Why Catholic?

Today, we’re answering a young girl from Australia, whose maturity and thoughtfulness are awesome, in the true sense of the word.

Dear ACG,

Hi, I’m a fourteen-year-old Australian girl who adores your blog, and I was wondering… I get why we are Christian (although I have immense respect for Muslims and Jews, etc.). But one thing I always grapple with…

Why Catholic?

I was wondering whether you ever considered being, um, maybe a Mormon? (Considering your respect for the Mormon faith is obvious.) Or why not Uniting Church? Or another Protestant denomination? There are even some Christian groups who allow women to preach, preachers to marry, and are more liberal in other issues that (and rightly so) fire you up.

So why, after everything, are you still Catholic?

I am a bit confused on that front, you see, with regards to myself. You seem like level-headed, feminist women, so I’m sure your answer to my question would be insightful.

Anxiously awaiting your reply,

Anna

Dear Anna,

We Catholic girls were so delighted to get your question! It reveals so much about you—that you are inquisitive, searching, and kind, that you are open-minded and deeply respectful, and that you are looking for the best way to live. It will serve you well in this confusing endeavor of being human.

So you ask, Why Catholic? Why not something that fits our politics? Something that is more flexible and open?

In fact, yours is a question I’ve been struggling with for most of my life. And I still struggle with it every Sunday, as I decide whether or not I should attend mass. I struggle with it every time I do attend mass, and while there, I ponder the mystery of the Eucharist, which is something I absolutely cannot believe and that, paradoxically, I cannot help but believe. I struggle with it every time I see the Catholic Church in the headlines, whether for totally disregarding its foundational principles to win a lawsuit, or when I burst into tears—who knows why? relief?—because the pope is resigning the papacy.

It’s a question I ask myself continually, one that is difficult to answer because, for me, the Catholic Church is a paradox—in much the same way I see the Eucharist—that I cannot abide but I cannot leave behind. And this has as much to do with who I am as it does the Catholic Church itself.

First, the personal part. I grew in a very small town in the state of Texas, and being Catholic made me feel a part of something much bigger. In that small town, where history was short, where there was little “high” culture, where other churches were casual and chatty and relied on emotional ploys for conversion, I saw something very different in the sacred spaces and sacred words and sacred rituals of the Catholic Church.

And I loved that sacredness, and I loved the trail we traced, through apostolic succession, back to Jesus himself. Though I was small and insignificant, I felt that I could tap into that tradition, the tradition of over one billion people and stretching back thousands of years, helping the young girl I was feel bigger than most measures would suggest.

That was half my life ago, and I have (mostly) outgrown that need to feel validated by an outside source. But—and here’s the second part, the part about why I still hold to the Catholic Church itself—I have not outgrown my love for the rituals of that faith. After visiting many other churches as a child and as an adult, after teaching at a Baptist school for two years, after living on a hospital ship amid a very vibrant Protestant community, nothing has felt sacred to me in the way that the Catholic Church feels sacred.

Please do not misunderstand me. I do not believe that the Catholic Church has a monopoly on sacredness. I believe that it is only one path among many to God.

No, I do not believe the Catholic Church is more sacred or more right than any other Christian denomination, or Judaism or Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism. I only believe that for me, it is home. It is my spiritual anchor. How I understand our common search for the divine is to sit, stand, and kneel in concert with the rest of a congregation, surrounded by gilded altars and statuary, speaking and singing in unison with tens or hundreds or thousands of others under the same roof, with the billion other Catholics across the world, bowing in unison, and maybe, hopefully, communing with God in unison.

Yet, as with all of this, it’s a paradox, because my church is rife with flaws and contradictions, and over the course of millennia, my church has perpetrated many evils in the name of God. In many ways, I am frustrated by the Catholic Church, or at least its leaders. I am frustrated by their lack of humility, by their obstinacy, by their refusal to admit when they’re wrong, and by the fact that when they do, it’s appallingly late. More than anything, I wish they would admit they don’t have all the answers, and that much of the institution is human, not divine.

But I know that many of my core values come from the fact that I was raised Catholic. I know my Church prizes education and esteems intellectual rigor. It advocates for the poor. It emphasizes sacrifice and selflessness and loving-kindness, which might be the only path toward reconciling our broken world.

