At the time, my boyfriend and I were attending Our Lady of Perpetual Help Byzantine Catholic Church. It was the ideal place for someone new to the Catholic faith to gain understanding, since the pastor's heart was entirely given over to the work of the Lord. His name was Father Chris, and despite his many ailments, which usually kept him wheel-chair bound, when he got behind the pulpit to preach on Sunday morning he inspired, challenged, educated, admonished and conveyed the love of Christ to his parishioners. His caring leadership was a blessing to everyone he encountered, and his endurance of the pain that wracked his body was honorable and awe-inspiring in a Pauline sort of way.
A couple of years after converting, Brent and I were married. Because he was a Software Engineer and Albuquerque was not exactly a technology town, we ended up taking a job that moved us out of New Mexico. That also meant leaving Our Lady of Perpetual Help behind. And it was there that the trouble began for me.
Before continuing, I must caution you. I wish only to honestly tell my experience of what took place, and not to attack anyone. If you are Catholic, look at the following as an opportunity for ecclesiastic introspection. If you are not, please do not judge. Sin is present in every church and every denomination, because humans are present. Rather, take these stories as an opportunity to discern. Pray for those who are finding it hard to see God for all the distractions within the body of Christ. Pray that they find a place to worship where they can be fed and grow, and where they can reach out and serve. With the compassion and understanding of our Master, read on.
With our move to Colorado Springs, my husband and I began an arduous spiritual journey, searching for the right church. My Holy Spirit experiences seemed to dry up, and I found myself in the desert of my faith walk. This journey lasted ten long years, and through it all we longed for a drink of God's Spirit, or any sign that he was still out there.
Our first church in Colorado Springs was a Byzantine Catholic mission church. It had the form of prayer we preferred, but the "why" of the worship had been misplaced. The minister was endlessly wishing he was elsewhere, and the congregation was preoccupied with procedures and rubrics rather than the Gospel. We finally were forced to make another choice, because the mission closed after several months.
The next church parish we attended was Roman Catholic. It loved to emphasize how "We are the body of Christ!" At first, this was a message that hit home and reminded all present how they need to actively reach out and play their role as a member of that body. But it began to get a little weird when months went by and the same message was repeated, without the actual person of Christ ever being mentioned. Were they ever going to talk about Jesus? Did the pastor forget that that body he was so fond of mentioning had a head? I caught on that the real point of the message in their eyes was that everyone should volunteer their time, talent and treasure to their church.
Things took a really sour turn one Sunday morning when it was time for the Gospel reading. The Gospel is a sacred part of the mass, and Catholics hold the reading in reverence. But, for some odd reason, as the lector started to read, a kid with a big boom box blasting music was making his way down one aisle. My husband got up to tell him to stop when we noticed a woman talking loudly on her phone, pacing around before the pulpit. Then, next to the sanctuary up front, we saw a big screen TV, and a kid playing a noisy video game. The video game audio was piped into the church's sound system - as if the boom box wasn't loud enough. It became clear that this was a skit to teach us how life distracts us from God. But it was ill-timed. If there is one thing Catholics understand, it is reverence for the things of God. The Gospel reading is too sacred to mar with the kitsch of a skit. My husband had us get up and walk out.
That event caused us never to return to that church. Instead, we hopped from parish to parish, hoping to find one that felt more like home. What we found was that no church wanted to preach as if Jesus and his resurrection were real. They wanted to talk about whatever was lighthearted and trivial, whatever was sure not to offend. And they seemed to think the mass needed fixing. It was much too old-fashioned, and so they endlessly needed to spruce it up. Furthermore, priest after priest gave off the impression that they weren't the ones running the place. They had given their leadership role to a committee of lay people. These lay ministers clearly had no education about the liturgy and worship which they were butchering.
It was then that I became aware of an internal battle going on within the American Catholic Church between those of a more liberal mindset and those who were conservative. The liberals wanted married priests, women priests, and an endlessly re-invented, better mass. One with a rock band. They wanted to look and act more Protestant. The conservatives wanted their Latin mass back, but if they couldn't have it, at least they didn't want to mess with the traditional Irish sweet-song hymns and the general respect for the sacredness of the mass. This is an over-generalization, of course, but it was these kinds of attitudes we kept encountering. Everyone was more interested in pushing on the Church their personal agendas rather than growing in or spreading the Gospel. They thought that if they could just have it their way, the people leaving the Catholic church in droves would come running home.
What those people who left needed was Jesus. They couldn't find him in the Catholic church, so they left. If the Protestants are attracting huge numbers, it's not because of a great band and more modern service. That might get a person in the door initially, but what holds them there is when they encounter the Living God. Preach Jesus, and they will come! In fact, what I found to be so confusing was that a perfect opportunity to share the Gospel arose every mass -- after the Gospel reading! But time and again each priest would not even mention the words just read in scripture, nor related concepts, nor a sign of any personal faith in Christ. They'd talk about the crazy weather we were having or the latest Cosmopolitan article, but never the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Eventually, life events took us from Colorado Springs to Phoenix, Arizona. We began to attend another Roman Catholic church there, but encountered the same watered-down, irrelevant message as we had in the previous ones.
The only respite came from a guest priest, Father Nacho, who would sometimes say mass. Every once in a while, you encounter a Spirit-filled person whose very being emanates the triune God. This visiting priest was that way. "A prophet," my husband called him. He once announced at mass "I am hearing complaints that I preach the Gospel too often, but I say, I will not cease to preach it because you still don't understand it!"
