I come from a very religious Catholic family, and since I was very young, I was brought up with the idea that the family religion was the right one, the only one.
When you grow up with certain beliefs so strongly entrenched in your social and spiritual DNA, it can be quite hard to look away, to start exploring new horizons without questioning a big part of everything you have ever believed in.
It was a journey that was not easy to embark on, but one that brought me to trust my current views and to become what I am today, and therefore one I’d do it again and again, given the opportunity.
Until the age of 15, I never questioned anything about my family religion. I was aware that there were other religions, but they belonged to an alien, abstract kind of world for me. People following those religions were unlucky, misled souls, born under the wrong star. I was hoping that one day they could see the light and join our Christian flock.
You see, since I’ve known them, my parents have been going to church every Sunday. They are among the most coherent people I’ve ever met when it comes to religion and if there’s any sign of bigotry in them, in all honesty, I haven’t witnessed it.
By saying this I don’t mean to imply they don’t have flaws. They are my parents – honestly great ones – and especially because of this, I think I can be critical of them. I’m simply stating that, to my eyes, their religious vision was always reflected in their deeds, even when I didn’t agree with them. But we’ll get there.
My parents not only always went to church every Sunday but were and are involved with the church in a number of ways. My mother has always helped the local community with volunteering, by teaching pupils about religion and bringing the Eucharist to disabled and elderly people. My father, a piano teacher, composed church music on different occasions and played concerts around the diocese.
This gave me and my siblings a deeper insight into our religion and the church dynamics. We were encouraged to ask questions whenever we had doubts and we discussed altogether what the Bible said about one subject or another.
At the age of 16, however, something started stirring within me and softly, gently, I started to feel slightly uneasy when listening to the Priest’s sermon during the Sunday service.
I can’t quite describe what sparked this doubt in the first place, but when I look back at those moments, I can see clearly how my critical thinking was developing, and how that was going to change my life forever.
I started perceiving the Priest’s humanity as he was discussing the Word of God, and little-by-little I realised that he too, had flaws and imperfections.
Because my mother always talked to him after a service, I was given the opportunity to engage in conversation with them, and the more I did, the more I realised about the fact that he was just a regular person doing his job. I could not perceive any sign of divine mandate cast upon him.
I want to specify here that I don’t mean to generalise in any way. During my religious journey, I have met Priests and Bishops that earned all my respect and that prompted me to question and to research further my beliefs.
I am talking about this particular one here because it is necessary to understand that it was after the process of observing him started that my religious certainty began to waver.
Also, in order to make this absolutely clear, I want to specify here that the flaws I’m referring to are mundane ones. There is too much oversimplification of Priests and their flaws in the religious world to endorse certain views without adequate evidence.
At any rate, talking to him, and getting to know him better I started to ask myself a simple question: why should an imperfect being be allowed to talk about God in such terms, why would he possess such a privilege?
I did not react instinctively upon coming to this question, and pondered it to myself for some time. After a while though, I thought it was sensible to disclose my doubts to my parents, and so I did.
Their answers were quite reasonable. They said that Priests were also men, and as such, they had flaws, too. They said no one is perfect and that that Priest, in particular, was working as hard as any of us to be a better man. Also, it was around that time that I became fully aware of the fact that Catholic priests had to abstain from sex, and in a time of deep sexual awareness that are your teens, it made me respect the Priest’s mental strength and forgive his human mistakes. Unfortunately, that only lasted for a while.
The veil had fallen, and things were never going to be as before. I could respect the Priest’s human limitations, but his discussions of the Bible started to look to me too bland, oversimplified.
Soon I started reading the Bible myself, asking my father for more information about different topics. Some days, I remember, I spent hours going through my mother’s theology books, without really understanding too much.
I want to remind the reader that it was the first years of the internet revolution as we know it. We had an internet connection at home, but it was not as accessible as today, and the first colour-screen phones were out, but connecting through mobile networks was still quite difficult and definitely unpractical. It was therefore quite difficult for me to quickly obtain a vast amount of specific information on the matter.
I kept going to the church, and although more critical not only of the Priest but, by now, also of some people attending the Sunday service, I started to trust more my own research than whichever I was being told or shown at the church.
It comforted me a lot, back then, that more often than not, my father agreed with me on my alternative interpretations of a certain passage or concept. He was often the one suggesting that the Priest was not correctly reading the big picture, or that he was omitting something fundamental in order to comprehend a certain parable.
It was constructive criticism, and for more than a year it was enough for me to explore my religion’s history and principles. I had now completely accepted that Priests being human, they might have an “incomplete” vision of the whole thing. But also, I had spoken to one inspiring Bishop, a family friend, and I had a renewed hope that truly holy men could exist. He was and still is one of the greatest men I’ve ever met, one who has dedicated his life to helping others in the most genuine and Christian way.
His example led me to research about other great churchmen, and it was thus that I’ve discovered the story of Don Pino Puglisi. A Priest who, born in Sicily just like me, was killed by the Mafia on his 56th birthday because he refused to abandon his work of educating children in the city’s poorer areas. One of the hitmen who killed Puglisi later confessed and revealed that the Priest smiled when he saw them approaching and said: “I’ve been expecting you.”
I was proud of him and all the martyrs who died for the Christian cause of helping others and, to this day, I strongly believe them to be real heroes.
However, I know today that heroes and great men can embrace any religion or none at all, and at one point, for how strongly I admired some Christian Priests, I realised that it was not enough for me to embrace this religion. I had to move on and continue my journey.
I want to add here that, being the oldest of five children, I felt upon myself the responsibility of clarifying my doubts for all of us. It was, of course, my personal journey and my own perception of things, but I felt an obligation towards them, too. I had to make sure my brother and sisters would follow the “right path.”
Little did I know that what I was about to do would make me go astray completely from the family’s religious path and make me a self-professed outcast for a long while.
Part 2 of this article will be published next week