The following story is taken from the fascinating sociological study, Sense of the Faithful, How American Catholics Live Their Faith, by Jerome Baggett (2008). I find it most interesting that this inspiring anecdote constitutes the opening of the book itself. I originally posted this at my blog, Gay Mystics, as a complement or contrast to a previous posting entitled, 50 Reasons to Boycott the Catholic Church. Those readers who are interested can access this article at Alt. Net. It offers (from an outsider’s point of view) a horrific list of crimes and offenses committed by the official Roman Catholic Church in recent times. None of these alleged crimes are new, but taken together they provide a shock to anyone’s sense of complacency and a timely reminder that such offenses are more than an internal family matter, negatively impacting as they do upon countless lives outside the parameters of the church itself. That being said, stories such as the one below offer inspiration and hope that the Spirit is indeed at work in manifold ways within the mystical family of the Church.
(Unfortunately, as I copied this from a PDF file, there is not much I can do about the formatting.)
“The thing about American Catholicism is that it both exists and doesn’t exist!” Bill
McNamara blurts out these words but then seems surprised by them, as if he had
happened unexpectedly upon someone from his past. He tarries a bit, refl ecting.
“What do I mean by that?” he asks, now seemingly reacquainted and rightly confi -
dent that he has anticipated my next question. “I mean it exists in the sense that it’s
an it, something you and I can talk about, and we can identify elements of it and so
forth. But it doesn’t exist as some monolithic, unchanging thing. It’s not as if any
one person understands it and lives it out the same way all the time or in quite the
same way as anyone else.”
Even though Bill was among the very first people I interviewed for this book,
I permitted myself an early conclusion: He knows what he is talking about. After
many cups of tea and through constant interruptions by Rusty, his seal-point
Siamese— whose name, like those of all of the respondents in this book, is a
pseudonym—Bill’s account of his life and faith demolished the idea that American
Catholicism could be “some monolithic, unchanging thing.”
Born into a working-class family in the early 1930s, Bill grew up in an almost
entirely Irish section of Philadelphia. His upbringing was typical of the “urban villagers”
about whom sociologist Herbert Gans once wrote so compellingly.
The ethnically defined neighborhood, the modest economic means, the large family that
included Bill and fi ve younger siblings, the clearly prescribed gender roles to which
his contractor father and stay-at-home mother purportedly strictly conformed, the
traditional—and, in this case, traditionally Catholic—mores: Bill can recall it all in
vivid, if not wistful, detail. The particulars of his religious upbringing are especially
memorable to him. He attended nearby parochial schools until he was swayed by an
unexpectedly generous fi nancial aid package to enroll in a large public university,
where he majored in accounting. He went to church each week without fail, and,
unless serving as an altar boy for an unpopular (read: inordinately early) Mass, he
was typically accompanied by his entire immediate family. This instilled in him
an enduring love for the beauty of the Mass and especially its music, which he
still compares favorably to the “cacophonous crap” one hears at other, mercifully
unnamed parishes. One of the younger parish priests served as a “friend and kind
of mentor” for Bill who could talk to him about nearly anything, including at one
point his own—admittedly short-lived—thoughts of entering the seminary. And,
of course, there are the stories that seem to be standard fare among Catholics of
Bill’s generation. From the accounts of his mentor’s many kindnesses to the somewhat
overwrought “ruler-wielding nun” tales, from now-humorous accounts of
fi rst confession trepidation (“Hell, it was scary in that little booth!”) to feelings of
intense piety while accompanying Jesus along the Stations of the Cross each Friday
afternoon during Lent, Bill’s world was Catholic through and through.
However, once he entered his twenties, that world came to an end. “I never
had any animosity like a lot of gay Catholics who had bad experiences in school or
things like that,” he confi des. “I wasn’t against it, but I didn’t feel that comfortable
with it anymore.” Always attracted to men, Bill fi rst became sexually active at the
age of twenty-six. Then, rather than concealing from others what he considers his
“honest, true self,” he moved to San Francisco, where he got a well-paying job with
an insurance company and eventually began his new life as an openly gay man.
He closed the door on his Catholicism slowly at fi rst, then fi nally slammed it shut.
This age-old tradition seemed incongruous with his new city and job, new friends,
and, after ten years or so, a relationship and then a newfound level of intimacy with
Daniel, his partner for eighteen years. Daniel attended weekly Mass at Most Holy
Redeemer church in the city’s burgeoning gay enclave, the Castro District. But he
went a bit less often when he and Bill bought a house together across the bay in the
Oakland Hills. Bill, on the other hand, preferred to sleep late most Sundays.
Everything changed when Daniel contracted AIDS, and Bill became his primary
care provider. This tragedy brought Bill agonizing stress and heartache, but
it also introduced him to a face of Catholicism that he had not previously known.
The AIDS Support Group at Most Holy Redeemer sent volunteers to help tend to
Daniel’s health and personal needs, which, toward the end of his life, required daily
visits. Even in his grief, Bill was impressed by these people’s witness to their—and
once his—faith. This was not the intolerably dogmatic “Churchianity” that had
come to seem ossifi ed and irrelevant to him. Nor, of course, was this the vicious
“God hates fags” message he had heard while doing some church shopping before
moving from Philadelphia. He found this open-hearted and open-minded incarnation
of the faith to be very alluring. So much so, in fact, that Bill began attending
Mass at Most Holy Redeemer not long after Daniel’s death and soon became an
active member of first the AIDS Support Group and then the parish itself.
Bill’s story might appear to fit the familiar “lapsed Catholic returns to Mother
Church” mold, but Bill has not returned to anything; he has begun something new.
On the one hand, he is quite the unabashed Catholic: “I love the traditions, and I love
the mystery; I think it’s a very, very, very rich religion.” On the other hand, though, he
is adamant about his freedom, even obligation, to mine those riches on his own terms
and in accordance with his own needs. He has chosen to be a member of Most Holy
Redeemer across the San Francisco Bay rather than of his own neighborhood parish,
which he considers less “open and affi rming” to gay Catholics. He respects priests
enormously (although he is less generous in his assessment of bishops), but he is also
a strong advocate for the laity’s role in both pastoral ministry and parish governance.
He is a “greeter” at the main (10 am) Mass on Sundays and has sponsored several Rite
of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) candidates. At the same time, he bristles at
the thought of being presumptuous enough to even talk to others about faith in a
way that might be perceived as inappropriately pushy. He calls himself a “very strong
Catholic” but, without hint of apology, eagerly embraces the pejoratively intended
moniker “cafeteria Catholic” as a testament to his own religious agency and capacity
for discernment. In short, Bill has begun something new as a Catholic in response to
developments in his personal life and because he has lived through a period in which
the American church itself has witnessed important social and cultural changes. As
a result, it has also begun something quite innovative.
Much as I would like to end this posting on such a glowing note, I can’t help but link to a recent article just posted at Iglesia Discalza’s Blog about the recent silencing of Colombian Jesuit, Fr. Alfonso Llano Escobar, S.J., for having the temerity to criticize Pope Benedict’s most recent book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (specifically, Benedict’s comments on Mary’s Virginity). Benedict has once again silenced a prominent theologian, bringing to an end his thirty year career as a journalist. This is yet again another imperative sign of why lay Catholics must reclaim their church and become the public voice of theological debate. Read the whole article here.