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I have found that a large number of the witches and pagans I know were raised Catholic, as I was. My history with the Church, and with organized religion in general, is a long and complicated one. My Irish family has been Catholic for generations, so it was all I knew growing up. I went to Catholic school for twelve years, and while in high school, I became active in a youth group that was almost evangelical in its attitudes.
This isn’t going to be a post discussing the “evils” of religion, Catholicism, or Christianity; as I said, my relationship with the Church is complicated. My Catholic grandparents were the kindest, most compassionate, and overall good people I have ever known, as are their children and grandchildren. Unlike so many others, family trauma is not a part of my journey.
Fear of Hell Does Not Belong in Childhood
I also met many good people during my years of Catholic school and youth group; however, the dark side of Catholicism crept into my life in insidious ways from an early age. I have slight obsessive-compulsive disorder, and one of the ways it manifested itself, even as a very young child, was what is known as scrupulosity. Basically, I had intense religious guilt and a fear of going to hell; I remember as early as first grade repeating to myself in my head statements about loving God and hating the devil, over and over again.
I never really enjoyed Mass; without knowing why, I always felt uncomfortable in that setting, as though I didn’t belong and like something was pulling me towards the door. The relief I felt when Mass ended and I emerged into the Sunday morning sunlight was intense.
That changed for a while in high school when I became an almost fanatical youth-group Catholic. I was in the grip of what would be my first of several major depressive episodes, and the “love and light” attitude of the youth group was exactly what I needed at the time. But after a while, I started struggling with that organization as well.
The Dark Side of the Church
Underneath the love and hugs and rock music, there was a darker undercurrent – the fixation on the “sins” of homosexuality and abortion was borderline obsessive. At that time I hadn’t quite realized that I was bisexual yet, but I knew and loved people who were LGBTQ+, and I chafed at the notion that they were sinners. I got into several arguments with fellow youth group members and leaders about this, until, in college, I gradually just stopped attending youth group and, eventually, Mass in general.
I don’t have a specific date that I became a pagan. I actually feel that I was for my whole life and that my Catholic upbringing buried that part of me. I realized that the kind of peace that was lacking for me inside a church was present in the forest and by the shore. I felt the presence of the divine in nature, and I realized that this could be a focus and a direction for my spirituality.
Witchcraft worked its way into my life in a very gradual way as well, starting with books, and then manifesting in a spell here, a spell there. I don’t remember when I started thinking of myself as a witch. I just, somehow, knew that I always had been and that that part of me was very slowly revealing itself.
Remnants of Old Religion
Catholicism has never fully left me, however. I no longer fully believe in the Christian concept of hell, but there is always that whisper in the back of my head that says “what if?” The fear that there is a hell, and that I’m going there, has never disappeared completely.
But I can’t forget some of the good things that the religion of my childhood left me with, either. Again, most of my extended family remains Catholic, and they are fully accepting and loving of all people without judgment. A church in my hometown where my family is active (not the one where I joined the youth group) still amazes me with its inclusivity and social justice mission.
Elements of Catholicism still find their way into my practice, too. I admire and even sometimes still pray to some of the saints, and images of Mary, along with rosaries my grandmother gave me, are part of my altar. Catholicism is in my DNA, and I find that I can’t fully let it go. I have no trouble letting go of the Church's evils — the pedophilia coverups, the intolerance, etc. But that doesn't make all Catholics evil, I know from experience. I may not be one anymore, but I maintain a cautious relationship with the religion of my youth.
Some people need to make clean breaks with the religions they were raised in, and I fully understand that. I may need to do so at some point as well. But currently, when it comes to religion, there are still many shades of gray for me – and for now, I’m okay with that.