Finding My Faith in a Crazy World
The Catholic Church may have let me down but my Faith is my own
A dear friend of mine recently lost her mother. A strong, elegant, smart and vivacious woman who, nearing her 90s, made the considered decision to refuse measures to treat an illness that, if left to take its course, would take her life.
My friend and her siblings spent precious days with their mother before she slipped away peacefully. As she lay dying, she told her children to ‘find your faith because when you are dying it is a wonderful thing — I am going to my happy place, I will not be alone and I am not afraid.’
Born into a staunch Catholic family in the 1970s, I have traveled the strict Catholic regime which included schooling under the often sharp (tongue and physical instrument) guide of nuns, and participated in each Sacrament following on from Baptism— Holy Communion, First Reconciliation, Confirmation, and Marriage in The Church, with reverence. I nervously attended Confession regularly to repent for my sins which included the rote description of ‘for being ungrateful, fighting with my brothers and sisters, and being unkind’ before kneeling obediently to say my penance such as several Hail Marys. Of course I also routinely attended Mass each Sunday with my family.
In my angst with mental illness in my late teens I would often take myself to sit in a Catholic Church in the hope that God might take my suffering away. There was the comfort of somewhere to turn to, being able to view Jesus raised on The Cross as someone who also knew suffering, and as a quiet place to just sit with my pain. Yet, in retrospect, my association with being Catholic wracked of firmly entrenched guilt and a foreboding sense that suffering was part and parcel of the doctrine that I had been born into to follow.
I am now middle-aged and I have raised three children who have received the Catholic Sacraments and attended Catholic schools. I appreciate the values instilled by these Sacraments and the school environment and I am always inspired by the many good works for the local community offered by parishioners. Yet my commitment to The Catholic Church is far more open-minded these days following much soul searching and questioning of the religion which I learned as a young person had to be accepted without question. My weekly attendance at Sunday Mass dissipated some time back— initially with a sense of guilt as I prioritized other activities of life over Mass but then as a result of a more active sense of choice.
You see, as a clinical psychologist I have worked with clients whose precious lives were destroyed from a young age by the abusive actions of those in positions of power in The Church. These adults came to me, as originally innocent children from loving homes, gifted with unique qualities and inspired with dreams of living full lives, needing to unburden themselves of immense pain.
As I sat with these vulnerable individuals I would be stunned and perplexed to place the reasoning for the demise of these people, often ‘going off the rails’ in their early adolescence — frequently into a world of illicit drugs aside enormous self-loathing and often estrangement from desperately sad and confused families. My own confusion would not abate until, after the trust of the therapeutic relationship had been built, the person would reveal a deeply held secret that had been clothed in shame for so many years, of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a Church leader.
I have felt disgust at the far too common place occurrence of childhood sexual abuse in the Catholic Church coupled with a waning sense of enthusiasm for attending Mass when the experience did not feel meaningful. Certainly in my era of devotion to attending Mass weekly there were experiences where I felt enlivened by attending Mass due to rare priests who would draw connections between living a life of Faith with the real world and also reflect on themselves as imperfect human beings. But more often that not I would feel a lack of focus in my mind and a disconnect in my body, wondering really why I was attending the Mass.
In a powerful TED Talk, Rabbi Sharon Brous (https://www.ted.com/talks/sharon_brous_it_s_time_to_reclaim_and_reinvent_religion) describes the current trend with religion as:
Religious routine-ism: This is when our institutions and leaders are stuck in a paradigm which is rote and perfunctory, devoid of life, devoid of vision, and devoid of soul.
Rabbi Brous goes onto say:
We find ourselves in endless, mindless repetitions of words that don’t mean anything to us, rising and being seated because someone has asked us to, holding onto jealousy guarded doctrine that’s completely and widely out of step with our contemporary reality, engaging in perfunctory practice simply because that’s the way things have always been done.
In my life-time I have been fortunate to meet many aged Catholic people who have drawn strength from their Faith. In particular, a beloved friend who passed away at the age of near one-hundred, demonstrated a life guided by the key values of having Faith grounded in her Catholic upbringing— a trust in God, a love for Him and loving actions towards others. But, though sight impaired at her death, this wise woman was not at all blind to the sins and misgivings of The Church and was fully aware that change must occur.
So the guilt in being now essentially a non-practising Catholic has dropped away over time. I feel my Faith is my choosing and not one that needs to be tied into a church where in my life the moments of comfort have often been outweighed by a sense that inherently I am faulty, deserving punishment and that I must blindly adhere to the rituals imposed by those in power.
I am enraged by the crimes committed by those who were held up as representatives of Jesus/God against innocent children who had no voice. And, in my opinion, when these victims have tried to have a voice the interests of The Church have often been prioritised over the many victims and their families’ needs for validation and a transparent and profuse apology for the crimes committed.
If I was to write a letter to express my sadness, disappointment and disgust I would say:
To The Catholic Church,
You’ve let me down. I sought solace in your structure and I followed the requirements of attending Mass regularly and doing my best to follow your teachings of treating others as you would wish to be treated.
But how did you treat us? You brought in monsters who played on the good nature of young, innocent children and you made them feel all alone in a world of abhorrent behavior at the hands of those you distinguished as Holy representatives of God.
You helped to set up the torment of youth whose guidance you were entrusted with. You helped to destroy so many lives, not only of the victims of the abuse but their significant others.
Then you turned your back on these people and a blanket of denial only added further to their intolerable suffering.
It’s time for you to wake-up — to realise people need you to be accountable; for you to start authentically connecting with the real world and real issues; to validate and rejoice in the rich diversity that abounds including in sexual orientation; and also fully promote the equality of both men and women.
If I am to return to trusting you I need you to be transparent and discard any self-righteous attitudes that should never again be tolerated in a faith-based community where nothing but the upmost regard for the well-being of each member as they engage in a journey of spiritual growth is upheld.
Ultimately, at this point in my life my faith in God is one where I fully believe there is meaning beyond the routines in my daily life. My personal Faith brings me hope and inspiration that is devoid of the apathy that can come with rote rituals.
Certainly the teachings of the Catholic religion remain helpful for me: to consider being like Jesus in my actions so that my life goes far beyond the material world. I feel that my Faith helps me to strive for authentic, meaningful connections that support a just and loving world. In terms of anxiety and fear about managing uncertainty in this world Faith can provide some comfort. In particular, in facing the inevitable pain of loss and my own life’s conclusion, it personally brings me great comfort to think that we are not alone when we finish this chapter on earth and, in the words of my dear friend’s wise, now-departed mother, we do not need to be afraid.