My name is Renee Joiner. I am a pastor’s wife, homeschooling mom of six, teacher, seminary student, and children’s book author. Most people may know this, I was raised Catholic. Yes, I know, I am clearly no longer a practicing Catholic as one of the first titles listed was pastor’s wife. This is accurate. My family and I attend a post-reformation, non-denominational, Christian church. 90% of you have no idea what I mean by that and the other 10% probably go to my church. While there are some major doctrinal differences between my current church and the church of my upbringing, we are brothers and sisters in Christ because we have the same core beliefs- God created a perfect world, sin corrupted it, God had a plan to save us from our sin- Jesus. Jesus was born of a virgin, fully human and fully divine. He suffered, died, and was buried. Three days later He rose from the dead defeating death and giving us hope for eternal life.
I want you all to know that I am beyond grateful for my Catholic upbringing, the values that were instilled, the people who took the time to care for me, and even though I ended up choosing another path, the traditions that were passed on to me.
I attended Catholic school Kindergarten through high school. I even went to a Catholic college that had recently dropped the title of Catholic… Everyone I knew was Catholic, my family, my friends, my teachers, my coaches, the cross-town basketball rival team, literally everyone. And somewhere along the way I believed that was because we were right and everyone else was wrong. Catholicism was part of my identity. However, I did not really understand it…
I can remember being in kindergarten and taken to church for the first time with an older “buddy.” I asked her about the guy on the cross and she told me that Jesus died for me. I literally cried. Everyone was trying to figure out what was wrong with me, and I had no words. As a five-year-old who everyone was trying to console, I assumed others did not think the action of dying on a cross was worthy of emotions… So, I shut them off.
I remember being taught about Jesus. I remember reading the Lost Sheep in our readers. I even remember one time our class acted out the lost sheep and my friend got to be the one to wonder off while the priest pretended to be Jesus and brought him back.
I remember preparing for First Reconciliation. I learned the 10 Commandments and knew that I broke all of those… ok, well, most because I wasn’t married… It was confusing, because we were told do not lie, it’s a sin, sin leads you to hell. But then when someone called for my parents and they didn’t want to talk to them, I had to tell them they weren’t home. I soon “learned” everyone sinned, swept it under the rug, and pretended to be good on Sunday mornings (for an hour anyway).
I tell you this because I want everyone to hear this, the Catholic church did not fail me. My parents did not fail me by failing to produce a Catholic. There is no failing here. God prevailed! Seeds of faith were planted though my heart was far from ready to accept it.
Sin corrupted me and everyone else. The church was teaching and preaching traditions to draw me nearer to God, but my sin told me to keep it at a distance, treat it like an unobtainable goal that you pretend to strive to reach. My sin got me caught in legalism (thinking I had to follow all the rules to gain God’s approval) and praying that I died after I had Reconciliation so I wouldn’t have to go to Purgatory. My sin found loopholes and let me keep the Lord as a person who was real but not personal… extremely distant.
A perfect example of this happened my sophomore year of high school. Religion was always the easy A class. Tell the teacher what she wants to hear, and you get an A. Well, this year it wasn’t. First, my teacher wasn’t a “she,” he was a “he.” And he liked to make sure you really understood the content. The tests were not fill in the bubble, but analytical true/false and multiple choice. Meaning you had to tell why the other answers were wrong. I did not like this already. To make matters worse, we were learning about sin. The seven deadly sins to be exact. And do you know what I learned? Literally everything I did was a sin. Literally. I remember the teacher telling us that masturbation broke the same commandment as premarital sex and adultery. Instead of hearing You are a sinful human in need of a Savior I heard Well, if you have masturbated you, might as well go have sex. This is definitely NOT what my teacher said, but my sin-filled heart took this truth, twisted it, and pushed me even further away from my Savior.
Truths were taught. Truths were applied. However, my sin nature plus cultural influences led me to believe my faith was part of my identity that was ok to just let it be what it was. I didn’t need to understand it or develop it. I just needed to go through the motions.
It is so easy to fall into the traps of going through the motions, checking the boxes.
It’s easy to do something and not really understand why we are doing it.
