I am my Dad’s worst nightmare- a fallen away Catholic. For years he would call on Sunday, and slyly ask if I had been to church. He grew less demanding as years passed, and asked if I would please just attend once a month. Sad to say, I did not even meet that low benchmark. I think the collision course for me and Catholic observance was set early. I made my first confession (Penance) prior to my first Communion. Then I whispered the priest’s order of three Hail Marys to my friend on the kneeler. At this point, Sister Marilyn Ann made me make yet another confession, highlighting my sin of talking in Church. The next Sunday, all gussied up and pin curled, I received the Body of Christ with my fingers pointed right to heaven. Linda Light, placed next to me by our alphabetic proximity, was anxious and vomited Jesus’ body upon the stone floor of Shrine of the Little Flower. Priests dashed over and covered the spot with a sacred cloth. It was quite an event.
I was always a nervous confessor, often volunteering “Bless me Father, for I have sinned” before the priest slid the screen to the side. Father Rodgers told me to shut my mouth one Friday. After that, I was paralyzed to begin my recitation. Father Koenig once left me in the confessional, where I knelt like an obsequious sinner for 45 minutes. I did not need the catharsis or the humiliation. Early on, the only confessions I made were the Easter duty drills mandated by my elementary school. After that I went to the Big Guy directly. I suppose it is a sin of vanity to presume he listens. What the heck- reciting one’s shortcomings certainly helps a person to form a firm purpose of amendment- see, I remember the lingo. Things did not improve in high school as Father Francis started the “Fighting 69th” (complete with a pledge) to encourage his teen charges to obey the 6th and 9th commandments. It was an unfortunate name, and he was a little ahead of us in the admonition not to covet our neighbor’s wife. These memories made me a Catholic who questions the Church at times, or, in the words of the Pope, a non-Catholic. On a trip to Rome where my fellow travelers observed Easter in St. Peter’s square, I went to Pompeii. A frail John Paul II did not miss me, I am sure. He was succeeded by Pope Benedict, whose writings declare that you can only be a Christian within the Church, not beside it. Sorry, Protestants.
I can take the hint: the Catholic Church does not want me. I do not embrace every mandate, and 100% compliance is the mandate. I am a reviled candy jar Catholic, holding dear most morsels, while rejecting others. The most basic precept that I have trouble with is Transubstantiation, the belief that bread and wine actually become the Body and Blood of Christ at the Consecration. It is just so unnecessary. I think Jesus was trying to say that if we thought of God with grace and thanks every time we took nourishment, we would have faith woven into each day. That is not the Catholic position. I also have some problems with Mary being taken into Heaven body and soul. And infallibility. And with the marginalization of women into positions of servitude.
I know servitude. I was a sacristan, and after Mass I would fold and return garments, wash the cruets, refill the wine, and clean off the altar. Then I would hustle back to school while the altar boys ate lunch with the priest. It took two decades before girls could serve Mass, finally getting into the inner circle. I don’t suppose there are any kids eating lunch at the rectory these days.
I am estranged, to be sure, and yet I deeply appreciate all that the Catholic Church has done for me. My family was forged in belief that marriage was a blessed Sacrament. I absorbed the lessons of the beatitudes, and have always worked to be kind and of service. Faith without good works was empty, and we were pushed to add outreach to our lives. My parents’ faith guided their actions, and their actions enriched my days. Mom’s rubber banded missal was a treasure to her, and Dad faced every day to the end with absolute certainty that Heaven awaited. Last year, after an episode of American Idol, I tucked him in with a back scratch and a conversation. I asked him what the greatest blessings of his life were, and he said without hesitation, his faith and his family. Throughout his life, these two pillars held him up.
In an effort to please Dad, I went to Mass with him the day before I left last year. He drove the two blocks, refusing my assistance. (I think I scarred him with my bad driving back in the day). Saint Gabriel’s parish was his Catholic home away from home, and he LOVED it there. Father Tony, 100% Irish, always leads with a joke, follows with a short sermon and speed skates through the remainder of the Mass. ( Dad’s kind of priest) I would never attend Mass again with Dad -until his funeral Mass ten days later.
Visitation, prayers for the dead, and the Ceremony of Remembrance (funeral mass) is the structure that the Catholic Church excels at. Dad’s was comforting and celebratory. A Sister from Shrine conducted the wake. Rather than direct us to recite the rosary like a Greek chorus, she asked Dad’s kids and grandkids to remember him. She had written a poem where Heaven was a golf course where he was always content- exactly the Heaven Dad dreamed of. It was a night where the Church surrounded us with love and support. His Mass was the same, with a Monsignor creating a joyous “going away” party. I wanted so much to carry this spirit of love back to Chicago, and to reconnect with my Catholic roots.
The next Sunday, I headed to my home parish, seeking wisdom and peace. Alas, the homily was a professorial discourse, nattering about the Greek roots of words, and the history behind the Gospel. My peace came from tuning out and turning within myself. Again, I found myself skipping the middleman and talking directly to God. Steve has dallied with Mass because he romanticizes the “secret codes”. He threatens to find a “fast track” Catholic conversion course, and to lap me on the way to heaven. I don’t think that will happen. Even my Dad, as I scratched his back, acknowledged that there are non-Catholic roads to heaven. He gave me decent odds, based on my track record. I’ll take them.
Yesterday I returned to St. Gabe’s for ashes and peace. The pews were crowded, the joke sweet, the sermon short, the ashes efficiently distributed. Despite the “come back” entreaties on TV, I am not a returning Catholic. Sorry, Pop. I am a daughter honoring her Father for his faith. I prayed in thanks and in supplication, for the gifts that my parents gave me, and the blessings I enjoy daily. I prayed that my boys might embrace religion, or faith, as a pillar of support for life’s challenges. They have never been left in a confessional. It could happen.