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In Loving Memory of My Catholicism

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My heart sank last week as I read Kate’s blog entry, “Done.”  In her testimony about trying to leave Catholicism, she wrote, “I’m feeling these days like I’m in the midst of a breakup, you know, the really horrible kind where you know it isn’t going to work but you want it to so badly that every fifteen minutes you manage to get yourself entirely convinced that it actually can work, only to remember five minutes later why it can’t, only to repeat the cycle over and over and over until it makes you crazy and you can barely remember who you are let alone the reasons why you’re breaking up.”  Kate wondered whether other ex-Catholics had experienced the same heartbreak in their final days with the Church.  I am not one of these ex-Catholics, and honestly, I can barely imagine leaving Catholicism—but to the little extent that I can, I imagine it would feel exactly like a horrifying breakup.

In Lauren Winner’s memoir, Girl Meets God, she recounts her transition from Orthodox Judaism to Anglican Christianity.  Couched among the tales of her various love affairs, the story of Winner’s tumultuous conversion mirrors her romantic relationships with men.  Winner writes of how she found herself consistently enamored by Jesus while persistently fighting against her burgeoning devotion.  In the end, she gave in to the love affair.  I read this book for the first time when I was sixteen—at the age of first love and first heartbreak—and undoubtedly, it gave me a paradigm for understanding my increasing attraction to the Catholicism of my upbringing.  If becoming Catholic was like falling in love, perhaps leaving would feel something like a break-up.

We have rituals for break-ups, for mourning the loss of a lover, a once-constant life companion.  We let ourselves cry.  We call our friends, and they show up, sit on our couches, and hold us as we try to catch our breath, like Kate. We take down pictures and put old letters into shoeboxes that we shove into our closets, perhaps opening them from time to time for grieving. When we have no paradigm for life without that ex-companion, friends tell us to wake up in the morning, to get out of bed, and they promise that someday it will be a little bit easier. Those around us testify to a hopeful future until we believe it.

Later in the day after reading Kate’s blog entry, I sat at dinner with my boyfriend Jack, telling him how I had carried her heavy words with me all day.  Jack leaned forward to speak—then paused. “I have a frank question for you, if I may?” he asked. “I know you don’t think you can leave, Jessica.  But do you ever wonder if you could, maybe some day?”  Jack has stood beside me during Episcopal liturgies where I wept silently, yearning to belong to a community like that—a more egalitarian space where, for instance, a woman could consecrate the bread and wine of the Eucharist.  Afterward, I told him I was crying because I could never imagine leaving the Catholic Church, even in the moments when I want to.  Feeling stuck in my relationship to the Church hurts sometimes—but I have no paradigm for life without the liturgy and people and tradition that I have loved for so long, even with its major imperfections.

“Sometimes I think it’s possible,” I responded.  “But, I think I would need a funeral first.” Jack tilted his head, wearing a confused look.  This was not a clever way of saying I will be Catholic until I die.  It had simply occurred to me, “I would need some sort of ritual. You know, at funerals everyone who loves you gets together, and they celebrate your life with them.  They mourn your absence but they commend you into another space.  At the very least, I think I would need that to leave Catholicism.  To feel okay about it.”

For many people, leaving Catholicism is a courageous decision made in response to the painful circumstances imposed on them by the Church.  Many suffer within Catholicism for many years before they leave, and for many leaving is a concerted effort to salvage Christian faith.  It is not a rejection of it.  More than ever, it is apparent to me that we need a pastoral response for those who need to leave.  We need some way of communicating those messages of condolence and hope that we share with our friends as they mourn the loss of a lover: “It seems that this is the best thing for you right now, even as it hurts,” or simply, “It’s going to be okay.” We need to go sit with them, and listen to the stories of their grief.  We need some way to say, “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry…”

It was a friend’s mother who gave me Girl Meets God in high school.  She was raised Catholic, and during her college years she increasingly attended a local Protestant church. She became involved in their ministries, and eventually she found herself identifying with this new community much more than the Catholicism of her upbringing.  One summer she was at a Christian camp with young people from her church, and she befriended a Catholic priest who was also there with a group from his parish.  She told him about her life in the Church, and how she had decided to leave Catholicism for this new Protestant community.  This priest offered to say a prayer with her, one that would mark her departure from Catholicism and her entrance into this other Christian community.  And indeed, their prayer marked this transition for her all those years later.

