Friday, December 11, 2009

The Pilgrim & The Path

Here is an essay I recently wrote about my return to the Church.

In the early summer of 2006, at the age of 55, I became a practicing Catholic again, after 40 years away from the Church. Where had I been and what had I been doing for those four decades? I was a shy, sensitive, and needy boy looking for affirmation and desperate for love. For forty years my insecurity caused me to be led onto one inappropriate path after another in search of respect, security, money, love. Each time I thought I had found what I was seeking, the joy was fleeting at best. When I found love, it turned out to be not enough love or it wasn’t the right kind of love. Or I was so afraid of losing the love I began to cling and ended up alienating the other person. Money was spent frivolously, security was illusory, and respect could not be got because there was no self-respect. Finally, after the collapse of a business venture and the failure, less than a year later, of another relationship, I truly was lost without a compass in the snowy back country.

Did God then suddenly appear in a circle of blinding light in this my most desperate hour and take my hand to guide me out of the wilderness and back to a safe place? Not exactly. I do not discount the possibility, however, that providence played a role in what did happen. Two friends, one of whom I had not seen in ten years, gently maneuvered me, by the most subtle indirection, onto the path I had been trying to find my entire life. And there before me on the path was the Church, waiting like the loving father in Luke’s story of the prodigal son.

My “journey” back to Catholicism has been complicated and confusing, a stop-and-go process that has provoked much inner turmoil—most of it joyful. When I registered as a parishioner in my local church and started attending Mass regularly, I felt a great sense of “coming home.” I was welcomed warmly into the parish community by both pastor and my fellow parishioners. And in spite of the startling contrast between the post-Vatican II Church and the one I remember from my time as an altar boy in the early 1960s, the essential ritual of the Mass remained—the vestments, the formalized movements and gestures of the priest and the altar servers, the music, the fragrance of the incense when it is part of the liturgy. As a child I was awed and profoundly moved by all of the theatrical elements of the liturgy, enough to want to become a priest; now an adult of upper middle age, I am no less impressed. I recently discovered that there is a name for gay men on both sides of the altar, lovers of Catholic ritual like me: we are “liturgy queens.” This is a label that I am very comfortable with.

In these three years, I have discovered in myself a powerful connection with the Catholic Church, a connection that may be more emotional than spiritual but one that nonetheless persists despite my many doubts and complaints about faith and about the Church. I cannot explain why I am so drawn to Catholicism, but I know that the draw was there when I was a child and I now believe that it remained not far below the surface of my conscious mind during those 40 years of lapse. The emotional connection has spawned passionate intellectual and creative activity the like of which I have never experienced before.

A big part of the pull towards Catholicism for me is an enduring attraction to the priesthood. Very soon after I returned to the Church, I began to experience a powerful calling to be a priest, a draw more powerful than any I had ever experienced. I was even dreaming of saying Mass. I spoke with my pastor and with the diocesan vocations director about the possibility of entering the seminary, and I created for myself a make-believe world of priestly life. I soon became notorious for my collection of “priest movies.” Titles that now reside on my DVD shelf include Going My Way, The Shoes of the Fisherman, The Third Miracle, Mass Appeal, Diary of a City Priest, Priest, and many more. I watched these films again and again, each time with the same child-like—and childish—fascination.

I also began to read books on the priesthood. Still Called By Name: Why I Love Being a Priest, by Father Dominic Grassi, and Diary of a City Priest, by Father John McNamee, are honest accounts of the joys and struggles of imperfect but dedicated men. Reading these books intensified the feeling that I was being called; I even e-mailed Father Grassi to ask for his guidance. The more I read, the more I wanted to read. I devoured Paul Wilkes’ book In Mysterious Ways: The Death and Life of a Parish Priest, the true story of an ordinary parish priest whose faith is severely tested by a near-fatal bout of cancer and the radical surgery that was necessary to stop it. I also read the incisive and delightfully dry fictional accounts of the lives of priests by J.F. Powers, as well as the more scholarly studies of the priesthood by the psychologist Father Donald Cozzens. And then there were the memoirs of ex-priests and ex-seminarians, some of whom offer a critical view of aspects of priestly life, such as celibacy, and of the clerical hierarchy of the Church. In the end, these books actually served to give me a cleared-eyed view of the priesthood and caused me to reflect deeply on what I had thought was a priestly vocation for myself.

In February 2007, after six months of truly agonizing “discernment,” I invited the vocations director, who by this time was also a resident in our parish, to lunch and told him that I did not think it was possible for me to be a priest. I said that there was too much of Church teaching that I disagreed with, and besides, I was gay. He indicated that he understood my decision, we talked over lunch about a variety of issues, including homosexuality (he never once used the word “gay”), and we agreed that we would meet for a meal and a talk every few months. That was the last time we ate together.

