Emerson said that life is a succession of lessons that must be lived in order to be understood. Religion is the same way. Here are 5 experiences I’ve had with Catholicism and the lessons I’ve learned from them.
Lesson One: Never Discount Mystery
As my grandmother lay unconscious and dying in a hospital, my mother kept vigil at her bedside. Although grandma had been unconscious for a number of days, unable to communicate, she suddenly sat up in bed, opened her eyes, and with a beaming face, spoke to the Blessed Mother and to a deceased relative, whom she saw in the room. After this experience she returned to unconsciousness and died shortly thereafter.
When my mother recounted this to me, she asked that I keep it to myself. She wanted me to know what had happened, but she didn’t want it spread around, since experiences like this are so easily judged, mocked, or misconstrued. At 12 years of age, I knew my mother to be a practical woman, not given to flights of fancy. Whatever she said she saw, I knew had happened.
Through the years I have had conflicting reactions when these kinds of experiences are reported. They range from an individual seeing the face of Jesus on a piece of toast, to the six children (now adults) experiencing apparitions at Medugorje, which draws multitudes of pilgrims. My immediate reaction is to reject these happenings, but then that childhood touchstone memory of my mother taking me into her confidence comes back to remind me never to discount another person’s religious experience. Never discount mystery.
Lesson Two: Mature Catholic Faith Necessitates An Informed Conscience.
I attended Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood, in the late 60’s and early 70’s. IHC was an amazing mix of faith, artistic expression and intelligence, all rolled into one, and served up to young women by the sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
During my four years there, IHC was also ground zero for a great conflict between the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters and Cardinal McIntyre, the Archbishop of Los Angeles. The sisters, inspired by Vatican II, wanted to modify aspects of the way they lived religious life, which the cardinal doggedly opposed. (for details see my blog: Remembering a Revolution at https://www.catholic-conversations.com/post/remembering-a-revolution ).
Before observing this conflict first-hand, my understanding of religion hadn’t changed very much since early childhood. The church was like a road map: follow the rules and you will stay on course. When I witnessed firsthand how misguided the institutional church can be, I encountered my informed conscience for the first time. Like a toddler who let’s go of her parent’s hands and takes those first awkward steps on her own, I discovered my own religious voice.
Lesson Three: Not All Catholics Who Live At The Same Time Are Contemporaries.
My oldest daughter was one of the first girls trained to be an altar server in our parish. As it happened, she served the first Sunday that girls were allowed on the altar.
As we exited the church following Mass, a picket line had formed in front of the church, which consisted of Catholics who were protesting girl altar servers. What came to me that Sunday morning was a quote inspired by the movie Forrest Gump: Catholicism is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get.
Lesson Four: Secrets Are The Church's Achilles' Heal
When my son was in the primary grades, he belonged to the parish boys’ choir. The choir was highly regarded. Not only did they sing at mass, they also got to sing on a movie soundtrack, and sit in the orchestra pit to accompany the ballet’s Nutcracker performances at Christmas.
This all took place at the height of the AIDS epidemic. While my son was in the choir, the choir director died of AIDS. This was at a time when not only the church, but most of society rejected sexual differences. The parish only learned the actual cause of his death because it was reported in the Los Angeles Times.
When my son heard how the director had died, he insisted on going to the school principal and asking her if the director had really died of AIDS and if he was gay. He was given an evasive answer - perhaps the choir director had caught AIDS during a blood transfusion. As the sexual abuse scandal would prove out a decade later, secrets don’t stay secret. The church seems to keep learning that the hard way.
Lesson Five: The Church Can Change
This last story happened at a dinner table with a long-time priest friend. He had invited my husband and I to dinner. We knew that he had been discerning leaving the priesthood for some time, but the odds were against the church allowing him to leave the priesthood and remain in the teaching position that he loved.
In the midst of dinner, the phone range. It was the call that informed him that Rome had agreed to laicize him and that he would remain in good standing with the church and would be able to continue to teach.
The years since then are filled with people whose spiritual lives he has enriched. Just when you assume that the church will get it wrong, something marvelous happens.