Why Catholic School Destroyed My Relationship With God And The Church

How can a God that is so forgiving be so judgmental?

sad woman praying Vasilchenko Nikita | Shutterstock

I didn't start being afraid of God until I was thirteen.

Sometimes that surprises people. They assume that because my father is a priest that I quaked in the presence of the Almighty as a kid or that as an adult I'm all "churched out" because of my upbringing.

But it's not like that at all. 

My dad is intensely smart. This is something I think any person who has met him could tell you about him.

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But they couldn't tell you that he sometimes answers the phone in the voice of an elderly British woman or that he created a sparkling inner life for our black lab.

To the average person on the street our dog was just a dog, but to our family, and courtesy of my dad, she was a stripper who went by the name 'Suede' and danced at a local club called The Foxy Lady to support her puppies (and her penchant for sherry). 

In addition to my sense of humor, my dad gave me a love of the idea of Jesus (yeah, with a capital J and everything). 

I didn't think of God as some figure in the clouds waiting to strike me down the minute I defied him. I thought of Him as someone my dad might hang out with. Someone who would laugh at the idea of my dog being a stripper. Someone loving and funny and witty and kind and prone to forgiveness and eager to provide comfort wherever he could. 


In short, I guess I kind of pictured him being a lot like my dad.  

Then in 8th grade, I was enrolled in a parochial school. It was my first time in a Catholic environment as I was raised in an Anglican church, and it did not go well. 

It was like entering the ultimate trifecta of awful for a girl: I was thirteen, I was plain, and I was different.

Two of these things were completely unforgivable to my peers. I'll let you figure out which ones those were.

Being ostracized by my peers was one thing, but what I didn't anticipate is that the school would turn my relationship with God upside-down to the extent that it did. 

I'd already had my doubts about my faith for a while.


I vividly remember being about 9 or 10 years old when I first watched Field of Dreams and realized that someday my parents would die and that I someday would die, too. It was more than I could handle. Full-blown panic attack. I couldn't stop screaming. It was raining sweat. So I did what I always did when I was afraid. I ran to my parents. My mom held me and my dad talked to me about Heaven.

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"It will be the biggest best party full of all your favorite things." 

I had these panic attacks about death pretty regularly as I continued to grow up, but I never thought it meant I didn't believe in God or that God wasn't there for me. To me, my doubt was a part of the process. You can't blindly follow your parents' beliefs without any evaluation, right? I had to learn and believe for myself, and my parents always gave me the space, love, and support to do just that.


Church wasn't a place where you got on your knees and prayed you wouldn't be damned by a vengeful god. It was a place where you communed with your friends and family, where you celebrated in the gift of the love of Christ. 

But in that school, I learned from my new teachers that God punishes people who doubt him.

Doubt God? That's basically the equivalent of not wearing mascara to school: prepare to sit at the loser table.

Take the Lord's name in vain? He's going to send you straight down, and that's if you're lucky.

The funny, witty, forgiving God I knew was gone, and in his place was this sneering, short-tempered man who had no space in his life for someone as unworthy as I was.


"You don't believe in me? Do you doubt me? Fine. I don't need you anyway."

Ha! I guess in some respects I felt like God was the first man to ever reject me. 

In many ways, I felt heartbroken to lose this image of God. To lose this friend, really.

And when my dad converted to the Catholic church and became a Catholic priest, it was a little bit like I lost him, too.

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As a converted priest with a wife and kids, he could no longer be the pastor of a parish, so the church, the very center of my life was just gone. I know I'm not the only one in my family who felt displaced when we converted, but I also know that I had never felt so alone.


I missed the Anglican services with the hymns I had heard and then sung from the time of my birth and on. I missed the beautiful language of the Book of Common Prayer. I missed a God who understands that the humans he made are flawed and loves them because of those flaws. 

I got over the social persecution of middle school, but I never got over how they changed my relationship with God.

I don't go to church right now, and my dad knows it.

"I feel like the church is for faithful people," I told him. "And that's not me."

My dad was sitting in the front seat of the car while we talked about this, and I was in the back. He didn't turn around, but I could hear him thinking.


"You're exactly who the church is for," he said simply.

I think he's probably right. I think if I was completely done with God or church I could probably write about it without weeping. I could probably go to a service without the fear of a lump forming at the base of my throat. 

When I write, I guess it's my form of praying.

It's the same basic idea. Letters in a bottle set to sea in the hopes of being found, being read, and being understood.

Writing is the closest I get to the God of my childhood. I feel happy and heard and in communication with everything when I write, even when I'm just writing really, really, good sex jokes.

That may not be what religion is supposed to be, but if it's where I see the divine right now, could it possibly be all that wrong?


I guess I'll have to keep writing in order to find out. 

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Rebecca Jane Stokes is an editor, freelance writer, former Senior Staff Writer for YourTango, and the former Senior Editor of Pop Culture at Newsweek. Her bylines have appeared in Fatherly, Gizmodo, Yahoo Life, Jezebel, Apartment Therapy, Bustle, Cosmopolitan, SheKnows, and many others.