Why I Left the Church...and Returned

Rediscovering Christ and His Church at the Margins
A Muslim woman praying during Ramadan (Yu Liang Wong / Alamy Stock Photo)

In December Commonweal published a collection of personal essays under the heading “Why We Came, Why We Left, Why We Stay.” The response was favorable: readers asked for more such essays; writers offered to write them. The following essay is the first in what we expect to be a continuing series.

 

Mine was the last generation to grow to adulthood in the pre–Vatican II Catholic Church. My family went to Mass on First Fridays as well as every morning during Lent. It was a given that we ate fish on Fridays, fasted before receiving the Eucharist. Irish Catholics, we attended many wakes, were familiar with corpses, the rituals surrounding them, the ordinariness of death. The parochial schools were in full swing, but my siblings and I went to the public schools instead. Our father had his own ideas about things. He seemed quite unworried about “dangers to the faith”—reading books on the Index, for instance, or going to movies pronounced forbidden by the Legion of Decency. Once a year, on the Sunday when the entire congregation rose to its feet to repeat a pledge to the Legion, our father, to our mortal embarrassment, kept his seat. “An exercise for children,” he replied when we asked why.

Holy Week was drama of the highest order: on Holy Thursday, little girls dropped rose petals from baskets; the Eucharist was removed to a side altar banked with flowers. In the afternoon we visited seven neighboring churches. On Friday morning the central altar was stripped, the Gospel was sung, Christ’s deep, mournful voice easily distinguishable from the others. The lights were extinguished one by one until the church was darkened. From noon until three, we listened to a homily on each of the Seven Last Words. Then Saturday morning, at the first Vigil Mass of Easter, we waited for the Gloria to be sung—the first time in forty days—the signal for a prolonged riotous ringing of every bell in the church that brought down the purple shrouds on all of the statues at once. In the belfry one altar boy leapt to catch the legs of another altar boy, the bell ringer, as he disappeared at one end of a rope.

Through it all the central mysterious figure of Christ himself appeared and disappeared and reappeared, washing the feet of his friends, bidding them do likewise, standing silent when accused, despairing in the Garden alone and abandoned, denied by Peter. He was the riveting center of everything, a man of sorrows, praying that his tormentors be forgiven, assuring the good thief that he’d be with him that very day in Paradise. It wasn’t the fact that Christ had died that made the crucial difference. It was that he died the way he did.

 

Not many months after Humanae vitae appeared I had stopped calling myself a practicing Catholic. For a decade I remained away.

Newly married in my early twenties, I traveled with my husband to Nigeria to teach for two years. Once there, I received news of Vatican II. I began eating meat on Fridays, and didn’t worry about fasting before receiving the Eucharist. What’s more, the Catholic churches where I went to Mass in Lagos were in some ways very different from the ones I was used to. Mass was sometimes said in Igbo, to the music of drums and bells, so that when I returned home and found that Latin had disappeared and that the priest was facing the congregation, neither change seemed particularly significant. Moving between cultures, it appeared, I’d already experienced a greater shift: I had thrilled to feel anew the central mystery of the Mass in a different context. I understood that my own upbringing had been shaped by a particular time and place, one that I hadn’t given much thought to.

But the change that, when I heard of it, most captured my attention was the one declaring the primacy of conscience. I understood that to mean a shift had taken place. The clergy, the hierarchy, were no longer considered the official arbiter of one’s moral life. In the deepest places of the self one was urged to listen with confidence and hope to the stirrings of the spirit.

The question of contraception was talked about everywhere as the pill became available in many places. Would the church change its teachings on contraception? My uncle and aunt, who’d founded the Catholic Family Movement, had been invited by the Vatican to be part of the Birth Control Commission lay conference to discuss these questions. When they returned, they were elated: change was coming, they were sure. When Humanae vitae was issued, like so many others I experienced a seismic shift. My husband and I had two small children and I was pregnant with my third and last child. I read the encyclical and needed to consult no one at all to understand that my marriage of six years—years that have extended now to more than fifty—had given me experience that put me bleakly at odds with the language and thinking of the encyclical. Those who’d written it had little knowledge of a sustained adult sexual life. I knew as well from my time in Africa that although my friends and I would probably be in a position to buy the pill, the world’s poor would be the ones to suffer in ways unimaginable to us. All the signs had been favorable for a change in doctrine. It was impossible not to wonder if Paul VI had refrained from loosening the strictures for reasons of continuity, of consistency, for fear of undermining some idea of papal authority. Not to “create scandal,” as might have been said in my childhood. It was out of fear that the encyclical had been written.

But very quickly the question of contraception became part of a larger question. No, a woman could not be a priest. Again it seemed to me that there was something deeply biased, disordered, you might say, about this teaching. The reasons given—that Christ had chosen only men—seemed absurdly literal-minded. I knew many dedicated priests working in parishes, but it was hard to get my mind around the bishops and cardinals. Why did they occupy the front seats, silver crosses gleaming, when the pope came for a visit? Why weren’t the poor and the hungry seated in the front row? Or at least the parish priests. This was surely in disregard of the gospels: Christ never tired of challenging not only displays of worldly power, but that power itself. Under John Paul II the push for change initiated by Vatican II was largely contained. The curia became increasingly powerful. As the cult of the Virgin Mary grew, so did the emphasis on church teachings having to do with homosexuality, abortion. The AIDS epidemic was happening all around us and condoms were forbidden. Later on, when the first news came in of appalling sexual abuse by the clergy, of cover-ups and elaborate efforts by the hierarchy to protect their own at the expense of children given to their care, we heard very little contrition or pleas for forgiveness. Instead, after a time, the Vatican shamelessly undertook an investigation of nuns. The nuns under suspicion were thought to be paying less attention to the church’s sexual teachings than to those on social justice. I was glad to remember that there’d been a long and distinguished history within the Catholic Church of women in conflict—hidden or open—with institutional authorities. Among so many: Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Joan of Arc.

