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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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

I was raised Catholic, but can’t accept it all. How do others, especially women? Part II.

In Part II, Nadia answers a question from “Where Is the Room for Gray,” found here.

Dear “Where Is the Room for Gray,”

How do I take what resonates in my heart and disregard what makes me squeamish? One of my best friends who in the last couple of years went from having no religion to being a Non-Denominational Christian told me, “Religion is first and foremost about your relationship with God and our community.” It’s these relationships that lift us up the most, not our relationship with the institution. I go to church on Sunday, yes, to feel community and ask for prayers, but also to have a chat with my Heavenly Father and Mother Mary in a sacred space.

I spent years feeling guilty (Carmen’s right, we do that so well!) about my beliefs or lack thereof. I once sat across from a family member and cried because I could not wrap my head around the need for Christ’s Atonement or Catholicism in general. This family member, who I am terribly close with, asked me if I believed every line of the Apostles Creed. Still in tears I told her I wasn’t sure. She looked me in the eyes and said, “Well, that’s what it takes to be Catholic.”

Her statement is flat out not true. It isn’t scriptural, part of dogma, or the way I experience Catholicism. Even in times of pure and utter darkness, I knew I was Catholic for two simple reasons: I was baptized, and I chose to be confirmed. That’s it. It’s done. I am Catholic.

The Church can’t get rid of me. I took part in sacred, ritual rites of passage. I refuse to go anywhere. They have to accept me, feminist Nadia, questioning Nadia, renegade Nadia.

How do I take what resonates in my heart and disregard what makes me squeamish? I put everything that keeps me up at night before my Heavenly Father. I tell him, “You’ve got to be kidding me! Really? Mary’s perpetual virginity? Pedophile priests? Woman can’t be priests? Etc. etc.”

I have thrown out what Mass is supposed to be and replaced it with what I need it to be. I have thrown out what prayer is supposed to be, what my role as a woman is supposed to be, what being a good Catholic girl is supposed to be.

I don’t know what it means when Catholics don’t follow every precept of the church other than to say it doesn’t surprise me. It doesn’t surprise because the Church has a lot of rules but a poor way of disseminating information. It doesn’t surprise me because the way people choose to practice religion rarely aligns perfectly onto the dogma prescribed by an institution.

And even though I live my entire Catholic life in a giant gray area, the Church’s teachings on contraception do not bother me. I was taught that fertility is an integral part of my personhood and my divinity. Contraception stipulates that there is something wrong with my fertility and that it needs to be reduced or eliminated in order for me to have choices and freedom. Just as fertility is integral to me, it is integral to men as well. When we use contraception, we withhold a portion of who we are from our partner. Same goes for men. When they put on a condom, there is a literal barrier between the totality of their personhood and their partner. Sexuality as I’ve been taught is the total union of partners. I am in the Natural Family Planning camp of Catholics. (admittedly I don’t know where this leaves our brothers and sisters who cannot have children. I’m still sorting that one out)

If you’re staring at your computer screen thinking, “This girl is crazy! How can she call herself a feminist?” Let me tell you, this particular teaching really resonates with me, but I don’t expect it to feel right or good or divine to everyone. I prioritize human agency over church teachings. The church teaches a lot of things, makes us feel guilt about our very human foibles, but in the beginning God created agency. He gave us minds and hearts and he expects us to use them. Fertility is not the only thing integral to who you are. It’s your questions, love of community, the things that bring you joy, your desire to work things out, the things you find humor in, the things that scare you, the things that frustrate you… you are not supposed to turn any of those things off, to your God, to your family, to you significant other, or to your church.

If you’re are sitting in your pew ready to tear your hair out or think the Church doesn’t want you, I’m here to tell you that I want you. I need to know that Catholics like me are sitting in the pews on Sunday, too. Knowing there are people out there with questions and heartache and a touch of anger brings me tremendous comfort. I find you and Catholics like us the answer to my years of praying, “God, you have got to be kidding me.”

much love,

Nadia, a Catholic Girl

I was raised Catholic, but can’t accept it all. How do others, especially women?

Another day, another challenging and exciting question from a fellow Catholic girl!

And we were so pumped about being here and having this conversation, we decided that we’d all weigh in. The first post will be from Carmen, following the question: below. Nadia and Mary will follow.

Dear Catholic Girls,

How do Catholics simply disregard/ignore/make peace with huge issues I cannot get past? I was raised Catholic–mass 3 times a week, 9 years of Catholic school, the works–but I can’t sit through mass anymore with only a male, celibate priest who feels like he has a right to dictate my birth control options. I’m sorry, but he has no uterus, and he has no sex, so where does he get off telling me that birth control is wrong? I also don’t understand how the huge majority of Catholic families do utilize birth control even though it’s against the church’s decree. If an enormous population of your church disregards what you say, what does that mean?

I just see no place whatsoever in the church for women who don’t want to wear their bodies out having kids or live a celibate life as a nun. I see no place for women who know that they can’t be good mothers to 7 kids, or for women who ache to see a woman in priest’s robes blessing the congregation.

