If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.-Jesus
If to be free is the most important goal of all, then to help someone else to be or to become free must be the most sublime and rewarding of human endeavors.–Elie Weisel
Here is my story.
FROM THE INSIDE OUT
One of my relatives, a hard-working woman of few words, responded to my announcement some years ago that I no longer attended the Roman Catholic Church with the following comment: “But you’ve got to have rules!”
I searched for words. All I could think of to reply was, “When I was a Catholic, the rules were all, well, external, outside of me. Now they are inside, written on my heart…I want to do the right thing from the inside out…”
She had no reply. I have no idea what she thought from there on, but at a future visit (we lived about 2,500 miles apart at the time) she wanted to go with me to my evangelical church. She had little to say about that, too. But one thing was clear: until the day she died, that woman was an adamant Roman Catholic.
She attended Mass every day if she could. She had Masses “said” to reduce her husband’s Purgatory time after he died, and I am sure she made arrangements to have Masses said for her when her time came. She prayed the Rosary and other prayers to earn grace, observed Lenten and Friday fasts, had ashes pressed on her forehead on Ash Wednesday, did the penances the priest gave her to pay for the sins she confessed to him in the confessional, and she observed Holy Days of obligation. She did what the Pope and the priests wanted her to do. She. Followed. The Rules.
I shared my faith however I could, but the options were limited. Other family members also shared their faith. But she had a set way of thinking about everything and spiritually, she no doubt thought how she was taught: Roman Catholic. And to be sure, based on her steadfast work ethic and determined way of living, she did the best she could in her mind.
I knew exactly what she meant about the rules, though, which was why I searched for words to explain to her the difference between me before I received Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord at age 23, and me, after. Words that would somehow make sense coming from our shared Roman Catholic background.
Like her, I was born into “the faith.” I was baptized as an infant, “made” my “First Confession” and received “First Holy Communion” at the age of 7. I was “Confirmed” at 11. I received twelve years of Catholic education, and because I was born in 1950 I had a taste of pre-Vatican II Catholicism, too, that is to say, a taste of the Church before the “rules relaxed,” as some put it. (But, truth be told, little has changed regarding core Catholic tenets, as any Catholic will tell you and as research bears out.)
In the school choir the first musical notes I learned were the square notes of Gregorian chant. I and my classmates attended Mass, in Latin, every morning before school. In addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic, we learned the difference between venial and mortal sins , partial and plenary indulgences , how to make a “good confession” so as not to void the forgiveness the priest gave us, and how to “examine our conscience” every night before bed (i.e., tally up the number of times we sinned that day and which types of sin, to save for confession).
We learned the difference between sacraments and sacramentals  and the myriad ways a Catholic could earn grace and/or special blessings, everything from wearing scapulars , to performing Novenas , to saying the Rosary , to wearing certain medals and/or devoting oneself to certain saints and so on. For a while I even had my own statue to pray to: The Little Infant of Prague . And, of course, of special importance was attending enough of Sunday Mass (come in before one part of the Mass and stay at least through another part of it) to avoid committing another sin and to fulfill one’s “obligation”.
It seems there were no end of rules to learn and follow so that one could hope to earn enough grace so as not to burn in Hell or at least in Purgatory for an unspecified time (and it was never clear how much: a day, ten years, a millennium?).
I knew about The Rules.
OUT OF THE FIRE
At the age of about ten, spiritual things came to a head for me. Although most of my little friends were not so intense about the faith, I was a serious kid and took things seriously. And as much as I feared burning alive in Hell or Purgatory, I wanted to do the right thing, too, just like my relative. I searched for options.
I wrote previously about my kid attempt at a home-made “vision” (see https://pnissila.wordpress.com/2012/06/02/mrs-p-and-the-gold-rosary-beads-the-danger-of-one-degree-off/) Early on, we were exposed to the famous Catholic “mystics” who often had visions and other bodily experiences, and as they had acquired Roman Catholic saint status in part because of all this we figured mysticism was probably good for a lot of grace and extra blessings, probably at least good for big chunks of time knocked off Purgatory. However, my attempts were futile, there, as I wrote, so I looked elsewhere.
