I sometimes speak to small groups, and I’m often asked why I am still a Catholic. Still.
We all know of former Catholic women who have said they left the church because they could not be ordained and/or they disagreed with official church teaching. But, while I flirted with Judaism as I studied Hebrew years ago, I have never left the Catholic Church, never even seriously considered it. But the question of “why” keeps coming back at me.
I converted to Catholicism when I was almost 30, having grown up in the Presbyterian Church. I have wonderful memories of that church and the people there who guided me along the path. But my interest in the Catholic Church began when I worked for a few months with Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary in Spokane. I was so impressed with these women, their dedication to God and their sense of service to everyone, including women so often overlooked by the rest of the world.
Later, when I moved to Portland, I lived a few blocks from St. Mary’s Catholic Cathedral. I remembered those Holy Names sisters as I walked by this mountain of red brick in Northwest Portland. One Christmas morning, I found myself, for the first time, inside the cathedral, in Mass. I remember feeling oddly at home. I didn’t know what was happening around me, but the “smells and the bells” drew me in. I joined the catechumenate there, a group for people interested in learning more about the church. A handful of women I met in that group remain close friends today.
Later I attended a Protestant seminary, chosen because it was liberal, located in a large city, a place where I thought I could learn to write about the Bible and religion in general. I had no desire to be ordained. I saw my gifts leading me down a different path. But, still, my classmates, assuming ordination was an issue for me, wondered why I didn't switch to a denomination where that might have happened. Many women in my class had done just that. But I found myself drawn to a half-dozen women who longed to preach and pastor but still stayed Catholic. When our fellow students were graduating and planning ordinations, we planned our own “commissioning service” and sent each other out into the world to find or create our own paths. I often think of those women and wonder how their lives have worked out.
I awoke this morning to “hear” one of them again. Nancy Small has written a piece for America magazine that explains why she is still a Catholic and the particular path she’s found. She writes eloquently about her experience in seminary and since, and the realization that she is already ordained. She quotes a line from the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church:
“The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated into a spiritual house and a holy priesthood.” I encourage you to read her essay here.
Nancy lists some of the things she loves about the Catholic Church: “religious communities whose charisms and witness were beacons illumining the path of the holy in my life . . . mystics and monastics, seekers and saints, peacemakers and prophets . . . words of wisdom . . . spiritual practices . . . Catholic social teaching . . . . “ Her list strikes a chord in my heart. Yes, these are the reasons to stay, I think to myself. But there is one more that Nancy acknowledges and I cling to -- all the women who have gone before us, and walk with us still.
All the women who sacrificed and served. All the women who were born into, converted, challenged and critiqued the church. All the women who found a way, like Nancy, to preach, preside and pray within the Catholic Church. The women I have known who fight the good fight. They are my bottom line. They are the reason I remain a Catholic. Still.
I once knew a family that unpacked their nativity scene the day after Thanksgiving. They arranged all the pieces -- the holy family, the shepherds, the sheep, cows, manger and the baby -- carefully and arranged the figures on the living room mantel. The wise men were exiled to the den, which didn’t immediately make sense to me. I asked and the mother involved explained that the wise men figurines would make their way slowly, day by day, from the easternmost corner of the house and arrive at the manger on January 6, Epiphany. I was so impressed.
I knew nothing about the 12 days of Christmas or the feast of Epiphany, and her explanation has stayed with me all these years. I don’t do the same thing. Somehow I suspected that I would not remember to move the magi every day as they made their way toward Christmas. Probably for the same reason I never managed the elf-on-a-shelf that other families foster. That, and I have a lousy sense of direction. I cannot tell you now whether my house faces east or west, north or south, without imagining a map of Portland and trying to figure out where I’m sitting on it right this minute.
But even though, I didn’t observe the same tradition, I’ve learned a little about those wise men and what they have to do with Christmas and with Christians. And I think every season about the magi and their journey and that they arrived at the manger after many of us have taken down the trees and put away the nativity scene. The fir boughs on my mantel are crispy now and my tree is probably past its prime, but I won't take them down until after the feast of Epiphany. Until the wise men have had time to get there -- at least in my imagination. As many who have been reading this blog or my book know, I believe that the outsiders of the Bible -- the strangers within its pages -- have a lot to teach us about the strangers in our own lives.
I have given it some thought and decided that I am hard pressed to come up with better New Year’s Resolutions than the last words of the twelfth Dr. Who, uttered on BBC on Christmas night: “Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind.”
*Advice my dad used to give me.