When she told me this story as a high school student, I thought it was so strange. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would intentionally seek a mark of separation from Catholicism. Excommunication was the only thing I could equate to this type of event, and that is something forced on people—not sought out. But today I wonder what a prayer like that could do for people like Kate, or for many of the people I know and love.  And I wonder what the offer of a prayer like that would do for me.


  1. Jeff Coblentz says:

    In the end, I don’t think God cares if we are Catholic or not.

    • Jeff has a very valid point. And one to which I’d like to add with the following:

      “In Essentials, Unity; in Non-essentials, Liberty; in All Things, Charity.”

      It’s a common saying which even Pope John XXIII made note of in “Ad Petri Cathedram.” The origins seem to be well over 400 years old, but with the exact originator somewhat of a mystery.

      I’d encourage you to reflect on that and see what comes:
      In necessariis unitas, in non necessariis libertas et in omnibus charitas.

    • Joseph Fromm says:

      “In the end, I don’t think God cares if we are Catholic or not.”

      F.Y.I. That is not what the Catholic Church teaches.

      • Roger says:

        If I may offer an observation. As a former Orthodox priest I watched as those who aspired to “higher office” were eventually assigned or elected to such offices. The very best priests were most typically content to remain as humble parish priests. On the behalf of those good priests, if many of the most faithful leave the Church because of media hype or personal discontent, who is left and why then should those good priests remain? Yes, I agree, Charity in ALL things.

        If Charity were practiced from the beginning there would still be one Church and it would be rather different (or so I would like to believe) today.

      • Laura says:

        Staying? A priest is free to follow his conscience just as others. Faith in God and one’s practice while communal has to be faithful one’s spirit. The Roman Catholic Church is an institution. There are other types of being Catholic other than Roman and if one feels called elsewhere then that is what one does. You don’t “stay” for obligation or to save a faulty insitution. If the good priests and people, of which there are many followed their hearts and were vocal about their thoughts then things might be different. I have found a home with the ICCEC. International Communion of the Charismatic
        Episcopal Church. http://www.iccec.org For me it is the perfect union of the best of protestantism and RCC. It is Catholic, just not RCC and I have found faith and freedom that I was missing for years in the RCC. I have not lost anything but gained. My spirit was dying there and I had been denying it for years. Why would I stay? I am Catholic, just don’t prefer the Roman version and I’m okay with it. I grieve for all those good clerics who are dying inside and feel trapped.

  2. Megan says:

    🙂 Uncle, you are wonderful. haha.

    Cousin, you’ve brought tears to my eyes once again. Thank you so much for expressing your heart.

  3. Roger says:

    Just like our human, personal relationships, we have a tendency to believe that we can change our significant other to be like we want them to be. It never works and typically fails miserably. So, we dump, if painfully, that one and try again. The problem is not in that person but in us. We want them to be the person we want and we, of course, are the judge of what is best.

    In the Trinity exists a hierarchy… Father is before Son in that hierarchy, Who is before the Holy Spirit. That sounds almost blasphemous to us, but that is because of our spiritual sickness, not God’s. I am only glad that the Son does not decide that He ought to share some of what is rightful to the Father.

    We are the worst possible judges of what is best for us. This is why in ancient tradition one would entrust themselves to a trusted and experienced Spiritual Father and would be obedient to him or her even when we thought that they were wrong. I wonder if we really have the guts to live that sort of Christianity today? It would mean that we do not have the final say over what is right or wrong, good or bad, etc. But if we are really Christians, we already have admitted that we are not our own guide, haven’t we?

    • Steve says:

      There is not a greater/lesser relationship in the Trinity. All are equal to the others.

      • Roger says:

        You are correct. There is not a greater/lesser relationship, but a hierarchy. Unfortunately, in human terms we automatically think that a hierarchy demands inequality.