But by this point, I was long gone. Not many months after Humanae vitae appeared I had stopped calling myself a practicing Catholic. For a decade I remained away.

 

I found I cared nothing for the hierarchy: it had become inessential. The church was the people in the pews and the priest doing his best with today’s homily.

It was during those years that we returned to Africa, this time spending a year in Niger, a Muslim country in the Sahel, one of the poorest in the world. Our children were small, my husband was writing a dissertation on Hausa proverbs. We lived in a city, not a large one, on the edge of the desert. I clearly remember how, just when I thought I couldn’t be farther from home, I began bumping into my past in very unexpected ways. Before dawn we were woken by a nearby call to prayer, this prayer distinguished from the other four calls during the day by the words that end it: “prayer is better than sleep.” After that there was the metallic clink of handles on buckets as people made their ablutions, and then soon afterwards the murmur of prayers and chanting. By that time I might be falling back to sleep, but the chanting entered my dreams. Where was I? Or as I passed old men in black turbans sitting on mats in the afternoons, fingering their beads—again I felt I knew something about all this in my bones. Then Ramadan came and before sunrise a crier went through the streets waking people so they could eat before daylight. There was fasting all day while wealthier people cooked meals that were given out after sunset to the poor who came in a stream by their doors. This was Lent with fasting and almsgiving and prayer at the center of it, but a more fervent and communally observed Lent than anything I’d ever seen. And it was abundantly clear to me that, just as in my own religion, these women who prayed and practiced their faith were excluded in striking ways.

Everything was different but familiar, and it was exactly this uncanny likeness that reanimated in me the desire for prayer. I understood that Catholicism had given me a way to enter into another religion as I couldn’t have done without it; I was moving into a larger world where the hunger for God was honored in ways strikingly similar to my own. What this meant was that, when I eventually reentered the life of my own practice, it was with a vivid sense that people on the other side of the world where extreme poverty was the norm were praying to the same God, a God of mercy and compassion.

I can’t say I returned to the church, because it didn’t seem to me that was possible. To do so would have assumed a stable self and a stable church. But I began to stand in the backs of churches, behind a column, half there, half not. Over time, I joined the people in the pews. I had started to write fiction and was hungry for my childhood. When I heard the Kyrie sung or spoken I was flooded with joy. I recognized the words as true. Bread become the body of Christ no longer seemed so improbable to me: my nine-year-old self would have been astonished to see herself translated all these years later into the person I’d become. And I considered that just as there are divorces within a long marriage, when the inessential is cast aside so that the marriage may continue, so it was for me now. I found I cared nothing for the hierarchy: it had become inessential. The church was the people in the pews and the priest doing his best with today’s homily.

 

Christ was unafraid to break the law, as it was understood, if human suffering was at stake.

The Catholic Church today is in crisis. It is the sins of Rome, centuries of hiding and secrecy, of emphasis on power and prestige, that have brought us to this. But it is not the hierarchy alone who belong in sackcloth and ashes, begging forgiveness; all of us, whoever we are, who have conspired, untouched, to allow things to go on as they have, must be penitents too. I pray that Pope Francis will declare a year of mourning, of communal prayer and fasting in the name of those whose lives have been shattered by abuse. Among much else, I earnestly pray that women will soon be priests, that a priest’s vow of celibacy becomes voluntary rather than required, that bans on homosexuality will come to a speedy end. The Spirit can surely guide the way, make us less afraid, less ashamed.

Meanwhile I go on looking in the gospels for the mysterious figure of Christ. These days I remember he liked crossing borders, chose the Samaritan, the despised outsider, as his example of neighborly love. He was unafraid to break the law, as it was understood, if human suffering was at stake. His eyes seemed to search out those on the edge of the crowd, the stranger, the exile, the outlaw. The supplicant and the poor prisoner. The ill, the lonely, the humiliated. The misfit, the mad, and the brokenhearted. The ordinary sinner. That would take in every one of us, I suppose. And it would seem that in this world where Christ moves, anything at all can happen. And at any time.

In Luke’s gospel the figure of Zacchaeus appears, a wealthy tax collector in Jericho, an outcast by virtue of his occupation. A servant of imperial Rome, he is a traitor to his own people. Zacchaeus wasn’t very tall, so to escape the crowd he climbed into a sycamore tree one day to get a better look at the man passing below on his way to Jerusalem. When Christ arrived beneath the tree, he stopped and looked up at the tax collector sitting there in the leafy branches. Come down, Zacchaeus, he called up to him. Climb down at once because I’m coming to your house tonight for dinner. At which Zacchaeus, peering through the new green leaves into the face below, lost in jubilation, cried out to the astonished crowd that today he would give half his fortune to the poor.

Published in the March 8, 2019 issue: 

Kathleen Hill is the author of two novels, Still Waters in Niger and Who Occupies This House, as well as a memoir, She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons. She teaches in the MFA Program at Sarah Lawrence College.

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