Why did I not eat meat on Fridays during Lent? Who cares! We went to Fish Fries or out to Captain D’s with our friends.
Why do we genuflect to the tabernacle? Wait, we actually believe the Eucharist is Jesus’ body is in there? We eat Jesus? Are we cannibals?
Are non-baptized babies really going to hell? What about the kids who haven’t had reconciliation yet, are they still forgiven?
Did Mary really never have sex with her husband? Don’t marriages have to be consummated… so why is he called her husband? And did you know Joseph is never recorded speaking in the Bible- why is that?
So many questions that even when we got the answers, it didn’t seem to matter.
Unfortunately, because it was so engrained in my identity and the answers to these questions didn’t fully satisfy the question, going through the motions became common… and it seemed to also be the case for the majority of friends too…
It wasn’t really a big deal until college when people would ask why I did some things. All I could say was, “I just do.” Then I would find other Catholics who understood the “It just is” mentality.
I eventually stopped going to church unless I was home with my family. And I usually went just because I wanted to go out for breakfast afterwards.
I never stopped believing. I just didn’t really see the importance of it. Somehow, I ended up going into teaching and getting to do my student teaching in a Catholic school- which was a real blessing because now I had accountability to my faith.
Then I got a job at this school. An even bigger blessing. I was back to my Catholic roots but teaching religion class was super scary… because I didn’t really understand it to begin with… even on a third-grade level. Like, name the 12 apostles. You didn’t say Paul, why is this religion lesson labeled Paul the Apostle? Well, eventually I got married, moved schools, and stopped having accountability to my home church…
I still believed… I just didn’t care… then my life came crashing down. God picked up the pieces, put me back together again, with Him as the glue. It was impressed on me that I needed to let my husband lead spiritually, so I gave up the fight to convert him to Catholicism and started following him. We started attending church with his cousin. Then we were led to a large nondenominal church. From there, my husband felt called into ministry and furthered his college education majoring in Biblical and Theological studies. That was the point in which we really started to understand our foundational beliefs and even where we didn’t fully align in areas our churches professed. We dug into our Bibles, asked hard questions, sought mentorship, and began living out this faith we professed to have.
I share my journey because the advent of technology has allowed me to observe my former classmates and friends from a distance through Facebook and Instagram. While I love this, sometimes it breaks my heart to see old Catholic friends give into postmodernity, questioning truth, and believing that there is more than one way to Heaven.
Recently I had a friend argue that you don’t have to go to church to be a morally good person or escape Hell. I completely agree with this aspect of her post. Not going to church is not a one-way ticket to hell. Being gay is not a one-way ticket to hell. Being a bad person is not a one-way ticket to hell. Let me be clear, if you hear nothing else, hear this statement- An absence of Jesus Christ in your life is THE one-way ticket to hell.
Hard truth to swallow I know. But there is only one way to Heaven and that’s Jesus.
Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father expect through me (John 14:6).”
So, while other religions and philosophies may tell you just be a good person, they are missing something and something big. Jesus. They are missing their Savior, Jesus Christ. The man who chose to come to earth, die on a cross, and rise from the dead for YOU.
If your church is/was telling you this, they are not failing you. Your sin nature is corrupting you.
You must surround yourself with believers who will help you grow in faith. Ask the hard questions. Seek those answers. Be ok with learning you learned wrong. Know that the truth is out there and was recorded in the Bible. Some people interpret it differently, but the core beliefs are the same. Read your Bible. Seek to understand it. Practice your faith. Don’t just go through the motions!
I wrote this long, long post to say the Catholic church did not completely fail me… Maybe by creating a culture that just goes through the motions, I fell through the cracks. Maybe by not fully explaining a concept, the doubt grew. Maybe by not being properly discipled, I more easily let way to my sin nature… Maybe minimizing what Jesus did on the cross took away the realization of a battle with my own flesh.
But guys, this is not just the Catholic church… This is ALL churches… all religions… we all battle with our sin nature, with our flesh. We all need Jesus. We all need the Church, body of Christ supporting us, praying for us, teaching us, and leading us. We need the church to be the people who strengthen us in faith, hold us accountable (even when we do not like it), and not let us slip through the cracks.