I think my question is: if you aren’t a hard-line, 100% orthodox Catholic, how can you take what resonates in your heart and disregard what makes you squeamish? It’s so black and white to me.

Wondering,

Where Is the Room for Gray

Dear “Where Is the Room for Gray,”

How I feel you! How I struggle with the dichotomy of the Virgin Mary and the woman at the well. How I wish that the Church could recognize the damage it has done to male and female alike by allowing so few examples of what it means to be a woman of God outside of the selfless, suffering mother or the selfless, suffering nun. How I wish that ideology was a less powerful force in our world than it is.

Right now, you feel like it’s black and white because everybody has always told you that’s how it has to be. I’ve heard people say it my whole life. “A cafeteria Catholic” was one who would pick and choose the parts they liked—the jello and the fried chicken but not the wretched soggy spinach—and discarded the rest. You couldn’t do that and be a real Catholic, and being a real Catholic was a badge of honor.

It was doubly an honor because I was a real Catholic in a small town in Southeast Texas, where Southern Baptists had us heavily outnumbered. At school, kids told me I wasn’t saved because I hadn’t responded to an altar call. I hadn’t raised my hand at an Evangelical revival, walked down to the front with fear and trembling, and asked Jesus into my heart as my personal Lord and Savior. Even when they came to my house in the white church van during their revival week to “kidnap” me and take me to First Baptist, where I’d be subjected to the proverbial “turn or burn” talk, I kept my hand down and my ass firmly in the pew.

I resisted it as a good Catholic girl, because of that real Catholic badge of honor. I knew the Catholics were Christians, despite what those Baptists said, and I had two thousand years of tradition behind me to back it up. I had the Sacred Heart of Jesus along with the saints and statues and rosaries and all the makings of a real religion, not something invented in the last 100 years, or even the last 500. And if it meant I had to take things wholesale, well, that was the price of the badge.

But, after years of obedience and sanctimony, after years of guilt and shame (oh, we are so good at that) about my body and the things it wanted to do, after years of trying to reconcile a priest who had never been married counseling my sister to stay in a verbally abusive marriage, I’m not willing to accept that badge.

I don’t believe it has to be black and white. I believe that there are expansive areas of gray where we can honor one another in full acceptance and in love, the way Christ did. To me, there is room for many voices in this conversation, many outside of Catholicism and even Christianity, about what is divine and how to reach it. And—this is a very, very important “and”—I choose to attend Mass at parishes in that exude such a spirit.

One of the reasons I no longer believe the all or nothing, black and white agenda and instead have found this middle ground is because otherwise, I would have to leave the church, the way I would have to leave America—and let’s be honest, the planet—if I didn’t let the stuff I disagree with wash over me.

There would be silence where I used to sing the Gloria, my hands absent where they were joined with others in the Our Father, no imprints in the kneeler where my knees would press during the consecration of the Eucharist.

And then what happens? If I leave, and you leave, and every other woman who wants to be something other than a celibate nun, a Virgin Mary, or a guilt-ridden transgressor, then who is going to fight for a different image of women in the Church? Who will fight for a different role for women in the church? If we are not there to press for change, how will it change?

As for the issue of what it means to have an enormous percentage of the Church disregarding the ban on contraceptives, I think it’s a wake up call. It’s pretty undeniable, even if the 98% figure isn’t exactly what it seems. And though the Catholic bishops aren’t admitting it, I think priests closer to the people know what’s going on. On the website Religion News Service, Mark Silk presented One Priest’s Opinion on the Mandate. “I don’t need Guttmacher stats to tell me that using contraceptives is not an issue for Catholic women,” a priest from the archdiocese of Milwaukee wrote. (Or for Catholic men, I might add.) “I see it every week at the Masses I celebrate at large suburban parishes… each one of those couples has 2.5 kids… I hear it in the casual conversations that men have with me informing me that they long ago had ‘snip-snip’… I haven’t had confession about birth control in years

So women are taking their birth control in silence, abiding this ban in silence, as many are abiding the fact that women aren’t allowed to be priests—that instead of being church leaders, they are put on a pedestal and told to be like the Virgin Mother: selfless, obedient, long-suffering.

But I wonder what would happen if we all spoke up, about any and all of it. I know the Catholic Church is far from a democracy, and this may seem incredibly naive or idealistic or downright foolish, but what if our experience—our lived reality—could change things for the better?

At this point in my life, I attend Mass—not because I have to do so in order to be a real Catholic, nor because I think a priest has all the answers for me, nor has any idea what is good for my body. It’s also not because I agree with everything the Catholic Church teaches, because I don’t.

I attend because it is my church, too, and because it is important that I remain a part of the conversation. I attend because it is a way I feel fed, connected to the larger body of humanity, and I know that lots of those people spend their time contemplating the nuanced shades of gray, too.

I believe that makes me more real than I’ve ever been.

Commenters, Catholic Girls: other perspectives? Any tips for reconciliation (with a little ‘r’)?

Carmen, A Catholic Girl