As a Catholic, I have a confession to make: I have deliberately missed Mass on Sundays for the last several months.
For some this may come as a shock. For others, given the fact that only 25% of Catholics in my age demographic attend Mass regularly there is nothing surprising about that announcement. 1 As a Catholic high school Theology teacher, making that statement is a scandal.
How can I teach the faith, some may say, if I am not actively practicing my faith?! How can I represent the Church, if I am not a member of a church?! How can I encourage young people to attend Mass, if my seat is left cold?!
I have been grappling with those questions for sometime now. In fact, they were just one of the many reasons that I stopped attending.
I gaze into the grand Cathedrals shouting, begging, pleading for this Catholic Hierarchy to respond to any number of social issues. Like the poetic wisdom of Martin Niemöller’s prophetic words, I question, “Where were you when they came for…?”
Where were you dear Church Hierarchy when they came for the environment? Where were you dear Church Hierarchy when they came for our children? Where were you dear Church Hierarchy when they abused and molested our boys and girls? Where were you dear Church Hierarchy when they came for LGBTQ community? Where were you dear Church Hierarchy when they came for the women and mothers? Where were you dear Church Hierarchy when they came for the truth and facts? Where were you dear Church Hierarchy when they came for the our healthcare? Where were you dear Church Hierarchy when they came for the refugees and immigrants? Where were you dear Church Hierarchy when they came for the Muslims and Protestants? Where were you dear Church Hierarchy when they came for…?
But more honest than my righteous indignation against the Hierarchy, the honest truth of my absence was exhaustion. My fabric had been worn bare. My tank empty. My heart poured out.
As odd as it may sound, I had grown tired of being noticed and recognized in public. Always needing to put on the face of a minister or theologian even at a concert or walk down the street is frankly exhausting. I missed back pew anonymity.
Monday through Friday, and generally most Saturdays of the month, I do work that would be considered “of the Church.” I lead retreats. I teach Theology. I do service regularly. I assist with weekday Liturgies. I lead prayers. Come Sunday, I am worn out and weary.
Some Sunday mornings, the thought of one more prayer, service, or Church experience, sounds just as appealing as nailing my hand to a board.
To belabor the madness, as the rare young-single-male seen warming the Church’s chambers, if I have to respond to one more question about my vocation, I might explode… “I don’t ask you Nancy about your third husband, don’t ask me about the fact that there isn’t a ring around my finger or collar around my neck!”
To add insult to injury, I am a member of perhaps the most welcoming, community-oriented, socially-conscious Catholic Church in the dioceses. The members of this church can be seen lining streets in protest, opening doors for and eating food with our brothers and sisters experiencing homelessness, housing immigrant and refugee families, operating fair-trade stores, and calling elected officials to change unjust laws. Anyone interested in filling their Catholic Social Teaching agenda, can spend hours assisting this community.
But for me, showing up felt like a chore. I felt shame saying, “No, I can’t do this or that.” I felt embarrassed watching a 70 year-old nun carry bag-after-bag of food to be delivered to St. Vincent de Paul, as I scuttled, head-down, to my car. I simply wanted to eat some Jesus, recharge for the week ahead, and leave. I didn’t want or need another “church” activity. Let those people whose 9-to-5 isn’t “of the church” take care of it.
So I stopped going to Church.
But, I didn’t stop praying.
Rather than 1 to 2 hours in a church on Oak Street, I spent that time walking underneath Oak trees. In the silence of the trees the hymns whistled through the leaves. On the branches of the trees, birds chanted the psalms of their hearts. In the bushes, squirrels and chipmunks processed along the trails. Along the creeks, water baptized the rocks with is babbling noise.
For miles I would walk and recount my frustrations and hesitations. I’d scream out into the empty fields from the depths of my own desolation. I’d pray and question my own faults and failures as I stumbled over rocks and stones. Twigs would crack and leaves would rustle as I’d wrestle my own foundation and attempt to break into a deeper understanding of my self.
Today, however was different.
It is the end times, Jesus prophesied to his disciples. The old liturgical year is behind us and a new year and beginning of Advent is before us. Sitting in Mass, for the first Sunday in a while, I felt as if the Gospel was speaking directly to me:
"Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing
and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life..." 2
How did he know that my heart had become weary and overcome by the stresses of life? How had I allowed myself to become closed-off like the innkeeper? How had I allowed myself to become drunk to my own indignation?
To rehash the phrase, I so eloquently belabored, for myself, “Where was I when the Church…?”
Working for it, with it, and in it. But running away from it all at the same time.
Like so many, I had projected, no thrusted, my anger, frustration, and indignation upon the wrong church.
The Church is not the hierarchy, the Church is the imperfect community of people stumbling, tired, and broken like myself just longing for a breath of fresh air.
A community calls us to be uncomfortable, challenges us show up, pushes us to do more, accepts us in our failures, supports us in our weakness, and welcomes us in our awaited return.
While the Catechism would clearly call my absence a matter of “grave sin,” I will however refer to my time away as a vacation.3 A time to prepare and refresh myself for the new year ahead. We are all called in Advent to, “prepare room for Christ.” Might I suggest that I was merely clearly house? Absence makes the heart grow fonder, right?
Whatever Catechetical gymnastics I wish to play, it matters not.
My life, in all honesty has not changed from one week to the next. I am still busy, still occupied by, with, and for the Church, still frustrated and waiting for a different eschatology. But, I cannot leave my home. I cannot leave my faith. I cannot leave my church community.
Advent reminds us that we need to take a moment for the uninvited, unexpected coming of Christ.
Into this world, this demented inn,
in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all,
Christ has come uninvited.
But because He cannot be at home in it,
because He is out of place in it,
and yet He must be in it,
His place is with those others for whom there is no room.
His place is with those who do not belong,
who are rejected by power
because they are regarded as weak,
those who are discredited,
who are denied the status of persons,
With those for whom there is no room,
Christ is present in this world.
He is mysteriously present in those
for whom there seems to be nothing
but the world at its worst.4
So it is in this “demented inn,” this demented church, this demented world, this demented self that I remain. Like the world Christ entered, I am not ready. Like the world Christ entered, I am broken and imperfect.
One day, Christ will come again. I cannot always promise that I will eagerly be waiting in my pew for Him, but I know I will be with His people.
May we all take heed of our own demented innkeeper.
- Saad, Lydia. “Catholics’ Church Attendance Resumes Downward Slide.” Gallup, Inc., 9 Apr. 2018, news.gallup.com/poll/232226/church-attendance-among-catholics-resumes-downward-slide.aspx
- Luke 21:25-28, 34-36
- Catechism of the Catholic Church #2181
- Raids on the Unspeakable, by Thomas Merton, New Directions, 1966, pp. 72–73.