It’s a tough time to be a Catholic.
I speak from experience. Having been a practicing Catholic all my life—with a brief “lapsed” period in the 80s and 90s—I have been trying with all my might to reconcile the basic tenet of the Catholic Church (love thy neighbor) with the horrific abuses that we have all read about over the last decade or so. I have found that many of my fellow parishioners and friends have been questioning why we stay in a church that is filled with abuse of power, a disconnect from its faithful, and an unwavering commitment to antiquated thoughts and practices that only succeed in keeping good people from serving in a meaningful way.
I was speaking with a friend last night and we lamented that after identifying yourself as a Catholic to someone who doesn’t know you, you have to do a lot of backpedaling and assert that you believe in the power of the laity, the value of women, and probably in the idea that a priest can and should marry if he (and hopefully, SHE, at some point) so chooses. We are assumed to be monolithic in our identity and beliefs, and that is just not the case.
I remember being a little girl and my mother showing me pictures of a friend of hers from high school, Sister Leonore, nee Noreen. Sister Leonore worked for years in Africa trying to bring education and hope to an impoverished people. Her work was endless, and for all I know, she’s still there. She entered the convent out of a desire, I assume, to make the world a better place for people who had little and lacked the basic necessities of life. Yes, she probably wanted also to convert them to the faith, as missionaries are charged to do while working with the poor. But every once in a while I think of a young woman who devoted herself to the poor while still a teenager and wonder if it was hard for her to do so, knowing that the leaders of our church have always lived in opulence and grandeur while sending their minions to the ends of the earth, all in the name of God.
Then I think about a family from our church who took their three children and went to South America to be missionaries. They stayed for several years before returning to our lovely Village, having done what they considered ‘the Lord’s work.” When I see them at church, I look at them with awe. They are ordinary people, just like the rest of us in the pews, but answered to a higher calling.
And recently, a group of high schoolers from our local high school went to Nicaragua and built houses in a small village. This was the third year they went on this trip. Many come back saying they feel “changed,” but unable to express what that really means.
I have never really identified with the church hierarchy because I have never felt that they inform my faith. I’m sure that that statement alone is probably considered heresy. As a friend last night pointed out, they are almost like Goldman Sachs in terms of bureaucracy, and now, abuse of power. Interestingly, while I am aghast at what they are purported to have done, I don’t see them as part of my “church.” I see them as ordinary people who have ascended to power and who are completely disconnected from the everyday Catholic, those of us in the pews. Sister Leonore, the family from church, and the high schoolers, however? They are the “church.” They are the people living their faith. And they are the people I want to follow and emulate.
But don’t take my word for it. Read Nicholas Kristof’s essay from this past Sunday’s New York Times entitled “A Church Mary Can Love,” in which he discusses the people doing the hard work, the work that, as Catholics, we are implored to do. Because we are a faith built on a foundation of social justice and many of the people executing the work of a man who lived many centuries ago are…wait for it…women. The same women who are not allowed to celebrate Mass, become deacons, and who have been relegated for hundreds of year to a supporting role—at best—in the Church doings. Along with the people mentioned above, these women are transforming the world, one act of kindness at a time.
So, to my fellow Catholics out there whose heads droop lower and lower by the day with each passing news report on new abuses and new scandals, I say: deal with your anger. Channel your anger into doing good and changing people’s perceptions as to what Catholics are and what Catholics do. Do what we were implored to do all those centuries ago: Love thy neighbor. If you do nothing else, it’s still more than enough.