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