The Catholic Church: ‘We’ll Leave the Light On for You.’

I have a confession to make.

Yes, I could be predictable and show up at the designated time, enter the room, begin the litany – “Bless me Father, for I have sinned…” I know the drill. There’s times I’ve thought I should order pizza for us both if I’m going to go down that path. “We’ll be here awhile, Father… have some bread – and pepperoni – for the journey.”

But this is a different kind of confession, and I don’t think it’s about sin. Just something to get off my chest, now that I’m writing OUT as a Catholic.

I often don’t want to go to Mass.

In fact, from time to time – I don’t go. It’s better, I tell myself, than looking at my watch every seventeen seconds. There’s the bell, tolling the hour – how far through the homily are we now? Will we be out soon? Should I go to the Farmer’s Market to pick up lunch, or treat myself to brunch by the beach? Did my phone just buzz? Who texted? Maybe the Giants are about to start a game. Are they above .500 yet? Wait – Mass has ended? THANKS BE TO GOD!

I have excuses. Since moving away from my home parish nearly a decade ago, it has been a struggle to find a place where I’m OK being even when I don’t want to be there at all.  One parish uses Powerpoint on a screen – I hate Powerpoint. Another parish’s homilies are sometimes pedantic, tedious, and long. At yet another place, the vibe is more like a social club, and it’s just not my scene. Another parish rudely tossed out a homeless man and his dog, and when I reached out to the parish leaderships, I received a caustic “Father knows best” email with a statement about the VERY IMPORTANT dog policy – and not a word about the human being who’d been so harshly ejected.

Ok. That last one’s a legit reason to shake the dust from my feet and move on. I did.

But the others? Excuses.

Maybe you’ve heard of a phenomenon that’s been discussed for the past several years: “SBNR” – Spiritual, But Not Religious. A book by Sven Erlandson in 2000 with that name brought the concept into popular parlance, and the label resonated with many people. SNBRs grew up in a faith tradition, but now don’t participate in organized religion at all. SBNRs – now often called “Nones” – may find the Divine in a piece of music, a hike in the forest, or some other communion with Something More that nourishes their desire to have contact with the numinous world. Doctrine, externally-driven ritual, and obligatory practice are not included. That’s SNBR.

That’s not me. In fact, if I had to slap a label on where I am today, I might turn that on its head and call myself RBNS. I’m religious – but not all that spiritual, at least not right now, at least not in the place where I’m “supposed to be” experiencing that spiritual stuff, in the pew of the parish where I’ve finally landed. I just claim “religious.”

I claim it, because nine Sundays out of ten, I haul my butt out of bed, brew coffee, and head to the gym when it opens at 7. I’m back home in time to shower, grab a hard-boiled egg or a string cheese, and I’m parked in a pew at 9:30 for Mass.

It took NO time for me to figure out that Mass alone wouldn’t get me out of bed, but getting a workout in while still only semiconscious is adequate incentive. From there it’s just autopilot through the shower, snack, and short drive to church. I’m still contemplating how far into the homily we’ll be when the clock chimes the hour, and idly wondering where I’ll get a real breakfast once we’re set free, but I’m there, in the Church, in the pew. Not always happy about it, but I know it’s where I’m to be nonetheless.

I was explaining all of this to a friend recently. He’s a member of the second-largest tradition in the United States – ex-Catholics. He didn’t experience any traumatic break from the Church, no antipathy, just apathy. Catholicism is nothing that means anything whatsoever to him now, but neither does it bother him.

When I floated the “Religious, But Not Spiritual” concept over lunch, he was perplexed. Why do I bother going to Mass if I really don’t want to be there? Do I worry about someone else’s disapproval? Fear eternal damnation? Is it a case of Stockholm Syndrome (when people held prisoners start to identify and sympathize with their captors) ?