Lots of statistics are out about how many people are defecting from the Catholic faith—lapsing, as we’d say. Some weeks, I’m an active Catholic. Some weeks, I’m closer to lapsed. And when I lapse, I am part of that amazing statistic: one in ten people in the United States is a lapsed Catholic.

And half of us lapsed American Catholics are drawn to another Christian denomination. Half of us turn toward a Protestant faith, and become, say, Episcopalian. And those converts are overjoyed to have a woman priest, maybe one who is married, maybe one who openly gay. Or they become Methodist, and they are relieved to attend a church service that seems more connected to their daily trials and tribulations.

But for various reasons, that other half of us doesn’t look for another church. Some don’t because they have lost faith. For me, it’s because there is no substitute for what I feel when I am practicing the ritual of a Catholic mass. It is deeply part of me. Inescapably, the Catholic Church is my home, and I will always be Catholic.

That said, I do not dismiss another’s attempt to find meaning elsewhere. I read a book a few months ago called Why I Am Still A Catholic, and one essay in it was penned by the writer Andre Dubus. Like me, he was drawn to the sacredness of the Catholic Church—to the sacraments.

“A sacrament is an outward sign of God’s love, they taught me when I was a boy, and in the Catholic Church there are seven,” Dubus writes. “But, no, I say, for the Church is catholic, the world is catholic, and there are seven times seventy sacraments, to infinity.”

The Catholic Church is where I first experienced the sacred, and where I go to remind myself of it. But like Dubus, I know that there is so much grace, so much sacredness in the world around us, in every faith that is reaching toward the divine, much as a finger points at the moon.

And yet, as the Buddhists would say, the finger is not the moon. Each one of the world’s many religions are seeking God in imperfect, flawed, and human ways.

I am still a Catholic because I know that I can go there to find the sacred, and I return there because I need to experience the sacred in order to manifest love and kindness and compassion and patience in world that is filled with injustice, with suffering, with senseless cruelty.

You might find that sacredness in the Catholic Church, or you may find it in a different place. And if that’s the case, I say, go there. Go to the Uniting Church, if it is what feeds you, anchors you, calls you to be a better person. Or go to the Anglican Church. Or go to a monastery in Nepal.

Go wherever you need to go to feel humbled, to feel awed, to feel like there is something greater that demands you love your neighbor, that you turn your cheek, that you do whatever you can to reconcile the rifts between friends and families and nations.

For that was the mission of Christ, and our highest calling as Catholics. So go, Anna, wherever you can find that sacred space.

Carmen

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Can a liberal Catholic offshoot last?

RH wrote a few weeks ago to ask about why Catholic priests can’t marry. Here’s a follow up from him, this time about the viability of a liberal Catholic sect. It’s a response to a recent article on Religion News Service about a progressive Catholic sect called the American National Catholic Church, which separated from the Church in 2009 and now boasts seven parishes across the country. Here’s the question:

When I wrote to you several weeks ago you mentioned that “modernizing” Catholicism might in part begin with a more “liberal” offshoot of the faith. Think this new “church” might last?

–RH

First, a disclaimer: I’m no Nate Silver with reams of statistical data that could effectively predict the fate of the American National Catholic Church (ANCC). So my guess for the fate of this fledgling body would be just that–a guess, and something that readers should feel comfortable quickly dismissing.

But within the article that RH brought to our attention is the opinion of someone with more socio-historical knowledge than I have: a Jesuit priest named Father Thomas Reese, who attests that “successful liberal movements are rare.” Even without Inquisition-like punishments for such heretics, these movements have a hard time taking flight.

Honestly, this is unsurprising to me, and a couple of possible factors seem immediately apparent. It’s probably hard to keep going without the institutional support and resources of the Holy See. It’s probably difficult to get the word out about what these new churches offer that is different from the orthodox positions of the Roman Catholic Church. And as Father Reese points out, it’s pretty easy to disagree with some of the tenets of the Church and still go to mass, like all those Catholic men and women who use birth control.

But I think another factor that probably works against liberal sects is the type of people that it attracts are not the kind that are easily organized and retained. Another way to say it is they are not easy to shepherd. They’re the type of folks who would flaunt the establishment in order to abide their own consciences, making them less like sheep and more like cats. And we’ve all heard the expression about herding cats.

