by Holly Mohr
“Well,” the retired drama professor began, arms folded. “I’m a cradle Catholic. I look for a parish that can tolerate someone like me and one that I can tolerate.”
He considered for a beat, then added, “I don’t know any cradle Catholics. All the cradle Catholics I know are either indifferent or hostile. They usually wonder why I still do this ‘church’ thing.”
He didn’t say it, but as he looked off into the distance, it was clear it’s still an open question for him, that maybe he was asking it even as he sat at the table with us.
The meeting was about finding a meaningful way to welcome new members to our Catholic parish. This was the beginning of the meeting, and the question the drama professor was responding to was, “Please introduce yourself and say something about how you found yourself at this parish.”
We went around the whole table, and while everyone’s answers to that question were unique, there was a common thread to all the answers, and it’s a thread I haven’t heard in other places. The individuals gathered around that table were both somewhat surprised to (still) find themselves there, yet they all had some spark of hope that maybe we could share something real. Maybe church could be a place of genuine inclusion and authenticity, a space to invite people into relationship with the sacred.
When it was my turn to introduce myself and my reason for (still) being there, I realized that working for the church is probably what has kept me in the church. I told the story of how when I first met my boss, I told him half of me wanted to give my whole life to the church, and half of me wanted to run as far away as possible. He looked at me totally unshaken and said, “That sounds really healthy.” Shortly thereafter, he hired me.
If my entire experience of the church were sitting in a pew once a week, I may not have been able to hold on. For at least the past ten years, though, it has been impossible for me to experience the church as an entirely hierarchical institution.
I don’t want to idealize this or dress it up: working for the church in Pennsylvania, especially since 2018 and the Grand Jury Report (or 2016 and the widespread Catholic support of Donald Trump), has sometimes been crushing. And anyone who has read me before knows the question of whether to remain is always before me.
But the privilege of walking with people seeking goodness, authenticity, deeper community? That’s something I sign onto with joy and gratitude. Helping other people connect to those experiences of finding their voice, their agency, their own experiences of meaningful community and service in the world? Helping young children, young adults and even the elderly discover (or recover) that still, small voice of the God-within-and-beyond? I’m unreservedly grateful to be part of that.
I confuse people sometimes, I know. Friends outside the church wonder why I would remain in an institution that doesn’t recognize the full giftedness of women, one that so often refuses to advocate for and with the LGBTQ community, or worse, one that has so often turned a blind eye to racism, or perpetuated it. Those are real questions, and I don’t take them lightly. On the other side of the coin, lifelong churchgoers sometimes look at me questioningly, sometimes even angrily, assuming that because I don’t look with more deference toward clerical vestments and institutional offices that I must lack reverence for God.
But I remain in the church because I see church every day. I’ve said since the 2018 abuse report came out that the hardest day for me to be Catholic is Sunday. I love being Catholic every other day of the week.
Like so many others, my heart is utterly broken, still, now, today, and it is still difficult for me to open the doors of a church building and take my place in a pew.
But on the other six days, being Catholic feels not only less problematic, it sometimes makes me explode with joy. Church, in my experience, is sitting with some of my best friends, reading Scripture, drinking Cabernet, and talking honestly about where we’re finding God in our lives (or not). It’s going to prayer vigils and protests for Black lives, and believing God is there among us, caring, working with and in God’s people to make change. Church is doing ministry not just to “help the less fortunate,” but to really start to realize that in all situations of life, we all have something to give and something to receive. We all have a poverty and a dignity, and when we can give generously and receive gratefully, answering one another’s needs in a spirit of trust and care, that is church.
Flannery O’Connor famously said, “Most of us come to the church by a means the church does not allow.”
I find the presence of Christ when my family and I are having dinner with our friend and his Jewish boyfriend, and again when we meet some other families (who have various levels of engagement with the institutional church) for Bach, Beethoven and Brunch. I know the presence of the Holy Spirit when my kids and I spend an afternoon (and an evening) at the house of the youngest one’s godmother. We pray and eat and pour our hearts out and laugh and explore, and it’s church. We live church in our house when we pray for the intercession of the kids’ patron saints before bed, in the midst of their jumping on my face and screaming about their day. I definitely found church in my therapist’s office, a progressive nun who got all the ways of feeling trapped by the institutional injustices, along with a whole lot of avenues to liberation and joy within the tradition. I make sense of Eucharist within Mass by experiencing Eucharist in Christ’s body, lived all around and within me.
In our whispered conversations, in our tears, in the joys of relationship, much of my experience of church is by a means the church does not allow. But it is this lived, sometimes subversive, church that keeps me going back to the brick and mortar institutional one. The Spirit blows where she will. I’m humbled to be along for the ride.