I see you.
You were brought up with CCD and Sunday Mass and played Necco wafer communion. You gave up candy for Lent, ate fish sticks on Fridays, and know what “Holy Day of Obligation” means (get thyself to church). Your grandmother or some other sweet church lady used to pray the rosary for you every day, and you have at least two sets of beads in your house or car (maybe one on the rear-view mirror). You know all the prayers and responses, and when to sit, stand, and kneel. Maybe you grew up going to festivals and other celebrations in the parish, but even if not, you know the distinctive smell of a church basement. You can almost smell it now as you read these words. You also know the words to many hymns, and there are one or two that still make you cry, every time you hear them.
When you were a teenager, you picked a saint’s name and got confirmed, maybe because it was the next right thing to do or because your parents wanted you to. Or maybe you approached that day with expectation and joy that God would live in you in a new way, like your CCD teacher told you. And you’ve had experiences of God, too, in church and also outside of church walls, that help you to know that there’s something at work much bigger than yourself.
And that knowledge has been a comfort to you, when the Church has behaved in ways that were antithetical to the merciful and kind God you were taught about as a kid. In 2002, when the extent of horrific sexual abuse by priests was revealed, you were angry. Maybe that was it for you and you walked away. Maybe you had been hurt as a child or know someone who was. Maybe you prayed and cried and agonized over how to move forward with your faith in the midst of so much evil and the abject failure to protect children. Maybe you gritted your teeth at the thought of Cardinal Law living out his days in luxury in Rome, but mostly made peace with the concept of bad apples, hoping and believing it would be different from then on. Maybe your love for the Eucharist was the one thing that kept you close.
In 2018, you felt the gut punch of revelations about Pennsylvania and Cardinal McCarrick, as well as the failure of the US Bishops to address any of it at their annual meeting as they promised they would. And perhaps because of that or because of a persistent feeling that the clergy were more interested in changing the behaviors of the flock than in caring for them, maybe you found yourself going to church less, or bringing less of yourself when you did attend Mass. Or you looked at all of it with a new skepticism or a keener, more critical, more discerning eye.
But you also remembered the good, the early of Francis’s papacy, when he eschewed the pomp of that office and washed the feet of prisoners (some of them Muslim!) on Holy Thursday, just like Jesus would. And you thought everything was about to change for the better. Maybe you worked with a Catholic organization that helped people in real, practical ways. Or met a Catholic friend who, you could tell—by their actions and the light in their eyes—had Jesus living inside of them. Or maybe there was a homily or a song or a good priest or nun or a retreat or another encounter with God that helped you feel the Catholic Church, broken as she is, is home.
Maybe Mass was becoming less a part of your rhythm, but you gathered your family for Mass every Christmas Eve. And as you sat there looking at the kids all dressed up, smelling the incense, and with tears spilling out as you sang Silent Night, you felt that old sense of belonging. And you tried again, hoping to find the generosity, kindness, and mercy of Jesus reflected in Church leaders and people.
And now, my Catholic friend, here you are, in 2020. I see you. You’ve been living amid an unprecedented pandemic for over six months, and you’re tired. You’ve felt fear about your health and that of your family, in addition to uncertainty about your job, how your children will go to school, and the shape of the country and world. Any connection you had to the habits of your faith suddenly changed in mid-March and unless your parish did yeoman’s work to reach out to you, you found yourself unmoored. So, you found other voices and other resources to feed your faith, maybe for the first time. You prayed, walked, read, and listened for the voice of God moving you forward. And now it’s time to consider what to do next.
This time of discernment about how to move forward in faith is happening at the same time our world is—literally and figuratively—on fire, and the Church is right there in the center of it. Looking for clarity, you instead stumble upon paranoid, conspiratorial, and hateful articles in your social media feed from right-wing sites like LifeSite and Church Militant, along with estranged clerics like Viganò, Pavone, and Burke. You encounter figures who claim to be giving “the” Catholic view of the upcoming US election, but who cherry-pick certain issues while ignoring the fullness of the wisdom of both Pope Francis and the USCCB. You read openly racist and hateful words from clergy members who ought to know better. Maybe you read or were told by a fellow Catholic that it’s sinful to vote a certain way (this is not true). Maybe you—like me—were warned, in the most lighthearted way, that your vote might send you and your family to hell. And maybe you’ve thought: NONE of this, in content or delivery, resembles the good God I knew as a kid, when I sat in CCD class, coloring pictures of the Holy Family over graham crackers and apple juice, singing “Jesus Loves Me,” and knowing it was true. Maybe you’ve thought, “if this is the Church today, I want no part of it.” Maybe it’s time to finally cut ties for good.
I see you.
If the Church and church people truly reflected the beauty and sacrificial message of Jesus and the Good News, the world would know it by our love. But we don’t do a very good job of it, especially these days, and the image of God can be fractured and hard to find. So maybe you’re thinking, there has to be more than this. And certainly, friend, you’re right.
I see you, and so does God, and we can do much better than this. There’s a Church full of history, much of it beautiful, and the guidance of Francis and the assistance of the Holy Spirit help move this broken Church forward from darkness to light. I believe that’s what’s happening right this very minute, even when it’s hard to see.
I have a Scripture passage written on an index card attached to my bathroom mirror. I put it there at the tail end of 2019, before any of us ever knew what this year might bring. It’s a verse from the book of Isaiah (Is 43:19, NIV):
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
Friend, I believe it. God’s making a way for this broken Church and for you and me, too. There’s a way to walk with God with our eyes, minds, and hearts wide open, even though it’s hard to see right now amid all the noise. Let’s find it together.
Image: Adobe Stock.