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A couple years ago Roger Haight S.J., one of Catholicism’s leading theologians, visited the Paulist Catholic Center here in Boston to offer a three-day lecture series. At the beginning of one Q&A session, an audience member stood in a huff and proceeded to deliver a lengthy, rather aggressive monologue directed at Haight. Those familiar with the controversies surrounding his work might assume that this man took the public lecture as an occasion to echo the harsh words of Haight’s magisterial critics. Quite the opposite, in fact. The audience member argued that the disciplinary measures against Haight were another example of the reactionary shift in church leadership since Vatican II. The Second Vatican Council, he explained, had offered a vision of hope for Catholics that has only been mired by the Church hierarchy ever since.
This is a message I heard repeatedly during the last three and a half years as a staff member at the Paulist Center. One of the major hubs in Boston for Catholics seeking a community of vibrant worship and lefty social justice commitments, the Paulist Center is hospitable to many folks who wish the Church at large looked a little (or a lot) different than it does today. Despite my familiarity with this audience member’s perspective, my shared dissatisfaction with the treatment of Roger Haight and his work, and my own related concerns about the current status of Catholicism, I found myself cringing as I sat in the pew just a few feet away from this man.
When the event concluded I headed to dinner with a group of young adults where I facilitated a discussion about Haight’s talk. As always, I was struck by the earnestness, intelligence, and eloquence of my peers as they reflected on spirituality and our lives as Catholics. These young adults echoed, in content, what that vocal audience member had proclaimed earlier: They, too, where saddened and frustrated to know that our brilliant and kind lecturer had endured so much strife from church leaders. They, too, worry about what our church does and does not look like today.
What was absent from their reflections that night—and most nights—was the aggressiveness and bitterness that made me cringe when I heard very similar concerns from the older audience member earlier that evening. I rarely experience the same bitterness among younger “progressive” Catholics that I witness so often among older members of the community. And I’ve been trying to figure out why for a long time. Have we young adults simply not lived with the church long enough to accrue the degree of anger that we witness in older Catholics? Is it just a matter of time until we also find ourselves taking the mic for a few safe moments to diffuse some of that frustration we’ve been harboring inside? Maybe. Maybe that’s one reason why that man made me so uncomfortable: I recognized much of my own anger in him, and faced with this mirror, I found myself wondering: Has my Catholic faith fated me to a life of bitterness and resentment? Is this what my disappointment and frustration is bound to become? This kind of anger, however sincere and justified, is not what I want for this man, my community, or my life.
I believe these are some of the pressing spiritual questions among many Catholics today. My years in Catholic young adult ministry have shown me that I am not alone in seeking a hospitable space where I can process my frustrations about the Church with a supportive community. This blog is one such space, to be sure. At the same time, there are these moments when there is a temptation to indulge this disappointment and anger in unhealthy ways. We attend to our wounds in ways that cause them to fester rather than heal. With the best of intentions, we proclaim our anger so loudly and so often that we come to associate only words of resentment with Catholicism. When we listen to ourselves we only hear how miserable it is to be a Catholic today.
How do we respond to the pain in a way that brings healing and life? Because Christian work ought to be healing work, I am convinced that all Christians—especially ministers—need to deal seriously and carefully with church-related pain, whether it belongs to others or to oneself. Yet I do not think simply offering a microphone is always the best response; it is rarely a good response if it is the sole response. I suggest this because I experienced a temptation in communities full of genuinely hurt Catholics to join the chorus of anger when it doesn’t quite reflect the complexity of one’s situation of own faith—of one’s own pain. In the safety of like-minded folks such as that audience member, I have found myself spouting dismissive comments about the Church only to realize minutes later that my own words don’t reflect the reality of my life as a Catholic—as a Catholic who is sad and frustrated, but also enlivened and hopeful. Again, admittedly, there are times when I have rather snide things to say about the Church that need to be named in order to be processed healthily. But, when faced with such words, I think I too rarely ask myself and others: Is that all you need to say? Can I help you process this more?
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.
Over the years, the frank and hopeful insights of the young adults at the Paulist Center have taught me this. These peers afforded me opportunities for honest speech in the context of a larger community of healing, for which I was immensely grateful as I concluded my time on staff there last week. And the healing continues…
“You’ve heard she’s going to Boston College next year?” she said, gesturing toward me, as we stood around the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard this afternoon. She was referring to my decision to start a PhD in Systematic Theology at BC in the fall.
“Yes I have heard!” said the other woman. “You’re entering the battle ground!” she exclaimed. “I’ve heard what the bishops have done to Elizabeth Johnson at Fordham.” She was referring to the recent negative statement from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops concerning the work of Prof. Johnson, one of the leading Catholic feminist theologians of our time. Although much of the theological world has dismissed the legitimacy of any and all of these claims made by the USCCB, the statement has stirred a great deal of controversy nevertheless.
