Why am I (still) a Catholic? In the wake of the clerical child sex abuse scandals and the latest investigation of Irish priests by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), that’s a question that is being asked increasingly by people in Ireland.
Jon Hatch, a doctoral candidate at my School, became Catholic last year. Jon was born in the United States, and had previously belonged to various Protestant churches. He says he is constantly asked, especially by Catholics, why he made the move.
Jon spoke on this at an event at the Black Box in Belfast on 25 April, called TenX9. TenX9 is described this way on its Facebook page:
Tenx9 is a monthly storytelling night in Belfast where nine people have up to ten minutes each to tell a real story from their lives. Each month has a theme. [Last Wednesday of every month in the Green Room of the Black Box.]
On this particular night, the theme was ‘Why?’ Given the relevance of his story to what has been discussed recently on this blog, I’ve reproduced Jon’s remarks below:
Why I Did However You Describe Whatever It Was That Made You Ask Me ‘Why?’ by Jon Hatch
‘Why?’ It’s not a particularly easy question to answer. And why is that? None of the usual descriptions for what I did that elicit this question appeal to me personally. I don’t like saying, ‘I became a Catholic’ because I don’t think that I become anything new that I wasn’t already. I don’t like saying I ‘joined’ the Catholic Church; I don’t think I joined anything. And I’m very uncomfortable with the idea that I ‘converted’. But I also somewhat chafe at the term the Church uses: that I’ve been ‘received’. That term just makes me feel like the post.
Anyway, in Ireland and Northern Ireland, the first question is not necessarily ‘why?’ The ‘why’ usually emerges from other Catholics, who view me as having a particularly tragic form of insanity. They ask ‘why?!’ in a way that you’d might hear from prison inmates if the new man on the wing, when asked what crime put him there, brightly said, ‘oh no, I’m here by choice!’ But from Protestants, the question is usually not ‘why?!’ although that is there. THEIR question is more usually ‘HOW?!’ The very idea of what I am describing seems to be, for them, simply outside the realm of possibility; I might just as well have said, ‘I’ve become a giraffe.’
Some family members have been very upset, by which I mean my mother. Those ‘why’ questions have been awkward and painful.
But those closest to me don’t ask ‘why’; their question is usually closer to ‘what took you so long?’
They know who I’ve been all along. I’m living my life in a way that feels more like me that I have in the past. I’m living my life with an honesty that feels extremely liberating. But I have to say that the best way I could describe it is that something about me that was always there is now lived out honestly and with integrity, no longer hidden and no longer frustrated. I think some of you might know what I’m talking about; some of you might have a similar story about yourself, but I will not presume.
I was raised in the Presbyterian Church. But in my experience, services and doctrine weren’t nearly as austere as in Ireland. Our church was quite open and fairly progressive. And neither of my parents were anti-Catholic; my dad had been raised Catholic. He’d never been particularly active in the Church, and when he embraced Christianity, he’d simply ended up somewhere else. But he wouldn’t abide anti-Catholic rhetoric. Actually, my home life and my church life were a bit of an antidote to my school life, which was run by a particularly rigid sect of the Baptists; the less that’s said about them, the better. TRUST me.
But in the background of those experiences was a rich and, to a child, exotic Catholicism.
That was my father’s Irish side of the family; my grandmother from Roscommon, my uncle Bill, My cousins Barry and Kathleen, and just about everybody on my grandmother’s West Orange NJ street. It was a Catholicism that was in the air. It was in the food. It quietly hung on the walls and sat in the cupboards.
My first real experience of Catholicism in practice was my grandmother’s funeral. I was 11. We went to the funeral home every night for a week and stayed for hours. People came and went. It was the first time I really saw people cross themselves, kneel and pray. It was my first real experience of candles. But the one thing that truly sticks in my memory were the mass cards, dozens of them, brightly coloured with pictures of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints. They were beautiful. I wanted to take them all home. I was filled with sadness at the loss of my beloved grandmother, who I adored, but in the midst of the sadness was a feeling of… relief? Centred-ness?
This felt like… home.
The funeral mass was probably the first Catholic service I’d attended. Again, I felt a visceral sense of attachment. I wanted to be here. I’d never particularly ‘wanted’ to be in church before. I wanted to come here every week! It was quiet, it was loud, it was urgent, it was a bit chaotic. If this doesn’t sound like a Catholic church to you, remember that this was Northeast NJ. You heard lots of Italian, southern or eastern European- accented English. (Jersey accent)I was from a generation that didn’t have accents, but all of our grandparents did; Irish, Italians, Russians, Greeks, Jamaicans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans.
I don’t remember much of the service, certainly none of what was said. But it didn’t matter; this was a religion that had things for all your senses to do.
Presbyterians and (God help me) the Baptists had nothing to see, nothing to touch, nothing to smell. They had lots to listen to, but most of that was shit. But mostly, their religion seemed to be about memorization- Bible verses, mostly. I hated memorising the Bible. Why bother?! I HAD a Bible! Fuck, our house had like 40! But the Baptists told me that the communists might come and throw me in prison, and then I wouldn’t HAVE a Bible, and what would I do THEN?! I’d recently discovered the Clash and Billy Bragg, so it wasn’t a good question to ask me, but I kept that to myself.
