My mother, Regina Stephanie Zajfert, attended catechism classes in preparation for her First Communion in the Roman Catholic Church in Chicago in 1927. There were two things that stood out in Mother's mind for the rest of her life whenever she spoke about those classes.
The first was that Mother felt treated like a second-class Catholic by the nuns because she attended Chicago Public Schools rather than a parochial school. On one hand, maybe the nuns just knew the children from the parish school better and were less reserved with them. On the other hand, even if my grandparents could have afforded the tuition for a parochial school in light of Grandfather's recurrent hospital stays, Grandfather preferred to send his children to Chicago Public Schools. Having grown up a son of the church organist in Slesin, Poland, and having watched church politics from the sidelines, Jozef Michael Zajfert wanted his daughters to view life from a more broadminded, i.e., less parochial, perspective. Maybe that attitude came through in Mother's innocent curiosity at that tender age.
The second was what happened in catechism class the day the nun spoke to the children about what kind of books "good" Catholics read. "Good" Catholics read only those books that had a certain stamp on the title page of the book. The stamp was called the imprimatur.
Mother piped up in her eight-year-old voice stoked up by Chicago Public Schools civics class, "But Sister, isn't that censorship?"
Guess who flew out of catechism class that afternoon. Perplexed about what is was that she could have done that was so wrong, Mother went home to ask her parents why the nun had reacted to her question by expelling her from class that day. Grandmother and Grandfather reassured Mother that she had done nothing wrong.
Grandfather went for a walk and stopped by the rectory that evening to chat with the priest. That was the last time Mother flew out of catechism class. But the seed of skepticism, not cynicism, born of injustice and stupidity already had been sown in a child's mind and heart.
Fast Forward: In 1960 most of my third-grade classmates in Copaigue, Long Island, New York were attending catechism class after school; the rest were attending Hebrew school. Where did I belong? I asked my mother why we had no catechism class in our church. She explained, "We do. You will attend your catechism class in eighth grade, when you are old enough to comprehend better what you are getting into."
Mother formally converted to the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States on the same day I made my Confirmation in Red Bank, New Jersey, in 1966. Mother brought her Polish traditions of Christmas and Easter babka, rye bread, pierogi, smoked sausage, sauerkraut laced with caraway seeds, and horseradish with her. She left behind the confessional and blind obedience to papal infallibility or to any earthly authority for that matter.
So, my Polish Roman Catholic mother and my German-Irish Evangelical Lutheran father reared me as an American Episcopalian, i.e., a renegade Catholic/backsliding Protestant fan of Erasmus of Rotterdam. My childhood best friend Ruthie was a Reform Jew whose Viennese parents had fled Hitler. I spent more time in Ruthie's synagogue than in my church during high school.
All in all my spiritual upbringing instilled in me a small-c catholic outlook on life. It's a bit like being a small-d democrat. In terms of intellectual rigor amalgamated with human empathy, I think it was the skepticism and respect for critical thinking that stuck.
Addendum: See also (broadcast August 9, 2011)