“There is still hope, though!” the first woman replied. Still hope for the future of feminist theology in this church.
“Really?”said the other.
“Yes, yes, there must be! We must hope.” Hope.
Once we found our seats the event moderator introduced Dr. Kiran Martin, the founder of Asha India, an organization in Delhi committed to transforming the lives of the 1/3 of Dehli’s population living in the urban slums. Dr. Martin recounted her story: As a young medical student, she decided to visit Delhi’s urban slums; despite living in the city her whole life, she had never visited these areas in her city. There, she found herself amid a cholera outbreak and felt compelled to offer her medical services to the sick children there. Once she established regular medical services in these communities, she realized they needed housing renovations. Once those began, she realized they needed property rights. Then, she realized they needed opportunities for higher education, and so on.
What began with a single woman, offering what she could for the betterment of a community in need, has resulted in a large, holistic, and exceptionally influential NGO that works with some of the poorest of the global poor.
“Asha,” she told us, “is Hindi for ‘hope.'” She had called her life’s work, “Hope.”
If this woman, with this monumental mission, can call this work, “Hope,” then perhaps I can claim it for my small work, too. Perhaps I, too, can be one woman, merely offering what I can for the betterment of one community. Perhaps that is how hope can survive, maybe even thrive, in the day to day.
When the headlines appear, the questions come in. I’m used to this. And in fact, I’m absolutely flattered by it. It means a lot to me that people take the time to ask for my thoughts about whatever Catholic controversy fills the news on any given day. Sometimes, friends ask me to sort out the esoteric religious jargon for them. I’m capable of this only sometimes, but I am always honored that folks trust my assessment of the tradition. Other times, these blessed friends are simply concerned about how I’m dealing with it all. “How are you feeling about this, Jessica. How are you doing?”
In recent weeks when the news spread that the Vatican is making significant strides to revise its handling of clergy sexual abuse cases–all while allegedly linking the severity of these sins to the ordination of women–the questions came in, and I started to ask myself, “How are you feeling about this, Jessica? How are you doing?”
I couldn’t stop thinking about the story my friend Katie told me the other day. During a recent weekend, she volunteered at a middle school camp for inner city youth run by the Catholic parochial school where she taught for a few years after college. On that Sunday morning, she went to Mass with the students and their teachers in the camp’s quaint wooden chapel. The presider was gracious with the kids, and a good homilist, too. “But the tabernacle there–” she told me. That’s what got her. “The tabernacle looks just like the boy’s Catholic school down the street. Like the shape of their building.” I began to smile as she went on. I delighted in the fact that this friend anticipated the wonder I would share with her as she recounted this experience for me. “This is what Catholicism is about, isn’t it? Recognizing Jesus inside an inner city school like that? Like that? Believing that Jesus dwells with the underprivileged so much that you make a symbol of it with the most important part of your sanctuary?”
I nodded as we savored this moment that captured the best of our Church. In that small moment, we didn’t have to convince ourselves that we are so blessed to belong to this Church. We are blessed to have church that views inner city schools as tabernacles, and tabernacles as inner city schools. And blessed to be raised in a church that has given us the eyes to see the world in this way, too. “I wish I had moments like that more often,” Katie said. I think she was referring to the tabernacle at the camp, but I was thinking the same thing about the moment we had just shared–that moment of unwavering pride for our faith.
I’ve been telling a lot of people that, for many reasons, I feel sad and disappointed about the recent Vatican stirrings. And, really, I’m feeling tired of feeling sad and disappointed. But I am also trying to tell a lot of people about my hope. I’m trying to talk about that, too. I’m trying to tell them about the eyes this tradition has afforded me–Katie and me. Eyes that recognize miraculous transformations in places and people that much of society overlooks. Eyes that see Jesus in the sometimes harsh and unglamorous realities of our cities. Eyes set on recognizing God’s redemption of our world in any and every place. Even in our Church.
When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.” Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him.” The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes… (Matthew 8:5-8)
There are many things about this section of scripture that make me squeamish. In principle, I dislike charges of absolute authority, even as they are ascribed to the human incarnation of an omnipotent God. I am especially uncomfortable with authority analogies related to the military, or any other institutions that employ violence as a means of enforcement, for that matter. There is something about the centurion’s claim of unworthiness that gets me, too. Perhaps I’ve seen too many well-intentioned Christians transform “humility” into unproductive guilt.
Despite all this, I cling to that declaration: But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.