I asked myself that ,too. My theological education didn’t provide much of an answer. One of my classes for my MA in Systematic Theology (whatever that is) involved reading all of the Vatican II documents, as well as commentaries about the texts.  Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, implores us to show up. “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful shall be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy.” (SC 14.) However, in the almost 55 years since that early Vatican II document was published, theological scholars and pundits, professional liturgists, theologians, and USCCB committees have grappled over what “fully conscious and active participation” really means. Is it congregational singing, or earnestly attempting to follow the Eucharistic prayers, even in their new translation that defies much of what Sr. Nena taught me in English class?

I don’t know the answer. I don’t have a lot of answers right now, in fact.

I do know, though, that 9:30 a.m. on a recent Sunday, I was parked in a pew. I knew then that I planned to write this piece, so I spent some time intentionally exploring just why I was there.

First and foremost – I am Catholic. Call it “Religious But Not Spiritual,” but it’s something I claim, this “being Catholic” – so I might as well show up for the weekly meeting, right?

But then I remembered a homily I heard years ago at a school Mass at my son’s elementary school. With a presider who knows his crowd, kid liturgies can be THE very best. I went to a lot of them, especially in the first year or so of my son’s time in Catholic school, back when I didn’t believe that a kid of a queer mom would be safe there. The pastor suggested that I attend the kid Mass regularly, each week if at all possible, so I could catch anything worrisome that I might need to discuss with him or with my son later. I rearranged my work schedule to be there.

I heard no rejection – not once. It took me a year to realize that the pastor knew that all along. He wanted us there with every fiber of his being. In bite-sized, kid-level morsels, I heard the same message, over and over and over. All are welcome. God is love. You belong here. That was what our children heard. By showing up every week, I would hear that message too.

While standing in line  to receive Eucharist on a recent Sunday, I remembered a kid homily where the pastor explained why we show up for Mass. We don’t do it for ourselves. Maybe we think we don’t need to be there every week. We might choose to sleep in, we could watch cartoons, pick up some extra soccer practice at the park, or even catch up on homework! (That suggestion was met with audible groans.)

No, said Father. Nope, nope, nope. You come to Mass, even when you don’t need to be there. Because you see, it’s not about you. This “Catholic” thing that we claim to be?  It’s about all of us. I can’t possibly know what’s happening in the life of the person sitting in an adjacent pew. I don’t know if she’s having a great morning, or a horrible one. Maybe he’s dealing with something that’s making him feel sad, and a smile and handshake during the sharing of the peace will be a few minutes’ distraction. And  it’s supposed to work that way all around. Sometime later, a month or a year or ten or twenty years later, YOU might be having a bad morning or not know where to go where you might be able to belong and be welcome.

And on that occasion when you don’t know where to go or where you belong? That’s when you look at a map – this was before smartphones, y’all – and find a Catholic Church. It wouldn’t matter if the priest there was friendly or not, or even what they said in the homily. The Eucharist ties us together deeper than any of that stuff, and the Church is a place where we can always go. If anyone ever doubts that, we should think back to this very kid Mass on a Wednesday morning at the elementary school, and remember what Father promised – we belonged. We are loved. Never, ever forget that.

Of course,  back then, I was cynical enough to roll my eyes from where I sat. I never sat with my son’s class at those Masses – how uncool! – but was often grabbed by a beleaguered teacher and strategically positioned with a couple little ones who couldn’t keep their hands to themselves, or  with a kid who was having a hard day and needed a grownup nearby. It’s the primary lesson of Catholic education – not just “you belong,” but the idea that the community only holds together when we ALL participate. If a teacher asks, you go.

Now, there’s limits to that presence. I’ve sometimes felt like my personal ministry was to be in the Church, but to affirm for others that it is also OK to leave. Especially if it’s not a safe place, if one’s fundamental existence as one created in the image and likeness of God is denied: shake that dust off, and GO. Walk out that door. Just turn around now…  well, you know the rest.

You will survive.

You can leave, and when it is not a place that is nourishing your soul, you should leave. Keep yourself safe.

Just know that, in the words of the Motel 6 ad, “We’ll leave the light on for you.”

