I was christened and raised Catholic
, born to Polish
Catholic parents who were very traditional in most regards. My kindergarten
and primary school were attached to the Polish Catholic church
where I was christened
, and where I later received my first communion
. Twice. Once through the school, and then, again, with a group of Polish children a few months later. The primary school was run by nuns whose convent was part of the school/church complex. Later I attended a Catholic Girls' college for my secondary education.
You could say I had a very sheltered upbringing and you'd be right.
About the age of sixteen I started rebelling against the Sunday visits to Mass, finding excuses not to attend, which first angered my mother, and then grieved her. It was around this time my mother reminded me of the trip she and I made to Poland back when I was eleven.
My mother had moved to Australia from Poland as a teenager back in the late 1950s, and she had never returned, so in 1987 she took me with her on her first trip back to her homeland. We spent ten weeks travelling around Poland, seeing castles and palaces, exploring towns and cities. Her best friend at the time was also in Poland with her nine year old daughter Natalka, and we met up in Zakopane, a wee town in the Tatry for a week. My mother's friend brought her brother along, a Polish catholic priest who was about thirty at the time. We spent the days as one would expect, hiking, shopping, and swimming. The exchange rate back in those days was amazing - a dinner for 4, including alcohol, in the the top restaurant in the country would set you back a whole $40 US. We were living it up.
One evening our mothers left us at home with the family we were all boarding with, and went out to a hotel for a night of dancing and drinking. They arrived back late at night, and decided to not move me to the room I shared with my mother, but instead to leave me in the room where Natalka and I had fallen asleep. My mother and her friend decided to share mum's room, and the priest would sleep in the third bed in the room where I slept.
I awoke late in the night to him climbing into bed with me. I told him to get out but he said that he just wanted to cuddle, as he pressed against me. I cried and cried until he left my bed and ran to my mum's room, where I told her friend, the priest's sister. She told me that my mother would be angry if I woke her up, and to go back to bed. I did as I was told. He didn't touch me again.
Why am I writing about this now, seventeen years later?
There are a few reasons. My mother has been dealing with this for the last few years, blaming herself for not protecting me and not standing up for me in the days that followed. The other is that I am planning my wedding, and growing up I had always imagined that this would take place in a church.
The 'snuggling' hasn't affected me as such, but many things surrounding the experience still do. The first is that as my mother has been working through this issue, she has talked to people - friends of many, many years in the Polish community, and she has been treated the same way by most. They blame me, saying I must have made it up. One of the friends said to her, "You can't go around saying things like this about a Priest, he might get offended!" My mother has now distanced herself from the Polish community in our city, ashamed that she was once one of these people.
But this is the whole issue with Catholic politics, especially in a small, conservative culture. In the Polish community where I live, priests are treated as superior, regardless of their actions. My mother spent a lot of time volunteering in assorted committees, and through this became part of the inner circle of friends of a number of priests. Because of this I saw them at their worst - I was brought up seeing them as drunken men who slept with women in the congregation, and then stood there on a Sunday telling us that (for example) "we should help homosexuals because they are all sick". They showed themselves to be a bunch of hypocrites and I didn't want to be anywhere near the church I had grown up in.
I will point out that I know that this is not what the whole Catholic church is about, nor is it how I see the church as a whole, but these are my experiences, and this is the reason I have been a non-practicing catholic for a decade.
Planning a wedding has drudged up a lot of these issues for me, and I wasn't expecting that I had issues and baggage I had to deal with. Instead of walking down the aisle in a white dress, signing documents stating that I would accept children willingly from God and bring them up as catholics (as my brother did when he married a non-catholic), I realised I wanted the opposite. No church, no aisle, no priest, and no mention of Jesus and what he went through for 'our sins'. I only want to make promises I mean to keep. The vows I make on this day will be meant with my whole heart and soul; having as many childen as God wishes to shower me with is definitely not one of them. I realised my wedding day, to the love of my life, should be a day filled only with positives and love, not formality, stress, and the fear of God's vengeance. I do want God to be part of the ceremony; I have a very strong faith, and a great relationship with God, it's just the religious aspect I want to exclude.
This has pained my mother no end. Despite understanding why, she has to accept that her only daughter would never have the traditional white wedding she'd built up in her mind since the day she first held me in her arms. And trust me, she's been planning it for that long.