One day in morning Mass I came across an amazing bit of information in a prayer book. I couldn’t believe we hadn’t heard about this in religion class. The exciting news was you could go to confession (if you needed to in order to receive communion), receive communion (and no eating or drinking anything beforehand for a certain number of hours), then say this prayer (plus a few “penance” prayers), verbatim, on page 468 of the book  and voila! Erase ALL PURGATORY TIME. At least until you sinned again, which in my little kid life wasn’t long. There was quite a list of sins you could commit, both small and big, both “omission” (what you should have done but didn’t) as well as “commission” (what you did but knew darn well you shouldn’t have). But at least for a few minutes or hours, anyway, if you followed the ritual and said the prayers, you knew that if you died you could go straight to heaven without burning. At least that’s what the prayer book indicated.
I was thrilled. I shared this with a few classmates but they were not impressed. I couldn’t believe they didn’t care! It was right there in the prayer book! 
So for about two weeks I worked the plan: make some excuse to skip breakfast, go to morning confession before Mass, go to communion, then say “the prayer.”
Whoa. I felt that I had finally achieved the kind of reassurance I was looking for ever since I first heard the concepts of “Purgatory,” “Hell,” “penance” and “burn alive for eternity.”
My elation was short-lived, however.
INTO THE FRYING PAN
One morning right after Mass when we were all settled back in the classroom, Sister assumed the Mad Nun Pose in the front of the classroom. Fear shot through us.
“There are SOME of you,” she began, looking straight at me, “PARADING around the church to the confessional every morning just to SHOW OFF…”
I can’t remember what she said next. To be sure, I wasn’t the best kid and one could have easily suspected me of being up to something other than easing burn time, but THAT morning she had it all wrong.
My heart sank to my toes. I felt deflated, like a balloon. Kind of numb. And that, I realized much later, marked the beginning of the end for me of trying to live life Roman Catholic style. A thought akin to one of my father’s favorite sayings, “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” crossed my young mind…
Oh, I kept up appearances because, well, what else did I know? We weren’t allowed to go to any other church (some kind of sin) and anyway we were taught that non-Catholics were on the highway to Hell. And I was also told that only the priest could really understand what was in the Bible, so I never thought about even looking in one of those. But it was no surprise, as I look back now and have looked back many times since becoming a Christian, that that system would ultimately fail to satisfy.
And, of course, what happened way back in that Catholic elementary school classroom is about the very best thing that could have ever happened to me. The hold of the church on me suddenly went slack. What did the Jesuits say? “Give us a child until he’s seven and we have him for life?” They have no idea the power of God, and how He works, even on kids the tender age of ten…
FATHER I HAVE SINNED…FINALIS…
After keeping up appearances albeit half-heartedly, even playing the church organ on Sundays when I was in high school, about college time I gave it all up for good. For awhile, anyway. My last real foray in Roman Catholicism in those days occurred one Saturday afternoon on a spur of the moment inclination. I passed a local Catholic church, glanced in the open door and saw the tell-tale line-up against the side wall. Ah. Confession. Oh, well, what the heck…
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been, I don’t know, maybe three, four years since my last confession…”
“But, wait,” I hurried, “I’m not so sure about all this, you know?”
“What do you mean, young lady,” the priest said. “This is CONFESSION. You’re here to confess your sins…”
I interrupted. “But, see, I’m not so sure about religion. I think that if people, basically, live in an onward and upward direction that when they die they will join with the goodness beyond,” or some such thing.
“Why, you might as well go and join one of those Eastern cults if you believe that!” he said, rather loudly, I thought.
Sigh. I left. What was the use?
And that was the end of that.
I got married in the church a few years later and attended Mass a few times but I still wasn’t really into the Church. In fact, cynicism was fast hardening my heart. The evening in late November 1973 that I knew beyond doubt that I had a decision to make, I was so away from God that when I casually picked up my sister-in-law’s Bible I only did so because it was a best seller and I was into reading best sellers.
But of course, God had other plans.
I opened the Bible to the Scripture that had to do with Jesus’ comment about eating His flesh and drinking His blood” (John 6:56) which, of course, means, as Bible commentator Matthew Henry puts it, “believing in Christ […] (partaking) of Christ and his benefits by faith.”  However, as a former Catholic an entirely different image came to mind: cannibalism.
