Hey there, Catholic friend, I see you.
You were brought up with CCD and necco wafer communion and mass. You gave up candy for Lent, ate fish sticks on Fridays, and know the meaning of a Holy Day of Obligation (get thyself to church). Your grandmother or some other sweet church lady used to pray the rosary for you every day, and you have at least two sets of beads in your house or car (one likely on the rear-view mirror). You know all the prayers and responses, and when to sit, stand, and kneel. Maybe you grew up going to festivals and other celebrations in the parish, but even if not, you know the particular smell of a church basement, and you can almost smell it now as you read these words. You also know the words to many church hymns, and there are one or two that still make you cry, every time you hear them.
When you were a teenager, you picked a saint’s name and got confirmed, maybe because it was the next right thing to do, or because your parents wanted you to, or maybe you approached that day with expectation and joy that God would live in you in a new way, like your CCD teacher told you. And you’ve had experiences of God too, in church and also outside of church walls, that help you to know that there’s something at work that’s much bigger than yourself.
And that knowledge has been a comfort to you, when the church has behaved in ways that were antithetical to the merciful and kind God you were taught as a kid. In 2001, when the first revelations of horrific sexual abuse by priests became known, you were angry. Maybe that was it for you and you walked away. Maybe you had been hurt as a child or know someone who was. Maybe you prayed and cried and agonized over how to move forward with your faith in the midst of so much evil and abject failure to protect children. Maybe you gritted your teeth at Cardinal Law living out his days in luxury in Rome, but mostly made peace with the concept of bad apples and hoped and believed it would be different from then on. Maybe your love for the Eucharist was the thing that kept you close.
In 2018, you felt the gut punch of revelations about Pennsylvania, and Cardinal McCarrick, and the failure of the US Bishops to address any of it at their annual meeting as they promised they would. And maybe because of that or because of a persistent feeling that the clergy were more interested in changing the behaviors of the flock than in caring for them, maybe you found yourself going to church less, or bringing less of yourself when you did attend mass. Or looking at all of it with a new skepticism or a keener, more critical, more deliberate eye.
But you also remembered the good, the early days of Francis when he eschewed the pomp of that office and washed the feet of prisoners (some of them Muslim!) on Holy Thursday, just like Jesus would have, and you thought everything was about to change for the better. Or maybe you worked with a Catholic organization that helped people in real, practical ways. Or met a Catholic friend who, you could tell by their actions and a particular light in their eyes, had Jesus living inside of them. Or maybe there was a homily or a song or a good priest or nun or a retreat or an encounter with God that helped you feel the Catholic church, broken as she is, as home.
Maybe mass was becoming less a part of your rhythm, but you gathered your family for Christmas Eve mass every year. And as you sat there looking at all of the kids all dressed up, smelling the incense, and with tears spilling out as you sang Silent Night, you felt that old sense of belonging, and you tried again, hoping to find the generosity, kindness and mercy of Jesus reflected in church leaders and church people.
And now, my Catholic friend, here you are, in 2020. I see you. You’ve been living amid an unprecedented pandemic for six months, and you’re tired. You’ve felt fear about the health of yourself and your family members, uncertainty about your job, about how your children will go to school, and about the shape of the country and world. Any connection you had to the habits of your faith had suddenly changed in mid-March, and unless your parish did yeoman’s work to reach out to you, you found yourself unmoored. So, you found other voices and other resources to feed your faith, maybe for the first time. You prayed, walked, read, and listened for the voice of God moving you forward. And now it’s time to consider what to do next.
This time of discernment about how to move forward in faith is happening at the same time that the world is, literally and figuratively, on fire, and the church is right there with it. Looking for clarity you find instead weird, conspiratorial and hateful articles in your social media feed from right-wing sites like LifeSite and Church Militant and estranged clerics like Vigano, Pavone, and Burke, who claim “the” Catholic view on the upcoming American election, cherry picking one campaign issue, while ignoring the totality of the wisdom and voting guidelines from both Pope Francis and the USCCB. You read openly racist and hateful words from clergy members who ought to know better. Maybe you read or were told by a fellow Catholic that it’s sinful to vote blue (this is not true). Maybe you, like me, were warned, in the most lighthearted way, that your vote might send you and your family to hell. And maybe you’ve thought: NONE of this, in content or delivery, reflects the good God I knew as a kid, when I sat in CCD and colored a picture of the Holy Family over graham crackers and Dixie cup apple juice and sang “Jesus Loves Me” and knew it was true. Maybe you’ve thought, if this is the church today, I want no part of it. Maybe it’s time to finally cut ties for good.
I see you.
If the church and church people truly reflected the beauty and sacrificial message of Jesus and the Good News, the world would know it by our love, but we don’t do a very good job of it, especially these days, and the image of God can be fractured and hard to find. So maybe you’re thinking, there has to be more than this. And certainly, friend, you’re right.
I see you, and so does God, and we can do much better than this. Let’s keep looking up and walking it out together.