      • Roger says:

        Forgive me, Steve. It may be that Catholic theology would express it differently. In the Orthodox Church Orthodox theology says that the equality of communion in God does not exclude a hierarchy (LaCugna 1973: 286). Thus, the life of the Church is hierarchical and is based on the Trinity. However this hierarchy is not one of inferiority, but is one of obedience founded in a free, loving and perfectly communicative relationship. There is equality in the fullness of their humanity, yet there is obedience which is a gift from God.

        I am not trying to teach theology or push Orthodox theology to anyone and if I have over reached proper decorum I would ask your forgiveness and I will refrain from any theological comments. I am happy simply to read the thoughts of some really great folks.

    • I think it is dishonest to impose the notion of hierarchy on what is absolute. The absolute nature of God eliminates the possibility of hierarchy. It is true hierarchy is a Catholic tradition, it is just not an honest one. The tradition and familiarity of the church lends comfort, even bad habits feel comfortable, because they are familiar. We only need do what seems best inside or outside of the church.

      If you trust your guidance to the authority of another human being you have little confidence in God and are surely being misled. Jesus did not rely on other men to guide him and we should follow that example. If you find Jesus on your path it could only be because you chose the same path and the same guide. Take comfort in your community but place your confidence in God.

  4. Roger says:

    In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas, “unity in necessary things; liberty in doubtful things; charity in all things”. Archbishop of Split (Spalato) Marco Antonio de Dominis (1560-1624), in book 4, chapter 8 (p. 676 of the first volume) of his De republica ecclesiastica libri X (London, 1617). According to Wikipedia.

    Obviously the Archbishop must have been a wise man. Thank you Andrew (and Jeff).

  5. Laura says:

    Another great reflection Jess. My relationship with religion, mainly in the RCC has been one I never would have expected. It is still too complex for me to put into words. So, I don’t try. What really resonated with me is the funeral, the ritual. That is a fantastic idea for those who struggle when they have felt God calling them somewhere else, including myself. I can totally relate. It’s complex to even consider what is it to be Catholic. Can you not practice it but still be it? Anyway, thanks for the thoughts. Love ya.

  6. Kedda says:

    Jessica, a friend emailed me both your post and Kate’s post. She knows my story. The Roman Catholic Church has turned back to the way it was before the Council of Vatican II. I went through many years of hurt, anger and alienation because of this betrayal and yet stayed with the Roman Catholic Church. Then all the abuse stories came out. I wanted to leave, but there was no where to go. I am so very , very Catholic. For a long time I kept one foot in the Church and one foot out. At last I found another way to be Catholic and I went running to it. I joined the Ecumenical Catholic Communion and not only found another way to be Catholic, but a better and happier way. I am so very grateful. It was my joy to discover that I didn’t have to give up my Catholic tradition. Now I go to Church with joy.

    • Henry says:


      I am happy you have found a space, although I wish you had explored some of the options in the Church that Jesus founded and subsists in such as ecclesial lay movements.

      I had never heard of the ECC so I went to their website and I was happy to see that they are honest enough to write: “We are independent Catholic faith communities in that we are not under the jurisdiction of the Pope nor are we subject to the canon law or the guidelines of the Roman Catholic Church.”

      It does seem a bit misleading to use the word Catholic (with a capital C) as that is generally used when referring to the original Church. Thank you for letting me know that there are still people starting their own branch of Christianity and I wish you peace.



  7. Steve says:

    Just a small point, Jessica. Excommunication is never forced on anyone. It is a recognition that a person has separated herself/himself from the Church by formal separation, beliefs, or actions. Yes, things are terrible in the Church right now, but it is worse in the Protestant churches.

  8. Henry says:


    I’ve come to your blog because a friend, Crystal, who has her own blog, brought the America article – which cited your blog – to my attention.

    I’d like to begin by telling you that your post is beautiful and demonstrates a dynamic and rich humanity – thank you for writing it.

    I was also saddened by Kate’s post because I sense that she had been cheated out of the Beauty and Joy of following Christ in the Catholic Church by whoever taught her the Faith. The more I meet other Catholics, the more I am amazed and grateful to the Franciscan priest who taught me the Faith! Moreover, Christ has called me to follow him in an ecclesial lay movement in the Catholic Church (Communion and Liberation) that has built upon and enhanced the foundation that Christ gave me through the priest who taught me.

