A few things that seem self-evident about me – that I was raised Roman Catholic; that I left the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church as a young adult; and that I remain as culturally Catholic today as I was when I wore a plaid jumper to St. Catherine’s parochial school – are not equally obvious to everyone else. I learned this most vividly when I was a seminarian at an interdenominational divinity school, in a conversation with two Episcopalians in the theological library, one of whom was known to me and another of whom was unknown. I said something off-handed about my “clearly” being a former Catholic and was startled by the unknown Episcopalian’s response. “Why clearly?” he asked.
“Because obviously, I’m no longer a practicing Catholic,” I said. “I mean I’m here in seminary – I’ve been preparing for ordination for a while now.”
“And…?” the unknown Episcopalian replied.
“And?” I asked with baited breath, expecting a really good punchline. None came. He was entirely sincere, and there did not seem to be a hidden camera anywhere nearby. “And the Catholics don’t ordain women,” I told him, finally.
“They don’t?” he said, taken aback.
“No, they don’t.”
“Really,” I said, dumbstruck. “What did you think?”
“Honestly, I thought the Catholics were pretty much like Episcopalians,” he admitted, “only with a pope.”
“Not so,” I said. “They really are very different from one another.” At this point, the other Episcopalian, the one I knew, was nodding his head vigorously, apparently as flummoxed by this conversation as I was.
“So the Catholics do not ordain women,” the unknown Episcopalian declared.
“No!” I said.
“Well, that disappoints me,” he said, in understated response, using the most civil of tones. “Truthfully,” he added, “it makes me think a little less of them.”
Of course, we can all find excuses to think a little less of one another’s faith traditions, but if we start to think little enough of our own, eventually, we’re likely to abandon it for something else altogether – and well we might. It took me years to realize that if I felt driven out of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, there could be other places to go to instead, including a place where people would receive me happily, with something akin to joy.
In my twenties, I found that place on Sixteenth Street in Washington, D.C., the spiritual spine of our nation’s capital, a stretch of road lined for miles with churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. It was there I started attending a small, historic Universalist church attended by a number of birthright Universalists but probably by more religious refugees, among them myself and a spattering of gay men in longstanding domestic partnerships with one another. Several of these men had been raised Catholic themselves. They could not – would not – deny how they loved or who they loved when they went to church each Sunday. As a result, we had a fabulous choir.
One Sunday, from the pulpit, our minister told us of a recent interfaith event he attended in Washington, a dinner where he had been assigned to sit next to the local priest, Fr. So-and-So. As he told it, the Rev. Dr. Fox mentioned, in a genial and collegial way, that our church was seeing a greater and greater influx of former Catholics in the pews. The priest seemed surprised by this, which in turn surprised Dr. Fox.
“You know, Father,” Dr. Fox told him in the kindliest voice imaginable, “if you’re going to keep driving them out, we’re going to keep taking them in. That’s just how we work.”
That’s how that Universalist church has continued to work, blessedly, even since Dr. Fox has come and gone, and continously in the years since I myself have also been gone from it. That’s thankfully how a number of progressive faith communities operate – with an intention to be affirming, inclusive, welcoming, and openly loving. Religious refugees are wanted in these communities; they are, you could even say, treasured. Look who’s crossing the threshold today, all these good folk well met! Many of those ushers doing the greeting in the church vestibule were once strangers in a strange land themselves, so they understand what’s at stake for newcomers, spiritually. They understand the sadness that accompanies us when we feel adrift in our souls.
While I’m not convinced that it was inevitable that I would leave the Catholic Church, especially since so many people I love dearly still call it their own, I am certain that my departure was a grave loss, a painful thing for me and for my family, though we’ve frankly never discussed it. Some Catholic relatives even came to my ordination in 2006, arriving with a generosity of spirit that I will never forget. Their very presence felt positively sacramental to me. Although I left the Church angry and hurt and desperate, with manifold and legitimate grievances about Church leadership, I do not curse the Church itself. I have a lot of problems with a broad band of my co-religionists these days; I do not believe that gives me permission to renounce them. To the contrary: I’m challenged to find some manner of embracing them.
Last year, a priest colleague of mine in New York City asked me to give the homily at a healing Mass he was celebrating. He is a liberal and broad-minded person trying to reform the Catholic Church from within, with all the bravery he can muster adorned in vestments. He wanted to know if I’d ever been asked to renounce my Catholicism when I joined my new church. No, I hadn’t, as a matter of fact, and so I preached to his parish from the chancel, wearing my ministerial stole, in all gladness and subterfuge. That healing Mass, I spoke on the perennial topic of the boundless love of God, the love that catechism teachers first explained to me in the basement of my childhood Catholic church, that we sang about from the hymnal in St Catherine’s, the very same love that I sensed streaming through stained-glass windows a long time ago.
Whenever we think a little less of people and their unmistakably human institutions, I think we ought to remain willing to think a little bit better of them, too, as situations allow. My own commitment to whole-hearted ecumenism involves me doing just this, thinking better of people, even thinking
highly of their hope to lead such faithful lives. There were some parting gifts
I received as a religious refugee, habits of being that I carried with me on my pilgrimage, which cause me to be grateful today. Now I see that these gifts may not be obvious to anyone but me; now I say this makes them no less precious.