speaking world. And I was often thrust in the role of translator. No other family around, and an often absent and disinterested father, I helped my brothers with homework. I filled out the paperwork for school. I walked them into their first day of class. So in reality, in our reality, it was natural that she would confide in me.

She explained that she had just come from our church where she had gone to see our priest. She explained to him her dire, life-threatening situation and asked if she might have permission to use birth control.

And the priest told her no.

But, she explained, she had four young children at home, and a husband who was gone for work a lot, and did not want die and leave them without a mother.

And the priest said, “If that happens, that is God’s will.”

God’s will.

God’s will that my mother should die rather than be allowed to use birth control. That four children would be left motherless rather than use birth control.

And my mom sobbed and said she didn’t know what to do. She didn’t want to die and leave us, but she did not want to go against the church.

 I don’t remember what I said to my mother in response. After my initial horror and disbelief that the church, that God, would demand such a thing, I think I comforted her the best I could.  And then, I do remember getting very angry. And thinking that if these men and this church really believed they had the right to sentence my mother to death, then I wanted no part of it. And from then on, I refused to be a part of it. I refused to go to church or catechism or choir practice. And, to my surprise, they did not make me. I’m not sure why. I didn’t wonder then. I look back on it now and think maybe they were afraid of what I would say at church, to the priest even, if made to go. But from that day forward, the rest of my family attended and I stayed home.

I still, to this day, don’t believe that a god would make such a horrible demand of a young mother. But I know men would. We have seen it. The level of male toxicity in the Catholic Church has been brought to light. In their treatment of women…of children… I don’t say all in the church are guilty. There are good people. Good priests. But there are some men, men in power, who are more concerned with the preservation of institutions than the suffering of human beings. And it is wrong. Even as a 10 year-old girl I knew it.  And that is why, to this day, I choose to celebrate my spirituality outside the confines of organized religion.

My mother never told me what she chose to do. I suspected it when 18 months later I did not have another sibling. Or even eighteen months after that. She did regularly attend confession. You know the saying, better to ask forgiveness than permission. The church is good that way.

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