This man knew the power of a word.
Jesus responded to the centurion, saying, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would!” I’d like to believe that “Go” was the word with all that power. I want to believe that because it is often the smallest words that heal me. Last semester I took a seminar that required students to circulate written reflections on the assigned readings before class. While reading the first reflection paper of the semester, written by male student, I was touched by the care with which he employed one little word. “When one does this, she experiences that…” Every non-specific pronoun he utilized in the essay was gendered female—a stark contrast to the ubiquitous male-gendered pronouns that filled the theological texts we studied all semester. With that little word—“she”—this colleague extended a powerful message: language so often excludes people of your gender, and I am invested in changing that. This gesture brought a little bit of healing.
Big words and long phrases have power, too. I keep a stack of blank note cards next to my bed; you will find me frantically reaching for them while reading Nouwen, Teresa of Avila, and Foucault when I have come across a line or a paragraph too precious to forget. I scribble them down and pin them to the bulletin board hanging on my bedroom wall where they remind me that so many others out there share the truths that I have unearthed in this short life. These are healing words because they remind me that I am not alone in my search for sense and meaning in my strange encounter with this world.
When I think of being “Christlike,” I dream of bringing words that heal. This is how I make sense of a life of so many books and computer screens. I am searching for the Word. The Word that heals.
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.
I have memories of being a typically-gregarious little girl who was afraid to speak in class. Maybe it was more self-consciousness than fear. My young male peers taunted me on the basketball court at recess and inside the classroom walls–“like children do”–because I was a young female with something she wanted to say. They told me this. They explained to me my boundaries “because I was a girl.” Even though I sensed that all of us knew these were untrue, these young men said all this because it had power. It had power because we all knew it had once been thought to be true. And that was a powerful reminder. (Where do second graders learn this? Probably Nickelodeon sitcoms).
Generally speaking, I imagine these situations evoke two types of reaction: Either young females learn not to speak up in class; studies have confirmed this. Or, they start talking louder. With the impassioned cursive script of a second grader, I decided to report gender confrontation after gender confrontation in our class “Conflict” notebook, which my teacher read aloud once a week before facilitating a detailed lesson and class discussion concerning conflict resolution skills. I started talking louder.
And I’ve been loud ever since. I’m the kind of person who steps out into the middle of Boston traffic to yell at taxi drivers who spit out racist and homophobic slurs in moments of senseless road rage. I have this intense moral compass (undoubtedly learned from my mother) and I will simply shatter if I don’t speak up sometimes.
That’s why I don’t know what to do with the trembling voice and unsteady pen I have found myself with in recent times. In moments like these, I don’t recognize myself. I ask myself, “What happened to that little girl with that strong, loud voice? The young woman who believed in the potential power of her voice?” I am second-guessing my words, projecting onto myself the presumed judgements of others. I doubt whether anything I have to say could possibly make any difference for the causes I address. My voice trembles when I speak, and I struggle to silence its shaking doubt.
I keep speaking, though. I keep writing, clearly. One of my favorite quotes reads, “No great art has ever been made without the artist having known danger.” It’s from Rilke, the writer who told a young poet to keep writing when he doubted himself. I think my voice shakes these days because I have given myself to a sort of danger–to the danger of a challenging academic environment, to new friends and brilliant peers, to a world far from the comforts and tangible love of home. It feels vulnerable. But it is getting better.
I still believe that one day I will open my mouth and the words won’t shake anymore. I hope they will resound louder and stronger than before.
Until then, I’ll keep talking.
Last Sunday I found myself smack in the middle of a protest between pro-choice feminists and anti-abortion Catholics. This Sunday I took communion with Senator John Kerry.
It wasn’t until halfway through the Mass that I realized the deep singing voice behind me belonged to the famous American Catholic politician. “Peace be with you,” I said, offering the tall man my tiny hand. Only as he reciprocated the gesture and words of peace did I became aware of who this man is.
It wasn’t mere celebrity that had his presence on my mind throughout the Eucharist and the rest of the Mass. After a week of meditating on the difficulties of being a Catholic feminist in light our nation’s debates concerning reproductive rights, there I was with the famous public figure who has been set apart as the embodiment of this tension between women’s rights and religious tradition. I was humbled. What kind of courage and devotion must one possess to show up to Mass time and time again, undoubtedly aware of the political implications accompanying every walk one takes toward the altar in that communion line? Although there is real friction in my feminist Catholic identity when it comes to navigating the question of abortion, the discomfort I experience and the Catholic allegiance I profess in light of it is really so easy compared to a man who must work out these tensions so publicly.
From the protest lines to the Communion line. I felt a great deal of courage, standing in that line with him.