For those simple facts, it seems like the prospects are bleak for the ANCC.

Of course, there is always the possibility that this spark could grow into a sustainable flame. The article names a couple of exceptions that seem to have solidified into establishments, but also explains that most Catholic offshoots are hyper-conservative traditionalist offshoots, sects that disavow the reforms of Vatican II and hold to Latin masses and thirteen children per family.

So despite my hope that a more progressive movement will sweep the Catholic-sphere and provide an alternative to the fierce conservatism surrounding such issues as human sexuality and women’s role in the church, it doesn’t look very likely.

Part of this is for the reasons mentioned earlier, and another part of this is that sustaining a church movement these days is difficult. In recent years, church attendance in America has decreased significantly, along with a marked decline in religious affiliation, especially among young people. Just google “church attendance in America” or “religious affiliation,” and you’ll see lots of stats demonstrating religion’s steady wane. Some people predict that religion in North America–even in the conservative evangelical sects that experienced a boom in the 1990s as mainline churches began their decline–is going the way of the church in Europe, which is going the way of the dodo.

Conservative Christians decry this as the downfall of civilization, à la Sodom and Gomorrah, while skeptics applaud these changes as much-needed liberation from silly and oppressive superstitions.

My hope is for a space in between. My hope is to find a place where people accept the advancements in science and rational thought but leave room for the possibility of mystical encounters; a place where we can participate in rituals that bring us peace and unity, but where we can recognize and transcend our social constructs in our pursuit of the divine.

I think this is probably the space that the American National Catholic Church is reaching for, along with the North American Old Catholic Church (mentioned in the Religion News Service article) and other liberal Catholic offshoots, and even the Episcopal Church, which is probably the most progressive mainline church in the United States. In some ways, these are efforts to realize progressive ideals of equality and justice. In other ways, these are efforts to remain relevant in people’s lives as the world changes.

But in an op-ed from July, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat points out that changing to more liberal doctrines is not, on its own, a recipe for growth or even retention–that like everything else, liberal Christian churches are in decline. Of course, as a conservative Catholic, Douthat predictably points a finger, arguing that modifying doctrine or dogma makes for a church with no backbone. There is nothing the Episcopals won’t compromise on, says Douthat, and that undermines their necessity.

Or as he puts it, “Today… the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.”

And though I think Douthat’s argument is flawed (which Diana Butler Bass addresses in her response on the Huffington Post, which is just a taste of her excellent book Christianity After Religion), he does touch on something that I think is important for liberal churches–or any church, for that matter–to keep in mind in order to succeed:

They must realize that we are past the days when most Catholics were afraid to miss mass for fear of the stain of mortal sin, past the days when many Protestants feared the smiting hand of God, past the days when the majority of people defer to authority qua authority.

At the same time, they must realize what people are not past. And what people are not past is a good stop.

What’s a good stop, you ask?

Well, I consider it a privilege to explain.

When I moved to Austin, Texas, for college, I attended St. Austin Catholic Church, a vibrant faith community just across the street from the bustling University of Texas campus. There I had the honor of knowing Father Bob Scott, a semi-retired Paulist priest who, sadly, passed away this summer at the age of 90.

When I first met him, Father Bob was already quite advanced in age, but he was still very sharp and energetic, wiry and electric. Deeply devoted to his vocation and to his faith, Father Bob celebrated the mass as something mysterious, mystical, and miraculous, something he was so grateful to be sharing with others. Despite his love of cracking jokes–and truly, the whole congregation would laugh aloud several times throughout each mass he presided over–Father Bob’s homilies were profound theological considerations, not retrograde social commentary.

And for me, those masses were transformational. Father Bob changed the mass from something I had to do to into a time and space where I wanted to be.

That was central to his philosophy: attending mass should not be something done out of obligation or compulsion, but out of joy. Every year he gave a sermon called “The Good Stop,” which was based on a frequent expression of his father’s. They could be on a family road trip, and they might stop at a small café and spend fifteen minutes over crisp Coca Cola. “That was a good stop,” his father would say as they walked back out to the car. “A good stop, indeed.”

So the good stop was a time where they paused from the demands of life, the relentless forward struggle of daily existence, and took stock of the moment. It was a time they could celebrate being alive and together. It was a space that provided sustenance, that lifted them up. Father Bob told us that’s what the mass should be in our lives, and the fact that he believed it made it so.

