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Molly CahillApril 15, 2021
Credit: freestocks on Unsplash

A Twitter account created as a parody of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has taken on new meaning. On March 31, the account offered two invitations: In one tweet, it asked people to share the time they felt most at home in the Catholic Church; in another, it asked people to share the time they felt least at home in the Catholic Church.

The invitation to share moments of exclusion and hurt at the hands of the church generated a significant response. While some of the responders shared experiences that caused them to leave the Catholic Church, many others expressed embarrassment that they had witnessed or personally experienced hurt in a church to which they still belong, a church they still love and want to trust.

Some of the responders delved more deeply into their stories with America, reflecting on the complexities that could not be expressed in a 280-character tweet. Their experiences, grappling with the Catholic Church and with elements of their own identities, are varied, but they share a common desire for the church to take a clear look at its shortcomings and strive to do better.

“If you just prayed hard enough, you would be healed”

Richard “Rickard” Morin works in information technology and is also a lay spiritual director. He has volunteered in youth and young adult ministry for nearly 18 years. Mr. Morin is autistic and dyslexic, and he is interested in becoming more active in disability advocacy, especially in light of some conversations he has heard that involve disinformation about the impacts of the Covid-19 vaccines.

He remembered “being told by well-meaning parishioners that...I didn’t have enough faith because I said prayer won’t make me not be autistic and dyslexic.” He went on to share the discomfort he feels “anytime a Catholic says vaccines ‘cause autism.’”

Mr. Morin once responded to a friend’s Facebook post about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and shared his own experiences as a neuro-divergent person. Another commenter repeatedly told him “that I lacked prayer and faith, and if I just pushed hard enough I would be healed.”

Mr. Morin knows that many Catholics and non-Catholics alike still view autism as a disease, and many fuel misinformation about vaccines as a potential cause. “What many don’t understand is that dyslexia and autism have to do with inherent neurological makeup,” he said. “If you ‘removed autism,’ for example, we would cease to be who we are as a person.”

“People are inventing what marriage means these days”

Flora Tang earned a master’s degree in theological studies at Harvard Divinity School and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Notre Dame. Ms. Tang, who identifies as queer, tweeted about a homily she heard during her days as a master’s student: “At Harvard’s St. Paul parish, regular Sunday Mass in 2020, the priest went on a 5-min long rant during the homily about how ‘[people] are inventing what marriage means these days’ and other homophobic stuff. I pretty much just sobbed out loud in my pew for the rest of Mass.”

“Hearing the homophobic remarks wasn’t surprising, but nonetheless hurtful as I was a queer Catholic who was just trying to worship that day,” she said.

“Laypeople don’t consider what they do to be mission or ministry”

Elissa Roper is disappointed in the way the church treats laypeople. Her response read: “When I am not allowed to give a minor announcement to my parish without the priest’s supervision. When lay employees are bullied. When the gifts of lay people are outright rejected.”

Ms. Roper considers herself a kind of “parish theologian” at her home parish in Australia, and she has taken on the role of support for the lay leaders in her community. She does not believe, however, that church infrastructure as it stands supports lay employees well, due to “lack of paid positions; insecure work; few opportunities for pastoral and spiritual care, and professional supervision; and lack of training and educational opportunities.”

While she sees firsthand that the work of lay leaders is making an impact in the parish community, many of the lay people doing it don’t give themselves much credit. “Most people...don’t consider what they do to be ‘mission’ or ‘ministry.’ In fact, many are used to dismissing their own marvelous work of hospitality and welcome.”

In preparation for the upcoming plenary council in Australia, Ms. Roper organized a series of “listening and dialogue encounters” to consider the council’s question: “What do you think God is asking of us in Australia at this time?” The responses from parishioners again and again said the same two things: prayer and love.

“That’s the answer!” Ms. Roper said. “Is everything that we do as church loving and prayerful?”

“I fully believe that the beauty of a life of prayer, of a faith that is challenged and educated, and a community that knows its charism and mission must not be the domain of only the clergy and religious. The church must learn to develop these treasures for the laity, in families and parishes,” she said.

“You should go to a Muslim country and see if you like the way they treat you”

Jordan Denari Duffner studies and writes about Muslim-Christian relations, and she is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Georgetown University. Her newest book, Islamophobia: What Christians Should Know (and Do) about Anti-Muslim Discrimination, will be released this spring.

Unfortunately, Ms. Denari Duffner’s work has not been warmly received by some Catholics. She wrote about the pain that has come along with that: “When I’m called a heretic (and worse) for my work promoting Muslim-Christian understanding, that deeply hurts. When I see the ways some Catholics, including some in the hierarchy, demonize Muslims, it’s hard to feel at home.”

