When I was eight, I imagined that purgatory was something like a large hotel. Some distinguished guests, like my grandfather or my Aunt Annie, would check in only for a night or two. Your average Joe was probably looking at anywhere between a two-week vacation and a semester abroad. But the day I was caught misbehaving by my second-grade teacher, I figured I’d have to bid against Beelzebub for a long-term lease. I ran home and confessed to my mother that I was facing an extended stay in the Purgatory Hotel. “If you’re lucky,” she said with almost no sarcasm at all.

My mother is a champion of unsentimental, unabashedly honest Catholicism. She loves that quote about the streets of hell being paved with the skulls of priests and bishops, and reminds her children that our Catholicism doesn’t make us better than anyone else—it just makes us more culpable.

I suppose I could have developed some kind of guilt complex from these remarks. Instead, my mom’s example has inspired me to stay in the church, though many peers with just as much catechesis and nearly identical backgrounds have left.

I think my mother’s firm stance against the lukewarm “MTD faith” that Christopher C. Roberts describes has a lot to do with my enduring attraction to Catholicism. So, too, does her devotion to the mystery of the sacraments and to our faith’s great intellectual tradition. But, primarily, it was her willingness to admit fault within the church that gave me the freedom to love it. My mother taught me that Catholics may have cornered the market on truth, but maybe not on virtue. I can’t help but wonder: would my lapsed Catholic peers still be in the pews if they had heard a little less self-righteousness and a little more humility? 

Erin O’Luanaigh is a former Commonweal intern.

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