And when we get down to it, I think that’s what many of us are searching for when we seek a faith community. We are looking for a good stop that brings us peace and sustenance and unity and an opportunity to rest in the presence of the divine.

So despite my reluctance to predict their future, I believe if the ANCC can provide that good stop, then people will flock to them because they are a healing balm like nothing else, and the outlook for the ANCC would be just fine.

Wishing you all a good stop,

Carmen

Readers, do you know of churches that are providing that good stop, either inside our outside the Roman Catholic Church establishment? Take to the comments, and share!

I’m 17 years old and grew up in a Baptist home, how do I start the journey to becoming Catholic?

Today at Ask Catholic Girl–behold a teenager! I happen to be nuts about teenagers.

Dear Catholic Girl,

I’m 17 years old and I was raised in a home where we are I guess what you could say was a Christian Baptist home. We never really go to church. But, my mother was raised up going to church. I want to experience going to church but I don’t feel a connection with Baptist Christianity. I always felt more closer to Catholicism for some reason. I have a boyfriend who was raised up to believe in the Catholic faith. His family also doesn’t attend church very often. We both want to know how can we become catholic (fully) and experience going to church and really having true faith. We also want to get our families involved as much as possible can you give me some advice on how we start this journey? Please 🙂

-S

Dear S,

Let me start off by saying that as someone who has spent the last year of her life hanging with teenagers in public schools I think the fact you are being proactive about the things you want out of life is just plain beautiful.

Pray your guts out along this journey. Learn good ol’ fashioned Catholic prayers (the Anima Christi and the Hail Holy Queen are my favorites) and learn to pray in your own words too. Figure out what you love about Catholicism. Get to know God better through the community, by attending Mass, and reading everything you can (I can never recommend Why Do Catholics Do That? enough),

Don’t stress about becoming “fully” Catholic. Being fully Catholic is as easy as a sprinkle of baptismal water done in the name of the Trinity. Work on feeling Catholic first. Work at your own pace, pray and learn at your own pace. The Church is suppose to be more of a blessing than a burden, more uplifting than a giant list of rules.

See what Catholicism is all about right there in the trenches and get your butt in a pew on Sunday. If your boyfriend was raised Catholic he and his family probably have a parish, even if they aren’t there most Sundays. I would start there because it’s the parish you’re probably most familiar with. Then head to other local parishes to see if other places work for you too.

The Catholic Church is broken up into geographical parishes, so we attend with those that live near us. Some parishes are a lot looser about these types of things. For example, when I moved to New York City I went to the parish affiliated with NYU but a friend of mine “parish hopped” until she found a parish she really liked. Each parish you visit will be different. Sure, we all pray the same things and sit, stand and kneel at the same times but each parish has its own flavor. Some have contemporary music, some only sing at the beginning and end, some have young (and attractive!) priests who give dynamite homilies, some have priests who are super old dudes who are the best and most loving priests you’ll ever meet, and I know of a handful of parishes where nuns get to give the homilies on a regular basis. Most parishes have a special Mass just for young people (teenagers and young adults) on Sunday evenings. To find a parish near you go to your city’s archdiocese website, for example The Archdiocese of San Antonio. (Each site is different and sometimes kind of poorly made so if you’re having trouble email us!)

Once (or if) you feel comfortable hanging in the pews try a parish activity. Many parishes have breakfast after Mass, weeknight Bingo (yep, and it’s awesome), and youth groups that meet during the week for fun activities or service projects. This is a great way to meet other young people.

Then if you’re still loving the whole Catholic thing look into religious education. Some parishes have youth Bible study classes or other high school programs. Each parish has their own way of doing things but I think because you’re already at the tail end of high school (if not already done) that you could head into a Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) program. These classes tend to begin in the fall and culminate at the Easter Vigil the Saturday before Easter Sunday. In RCIA adults who are converting to Catholicism or never made their First Communion learn about the Catholic faith and prepare to become Catholic. I don’t know the ins and outs of the program but if you have more questions ask and I’ll find the answers.

