In this first wrestling with my Catholic identity, I feel compelled to address a primary reason I cannot remain within a traditional parish, the exclusion of sacramental participation for certain people. It seems to contradict the very prayer Jesus offered the night before his death:
“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (Jn 17:21-23).
If, indeed, only some people even within its own doors are deemed worthy enough to celebrate the sacraments, how is the Church to model that union for all to see the glory of Christ in our midst? Of course, the Church has a ready answer. In fact, ever since the bishops met to open the Synod on the Family last fall, they have told us many times why things are as they are. Through the bans, the bishops are not the ones creating the separation. Individuals who choose to disobey their rules – God’s will – are responsible for their own inability to be fully united with the community. If and when they change their behavior, forgiveness and acceptance will be theirs. It’s that simple, the bishops assert.
On the surface, such reasoning may make sense. In fact, it may even seem indisputable. In pointing to passages from both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, they insist that they possess neither the right nor the ability to change what has been so clearly communicated about God’s wishes. Of course, theologians who think otherwise have argued that those very passages can be interpreted differently, but I must admit that I’ve grown weary trying to keep up with the ever-increasing nuanced debates over relatively few words. I had all but given up hope in finding a means of communicating why I just can’t accept the Church’s bans, but then, through my recent participation in a daily prayer retreat hosted by a minister at The Riverside Church I have found it. Over the next few entries, I will share what I learned through that experience.
This was the reading offered for our first day: A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. (Mark 1:40-43)
The reflection prompt that followed this text invited us to read the passage a second time, imagining self as the leper. I began, even saying the leper’s request aloud, “If you choose, you can…” I got no further. Those words, “If you choose,” stunned me. The leper realized that Jesus had a choice to make. Given Hebrew law and the cultural norms at that time, Jesus, a Jewish man, had the freedom to walk right past him, a leper, completely disregarding him, and no one would have thought anything wrong of Jesus in doing that. After all, to interact with a leper would have contaminated Jesus’ own purity. And so, the leper, knowing that the law and norms made him not only untouchable but invisible as well, declared, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” The next words truly gave me pause: “moved with pity.” Touched by emotion, Jesus did stretch out his own hand and said, “I do choose.” And in that moment, the man was cleansed.
In reflecting upon that interaction, rather than seeing myself as the leper, I began to wonder whom I have rendered “unclean” through my daily judgments and biases. Whom do I pass by each day because law and/or cultural norms allow me to do so? My heart grieved as I saw the homeless folk I pass each day on Broadway, the pictures of suffering people around the world in The Times I glance at each and every day. “Why,” I asked myself, “Have I not heard them say, ‘If you choose you can….’?” The answer was simple: rarely do I truly see them for who they are – beloved children of God, my brothers, my sisters, ordinary human beings too often overwhelmed by life’s circumstances. Rather I see them through a lens created by economics, politics and social norms, a lens that clouds my ability to see the genuine person before me.
Now, in that moment, I was humbled by both the pain of that insight that came in acknowledging my own hardness of heart, and the joy in realizing that maybe now I can grow in love for all. That in itself is a true gift. My thoughts did not stop, however. I could not help but recall words spoken so frequently by Roman Catholic bishops when key teachings are challenged, such as the bans on women’s ordination or artificial birth control. Even if they wanted to, they insist, they cannot change those laws because, in doing so, they would break God’s law, to go against God’s will. But yet, in the gospel reading above, the leper boldly challenges Jesus, the very incarnation of God, to act in a way that contradicts Hebrew law, the recognized will of God. “If you choose…” he said, and in response, Jesus turned, looked and saw, and was moved with pity. Why, I wonder, the bishops, in knowing how Jesus responded to such a challenge, don’t respond in a similar way? Rather than turning their attention to their laws and traditions, what would happen if, instead, they turned their eyes to one today who stands before them saying, “If you choose, you can make me clean”?
Quite possibly, they might see someone like my mother, a woman who went into a confessional booth in her parish, the fall of 1965, not long after the traumatic, premature birth of my youngest brother, her third child. At 38, she had just been told by her doctor that, given the fact that this was not the first, but the second time she nearly died in pregnancy, she needed to go on “The Pill.” That same doctor, upon seeing her hesitate when he first told her that, took it upon himself to talk to my father, suggesting that he consider divorcing my mother since, he – not yet 40 – was still a “young” man, a man who may find it hard to accept a diminished sex life. My mother, a good Catholic woman, had no intention of disobeying church teaching, that third pregnancy being the result of a failed attempt of following the rhythm method. But yet, what was she to do? And so, she agreed to go on birth control, in spite of the Church’s ban. In that confessional booth, upon hearing my mother’s story, her confessor looked not at this woman, a mother of three young children who knew that to maintain her marriage she would need to risk her own life if she obeyed church teaching; rather, he looked to Church law before telling her that, as long as she was taking that pill, she was not welcome at Communion. She was to remain in the pews.
For the next 17 years, she and my father not once went up at Eucharist, in spite of being at church each week with the three of us in tow. Possibly, that priest, when looking out at the congregation, saw a married couple, in sin, who knew their rightful place in the Church. Maybe he even said a silent prayer for them and the handful of others who stood alone, isolated from the celebration as others partook in the beloved ritual of the Catholic Church. I suspect, however, he did not see the suffering such a moment instilled upon them. Each and every week their remaining in the pew communicated oh-so-clearly that they were not truly respecting God’s laws, that they, indeed, were sinners, unworthy to approach the altar of our Lord. How hard it would have been to not feel as if each and every other person were judging them in that moment. That suffering was inflicted upon them through the insistence that a priest’s gaze must be focused on the law, not on the human person. Again, words of Jesus come to mind:
“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Mt 23:4).
Now, given the reality of a woman’s body, there did come a day when she no longer needed to be on the pill, and so they were both able to begin celebrating Eucharist once again. Possibly their return allowed their pastor to feel that all was then as it should be, with no harm done, given the gracious mercy of our loving God. However, those 17 years of denial and judgment did not leave them unscathed, just as the denial of sacramental participation to anyone else doesn’t leave them unhurt. Those wounds created by exclusion and abandonment in their time of most need never quite healed; in fact, each suffered deeply as they neared the time for their ultimate reunion with God…..