Pope Francis’s recent visit to the United States raised a lot of complicated feelings for me. On the one hand, I’m glad he walks the walk of his namesake. In the other hand, it’s far too little and far too late; nothing he does or says in his tenure as Pope is likely to repair the damage of my Catholic upbringing.
St. Francis of Assisi was a revolutionary in his time. He’s also my namesake and the patron saint of the order of lay religious that my mother belongs to. St. Francis grew up the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, but he denounced that life after seeing the horrible working conditions of his father’s employees. In a rather dramatic gesture, he stripped himself of all his rich clothes in the public square. While this little scene — and many of his actions over the course of his career as a holy man — might have landed him in an institution today, once upon a time it was expected behavior from shamans and saints. People understood Francis’s gesture as an act of protest against the unjust system he himself benefited from. St. Francis and his compatriot St. Clare challenged the status quo around income inequality and social justice — an issue that is just as pressing today as it was almost a thousand years ago. Their message was so radical that St. Francis had to make a special trip to Rome to petition the Pope (in this palace) for permission to keep doing his work.
Pope Francis’s focus on helping the poor and the dispossessed resonates with me. One of his first acts as Pontiff was to wash the feet of convicts — an act that echoes the humble and prophetic act of a woman just prior to Jesus’s crucifixion (just who that woman was and what her act entailed is a matter for much theological debate). He eschewed the luxurious papal apartment at the Vatican in favor of a more modest suite of rooms — hardly the stone hovels St. Francis of Assissi called home, but a good start. He stood up some American Congressmen to have lunch with homeless people. All of these things are great. They’re peachy. They’re a million times better than his predecessors’ actions which tended to focus more on railing against homosexuality, contraception, and “radical” nuns. But they’re not enough for me.
Pope Francis might have changed the focus of his ministry, but it’s clear he is not going to change the fundamental church doctrine that drove me from Catholicism. In no way, shape, or form, will he contradict the church’s teachings on homosexuality or women’s control over their own bodies. “But what about helping the poor?” ask my Catholic friends. It’s not enough. Not enough to heal the spiritual damage the Catholic church caused me.
My mother converted to Catholicism because of the beloved community she found in California parishes. She’s still an active member of the Third Order of St. Francis today. She fled my father’s drunken abuse and his parents’ attempts to take us from her, fled all the way from a house with sunflowers in California to a roach-infested apartment in Connecticut. She found a Franciscan monastery 20 miles away from that roach-infested apartment, one that provided us a place of refuge both spiritual and physical. The Fathers and the Brothers loved me as a little girl. I explored the Tudor mansion they called their home, ran in the open fields outside, ate apples from their orchard, sat under the mosaic of Mary in the summer chapel. I sang the Byzantine mass and inhaled the incense. I had my first vision of God on the way to Sunday mass.
But that love turned out to be more conditional than advertised. The problems started even before I hit puberty, when my brother was given access to areas and rituals off limits to me. They got worse during my Confirmation classes, when I finally learned the Church doctrines of Original Sin and its attitudes around women and sexuality — issues that touch me deeply and personally. They broke me apart when I came out at the age of 19. Catholicism ruined the God of my childhood. It ruined the rituals and architecture and natural world that surrounded me at that monastery in Connecticut and it left me bereft of a loving God.
I tried unsuccessfully to become an atheist and settled for agnosticism. After a crisis of a different kind, my mother sent me to Ala-teen, where I first learned about another kind of God: the God of my own understanding. A God who loved me no matter what or who I was, a God of many faces. I found another face of the Divine to whom I could relate, but it took years of lonely searching to find a beloved community who believed in a similar God. I’ve learned to see the validity of all religions, as well as the spiritual paths that don’t fit the definition of a mainstream religion. My journey took me far from the church of my childhood and the Jesus of that church. I eventually found peace with God, but the wounds that drove me from the religion of my childhood remain.
After many sojourns with congregations, covens, and other kinds of spiritual communities, I found my home at a Unitarian Universalist church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. UUism as a whole is not that home. It’s the pagans within the UU church — the Goddess-worshipping, tree-hugging, gay-sex-having people damned to hell by Catholic doctrine. When I pray today, I pray to the Great Mother in her many forms. Jesus and his church (in all its flavors) might be nurturing to some, but for me it’s like a food l someone force-fed to me. It’s oatmeal that someone spooned into my mouth long after I said I didn’t want any more — long after I threw it up. It’s oatmeal tainted with my own vomit that’s been shoved into my mouth over and over again. I’ll never be able to eat that oatmeal again. I can’t even be around that oatmeal. It doesn’t make me gag. It makes me cry. Because as much as the priests and the music and the architecture and the art and the rituals might claim to worship a God of unconditional love, I know quite well its conditions. Catholic doctrine — and the doctrine of conservative Protestants, Jews, and Muslims — ruined most mainstream religions for me.
One of the great things about being a grown-up is that you get to choose your own spiritual path. In fact, the UUs insist on that freedom as a birthright. My own free and responsible search for truth and meaning has led me to an eclectic mix of religious and spiritual practices that work for me. I’m glad that more mainstream religions work for so many people in the world, but on some level I will always be baffled how they can eat puke-flavored oatmeal.