"For where God built a church, there the Devil would also build a chapel."
I guess this quote from my new homeboy Martin Luther is as good a place as any to break the news to my parents that I’ve left the Roman Catholic Church, at the ripe old age of 52, in favor of a faith often nicknamed “Catholic lite.”
Even the most fervent patron of the Holy See must give the devil his due: he has built a basilica rivaling St. Peter’s on church property in recent months. Cardinals and bishops are falling faster than Halloween candy prices in November after almost weekly revelations that they presided over the practice of pedophile priests raping countless children in their care for decades.
It has become impossible to see the church I grew up in through the lenses of rage and disgust that I’ve been wearing into His house lately.
You would think being sexually abused by a religious brother in my teens while attending an all-male high school would have nudged me out the door of the Roman Catholic church decades ago, but it didn’t.
I did the hard work writing a book of fiction called "Collared" that was set in the church sex scandals and used that as a vehicle to confront and ultimately forgive my abuser. Once I completed that process in 2004, I resumed church attendance and even ran my daughters through the same sacramental cycle of my youth. Looking back, I suppose I did this because it was either too comfortable to stick with what I knew, or I was too lazy to find a house of worship that matched the man I had become.
Alas, our Lord works in mysterious ways.
I wasn’t looking for a new faith when I walked into the Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Manasquan, New Jersey a couple of months ago; I was so bent in grief over the sudden death of my dear friend Tammy that I didn’t pay much attention to what building I entered for her memorial service. The details of the day are still a blur but the nourishing peace I felt in this church has sustained me through the dark weeks that followed her passing.
I returned a few weeks later for All Souls Day to mark Tammy’s passing and was struck by how different yet familiar the Pastor Farnham’s service was. Seeing a woman lead the proceedings took some getting used to but the prayers were the same: even better!
They never switched over to the new prayers that replaced things like “and also with you” with “and with your spirit” the way the Roman Catholics did back in 2011. It’s been almost eight years and I still find myself stumbling over the new order of things in “The Apostles Creed” like some unwashed heathen. Not the case in this house of worship!
It is not my intention to create a propaganda piece for Martin Luther at the expense of Pope Francis or to prattle on about how light and free I now feel in this new state of worship; there are more urgent matters in my family at play here that have generated the announcement you’ve been patiently reading.
If you’re in a family, especially an Irish one, you know the older cousins absorb all the arrows in their backs from warring parents freaked out about “the firsts:” the initial immigration to America, the interfaith romance, the gay marriage, or the divorce.
By the time the younger cousins come up the ranks, “the firsts” are now the new normal and they can go about living their lives without much upset from the older generation. I’m the oldest cousin and first writer in my family, which means my back has more holes than Ivanka Trump’s alibi about her decision to use her private email account for government business. Being the first Lutheran in the family, I can already see my mother and her sisters reach for their bows and quivers.
Over tea and at a safe distance away from their mothers, a pair of cousins confessed over the recent Christmas holiday to a crippling dread over what do about the sacraments as their wee ones inched closer to the second grade. Mass attendance had waned and they just weren’t feeling the pomp and circumstance of Holy Communion gowns and parties.
The anguish was all too familiar and painful to live through, taking me back to a time of paint-by-numbers planning for my own daughters’ Communion parties. The whole thing was a show for mom, who ended up pitching an epic fit when the first portraits came back without the customary white veil and rosary beads to match the dress. I rolled my eyes, mumbled under my breath, and went through the motions of retaking the photos just to keep the peace at the time; it should have been no surprise, then, when both daughters rejected the Jesuit campuses in their college searches years later because the crucifixes “made the place too churchy.” I see this history repeating itself in the fresh anguish of my cousins.
It is I, Lord, who baptized my kids into a sham instead of a faith. I steamrolled over my Jewish wife to raise the kids Catholic in my interfaith marriage because I was terrified that my girls would grow up weak in faith. In my halfhearted organization of religious studies carpools and Confirmation dinners, I’m the one responsible for their current disinterest in any organized religion that stagnates over the house like a bloom of red algae in a Florida swamp.
Age has taught me that children are much smarter than you give them credit for and they can see right through a parent struggling in their faith. Can you really blame them for skipping Mass now that they’re old enough to drive themselves there?
Though I’ve never been widowed or divorced, I would imagine introducing a new girlfriend to my daughters would be akin to the feeling I had brought them for Christmas Eve services at the Lutheran church: I looked over nervously every ten seconds to watch for any negative reaction while silently praying that the initial meeting might lead to a budding acceptance followed to a lifelong bond.
“That was pretty cool,” they said evenly as we walked out into the Christmas night. Rome wasn’t built in a day and I am hopeful that church attendance as a family is a new possibility in 2019 that didn’t exist last year.
As I sit by myself in the pew of my new church on this Sunday, I pray that the souls of my cousins find peace in the faith of our fathers and if not, they find the courage to worship (or not) as they see fit without the shackles of expectation from their parents. I pray they figure this out soon so that they raise kids with a love of faith instead of making poor choices out of some feckless sense of duty the way their older cousin did.
Finally, I pray for their health and happiness, and I know my Mom is praying for the same thing in a pew a few miles away.
"May your troubles be less and your blessings be more and nothing but happiness comes through your door."
That’s an Irish blessing that works in any church on any given Sunday.
*Mike Farragher is a screenwriter and author of the "This Is Your Brain on Shamrocks" series of essays.
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