“If I ever lose my faith in you
There’d be nothing left for me to do . . .”
This has been a heart-wrenching time for the practice of my faith. A confession: For the first time in over thirty years of active, committed, adult Catholicism, I have weighed leaving the Church. I don’t mean considered the option: I mean really wrestled with the idea that perhaps God is calling me to leave the Church I love as a statement of conscience.
I love the Church because I believe in the Eucharist. I know that’s how Jesus feeds me. I find that going to Communion is a visceral experience, as well as a spiritual one: when I eat Christ’s body and drink Christ’s blood, I feel full. Sated. And for a few moments, like I’ll never have to eat again.
But then I get hungry. Of course I need to eat again. And Jesus feeds me, without fail.
But such turmoil has happened this year: statements and decisions made that have so alienated me, have so made me wonder if we Catholics even know what Jesus was talking about all those years ago. Much of my personal pain has stemmed from writing columns in the secular press in support of civil marriage for same-sex couples and the ordination of women, and the unpleasant admonishments and consequences thereof. Public dissent, apparently, has no place in ministry. I have been politely removed from the Catholic part of detention ministry, although I am still welcome to serve in a nondenominational capacity. People in power have told me to shut up or leave, but is God telling me to leave? Is God telling me to shut up?
Through prayer and discernment and soul-searching and sorrow, I’ve come to believe that shutting up is not the path I am to take. But neither is leaving. I am a Catholic, and like a marriage, the commitment is for better or for worse. Like my marriage, I prefer the “for better” part.
I know I cannot change the Church. I don’t even know if I am right. But in my heart I do feel called - even compelled - to speak up for what I believe. As a lay person, I am as powerless in the Church as the persistent widow in the Gospel of Luke. Like her, I can but nag. I can be a voice, no matter how insignificant or ineffective, or, for that matter, personally inconvenient.
A small revelation sustains me: In order to stay Catholic, I’ve had to cut away, at least temporarily, my distraction with everything between the Eucharist and me. The parish, the ministry chain of command, the diocese, the Roman hierarchy: everything. A day spent alone and in prayer led to this understanding, born not of conceit but of desperation. My relationship with the Eucharist has been the only way to salvage and practice my Catholicism. If all of the extraneous stuff has actually had me considering other churches and other ways of worship, then that’s obviously the stuff that has to go. I will not divorce the Eucharist. And I do not walk alone: there are priests, sisters, bishops, cardinals, theologians, liturgists, whose hearts and minds are open and whose work is courageous. I am especially blessed to be able to rely on some of them for their gentle wisdom and impeccable guidance.
While I am deeply grateful to be encircled by God, who always loves me and always takes care of me, I am not comfortable with this uncluttered, unbuffered, unsupervised relationship with Jesus. I am used to layers and layers of rules and traditions and people between us: the safety of numbers. I feel like I am practicing my faith without a safety net, and without backup. I feel naked and more unworthy than ever to call Jesus friend. Yet he feeds me.
And I miss the community of parish, the fulfillment of ministry. I miss meaningful membership in the institutional Catholic body whose many arms do so much good in the world. I used to be an enthusiastic cog in the machinery of organized ministry. I used to be puzzled by the people in the parish who were pleasant and devout, but whose only involvement in parish life stopped at Sunday Mass. When I worked for the Church and was responsible for recruiting volunteers for various educational ministries, I was even annoyed with the Sunday Catholics. I was rarely able to draw any of them closer into weekday parish life. Now, ironically, I am one of them. I go to Mass every Sunday, but as a nomadic Catholic. I count on the Church for the Eucharist, but I keep my distance. My confessors are men I’ve never met, the homilies I hear are at out-of-town parishes, and maybe a visiting priest will have to bury me. The rest is onward into the wilderness, right behind Christ, nourished by his holy gift.