Oh, they told us that the priest’s power to change some bread and wine or juice into the literal body and blood of Jesus didn’t actually change the substance of the elements , but for some reason, I got the creeps. I slammed the book shut and threw it across the room.
Suddenly, though I knew little Scripture, another scrap of it came to my mind: “no one knows the day and the hour.” Now, I knew that had something to do with the second coming of Jesus (Matthew 24:36), but at that moment, in that hour, on that day of my young adult life in 1973 I knew it meant something else for me: perhaps this was MY “day and hour,” MY time to decide: God or…?
I scanned the bookshelves and realized all that I’d read and studied didn’t really give me the answers I was looking for. I thought about my life to date and realized I didn’t have the answers within myself, either. That stuff about living upward and onward? Nonsense, really. What did I know? And so many so-called holy men and women and gurus and ministers turned out to be opportunists and fakes anyway; what did they know?
Nevertheless, despite the “spiritual food desert” growing up in Roman Catholicism I knew one other thing: the Bible, regardless of who was reading or who was interpreting, was THE reference book on God…
Right then and there, my baby sleeping in the other room, husband at work, clock ticking through another ordinary day, I chose God.
“I choose You, God,” I said, out loud, in my empty living room.
Gingerly, I retrieved the Bible and opened it once again to that body and blood Scripture which had seemed to go on for many lines, before, and saw that it was just a simple verse. The eerie feeling was gone.
But another feeling surfaced. I had a sudden sense of being part of something much bigger: a timeline that stretched both back and forward into eternity.
And I wanted to know the Bible.
THE WORD MADE FLESH
I was immediately hungry for some kind of Bible study. The only place I knew to look was the Catholic Church, so I called up the local parish and asked about Bible studies. There was one, the woman said, but it was a little controversial. I contacted the people anyway and began attending.
Controversial, to say the least. The Bible was only one of several reference books, the others being the latest in pop-theology centering on ideas such as maybe Mary was a virgin, and maybe not. But it wasn’t that important. Maybe it wasn’t sexual perversion that caused the twin cities to blow up; maybe it was just a lack of faith. Maybe the Bible wasn’t inerrant, but was a good enough collection of oral histories with good intentions and the like. Lamb that I was back then, I didn’t even know to suspect wolves. However, I still hungered.
“So, what am I missing, here?” I inquired of God one day. “These people are so kind and loving and I’m certainly learning a lot of heady things, but there’s still something I’m missing.”
This thought came to mind: “You’re going to books to learn of Me; come to Me and I’ll reveal the Word to you.” I remembered Jesus is also known as “the Word Made Flesh.”
Oh. Okay. I got it. I had previously had it backwards. Later, I read a parallel thought: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you”(Matthew 6:33).
We soon moved to another part of the country and I immediately met some born again believers who became fast friends and mentored me through the essentials of my recent “choice.”  I also began attending a local evangelical church and, most importantly, saturating myself in Scripture sans any sense that because I was not “a man of the cloth” I would not be able to understand it properly.
But I was still going to Mass, even singing at Mass. I guess I still had some Roman Catholic ties that needed to be loosed. I believe that my period of transitioning completely out of the Roman Catholic religious system gave me the time I needed to understand the difference between Catholicism and classic Christianity.
The more I read and studied the Scriptures, while continuously researching old and new Catholic documents, the more I understood the gaps between the two belief systems: Roman Catholicism and its many variations, additions, and deletions from orthodoxy, and Christianity, centered on “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, KJV).
And the more I understood the differences, the more I believe I needed the time to mourn.
To mourn the fear inflicted on the little girl rummaging around in the pew for some comfort in a religious milieu all about sin and damnation and burning and earning salvation but never knowing exactly where I stood for more than a few precious moments.
To mourn the teenager who thought God was a hovering menace just waiting for me to sin to add more to my after-life suffering in either Purgatory or Hell.
To mourn centuries full of people caught up in the same beliefs, hindrances to truth, and lies.
And to mourn my loved ones and others still bound up in the never-quite-requited spiritual angst which is the fruit of such a religious system.
I knew the rules. I understood.
