Losing My Religion
This Sunday, I walked out of church in the middle of mass and felt much better for it. I owe a debt of gratitude to the priest at my hometown parish for empowering me to do what I should have done years ago - leave a place where my wallet is more welcome than I am. Two of the three pivotal events that led to my decision to officially leave the Catholic Church took place, interestingly, during memorial masses commemorating my grandfather’s death.
The first one was one year after his passing and just prior to the legalization of gay marriage. Just before mass began, a lay person stood at the altar urging, practically begging, parishioners to get out there and do all in their power to stop the threat of gay marriage. The "sanctity of marriage" was under attack. My nerves were getting rattled, not because of the woman’s polyester outfit or the church’s stance as an organization, but for their steadfast need to get mixed into politics instead of sticking to religion.
But the real clincher was what came after her rant. "Now, please open your hymnals to page 234 for our opening hymn - "Everyone is Welcome." Oh no she didn’t! Woman, are you kidding me? Everyone is welcome?! Really? Were you just present for your own diatribe? I was utterly dumbfounded. Then and there I wanted to walk out. And I should have.
As I stood there speechless, unable to engage in singing the hypocritical song, I thought back to a few months prior to my grandfather’s passing. It was Election Day and I had taken my grandparents to vote. Outside of the precinct, they were presented with a petition to sign in support of gay marriage. I wanted to be sure that they understood what it was that they were being asked to do. They both replied "Yes. This is so gays can get married. Why shouldn’t you be able to?" I smiled and they signed it. My grandparents - born in the 1920’s, in a small mountain town in southern Italy, who attended church weekly and watched it daily on television, sometimes with our dog Betty beside them who actually stood and sat on cue throughout the mass - had no problem with me being able to marry just as they did over fifty years before. My grandparents who love me and helped form the person I am today could accept me for who I am without question, but my church cannot. So tell me, whose opinion should I hold more stock in?
I murmured to Greg that I was going to leave. He held my hand and asked me to stay in remembrance of whom the mass was actually intended - my grandfather. So I did. Even though I felt like I was betraying myself for doing so. I sat there in the pew, livid, imagining what additional vitriol may spew. I whispered to Greg, "I’m not putting a dime into that collection basket. If anybody is gonna sport a new pair of Prada shoes, it’s gonna be me and not Pope Benny." But seriously, the entire time I kept thinking, this is not what going to church should feel like. Shouldn’t going to church make someone feel better? If I wanted to feel anxious, I could stay at home and watch Nancy Grace or The O’Reilly Factor. Since that day, I’ve always regretted not taking a stand.
But Greg and I still had a haven in the church. We were active members of the Jesuit Urban Center in Boston’s South End. Attending mass there was a pleasure because it was a safe place. While not a gay church, it had a significant gay population and those who were not gay were open-minded. The was no fear of being cast out or made to feel like less of a person by the celebrant or any of the attendees. There was no judgment. There was a great sense of community. It was what church should feel like. Each week people gathered after mass for coffee and to chat. On many Tuesday evenings, we volunteered there to feed underprivileged citizens. It was a very rewarding time in our lives. That is, until the Archdiocese of Boston closed the church for "financial" reasons. Money wasn’t the problem, it was who was going there that was. And so, my faith was challenged for the second time and I graduated from being a "Cafeteria Catholic" to a "Recovering Catholic".
Flash forward to this Sunday. Greg and I are no longer just "dating." We are a family - married and with a child - a veritable family, regardless of whether the Catholic Church likes it or not. Father Dresden (I debated using his real name, but then decided on a pseudonym) took his place at the pulpit and opened with "I know that I am going to offend some people with what I say." I thought, here we go. Realistically, he is going to say something that will offend me. My anxiety mounted with every word he said. The one thing (and only thing) that he said that resonated with me in a meaningful way was even more poignant than he will ever appreciate - "If you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing."
He then started to pontificate not on religion or on the Gospel but purely on politics. And I’m talking full force. To call it a sermon is quite a stretch. It was a political rant. For a minute, I thought "I’d rather be listening to Newt Gingrich," something you would almost never hear me say! I daydreamed about going to church. On the moon. I pictured sitting there next to President Gingrich and his Third Lady Callista. And I thought wait a minute, isn’t this just priceless? He and the Fisher Price-haired woman he screwed while his second wife underwent treatment for Multiple Sclerosis are actually more welcomed in this church than I am because they are a couple whose marriage is recognized because they have distinct genitalia. That and good old confession can make all that infidelity go away. Ok, now I get it. This all makes perfect sense to me. Not! How I wish we could all have a sidebar with Jesus and ask him which of us is living a more Christian life.
And then I woke up to some political droning in the background. Oh wait, that’s Father Dresden. He started with President Obama and healthcare, followed by a brief pitstop on abortion. He paraphrased news clippings and continuously referred us to Google to "look things up for ourselves." I waited for it. I knew it was coming. And honestly, it wasn’t what I expected. I thought for sure it would be about gay marriage. But, it was actually worse.
"The Catholic Church is out of the adoption business for not wanting to place children in inappropriate households." With that sentence, that hateful, empty sentence, I stood up, out of respect for not only myself but my daughter, my husband, my family and I walked out of that church. And you know what? I felt relieved. I felt like a weight had been lifted from me. No longer do I have to apologize for belonging to an organization that does not want me. My sister followed me out and we got in my car and left. I told her I was done. I simply couldn’t do it any more. Shortly after I found out that my mother left along with several other people. So, Father Dresden, tell me, as a shepherd of the Lord, how does it feel when your flock leaves?
And that was the moment that I decided that calling myself Catholic with any preceding adjective is nothing but a farce. There are plenty of other welcoming places for us to worship. Churches that I can feel good going into and better for having gone. Churches where my daughter can learn values that do not include hatred and intolerance. So I thank you, Father Dresden. Thank you for giving me the poignant moment that I will take with me from this point forward. And here is one for you to mark the day...
This afternoon my daughter Elly, the one you feel is "inappropriately" placed in our care without knowing anything about my family, came up to me and tugged on my shirt as I was cleaning up after lunch. I looked down at her and saw a particularly angelic look in her face and said "Yes, Elly."
"I love you, Daddy." I nearly melted. In that moment, that unprovoked moment of pure and innocent honesty from a two year old child, I felt love. Real, honest love.
"And I love you, Elly."
And then she proceeded to say,"and I love Papa." (Papa would be her other dad. The other person you don’t know from Adam, yet you can unequivocally say is "inappropriate" as a parent.)
"And Papa loves you."
And at that moment, it became clearer than ever. She can teach me - has taught me - more about the true meaning of God than you, sir, could ever hope to.