When I was a kid, I thought my parish priest, Father Finn, should have been pope. I was 8, 9 10, 11, 12. I thought Father Finn was God incarnate.
I believed it all back then, everything the Church and the good sisters taught me. I believed that eating meat on Friday was a grievous offense to God. That unbaptized babies went to limbo. That every time you lied or had a bad thought or disobeyed your parents, you pushed the nails the executioner pounded into Jesus’ hands deeper.
I went to confession every Saturday afternoon exactly at 4, my soul spotted with sins. But I always left elated, cleansed, a pure soul now pleasing to God. I used to pray to die right then because I knew I would go straight to heaven and I would get to meet God.
In seventh grade I went to Mass every morning. I prayed for the stigmata. I wanted to be a saint and I knew that saints had to suffer.
It was all so clear. There was a road map to heaven and if you followed it, you’d live for eternity in God’s embrace. This life was nothing. That’s what the sisters said. And that’s what I believed.
Then Father Finn was sent to a sanatorium because he had tuberculosis. I took a bus to Mattapan to visit him. I thought he might die, and suddenly, right then, death didn’t seem like such a prize.
That’s the way it’s been pretty much since. The Church says one thing, and life teaches you another.
I left the Catholic Church for 20 years. And then I went back, I thought, for life.
But then came the revelations about priests abusing children — so many children, so much cover-up and deceit, so much calculated wrong, and the Church did not step up and do what it requires its members to do: confess. Instead, it deceived and dodged and ducked until it had no place left to hide.
The priest I loved as a child was a good and decent man. Other children were not so lucky. Priests they trusted betrayed them. I had a hard time with this. And with the Church’s intractable attitude toward women. And marriage. And gays.
But I shopped around and found a parish whose pastor was kind and welcoming. And I ignored official church doctrine and became a “cafeteria Catholic,” picking and choosing what to believe. This worked for a while.
I focused on all the good the Catholic Church did and still does.
But eventually, I couldn’t ignore the harm the church does, too, by polarizing people, by nurturing a culture of Catholic vs. non-Catholic, of “us” vs. “them.”
Just last Sunday, the band director at Worcester’s Immaculate Heart of Mary School, Brother Peter Mary, pulled his band out of that day’s St Patrick’s Parade. He’d been informed that the band’s sponsor, lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Stephen Kerrigan, supports abortion rights and gay marriage. So he announced at Sunday Mass that his band would not march.
How is this Christ-like? How does this teach young people love and respect and acceptance?
When I was a child, I wasn’t allowed to go to the Baptist church with my best friend, Rose, because attending a Protestant church was a sin. My aunt wasn’t allowed to get married in the church because my uncle is Protestant, so they had to take their vows in the rectory. If the holy host fell on the floor during Communion, you couldn’t pick it up. You had to use your tongue and lick it up because only the priest could touch the body of Christ and only with certain blessed fingers.
Some rules have changed. We all get to touch the host now. But many rules have not. Now there’s a new pope and new hope for change.
I love the Catholic Church. I love its traditions, its liturgy, its people, its pomp, and most of its intent.
But I don’t like its divisiveness. Jesus included everyone. Here’s hoping that Pope Francis does the same.