Your boyfriend is more than likely already Catholic. Even if his parents never really attended Mass I’d bet all the money in my pockets that he was baptized because us Catholics, even those of us who only go to church at Christmas and Easter, we baptize our babies no matter what. I’ll even take a guess that he received his First Communion too because it’s what we do. I knew kids whose parents would drop them off a Sunday School week after week and then head to breakfast or go back home to watch football. They never took their kids to church or went themselves but it was important to them that their kids made First Communion. If your boyfriend is looking to get back into the world of Catholicism then he might just have to take a Confirmation (when when we receive the Holy Spirit and become adult members in the church) class and then get anointed with holy oil at a special service.

At any point in this journey when you feel ready invite your family to an activity at your parish. Let them meet the awesome youth and young adult leaders, friends and community you’ve found for yourself. Invite them to attend Mass with you. I think it’s great you want them involved and I don’t want to deter you from that but prepare yourself for them to be resistant. They have their reasons for not attending church on a regular basis and let them have those reasons. You never know your parents could all the sudden become very active Baptists after seeing you working hard at becoming Catholic. Involve them with what you can, the parish picnic, the children’s concert, midnight Mass at Christmastime.

Ultimately, this choice is yours alone to make, independent of your boyfriend or your family, and I think you’re savvy enough to figure it all out.

We’d love to hear how everything works out!

Much love,

Nadia

How should one act in a Catholic church if you are a non believer?

Before I get down to business let me say how sorry I am for being MIA for so long! As I said in my previous post I have had a particularly trying semester, graduating and figuring out where in the world I am going to start my grown up life. A lot of things have fallen through the cracks in the last few months but now I’m putting things back together again, slowly but surely.

So after almost two whole months and without further ado…here’s the question:

Hello Carmen, Nadia, and Mary,

For the last two years I have been living in Trento, Italy.  I was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Prior to moving here I only ‘snuck’ into the Cathedral of the Madeline in SLC a couple of times in high school. I was shocked that there were no adults around to supervise me and felt like I had gotten away with something.  Later in graduate school I used to love running by there on Sundays when the bells were ringing but I never went back inside.  Then I unexpectely moved to Italy.  I had never been outside of the US so the whole experience has been both terrifying and wonderful.  For the longest time I never went into a Duomo (Cathedral) and there are loads of them here.  Although I am not mormon I was still operating under a very Utah worldview.  I wasn’t sure I was allowed in and once I was through the doors I wasn’t sure what I was or wasn’t supposed to do. The big church in the middle of the city which everything seems to be built around, you are telling me I can just walk in there and have a look around . . . but I am not a Catholic and I don’t know what is happening in there.  After a few months I realized what a fool I was being.  You don’t need to be a card carrying Catholic to gain entrance.  Some of the most beautiful, awe inspiring art are found in these churches.  I have come to realize that as a respectful tourist it is okay for me to walk around and gaze at the amazing architecture and art.  Now I have been to Milan, Florence, Rome, Naples, Venice, Bologna, Verona, the Vatican, and numerous small towns so I have been into many, many Churches, Cathedrals, Basilicas, monasteries, etc.

Now that I am more comfortable in these sanctuaries I have been noticing what other people are doing.  I am sometimes shocked by how noisy and casual people are and these are people who have done the dip in the holy water followed by the quick kneel on one knee.  I tip toe around and marvel at the decor and contemplate all the people who have labored to make such beauty tangible and all the people who have worshipped in these places.  In January my husband and I visited several churches in Verona in one day.  Two of them had organ players and so I sat down in the pews and listened.  It was so wonderful.  The last church we visited was the best and I was so overcome with joy.  There was beautiful sunlight steaming in through the windows and I was feeling so incredibly grateful to be alive and to see all these historic places with my husband.  I was so moved by a silver and gold Madonna and child in that moment that I almost lit a candle.  At the last second I decided not to do this.  I am not a religious person and don’t consider myself a devout christian by any stretch.  Most of my spiritual experiences in life have been on mountain tops and in yoga class.  I do understand about giving thanks and the act of getting down on your knees and observing a higher power.
I guess my question is how should one act in a Catholic church if you are a non believer?  And also how should you act if you are Catholic? Would it have been offensive if I had lit a candle and said a quick prayer?
Thanks so much for considering my questions.
Sincerely,
Amy

