By Kelly Murphy Mason
A few things that seem self-evident about me—that I was raised Roman Catholic; that I left the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church as a young adult; and that I remain as culturally Catholic today as I was when I wore a plaid jumper to St. Catherine’s parochial school—are not equally obvious to everyone else. I learned this most vividly when I was an upper-class seminarian at an interdenominational divinity school, during a conversation with two Episcopalians in the library, one of whom was known to me and another who was unknown. I said something off-handed about my “clearly” being a former Catholic and was startled by the unknown Episcopalian’s response. “Why clearly?” he asked.
“Because obviously, I’m no longer a practicing Catholic,” I said. “I mean I’m here—I’ve been preparing for ordination for a while now.”
“And…?” the unknown Episcopalian replied.
“And?” I asked with baited breath, expecting a punchline. None came. He was entirely sincere, and there did not seem to be a hidden camera nearby. “And the Catholics don’t ordain women,” I told him, finally.
“They don’t?” he said, taken aback.
“No, they don’t.”
“Really,” I said, dumbstruck. “What did you think?”
“Honestly, I thought the Catholics were pretty much like Episcopalians,” he admitted, “only with a pope.”
“Not so,” I said. “They really are very different from one another.” At this point, the other Episcopalian, the one I knew, was shaking his head vigorously, as plainly flummoxed by this conversation as I was.
“So the Catholics do not ordain women,” the unknown Episcopalian declared.
“No!” I said.
“Well, that disappoints me,” he said, rather understated in his response, using the most civil of tones. “Truthfully,” he added, “it makes me think a little less of them.”
Of course, we can all find excuses to think a little less of one another’s faith traditions, but if we start to think little enough of our own, eventually, we’re likely to abandon it for something else altogether—as well we might. It took me years to realize that if I felt driven out of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, there might still be other places I could go, including a place where people would receive me happily, with something akin to joy.
In my twenties, I found that place on Sixteenth Street in Washington, D.C., the spiritual spine of our nation’s capital, a stretch of road lined for miles with churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and basilicas. It was there I started attending a small Universalist church attended by a number of birthright Universalists but probably by more religious refugees, including myself and a sizable representation of gay men, usually those in longstanding domestic partnerships with one another. Several of these men had been raised Catholic. They could not—would not—deny how they loved or who they loved when they went to church each Sunday. As a result, we had a truly great choir.
One Sunday, from the pulpit, our minister told us of a recent interfaith event he attended in Washington, a dinner where he had been assigned to sit next to the local priest. The Rev. Dr. Fox mentioned, in a genial and collegial way, that our church was seeing a greater and greater influx of former Catholics in the pews. The priest seemed surprised by this, which in turn surprised Dr. Fox.
“You know, Father,” Dr. Fox told him in the kindliest voice imaginable, “if you’re going to keep driving them out, we’re going to keep taking them in. That’s just how we work.”
That’s how that Universalist church has continued to work, blessedly, even since Dr. Fox has come and gone, even in the years since I left it for the ordained ministry. That’s thankfully how a number of progressive faith communities operate—with an intention to be affirming, inclusive, welcoming, and openly loving. Religious refugees are wanted in these communities; they are, you could even say, treasured. Look who’s crossing the threshold today, all these good folk well met! Many of those ushers doing the greeting in the church vestibule were once strangers in a strange land themselves, so they understand what’s at stake for newcomers, spiritually. They understand the sadness that accompanies us when we feel adrift in our souls.
They also understand what sweet respite it is to find a spiritual home that offers us shelter and sustenance. My adoptive church felt—at last—like a permanent address for me. I was there each Sunday and some weeknights for theology class and also every third Saturday, in the afternoon, when a group of us from the church cooked dinner for the men recovering at Joshua House, a halfway-house on the other side of Sixteenth Street, and then delivered it and ate with them.
On Sundays, I arrived early for Bible study and stayed late for coffee hour. The church was small enough to be what we religious professionals call a “family church,” and indeed, the bonds that we had with one another, the intimacy and unqualified affection, felt like kinship. We cared for each other with a kind of abandon I had not known before. I loved that church in a way I had never loved anything.