I’d never felt so comfortable in church before. I’d never felt ‘comfortable’ in church EVER!
But then it was over. Catholicism moved to the background once again. Normal life appeared again. But something had awakened in me. I think that’s when I knew I was a Catholic.
Childhood gave way to student life and university. I was firmly embedded in American evangelical Christianity. It was tolerable. I was a musician, and their services were always full of music. It gave me somewhere to play and develop my abilities. But I can honestly say that it was never ‘worship’ to me. I always felt like a bit of a fraud. I have since boldly declared that I don’t have an Evangelical charismatic bone in my body, and saying that out loud is so exhilarating.
When I was 25, I discovered the Anglican Church, in America referred to as the Episcopal Church. It was a relief.
What I loved about Anglicanism was the use of liturgy. Liturgy took us through the year, starting in Advent, through Christmas, Lent, Easter, Ascension, then through the year with various special services and saint’s days until we reached Advent again. I’m a drummer, so I’m very conscious of rhythm, and there was a rhythm to the year and, every week, a rhythm to the service. Charismatics LOVE surprises; I detest them. Doing the same thing every week was SUCH a breath of fresh air to me! Making the sign of the cross reminded me I was always covered with the love of Christ; kneeling before the altar cross reminded me of the holiness of Christ’s death; the icons were reminders of Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints’ watchful presence over my life. They were physical actions that reminded me of what I held in my heart and my mind.
At 33, we moved to Belfast, and somewhat naturally, eventually found our way into the Church of Ireland. That was a shock.
No candles (or very few, and none I was allowed to light myself), no icons and I was very often the only person in the building crossing myself. It might seem insignificant, but it was unnerving. All of the Catholic practice in Anglicanism seemed like an embarrassment to the C of I, barely tolerated or rushed through. All that had made worship in church meaningful and significant for me were now gone. And nobody around me missed it at all.
The most difficult change for me was all of the flags and war memorials around the sanctuaries of so many Church of Ireland buildings. I found them distracting and unsettling, like I was being asked to celebrate a British history and a military culture that I didn’t endorse or feel part of.
My wife was raised Catholic, and we’d both decided to raise our kids in the Catholic Church. One day, while at mass, my wife pointed out to me that the diocese was starting up an RCIA class, which stands for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. They’re very common in the US; most Catholic churches have one going on as a matter of course. But for Ireland, this was very new.
It was an awkward three months. The two priests who facilitated the class were absolutely lovely, but the class was so obviously geared to people marrying into the Church, not to PhD theology students. Worse, they didn’t seem to realise that other Christians might ALSO cross themselves or know that Lent was, and to spend an evening being taught how to cross myself felt a bit demeaning.
The most difficult ‘why’ often comes from the friends who have felt brutalised and marginalised by the Church: female friends and LGBT friends.
That ‘why’ is tainted with dismay and betrayal; why would I, a thoughtful, intelligent anarchist doing postgrad work in liberation theology, align myself with an enormous, bureaucratic autocracy governed by a small group of elderly, sexually-frustrated celibate Italian gay men? Why? I’m sorry, this can only be said in the accent I grew up with:
(Jersey Accent) because it is not their fucking Church. It’s my Church. Alright, maybe it’s better to say that it’s as much my church as it is their’s. They can’t make me quit. I know they want me to leave, but fuck them. No disrespect.
My spirituality embraces a God who gives pastoral gifts, who calls people to service in the Church, who imbues the Spirit of God to these people for the strength to carry out this task. God calls people of all genders, all races, all sexualities. I have met them; I have met dozens of them. The Catholic hierarchy does not believe that. They believe God only calls men. (Jersey Accent) Don’t ask me to explain that; I’m a theology student and even I have no idea where they get that…
The church I was a part of is having this argument in a different way. It’s noisy and it’s ugly. Anglicanism is the great Catholic experiment in democracy. Rome is the Great Catholic experiment in centralised autocracy. They are both having the same arguments, because we are all human, and unfortunately disagreement and conflict is something we do. Canterbury is trying to build a church where misogynists and homophobes can live in peace with the inclusive. I don’t think that’s possible. Rome is trying to maintain a church where the inclusive will eventually all be expelled or made so unwelcome they eventually leave. I don’t think that’s possible either.
I think we need to be open to the transformation of God. Only God can perfect us and simultaneously keep us who we have always been. I like to think that’s what God is doing to me…
Why? It’s a journey, a pilgrimage. I started in Scotland, lived for many happy years in Canterbury, and now I’m in Rome. I like it here; I think I’ll be here for quite some time, living in the family home for which I’ve always had a set of keys, but always in the belief that all of us on this journey are on our way to Jerusalem… and onward to Zion.
(Image sourced on Flickr photosharing, by Richard Sugden)