That’s me as a lector at my brother’s wedding

Dear Amy,

To be quite honest when I first read your question my first thought was “oh, how to act in a Catholic church? Don’t be an a**hole.” I never thought about how I am supposed to act in a Catholic Church. On the rare occasions when I drag my non-Catholic friends to Mass I always tell them, “sit and stand when I do, don’t kneel unless you want to, technically you’re not supposed to get Communion (that’s a whole other post) and when you come with me you must hold my hand during the Our Father.” Growing up the rules were simple: wear a cardigan to cover your shoulders, put your cell phone away, speak in a hushed voice and try not to get into any arguments with your siblings. Good rules I still follow. I am a cradle Catholic, immersed in churches, cathedrals, basilica and a heap of rules. In fact, these rules of decorum are so engrained in Catholics, those devote and not so much, that when I asked my dad how we are supposed to act in a cathedral he shrugged and said “uh…with respect?”
Catholics might be hyper sensitive to how to act in church. I’ve had quite a few unChristian moments staring down folks who are chatting it up during the Consecration or texting during the Homily.
Last summer my sister came to New York City to help me move out of my dormroom (and to you know, see the city). We went to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and there happened to be Mass going on. We weren’t there to attend Mass just to see the church and wander around a bit. I told my sister that it was completely fine to walk around the sanctuary, the pews and altar are roped off as to not disturb Mass but my sister felt uncomfortable. Mass is an incredibly sacred time and my sister did not want to interfere with anyone’s experience but peering around the statues and carvings. She totally could have but did not feel comfortable. When we returned later in the day we walked to the back of the cathedral where there is a small adoration chapel is. Just outside the chapel was a burly security guard keeping camera clicking and chatty tourists at bay. In an adoration chapel the Blessed Sacrament is exposed and we Catholics kneel in front of is and pray our guts out. In this case taking pictures in front of the literal Body of Christ, let alone while folks are praying in front of it is disrespectful, the security guard was to make sure everyone was respected.
While Catholic churches in the U.S. tend to be a lot looser than some might expect the same is not true for the Vatican. You can’t wear shorts or tank tops, women must be veiled or wear a hat and that’s just to visit. You certainly can’t wander about freely when Mass is being said.
As for whether or not you can light a candle–go for it. Religious practice is all about intent. I have Christian, Catholic, Atheist, Jewish and Muslim and searching friends all could go in and light a candle. Lighting a candle doesn’t mean much without prayerful intent or wanting to send good vibes out into the universe. Bottom line everyone might see you light a candle but they have no idea what’s going on in your head or your heart.
Much love,
Nadia
So readers what are your experiences roaming around places of worship? Any Catholic rules of conduct I left out?

I’m 16, raised as an atheist, but searching for a faith. Should I try Catholicism?

Dear Catholic Girl,

I’m a 16-year-old girl raised atheist, but this past year I’ve been searching for myself through faith. I’ve tried all different dominations of Christianity, from United Methodist to Mormon to Congregational, but I’ve never thought to try Catholicism because I’ve heard so much about the rules in the religion. What if I have a different opinion than my church? Does that mean I can’t be Catholic? And since I wasn’t raised Catholic, will that mean I would never be a ‘true’ Catholic? How do I even become a Catholic? How do I learn everything about Catholicism? I have no one to teach me about Catholicism, because my whole family is atheist! What do you think?

Thanks!

Confused & Questioning

Dear Confused & Questioning,

I’d like to start by giving you a big kudos, a hearty congrats, and big pat on the back for beginning the search for your own spiritual path at your young age. I spent a lot of my life not searching, just idling down the path placed in front of me, and I wish I had found my individual faith sooner. It’s clear you have a very open mind and heart, which is a rare and beautiful thing in this world, and such a blessing for the people in your life.

There are a few of your questions I can answer quickly, so lemme get those out of the way:

No, you don’t have to be raised as a Catholic to be a “true” Catholic. Oftentimes, converts are the most enthusiastic Catholics around. (My dad is one, and we sometimes call him St. Terry because of his reverence and enthusiasm for the Catholic Church.)

As for who will teach you? To learn about Catholicism, you can begin by reading, and there’s enough out there that you can read and read and read forever, on Wikipedia, in books, in magazines. For the basics, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a big heavy book that explains the beliefs of the Church in the traditional format of question and answer. Last year, they came out with a youth version, called Youcat, which seems to be very popular. Might be worth checking out.

