I sat in the church pew with my mom, my brother and sister. It was a typical Sunday morning at Saint Dom’s Catholic Church. Light from the stained glass above the pulpit cast a glow that seemed like holy light on Father Rich while he delivered his sermon. It was classic “fire and brimstone.”

Sinners – we are all sinners.

I could grasp that. It made sense. After all, that was what confession on Saturday morning was for so that we could wipe the slate clean from all that sin. Still, my standard confession – “I fought with my brothers and sister, forgot to say prayers,” etc. – seemed a bit tame compared with the level of sin Father Rich was talking about.

Show reverence for the creator.

Sure, I can go along with that. It’s a pretty great world I see around me. I understand that the creator made it. Good job!

Then Father Rich strayed into new territory. His voice got louder. He pounded the pulpit. In my 9-year-old world, Father Rich was sort of scary even when he smiled. And now this!

Those who are not Catholic – who don’t attend Mass – are doomed to the fires of hell for eternity!

Whoa! Now he really had my attention I looked over at Mom with a question in my eyes. No answer was forthcoming. She seemed to be OK with this story.

The image of my dad, a kind, loving, peaceful human being, who was not sitting in the pew with us, spending eternity in hell for not attending Mass didn’t make sense. What started as a typical Sunday morning had jolted me awake.

I learned a lesson that morning, one that I think Father Rich had not intended.

In the lexicon of the day, the lesson was:

Question authority. Think about what you hear, even from authority figures. And give it the hellfire test for believability. That lesson has stuck with me. Father Rich’s words made me a skeptic.

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