We looked forward to the Sundays when he would preach, because we knew we'd come away from mass profoundly touched by the wisdom, mystery, and power of God. But, as all guests do, this priest left within the year. And because we had no other cause to stay, and in fact felt very disconnected from that community, we looked for a church home elsewhere. Said poetically, the color gray tends not to attract. True, it won't offend, but neither will it attract. It stands for nothing.
By this time we were experiencing a crisis of faith. We desperately needed life-support from a pastor who understood our spiritual needs. We thought maybe it was time to try the Byzantine Catholic Church in Phoenix. Perhaps it would give us a home, since our first positive encounter with Catholicism had been at a Byzantine church. Roman Catholicism in the Southwest had not fed us, so perhaps the difference lay in which Catholic rite you attended (for an explanation of Catholic rites, click here.)
Instead, we found a church that cared more about the importance of upholding their cultural tradition than the message of Christ. Our crisis need for our faith to be fed was met with the pastor starting every single homily with a bazooka joke. My husband said that it was slowly turning his faith into a joke.
Still, we tried to reach out to this community. At one point, I invited every young family there to a children's cookie decorating party. I thought it would be a good way to fellowship with them. But Catholics are notorious for avoiding fellowship, and apparently these Catholics were no different from their Roman counterparts. Not one of my many invited families showed. I ended up calling in all of the neighborhood kids, and made a party of it anyway. I couldn't help but think of the wedding parable:
Matthew 22:1 Jesus again used parables in talking to the people. 2 "The Kingdom of heaven is like this. Once there was a king who prepared a wedding feast for his son. 3 He sent his servants to tell the invited guests to come to the feast, but they did not want to come. 4 So he sent other servants with this message for the guests: "My feast is ready now; my steers and prize calves have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast!' 5 But the invited guests paid no attention and went about their business: one went to his farm, another to his store, 6 while others grabbed the servants, beat them, and killed them. 7 The king was very angry; so he sent his soldiers, who killed those murderers and burned down their city. 8 Then he called his servants and said to them, "My wedding feast is ready, but the people I invited did not deserve it. 9 Now go to the main streets and invite to the feast as many people as you find.' 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, good and bad alike; and the wedding hall was filled with people.
This time, we attended a Melkite Catholic Church. Unfortunately, this church was caught up in the lie of a works-based salvation. One memorable homily was on the parable of the wedding feast already mentioned above. The focus this time was on verses 11-12 which, if you recall, had one guest thrown out of the feast to "wailing and gnashing of teeth" because he had not worn the correct wedding garment. Well, the deacon was giving this particular homily, and explained how it meant that if you didn't wear a coat and tie to church, you were in grave sin. My husband later wondered aloud about how poor people obviously do not have enough money to spend time with God.
But the final nail on the coffin of us attending this particular Melkite Church came one Sunday when a woman in the front pew collapsed. She had been in a horrible car accident just a few weeks earlier, in which her husband had been killed. Though over 90% of her aorta was severed, they managed to save her life. So, to see her collapse was a cause for great concern. Her family in the pew around her quickly gathered near, and talking was going on. Everyone was alarmed. What did the priest do?
Well, her collapse had interrupted his homily. He faced away, and silently stared out a window while rocking back and forth on his heels. This lasted long enough for an ambulance to arrive and take her away. As the stretcher started to move down the aisle, he turned back to the congregation and said "Isn't it funny how I was teaching on patience, and here we are, having to be patient?"
No prayers were offered for her as she was wheeled out. Not one word of concern, nor even a glance was afforded her. For someone trying to be God's representative on Earth, this priest lacked the compassion of Christ so much that he couldn't be troubled by the incident in the least.
It should not surprise you that this started a period where we didn't go to church at all. My husband began to repeat the same jaded statement, "You know, we live on Mars." And when you'd ask him why, he'd say, "There's no churches on Mars, so we must be on Mars."
At first, our motivation for staying home was to save our children for growing up in an environment which called itself Christian, but preached something else. We thought they'd grow up to say "If this is Christianity, I don't want to be Christian." Ironic that to preserve our children in the Christian faith, it was necessary to prevent them from going to church.
Our intermittent church attendance was finally punctuated with one last dire church experience. Based on a recommendation, we attended yet another new Roman Catholic parish. We only lasted four Sundays. This new church had a tradition of waving their fists in the air during the Alleluia hymn - a slower version of the Arsenio Hall one-handed fist pump. We thought it was a bit strange and unreserved for Catholics to be doing such a thing, but we simply tried to ignore it. That worked until the Sunday when the priest made the whole topic of his homily about the fist pumping. He told his parishioners that people who refused to do the fist pumps were "people of fear." He called them, that is us, "Sadducees." My husband was very offended at the message, and actually shouted out at the end of the homily "Don't call us Sadducees!"
In three separate and private conversations with that priest after the mass and in the days that followed, my husband was seeking an apology from the priest. The priest, in turn, wanted nothing except for my husband to understand the gravity of the crime he committed by speaking up during mass.
My husband noted that the notion of Jesus over-turning the tables of the money-changers at church was entirely lost on this pastor. We stopped attending mass.
We worried for our faith. My husband struggled with believing in a God who didn't seem to be active in his own church. He thought maybe he was becoming an agnostic. Meanwhile, I began to sense the presence of God in yoga class and spent my time with him there. My whole yoga routine became worship of Jesus. In this way, the Holy Spirit seemed to be saying, "I am still here, do not be discouraged."
God sometimes chooses the strangest tools to bring you to where he wants you to go. For us, when he was ready to give us the church home we had been seeking for ten years, he used...