One Sunday at coffee hour, a fellow from that morning’s Bible study sidled up to me at the milk and creamer counter and asked, “So when are you going to start seminary?”
Assuming he had me confused with someone else, I replied. “I’m not—I mean, that’s not me. I’m not starting seminary.” I had a job, and a perfectly respectable one, too. I thought he knew that.
This fellow did not even look up from his cup. “You will,” he said, nodding to himself, stirring his coffee. “You will.”
Who can say what makes for prophesy? I was not haunted by that exchange at coffee hour; honestly, I did not entirely recall it, did not truly appreciate its significance until, two years later, I arrived for the first morning of new-student orientation at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. I shocked myself a little by showing up, because honestly, it could have gone either way. My friends were dubious about my prospects for ministry, but no one harbored more doubts than I.
“Do you really want be a minister?” several different friends asked me, usually somewhat embarrassed on my behalf. Historically, I have not run in religious crowds.
“Maybe, maybe not,” I would say, shrugging. “Maybe what I really want to be is a div-school drop-out,” I would add. Then invariably I laughed—that line got me every time, even if it was mine.
Div-school drop-out! Semester after semester, frankly, I was surprised when I when I was not that drop-out, but ever more a minister in vocational formation. Hosts of other people were surprised, as well; I could tell. Four incredibly surprising years passed that way. Admittedly, I have always an ability to move in mystery, and that seems to have carried me far.
One thing was certain, though: in seminary, I could not hide what category of Catholic I had become, i.e., former. It’s almost impossible for a seminarian to be religiously closeted. I only know this because I tried. What drove me crazy about the farcical conversation with the unknown Episcopalian in the library was that my situation was not immediately obvious to him.
While I’m not convinced that it was inevitable that I would leave the Catholic Church, especially since so many people I love dearly still call it their own, I am quite certain that my departure was a grave loss, a painful thing for me and for my family, though we’ve frankly never discussed it. Some Catholic relatives even came to my ordination in 2006, with a generosity of spirit that I will never forget. Their presence felt positively sacramental to me. Although I left the Church angry and hurt and desperate, with manifold and legitimate grievances about Church leadership, I do not curse the Church itself. I have a lot of problems with a broad band of my co-religionists these days; I do not believe that gives me permission to renounce them. To the contrary: I’m challenged to find a manner of embracing them.
Last year, a priest colleague of mine in New York asked me to give the homily at a healing Mass he was celebrating. He is a liberal and broad-minded person trying to reform the Catholic Church from within, with all the bravery he can muster adorned in vestments. He wanted to know if I’d ever been asked to renounce my Catholicism when I joined my new church. No, I hadn’t, as a matter of fact, and so I preached to his parish from the chancel, wearing my ministerial stole, in all gladness and subterfuge. I spoke on the perennial topic of the boundless love of God, the love that catechism teachers first explained to me in the basement of my childhood Catholic church, that same love we sang about from the hymnal in St Catherine’s, the same love that I sensed left a few nuns at school beaming from within, that very same love that I saw streaming through stained-glass windows surrounding us all.
Whenever we think a little less of people and their unmistakably human institutions, I think we ought to remain willing to think a little bit better of them, too, as situations allow. My own commitment to whole-hearted ecumenism involves me doing just this, thinking better of people, even thinking highly of their hope to lead such faithful lives. Make no mistake: we are all fumbling through life. Today I am a community minister and clinical pastoral psychotherapist, two mantles I never fully expected to wear; they occasionally tangle, and I sometimes have a hard time explaining them to others. My journey was long and winding, as people like to say. But there were some parting gifts I received as a religious refugee, habits of being that I carried with me on my pilgrimage, that cause me to be grateful today. Now I see that these gifts may not be obvious to anyone but me, and perhaps, that is as it should be.
The Reverend Dr. Kelly Murphy Mason is an ordained minister and licensed psychotherapist practicing in New York City. She blogs at The Reverend Dr.
Photo provided by Dr. Kelly Murphy Mason.