After Mass a few weeks ago, I encountered a parishioner who was feeling very hurt by the Church and specifically, a comment that made her feel unwelcome in the parish.
Her story made me recall many years ago when I was starting my career as a high school teacher. I attended a small parish in the town where I was living and teaching. I was one of the few African Americans living in the town and it seemed like I was one of the only African American Catholics for hundreds of miles. Having said that, I never felt entirely welcome in the parish. I thought I was a fairly active member of the parish (Knights of Columbus and lector ministries were my favorites). Nonetheless, I often wondered if the pastor considered me a joy or an intrusion in his little church.
On leave – Not missing in action!
As a teacher, I often spent my summers traveling, visiting family and teaching at a summer program in another part of the country. So, though I attended Mass faithfully during the summer months, I rarely attended Mass in my parish of registration. Furthermore, I would inform the parish secretary of this each June and ask her not to schedule me as a lector until I returned in September. Year after year, she would accommodate my request in the spring and welcome me back to town warmly in the fall.
Well, one fall, I returned and was told that I would have to talk to the pastor in order to get back into the lector ministry. When I approached Father, he chastised me for my “sparse attendance at Mass.” Furthermore, he told me that I had no business on the altar if I did not bother to come to Mass regularly.
Needless to say I was livid! Once I explained my circumstances, I think he understood and almost apologized. But, I was livid still. I told him, “What if I were sick, or lost my job and couldn’t come to church? Worse yet, what if I had actually lost faith as you suspected and did not find Mass important? As a pastor, couldn’t you have made a phone call before you removed me from the lector schedule?!”
Almost a lost sheep
I walked out and vowed never to return to that parish. Every Sunday, I drove an extra 15 miles to the next Catholic Church until I moved back to Washington a year later. Furthermore, that is certainly not the only time in my life I have been hurt by the Church.
Now that I am older, wiser and more grounded in my faith, I wonder how many others have walked away not just from a parish but from the entire Catholic Church because of a negative experience such as the one I described. On the other end of the spectrum, I wonder about those who have experienced far worse than a judgmental pastor and how impossible healing may seem to some of them.
A step toward healing
Consider the following poem that was given to me a few years ago after a hurtful experience with our beloved Church. What do you think about it?
How much I must criticize you, my church, and yet how much I love you!
You have made me suffer more than anyone and yet I owe more to you than to anyone.
I should like to see you destroyed and yet I need your presence.
You have given me much scandal and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.
Never in this world have I seen anything more compromised, more false, yet never have I touched anything more pure, more generous or more beautiful.
Countless times I have felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face—and yet, every night, I have prayed that I might die in your sure arms!
No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you, even if not completely you.
Then too — where would I go? To build another church? But I could not build one without the same defects, for they are my defects.
And again, if I were to build another church, it would be my church, not Christ’s church. No, I am old enough, I know better.”
– Carlo Carretto