When you enter my apartment, you will not see a framed photograph of me, beaming, standing next to the pope. People who’ve been in my apartment for a few hours have asked me if I’m Jewish—I get that a lot. No doubt, these folks missed the Catholic church calendar in the kitchen, and the plastic rosary hanging on a nail near the door, above my walking stick and shoes.
Without Google, I could not hold up my end in the rare theological debates I do enter into. I’m not even named after a saint. I believe that women and married men should be allowed to be priests, and I don’t make it to mass every Sunday. Even so, I am Catholic.
God becomes man
Being molested by a priest is not my tragedy. That is, I’ve never had a good experience with one. I’ve tried. When I was a teenager, my brother was killed on my birthday. He was buried by the parish where my six siblings and I were baptized, went to Catholic school and received our first Holy Communion.
I was standing in a funeral parlour, my face covered with tears. Our priest entered, looked at me, and smiled warmly. He approached. I tried to gather myself. He walked right past me. His smile was for the person standing behind me, someone who could donate much more to the church coffers and to his ego than my blue-collar, immigrant family ever could.
Even so, I am Catholic. I believe that every mass is the re-enactment of history’s central event: God becomes man, suffers for me and offers his substance for my salvation. I believe that I have inherited this story, this ritual, and this opportunity for salvation from human hands and mouths that have passed it, one to the next for 2,000 years, in an unbroken line culminating in Jesus himself.
I believe that without this human family, I would be lost. I believe that my presence in church supports other mortals just like me. My little secret: I always cry at mass. I hide it. But the tears break free, however silently.
I am Catholic because when I bring big questions to the Vatican website and read the church’s justifications for its stances, I encounter peerless wisdom, humility and power. I am Catholic, as opposed to Protestant, because Protestant prejudice against Catholics has hit me across the face, from my childhood on a school bus to the more recent funerals of loved ones, when Protestant in-laws have insisted that my Catholic mother would not go to Heaven.
This prejudice entails classist and ethnic bigotry disguised as theological contempt. I know what Jews mean when they say that no matter how little they feel their own Jewishness, encounters with anti-Semites make them feel Jewish.
How, you may want to ask, can I remain in a church that sheltered priests who molested children? I have asked myself that question more times than anyone has asked it of me.
I inhabit a fallen world
When I am through with my day’s work, hunched over a keyboard in a position that would give a Yoga instructor or chiropractor a panic attack, I tie on a pair of sneakers, toss my binoculars and rosary into a daypack, grasp my walking stick and hike up to Garret Mountain.
I walk over Paterson, New Jersey streets strewn with garbage: wrecked televisions, hypodermic needles and sanitary pads. A landslide of trash tumbles from a Front Street apartment complex into the Passaic River. Past lawns speckled with cigarette butts, chicken bones and fast food packaging, I walk up 500 feet (about 152 metres).
I tread on volcanic outcroppings, and find trees, a pond and deer. Even here, shredded plastic bags flutter from branches. Dunkin’ Donuts cups litter the trails. But here I see osprey, great horned owls, yellow-throated warblers and hooded mergansers.
Facebook friends luckier than I share photos of pristine vistas: the Tetons, the Serengeti, the Pampas. I don’t inhabit their picture-perfect world. I inhabit a fallen one, where I must grieve over what humanity has done to the planet.
Garret is the park I can reach within that one hour wrenched from work, dinner and sleep, and getting up and doing it all over again. Contact with compromised nature is what most people on this overcrowded planet can have. Safaris are for the 1 percent.
At Garret, in a church pew, I inhabit a fallen world, one that disciplines me to hope in the dark, to be humble in the light. I am grounded in the awareness that my own feet stink. And this awes me: God communicated himself to me, through 2,000 years of humans as flawed as I. That means that someone as not-special as I am can play some part in passing this story on.
I’ll never be a saint, but I too can communicate that truth that I accessed through the smudged, manmade lens of my church.
For all that I donate to the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy and Audubon, I contribute to this world’s fallen state. Yes, I put plastic in a garbage can after I’ve used it, rather than tossing it on Paterson’s streets, but garbage cans don’t render plastic benign; it still takes up to 1,000 years to biodegrade.
I obsess over fixing this. I remember the first time I got a cancer diagnosis. I felt so relieved. I’ll be dead soon. I no longer have to ‘fix’ what humanity is doing to the Earth.
Someones who are more powerful than I
I feel responsible for the Catholic Church, the church that claims my minuscule donations. Should I not fix it? Should I not join the Voice of the Faithful, FutureChurch, the parish council? Should I not vet the priest who transubstantiates the Eucharist I receive?
I don’t. I’m not going to be Saint Francis or Teresa of Avila, both famous reformers. I’m not even going to be a foot soldier. I’m too puny, too charisma-free; I joust with too many other dragons. I work two jobs, I’m chronically ill and I like movies and bird-watching too much to sacrifice any more time.
The best I can do is invoke the Serenity Prayer. In that prayer, I ask for the serenity to accept the things I cannot change and the courage to change the things I can.
This I know. The Catholic Church holds land, money, art, parishioners and theological power. Someone—someones—are doing something with all that. Someones more powerful than I.
I read of synods and lawsuits and feel the Lilliputian. I hear stray sentences that sound good and right and I pray. I pray that these someones are the right someones, that this moment is the right time and that the rudder is shifted in the right direction.
Essays like this are supposed to conclude with clarion calls to action. I can’t do that. The best I can do is invoke the Serenity Prayer. In that prayer, I ask for the serenity to accept the things I cannot change and the courage to change the things I can.
For me, so far, that courage has entailed small donations to reform movements, talking to the priest after mass and communicating to other people about why I value the church.
So far, leaving the church—which, to me, feels like abandoning the Catholics standing next to me in the pew—has not seemed like the right choice. I continue to attend mass, and place money in the collection plate, for the same reason I continue to visit Garret Mountain. Both are pocked by serious disease. Both keep me grounded in humility. I can’t fix either one. Both offer me what I need, and what I can’t get anywhere else.
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