Because the faith is very old—the Roman Catholic Church cites St. Peter as the founder of the faith around 2,000 years ago, when Jesus said, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I build my church”—there’s a lot of material, some more essential, some less. If after reading up on your own and attending Mass (the name for a Catholic service) a few times, you decide you like it, you can then go through a program to learn everything you need to know to become a Catholic. It’s called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).

Normally in RCIA, you would attend classes once a week for about six months. You’d learn about the core beliefs of the Catholic Church, especially the heart of the Church: the Sacraments, which are the seven sacred rituals of the church. At the end of RCIA, you would participate in three of them: Baptism, Communion, and Confirmation. The process may seem long, but I’ve always sensed in RCIA candidates a growing excitement and a deepening faith commitment. It seems to me a real time of growth, and they enter the Church knowing what they believe and why they believe it. When they are finally confirmed into the Church, usually at Easter, it’s often very moving.

So now that we’re through the straightforward stuff, I’m going to weigh in on your other questions: about “rules” in the Catholic Church, about whether you have to agree with everything the church teaches.

In my experience, Catholicism doesn’t have more “rules” than other religions. As a Catholic growing up in the Bible Belt, I always felt that Catholicism was more lenient on individual behavior (stance on alcohol, dancing, music, etc.) than many other Christian religions. In many cases, the Catholic Church sticks to the principle of moderation. So drinking alcohol is okay, though drinking to excess is not good for you. (Seems like common sense, right?) It’s true that the Catholic Church has a very Puritanical stance on sex, especially outside marriage. But I don’t think it’s any more rigid than the many Protestant religions I’ve encountered.

One thing that is true is that Catholics do have a stricter policy about actually going to church—you are supposed to go every Sunday, as missing means you’ve missed an opportunity to take Holy Communion, which to Catholics is an incredibly meaningful ritual. In the eyes of the faithful, missing an opportunity to take Communion is like shooting yourself in the foot, and therefore, attending Mass is very important.

Which leads to the next point: you ask if you have to believe it all, or if you are allowed to have different opinions from what your faith teaches. (If, for example, you don’t feel compelled to go to Mass every week and take Communion, can you really be Catholic?) Some people would answer that question with a simple, “Yes, you have to believe everything to call yourself a Catholic” and “No, you cannot disagree with any part of Catholic teaching.” This is the way I was raised, and for many years, I believed it. But I don’t believe this anymore, nor do the other Catholic Girls.

I truly feel that this is something you have to decide for yourself, as you take what you learn and test it against your common sense and your life experience and your conscience and the innate wisdom at the center of your being. As I see it, God is bigger than every religion and cannot be contained by any. I believe that religion is something we humans have invented as ways to connect with the divine, but God is bigger than all of it. There’s a Buddhist expression that illustrates this: “The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.” It seems to me that what’s most important is to find what is going to get you closest to the moon. Too often we get hung up on the finger.

So I say, try the Catholic Church. If you’re looking around anyway, why limit yourself? There might be something about the Mass that you feel drawn to, as it offers an experience that is quite distinct from the Protestant services you have attended. I would recommend going with a Catholic friend or contacting someone at a local parish (what each individual church is called) beforehand, since the rituals of the Mass are sometimes confusing to a newcomer. Having someone help you through the service might make you feel less isolated.

But even if you decide you love the Catholic Church, or if it’s totally not for you and you love something else instead, this search for your faith will always be a process. I have always loved the tradition of the Catholic Church and the rituals that have been instituted over 2,000 years as a means of seeking the divine. But a few years ago, I began also studying traditional Indian yoga through the lens of Tibetan Buddhism, and found those practices enriched my experience as a Catholic. I found that on Sundays, as I sat in the pew below the image of Jesus on the cross, I could focus my mind and truly pray for the first time in my life. I could close my eyes as we sang together, and I could feel an awesome connection to the people around me. I could also feel my heart swell with something powerful, which stayed with me and, in the days that followed, allowed me to approach everyone I encountered with kindness and patience and compassion and love.

Which to me is what it’s all about anyway.

Best of luck in this confusing and wonderful search,

Carmen, A Catholic Girl