AS FOR MY PART
As I prayed over this blog entry, I was almost overwhelmed by how much information there is to help others at a point of inquiry about the Roman Catholic religion. Ex-Catholic scholars and apologists, ex-Catholic priests and nuns, and ex-Catholic “ordinary people” share their research, their stories, their new-found freedom in the Lord, and their encouragement.
And just now there is also a tone of urgency in our writings as ancient mystical practices of Roman Catholic saints seem to be in sudden vogue as the experience-driven postmodern spirit with its disdain for universal truth snakes into the encroaching Emergent Church.
But for my part, I offer the rest of my story, and an invitation to the reader to share yours.
THE GOOD NEWS
I remember the day I finally realized I could trust God.
I was washing the noon dishes. It was near the end of my research and mourning period, so to speak, and questions still arose. Questions about so many, many extra-biblical beliefs and practices within Roman Catholicism I could hardly count them. But suddenly, that day, standing there at the sink, I realized that for each question there had been an answer so far. As I read and studied Scripture (this time in orthodox Bible studies), as I learned and grew as a Christian, each question had so far been answered.
I stopped my task, soapy hands in mid-air, and smiled as I realized that whatever other questions I would have would be answered as well. It was as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
And as I pondered another hard-to-understand idea, the notion of loving God, and why I had always had such a difficult time with that, this came to mind: “From the time you were a little girl, you thought I was out to hurt you.”
That… was it.
“IT IS FINISHED”
Contrary to what I was taught in Roman Catholicism, God in His gracious, incredible love for us took care of whatever “hurt” we deserved another way. That is to say, took care of it for those who will accept it, for He included the freedom to choose in our design.
He inflicted all of the hurt—all of the consequences we rightfully deserve for the gross evil we inflict on others and on ourselves—on His own Son, Jesus, Who, when the sacrifice was completed that bloody Friday declared, “It is finished.”
The real Jesus, to secure our right standing with our loving God, “stood” in our place on the cross of justice—to the end of all that was required, that fateful day—so that we would not have to.
Not because of organizational affiliation, rituals, statues, beads, medals, holy cards, holy water, holy cloths, indulgences, mystical experiences, devotions to saints, novenas, status, adorations, pilgrimages, votive candles, confessionals, relics, purgatory, limbo, wafers, wine, gender, race, creed, or tongue.
Free because of what Jesus, God’s own Son, did for us.
I am still in awe of this.
On venial and mortal sins:
On the scapular:
On the rosary:
On the Little Infant of Prague:
 “Prayer Before a Crucifix”
“O Good and dearest Jesus, before Thy face I humbly kneel, and with the most fervent desire of my soul I pray and beseech Thee to fix deep in my heart lively
sentiments of faith, hope and charity, true sorrow for my sins and a firm purpose of amendment, whilst with deep affection and grief of soul I reflect upon and ponder over Thy five most Precious Wounds, having before my eyes the words of David, the prophet, concerning Thee, my Jesus: ‘They have pierced My hands and my feet, they have numbered all My bones.’”
(And a postscript): “Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be, etc., for Holy Father’s intention, to gain a plenary indulgence after Communion.” (My Sunday Missal, see below)
 My Sunday Missal. Explained by Rt. Rev. Msgr. Joseph F. Stedman. Confraternity of the Precious Blood, Brooklyn, N.Y., 1956. Nihil Obstat, Martinus J. Healy, S.T.D. Imprimatur, Thomas Edmundus Molloy, S.T.D. p. 468.
On the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation, that is, the wafer and the wine become literally the body and blood of Jesus as the “unbloody sacrifice”:
On Roman Catholic Mass:
 The “essentials” of “choosing God”–it all starts here. How to be born again:
1. Admit you are a sinner (Romans 3:23)
2. Understand God’s plan for your salvation (John 3:16)
3. Understand that your own works cannot save you (Titus 3:5)
4. Repent of your sins (Luke 13:3)
5. Ask Jesus to save you (Romans 10:13; Acts 16:31)
6. Confess Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord (Romans 10:9, 10)
 http://lighthousetrailsresearch.com/emergingchurch.htm (There are numerous good reference sites on this topic.)
But of course there are many, many more sites, books, articles, and testimonies on all of these topics.