I went to my Great Aunt’s funeral a few days ago; it was the second time I found myself at a mass in a week. The other time was last Sunday, when I went to Easter mass with my mom at the nursing home where my dad lives. Both masses were held on days when I normally would have been working, both were a little painful, but they also reminded me why I chose to leave the church and explore my faith outside the confines of religion.
Standing in the pew I was struck, as I was on Easter, by the tendency of Catholics to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude. Why is that, when a lot of the faith is based on selfless love and sacrifice? Not all Catholics fall prey to this short-coming, I’m sure, but I certainly did. I thought being involved in the church made me better. Not a better person necessarily, but better than others. I think for me that was the danger in worshipping in a community – there was automatically pressure to compete. Who could be the most devote, the purest, the most selfless? But that kind of thinking is poisonous. My Aunt was not like that. My father certainly isn’t. And neither am I, after having removed myself from the church.
It wasn’t all bad however, growing up Catholic gave me a deep-rooted compassion for others and I would not give that up for anything. In fact, most of my moral decisions are influenced by lessons that I learned while staring up at a man on a cross. But Catholics, is it really necessary to change the call and response so often? I know I’ve been gone for a while, but when I do come back, it is extremely frustrating to be going about the mass, answering with the same words I’ve known by heart since childhood, and all of a sudden I’m fumbling over “And also with you,” when everyone else is saying “And with your spirit.” That doesn’t even make sense. Way to welcome your prodigal daughter. On Easter the priest went so far as to “fulfill his duty as a priest” by reminding us that those who have not attended church regularly or have fallen out with the faith should not receive communion unless they have confessed their sins to a priest. How about sheparding your sheep, buddy?! That is a bad example because he’s a joyless man who is obviously just going through the motions of the Catholic faith. He does it because he has to, and that has got to be such a wasted life. If he doesn’t love his congregation or his faith, what else does that man have to live for? And that brings me back to the holier-than-thou thing. To me it seems his priesthood is based solely on self glorification; when he says things like “when I was at the Vatican…” or “my Cardinal friend says…” to NURSING HOME residents, you know he is not doing it out of love and compassion. This is just one isolated example, but I mistrust a religion where that man can somehow wind up the mentor of souls that are sadly not too far from Heaven. That’s not what it’s about; it should never be a competition, because – newsflash – Jesus would win every time.
Before this week, I had not set foot in a place of worship in a long time. Since I came out a few years ago, I only go to church on special occasions – Easter Sunday, funerals, weddings, Christmas, etc. Growing up though religion was a big part of my life; I loved the feel of community, the singing, the way the light streamed through the stained glass windows early in the morning. My first crush went to my church. My dad sang in the choir. Everyone knew and loved him, and us. I went to Sunday school, I joined the choir, I administered communion, we were involved. I thought that all of that was in glorification of God, that being an active member of my church at such a young age would make me closer to Him, but it turned out that I was only promoting myself, my supposed holiness, and not God.
During the few years before I started college, my whole family had stopped regularly attending church; I think we had all fallen out with Catholicism, and maybe even with God at that point. My dad was sick and a lot of the people that loved and knew us and who called themselves Christians had turned their backs and passed judgment on us. And that was before I came out. If they had found out I was queer! Forget it. Anyway we stopped going so I was saved the pain of coming out to my fellow Catholics and finding out who among them would love their neighbor once she started spouting queer theory.
I came into college having already stopped regularly attending mass, so once I set foot on campus there seemed little reason to go at all. It wasn’t until my second semester when I was in the throngs of self-denial/acceptance that I found myself in the snow, alone, standing outside the chapel on campus. At the time I thought it was a need belong – which I later found through the queer community, not through the Catholic one – so I started attending mass every Saturday night. Looking back now, I realize it wasn’t a church I was seeking, or the community that comes with it, it was God. I was looking for guidance in a time when I had no clue who I was or what my future looked like. I was searching for some constant, and I returned to the church because it had been a source of comfort as a kid. By my sophomore year I became the vice president of the Catholic club. This coincided with the time I was trying to be out and visible on campus, so I am sad to say my involvement did not outlast that semester. The president was going abroad and they wanted me to step up, but I could not in good faith –ha! – represent a religion with which I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. So I emailed president of the club, who was also my friend, and explained to her that I was in the process of coming out, and even though the general attitude on campus and in the club was very liberal, I was going to leave the club and figure out my relationship with God on my own terms. As I grow older and am looking farther down the line, I am so torn because while I no longer practice the dogmatic side of the religion, I want my children to understand the compassion and the sacrifice that are so essential to the faith. How can I give my children the experience I had without also exposing them to a religion in which I no longer believe?
It was alienating, turning my back on the religion in which I had been raised because it no longer wanted me. Whether real or imagined it felt like all of a sudden I was tainted; something was fundamentally wrong with me, yet it had happened overnight. I don’t mean to imply that all Catholics are intolerant of queers, or that I couldn’t have found a more accepting church to join. I could have. And maybe no one would have batted an eye if I chose to come out while continuing in the church. But the threat of being rejected from a community I had been part of since birth (well, since baptism technically) was enough to make me lose faith in religion as an institution. It is too easily swayed by politics because religion is politics. But faith is love. Faith is guidance and acceptance and absolute certainty that there is nothing I can do to make God hate me. And that is how I lost faith in religion but not God. And I am so much happier for it.