This happened nine years ago in a Roman Catholic church in a little town in the Canadian Rockies.
I should have shaken it by now. But the memory rears its ugly head at random times. Prejudice is like that. Or maybe the correct word is contempt.
I had been to this church, all stone and stained glass, built at the bottom of a mountain, a few times before. I loved its community. And its warmth. But this time I was in Canada not with my husband, but with my friend Anne, and I suggested that we go together.
Anne is an Episcopalian, not Catholic. Episcopalians have many of the rituals of the Catholic church but not all of its rules. One example: Anne’s husband was an Episcopal priest. Catholic priests can’t marry. Another: Anne’s bishop at the time was Gene Robinson, the first openly gay man to be ordained a bishop. Catholic priests cannot be openly gay.
The day we entered this beautiful little church, we were greeted by friendly lay people who were passing out programs. An organ played. We took our seats, bells chimed, and a priest appeared.
The priest was African, his accent thick. When he climbed the pulpit to preach, his English was labored.
But his words were clear. Homosexuality is an abomination, he said. There is no place in the Catholic church for gays. They are not welcome. Spread the word.
As a Catholic, I know about hardliners, priests who won’t give communion to someone who’s divorced, priests who still insist that birth control is a mortal sin. But I had never witnessed anything like this direct, public condemnation.
We walked out.
A man born in a different country, with a different culture and different language, was embraced, accepted, and included by a community in a country 8,000 miles from his home. And he used this inclusion to exclude.
This floored me.
Back home, I returned to my own Catholic church. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened.
Catholics shop around. We find a priest who shares our beliefs and we drive a few extra miles and follow him. But the party line is clear. I’d glossed over it in the past. I couldn’t this time. So I left the church.
My daughter said recently, “You should go to,” and named a parish she’d just attended whose priest welcomes all. But it is the priest doing this, not the church.
The church has its rules. I was reminded of this again last week, not in a dramatic, believe what we say or go find another church, kind of way. It was, instead, a small rule broken that made a tiny moment feel large.
I was at a funeral of a young woman, the church full of young people. The liturgy, the hymns, the message, that we’re born into eternal life, all comforting. But there’s a rule in the Catholic church that only one person can eulogize the deceased at a funeral and only for five minutes.
So when two of the deceased’s friends came to the altar and took turns speaking, I was surprised. They were old friends and they were brief and reverent. And they played a song not a hymn at the conclusion of their remarks. And I thought, yes, the church is changing. It’s accommodating. It’s listening to what people want.
And then the man who helped raise the young woman came to the pulpit, and his words were honest and succinct and the crowd was rapt. And I thought again, change. It’s happening.
But it isn’t because, as the bereaved man was speaking, the priest stood up and said, “Thank you,” a proclamation that stopped the speaker in mid-sentence.
That “thank you” echoed in the big, cold church.
If a salesperson treated customers in this fashion, he would be out of a job. Isn’t it a priest’s job to sell God? “Welcome all.” “So good to see you here.” “Please come back.”
You don’t woo people by slamming doors shut. You open doors and invite people in.
Compassion is a concept that many in the hierarchy of the Catholic church don’t seem to grasp.
Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.