While there have been isolated instances of that same powerful calling that I felt in the summer of 2006, the arc of my desire to enter the priesthood has been on the downward slope since that luncheon meeting. And while I believe that I was indeed being called to the priesthood and that I would be a good priest, I am at peace with my new vocation—Catholic writer. As a layperson I am free to explore and discuss in the public forum the many questions I have about the Catholic faith.

The novelist Anne Rice tells, in her memoir Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession, of her return to the Catholic faith (at age 57) after many years of being an atheist:

In the moment of surrender, I let go of all the theological and social questions which had kept me from Him for countless years. I simply let them go. There was the sense, profound and wordless, that if He knew everything, I did not have to know everything, and that, in seeking to know everything, I’d been, all of my life, missing the entire point.

No social paradox, no historic disaster, no hideous record of injustice or misery should keep me from Him. No question of Scriptural integrity, no torment over the fate of this or that atheist or gay friend, no worry for those condemned or ostracized by my church or any other church should stand between me and Him. The reason? It was magnificently simple: He knew how or why everything happened; He knew the disposition of every single soul.

The husband-and-wife team who facilitate the Bible study group in my parish are converts to Catholicism. The wife told me that her experience of faith was similar to that of Ms Rice and she recommended that I simply accept “everything” and then allow the individual questions and issues to sort themselves out.

But I cannot surrender; I am unable to let go of the questions. There is much that I simply cannot accept. More important, however, is my belief that I do not have to accept all the teachings of the Church in order to be a “good Catholic.” I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. I have traveled and experienced and read a great deal in my life. Most of my friends are non-Catholic. I am not cynical, but I am skeptical, and my skepticism extends to much of the doctrine and dogma of the Church. I simply cannot accept holus-bolus the teachings of the Church on revelation, the literal interpretation of scripture that reduces so many homilies to banality, and the antiquated views of the hierarchy on human sexuality.

From what I have read in books like Peter SteinfelsA People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America and Catholic sociologist Jerome Baggett’s Sense of the Faithful: How American Catholics Live Their Faith, I am far from the only Catholic who harbors this skepticism. A significant percentage of Catholics believe, for example, that the act of transubstantiation performed by the priest at Mass is a symbolic act rather than the real transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. The doctrine of the physical Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, proclaimed infallible by Pope Pius XII in 1950, would be difficult for any intelligent nine-year-old to believe in the light of science education today. Where would the Blessed Mother be ascending to? And I have talked with priests who wonder if indeed there is a heaven.

Through my extensive “Catholic” reading over the past three years, I have come to realize that there is a wide spectrum of belief within the Church. I am comforted that there are others who question as I do yet still consider themselves to be staunchly Catholic. I do not believe that they persist in their practice of Catholicism as insurance against possible damnation in the afterlife. The archdiocese in which I live is very conservative (one old priest was cited in the local Catholic periodical: “Father X sees orthodoxy in the future of the parish and diocese: ‘The priests are proud of being conservative, and are more Roman than Rome. They are proud of tradition’”), so I am pleased when my weekly copy of the magazine America arrives in my inbox. Here I can find insight and commentary—often by Jesuit priests—that is more in keeping with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which sought to redefine the rigidly hierarchical and fiercely anti-modern Church of the post-Reformation period as the People of God.

The issue with which I am most strongly in disagreement with the Church is, of course, homosexuality. I made the decision to tell my pastor that I am gay because I had been asked to be a Catechist in the PREP program in our parish and would thus be teaching religion to young children; I did not want Father to be blindsided in the event that a parent found out about my sexual orientation and came running to the rectory. The first thing that he said to me was, “Don’t you think it is unnatural?” When I pointed out that it was virtually certain that there are large numbers of gay priests who are active in ministry, he insisted that if those men were still in the priesthood that had to mean that they all agreed with the teaching of the Church in spite of their orientation. In the end, he suggested that it might not be a good idea for me to be teaching in the PREP program. Now, my pastor is a very intelligent man and a good man. But his views reflect the benighted attitudes and homophobic teachings of men like Father John Harvey, founder and, until recently, head of the Courage apostolate, the Catholic “spiritual support system for individuals with same-sex attraction.” It is hard to live as a gay person in a Church that condemns the physical expression of a love that is as much a gift from God as the love of a man and woman for each other.

Yet I remain Catholic.