So tonight, that’s how I’m visualizing the architecturally stunning parish where I’ve finally committed. It’s “God’s Motel 6.” We’re all desk clerks at 3am, waiting for that weary traveler to pull in. Maybe that’s you. Maybe it’s me. Maybe the inn up the road wouldn’t give you a room, even though the neon sign said “VACANCY.”

It doesn’t matter. You’re here now. We’re here for you. Come join us at the table.

Sarah Gregory, New Ways Ministry, August 12, 2018


7 replies
  1. Paula Ruddy
    Paula Ruddy says:

    Wow, Sarah, this is so interesting to me. Didn’t you work yourself around to “spiritual” here, with the consciousness of being there for the others and the willingness to be there for them? Do you think it is possible to continue participating with no meaning at all? It seems we each make up our own meaning because the ritual and the presider so often do not communicate what the Church intends the Mass to mean. I wish the Church would call to the sacrament of Holy Orders only those people who are talented and trained to lead the community in the public Eucharistic prayer so the whole community could sense itself to be a priestly people at prayer. The message of the kid’s liturgy would be enough with the added note of going out to be the transformed person in the world. Thanks for this.

    • sarah
      sarah says:

      Hi Paula! Sometimes – such as the day I wrote this piece – I may be able to work my way around to that awareness of something more, something spiritual. Other times, I’m there because …well, because it’s just what we do. I don’t think I’d call it “no meaning” – and I personally don’t put any of that on the presiders, especially the perceived inability to get a whole group of people there with disparate needs, moods, and experiences all at the same place. Complex stuff, in an even more complex world. I don’t want them to be dynamic entertainers; I just acknowledge that my monkey mind just doesn’t wanna settle down. And that’s OK.

      I travel a ton for work, and have attended Mass where the presider’s basically up there valiantly going through the Mass – even when I don’t know the language at all, I can usually follow pretty closely – and people are chatting, handing out food, kids running up the aisle – and the place is PACKED. I was at a Mass in a little neighborhood in Guadalajara a few years ago where a snoring parishioner was louder than the presider. It’s all real. All good. “All part of the Paschal Mystery,” as a priest friend would say. 🙂

      • Paula Ruddy
        Paula Ruddy says:

        I don’t think I can follow you there, Sarah. Yes, the complexity of human stuff, and yes the mystery of it all. But what is the point of a ritual that does not unite the participants in some communal meaning? What is the point of a presider who cannot pull the participants together in prayer? I’m not talking about an entertainer. I’m talking about a human activity that has a public meaning as well as the many private meanings that people bring to it. We don’t seem to have the right mix yet of enjoying the actual and exerting some effort to pull ourselves together. It’s a both/and.

  2. Friends
    Friends says:

    What a fabulous slam-dunk article! I just forwarded a copy of it to the extremely kind and generous pastor of our Cardinal John Henry Newman Catholic Center at UMass-Amherst. I think he will enjoy reading it. I’d invite our other readers to do the same thing for the pastor of their own favorite local parish church.

  3. Randall J Kowalik
    Randall J Kowalik says:

    I have found this article very interesting. In fact, when I read the title, I dropped all else and started reading.
    For many years I have had periods of feeling “religious but not spiritual.” In my case, I liked the music and the general sanctity and variety of the liturgy. Others say that I am a “smells and bells” Catholic.
    For any number of years, I have been rightfully called “spiritually promiscuous.” followed by the compliment that I am a “cafeteria” Catholic. I will attend Mass when I know who will be celebrating the Mass and who will be preaching (not always the same- dude). Several churches publishes the next week’s celebrants in the bulletin. Most do not.
    Ironically, despite all efforts aside, the celebrants I have met and enjoyed and learned from are from the Voice of the Faithful group in Morristown, NJ.
    In fact, if you ever need a book to raise your hopes and dreams, get a copy of “It’s Not Necessarily So” by Father Richard Rento. (available on Amazon).

    • sarah
      sarah says:

      And I’m proud, and honored, and humbled to share desk duties at this wacky chain of “cheap motels” with you too, my friend. Thank you. For so very much. Even for Rahner. 😉 But more, too.


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