Her own experiences developing relationships with Muslims, whom she called “siblings in faith,” and getting to know their practices have enriched Ms. Denari Duffner’s practice of her own Catholic faith. In the wider Catholic Church, though, she has observed an anti-Muslim sentiment that she believes must be addressed and resolved.

Strangers have openly expressed ill will toward Ms. Denari Duffner online, even suggesting that they hope bad or violent things will happen to her. She has frequently heard from people who suggest that she go to a Muslim country and see if she likes the way they treat her there, to which she is happy to reply, “I actually have, and it was a wonderful experience.” She studied abroad in Jordan during college and returned there after graduation as a Fulbright scholar.

“I don't think there's something intrinsic in Catholicism that would make people Islamophobic. I do not believe that's what the faith is about,” Ms. Denari Duffner said. “As someone who calls Muslims friends and works in this space, it’s difficult to feel in communion with people who hold certain negative, untrue stereotypes.”

“You know, we do this every Sunday”

Marcus Mescher teaches Christian ethics at Xavier University in Cincinnati, and he is the author of The Ethics of Encounter: Christian Neighbor Love as a Practice of Solidarity.

Dr. Mescher’s tweet in response to the parody account hit on experiences at Mass that so many Catholics can recognize: “Anytime a priest uses his homily to shame a person or group. And every time a priest tells a packed church on Christmas or Easter (or at a wedding, funeral, 1st Communion or Confirmation): ‘You know, we do this EVERY Sunday, right? It’d be nice to see you here once in a while.’”

Dr. Mescher told America that he spoke out in his tweet “for all the people who sat through a homily and questioned: “Do I matter? Do I count? Do I belong?”

His experiences in youth ministry and campus ministry and now as a university professor have allowed Dr. Mescher to observe the negative impact that preaching grounded in judgment can have. As a result, he envisions a ministry that responds to the spiritual needs of the community: “What we need from the pulpit is mercy and pastors who want to accompany people with understanding and sensitivity.”

He has heard homilies that have made sweeping generalizations about young people, that have crusaded for pro-life candidates on a single-issue basis and that otherwise unhelpfully engaged in culture wars. Dr. Mescher called such tactics both “anti-Gospel” and “anti-liturgy” since “everything about the liturgy is supposed to be an act of reconciliation.”

His mention of the shaming around Mass attendance on full-house Sundays saw many replies from other Catholics wincing at the all-too-familiar experience. He hopes the church can cultivate a more welcoming message. “If what we’re doing is compelling, people will come,” Dr. Mescher said. “They’ll want to be part of something that is life-giving and that speaks to them.”

“I want to feel at home”

The tweet asking for moments of belonging in the church received some beautiful and heartwarming responses, but the responses by people who felt unwelcome in the church outnumbered them by hundreds. Responders said they believed the discrepancy was due to multiple factors.

One important one is the culture of Twitter. Several people mentioned that it can be easy to go to a negative place on the social media platform, which they consider to be designed to maximize outrage, and they wondered if the makeup of responses might have looked different on Instagram or Facebook.

But they were quick to say that Twitter negativity was not the complete answer and that it did not diminish the very real and painful nature of the stories shared.

Ms. Tang said she has often been asked to share about her struggles with her faith in Catholic spaces, but that hasn’t necessarily included “times I was hurt explicitly by the church.” This invitation on Twitter offered a meaningful alternative to that.

Mr. Morin said he was unsurprised by the responses thanks to his experiences as a spiritual director. From what he has heard, Catholics often feel neglected and ignored when they express their hurt in church spaces. “Is there any wonder that people will then respond to an open invitation to share their emotions and thoughts to a presumably receptive audience?”

“Sometimes people mistakenly think when we offer criticism of the church it's because we don't love it. I’m doing this work addressing Islamophobia in the church because I love it and want to stay and want to feel at home,” Ms. Denari Duffner said.

Dr. Mescher noted that there are 30 million former Catholics in the United States today. It’s a group that has more members than any religious denomination in the country besides Catholics. As far as he’s concerned, that number reflects a church in crisis, and he hopes that anyone who considers that an urgent matter will take stories like the ones shared on Twitter seriously.

“If we ignore this, not only is nothing going to change, but we’re going to keep wounding people,” he said. Dr. Mescher suggests that we take a constructive turn and ask another telling question: “What would it be like to build the kind of church we want?”

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