    And so, based on my experience and what I have been taught and studied on my own, at heart, Catholic Christianity isn’t things to do, or laws to honor, but a Presence to be amazed by, a Presence to think about, a Presence you can talk to, a Presence to beg: a Presence. So, it’s a You that dominates, not things!

    Think back to the experience that the Apostles had: the apostles were struck and attracted by a You that was present, by a You that ate and drank with them, by a You whose hair did things because there was wind, by a You that they put on the cross. It’s this You which is the meaning of history and the reason for the Church.

    And what do I answer when people ask me: why do you stay in the Church? Because that You comes to me through the flesh of those people – some that I don’t even like!

    I pray that all my brothers in sisters in Christ will experience the joy and freedom that I have experienced since my conversion to the Catholic Christian Faith.



  9. Jen says:

    Wow, this post has sure spurned a great deal of response! Jess, I love your insight and ability to express it so honestly. Thank you for challenging us all to examine ourselves so earnestly as well.



  10. Joe C says:

    First off, nice post!

    I’d like to respond to the first comment. It is true in some sense that God does not care if you are Catholic, but God is not an abstraction that you can interact with in some vacuum.

    We meet the Trinity in a very special way in the community of believers that is the Church (including our Protestant brothers and sisters) and in the Eucharist.

  11. Nancy Burke says:

    When Jesus asked the 12 if they would leave him, too..Peter said “Where would we go for You alone have the words of Eternal life” (From memory, so probably not absolutely accurate but I hope the Essence is clear) I am grieved about the pedophile priests and pray for the victims as well as for the priests BUT I can not imagine being in any other ‘place’. I watch the Protestant churches on tv and wonder why there are so many. In doubtful things, freedom but there is also objective truth. Not my truth but Truth. As for me I will stay where I am knowing it is an imperfect church comprised of imperfect people. People like me 🙂 but filled with so many who are trying to be ‘other Christ’s’.


  12. Letha Schulz says:

    Heh am I honestly the first reply to your amazing read.

  13. Eric says:

    I’m quite late to the party here, but I can’t help but comment on how good this post is. I’ve read it several times already, and imagine I will be referring to it in the future. Thanks for sharing.

  14. […] As I have expressed elsewhere on the blog, I do not think the necessary result of this healing process will be a long, carefree life within the traditional boundaries of the Catholic Church.  Whatever the concrete results of processing the pain of Catholic life, I believe that healing, life-giving work is the work to which we must faithfully give ourselves.  As much as the concrete results of healing are often unknown and always particular to an individual’s own struggles, I am quite sure that a life bounded by bitterness and resentment is likely not what God wants for us. […]

  15. Katie says:

    Thank you for this beautiful post. I’m a little late to the conversation (years in fact) but I truly appreciate the compassion and empathy you have with those of us who have left a Catholic Church we once loved. The need for a funeral is one of the truest statements I’ve ever heard.

    I was a passionate Catholic: daily mass, discerned the religious life, youth group leader, college missionary. I fought for my faith for years as I felt everything inside me scream louder and louder that there were too many items that I couldn’t reconsile. The more I studied church history, read early church documents, and the Bible, the more it all seemed so man made, the more it fell apart. In the end, I had 2 spiritual directors, I was attending 3 churches, and spending hours in prayer before the Eucharist each week to try to save the faith I grew up in.

    I remember the exact moment I truly left. I was at Mass, and I was saying the Apostles Creed “I believe, I believe, I believe”. I realized in that moment I was standing in a place that had one been so Holy and I was lying. The words were a lie, my very presence there was a lie before God and man. I left in tears. Over the next few weeks I said goodbye to a being I had long been in love with, but now acknowledged I did not believe existed.

    I’ve been non religious for almost 6 years now. The freedom of living an authentic life without any pretense is indiscribable. I’m grateful to for many of my memories and moments from my religious time. Sometimes I’m nostalgic for the feeling of being truly in love with my faith and with a God I believe in, but I know I can never go back. The price of authenticity for me was very high but I would pay it again and again.

    Thank you again for your empathy for a painful and heartbreaking experience. To many people think we leave just to be hardened sinners. The truth is we suffer through the most painful breakup imaginable to have a heathy life thereafter.

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