Mar. 13th, 2012

I was a deeply religious kid.

Unlike the majority of the kids that I grew up with, I enjoyed going to Mass. My Mom had been taking me when I was a little kid, but had slacked off. I started going by myself when I was in the 4th grade, the same year that I had been given permission to walk to school alone. It must have been a strange sight, to see a nine year old entering the church and sitting in the pew alone, but I didn't really mind. I did get my Mom to come with me from time to time, but I didn't really see the disconnect between my own piety and the Church's teaching that skipping even one Mass was a mortal sin, meaning that my Mom's spotty attendance put her in spiritual danger.

No, what I liked was the hour of enforced social codes. There was no need for awkward conversation; to the contrary, it was completely frowned upon. There was a ready excuse, even before Mass began, to not engage in chit chat. We were in the Lord's home, and I was reflecting on my week. I would flip through the hymnal and read the numbers on the board to find all of the songs, and then I would find the weekly readings. Half the time, I read them all before Mass even began. I was a fast reader, and precocious. I had memorized all of the responses during Mass, and it was soothing to ritually chant the words while getting lost inside of my head. There was one moment of social interaction that was part of the Mass, and even it was ritualized. After the homily and before moving into the Eucharist, there is a moment where the priest asks the congregation to offer each other a sign of peace. Everyone turns and offers each other a handshake and a "peace be with you." I would imagine that peace flowing around, staunching wounds in people's hearts. It certainly helped ease mine.

Right around the time that pre-teen rebellion might have seeped in, I was faced with a number of calamities in my life at the moment my social support network disappeared - my mother was battling cancer, my Aunt Winnie lost her legs due to complications from a diabetic coma she had slipped into, and two of my summer best friends left the neighborhood.

Going to church became not only a form of weekly meditation, but a chance for me to throw myself on the mercy of God every week and ask for a chance for my mother and aunt. I was terribly, terribly alone. Instead of talking it out with a therapist, I put it all in my head and sent it out into the church community every week. Somehow, it got me through that time.

I continued to attend Mass regularly through my freshman year of high school, when my beliefs began to falter. There were many reasons. I could never fully accept the idea that only men could be priests, or that the Pope was infallible. I began to associate the church with my generally miserable years in Catholic school. When a friend (who had attended that church with me) came out as gay, I chose my friend over the church. Later on, I grew disgusted with the epidemic of child abuse by the clergy.

I had a brief rekindling of interest in my freshman year of college, when I met a number of Catholics of liberal persuasion, who believed that the church was wrong on gay and feminist issues, and who quietly were building their own Catholic communities with different sets of rules. A nun at my college was doing really interesting Catholic meditation sessions, combining tenets of Buddhism with Catholic faith, and implying in her discussions (as many have) that Jesus was known to have traveled during his "missing years," and had taken back some Buddhist teachings to integrate them into what was to become Christianity. The priests, sisters and Irish Catholic Brothers that I met were all very service-minded, and believed that living their faith was helping the poor and needy. I took a campus ministries trip to West Virginia to help homeowners in Appalachia. We worked hard all day repairing homes, and then came back to a common house with lots of good food, guitar playing, board games, and campfires. These people were deeply religious but didn't really care about sexual orientation. Neither did the people at the Strand, which was this renegade Catholic church in Connecticut that the head of Campus Ministries took us to one Sunday. It was built in a beautiful old barn, the priest was openly gay (but celibate), and the heads of the choir were two out, married lesbians. The place was filled with all sorts of progressives.

In most other religious Denominations, there would be a natural split of these social justice progressives from the more socially conservative parishes. That's how we got Protestantism in the first place. But Catholicism is very hierarchical, and I think a lot of Catholics, lost in the joys of their individual churches, forget that until reality hits home. When the Church did some belt tightening and closed a bunch of schools to save money, it made a lot of Catholics angry. But that was just the warning shot. The problem with having a religion where you set up one leader as infallible is that he has every right (whether or not it's morally just) to come in and demand conformity to his interpretation of the faith. In that freshman year of college, when I was dabbling in Catholicism once again, Pope John Paul II's health was fading and there was discussion about whether the new Pope was going to be a conservative or a progressive. There was hope of a modernizer who would draw people back to the church. Instead, we got Benedict, and he has been fairly ruthless in going after churches who buck any of the rules, forcing those who long for a progressive era underground. Just this year, I read about the struggle between Berkeley and the regional Catholic leadership. Berkeley's progressive priest got replaced by a social conservative who has cut back on a lot of the programs that the parishioners of that church treasured. They're asking lots of questions about who makes up a parish - is it the priests, or is it the people?

I admire people who stay and fight, but it's not my fight anymore. I'm still very spiritual, but have a hard time dealing with such a literal religion at this point. I think that Carl Sagan and Neil Degrasse do a better job of explaining the wonder and the beauty of the universe. Yet, there are times when I long for the simple respite of a Mass.



April 2013

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