I am sometimes asked how I can be part of a Church that teaches that homosexuality is “objectively disordered” and that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered,” a Church that for years covered up the most heinous abuse by members of its clergy, a Church that refuses to grant women the opportunity for full participation in the conduct of the liturgy and the administering of the sacraments. My answer is that I see the Catholic Church as analogous to a family. A son may disagree strongly with the views of his father; a sister may consider the behaviour of her brother reprehensible; a mother might disapprove of the choice of marriage partner made by a son or daughter. Such disagreements and disapprobation are not uncommon in families, and apart from rare cases of extreme dysfunction, families do not usually break up over these issues. Resentment may fester until it comes out into the open and is somehow resolved or is politely hidden away again to await the next flare-up, and disagreements may even be life-long, but the love that underpins family relationships remains constant. I recently saw the segment of the PBS television series Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason in which the writer Richard Rodriguez talks about being gay and Catholic. I was amused to see that he uses the same analogy to explain his reasons for remaining in the Church.

So where is God in all of this? For Anne Rice the return to faith came as a result of an insistent call, which she was powerless to ignore, try as she might to hold on to her atheism. She says, “And He was calling me back through His presence on the altar.” When I returned to the Church, I was not seeking God; I craved the embrace of the Church—the empty, silent physical church, the priest in his black clericals with Roman collar, quietly and purposefully and reverently moving about the sanctuary, the rows of comfortingly uncomfortable pews—and the liturgy of the Mass.

When I became a Catholic again, I did not begin kneeling by my bed at night to ask God to intercede to cure my brother’s terminal cancer, to relieve the chronic arthritis pain of my 85-year-old mother, or to free me from my seemingly permanent shortage of money. I do not feel the presence of Christ in the thin wafer of bread that is placed on my tongue at Communion. I cannot believe that the God of love would condemn his imperfect children to an eternity of suffering in hell. Intellectually I know that God is not the bearded figure that appears in Michelangelo’s painting “The Creation of Adam.” If I am truly in touch with the divine within me, I do know that he exists in the words that I read and write—and perhaps even more in the act of writing—and he lives in the beautiful canine companion who keeps me company while I work, and he is present at the dining room table when a meal prepared by me or by someone else in my household is shared with love. Yet when I think of God or try to pray, it is always that bearded old man that comes to mind, the same image present in my ten-year-old consciousness while I celebrated Mass in vestments cut from old sheets at an altar created out of my mother’s cedar chest. I can never forget the words of a wise priest, Father Bob, now deceased, in my elderly parents’ parish. At the end of his homily one Sunday, he said, “You know, I cannot understand why we genuflect only before the tabernacle. God dwells within all of us, so why aren’t we genuflecting to each other as well?”

In another homily on another Sunday, Father Bob, who had not been seen in a Roman collar in years and who wore baggy shorts, a T-shirt and running shoes under his vestments, talked about faith. He told his congregation how important it was for them to leave behind the faith of their childhood—to cast off their childish certainties—and to adopt a mature faith. Mature faith doubts and questions, and in the doubting and the questioning, faith does not grow stronger—it grows deeper. As adult Christians, we must accept that there are no final answers even though the Church—actually the hierarchy of the Church—would like us to believe that these answers do exist—because the Church has provided them for us—and that we are in fact obliged to accept them as God’s truth. I wish that I had been able to get to know Father Bob—to talk with him and find out what he had read, who he had spoken with, what he meditated upon in his garden at the rectory. I have finally given up the idea of ever becoming a priest, but if by some miracle I were able to pursue a clerical vocation and keep my integrity, I would hope to be a priest like him.

My life as a returned Catholic is filled with contradictions and paradox. But if we examine the history of the Church, will we not find contradiction and paradox throughout? In the movie The Shoes of the Fisherman, the young anthropologist-philosopher, Father Telemond, has been told by his friend Pope Kyril that he may not teach or publish his views pending a full investigation of his controversial works by a papal commission. In his bitter disappointment, Father Telemond says of the Church: “I hate her! And still I can’t leave her. I love her, and still I cannot live in her in peace.” My feelings about the Church are perhaps not as strong as those of Father Telemond—I hate nothing and I hate no one—but his words do reflect an ambivalence toward the Church that I am certain I will continue to experience to varying degrees.

Yet this is a joyful ambivalence, the sign of a mature faith that has made me happier, more fulfilled, and more at peace than I have ever been. When I returned to Catholicism, I looked for God in my church, in my “priest movies,” and in my books. Only recently have I understood that he has been with me all the time—in all that I am, in all that I do, in my friends and loved ones, in my garden, in the music that I love, and yes, in my church, my movies, and in my books. And all along, he has been shining a light on the path that I will blissfully follow for the rest of my life.

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