Here’s an extraordinary letter from a reader, who gave me permission to share it as long as I don’t use her name:
I just read with interest your blog post titled “Convert Burnout.” So much of this rings true for me as well, but I think I disagree with the writer’s basic premise. It is not a bad thing to know too much about someone or something you deeply love, in this case, the Church. But it can be exceedingly uncomfortable.
I, too, grew up in a liberal Catholic household. (My parents would blanch at being described as liberal anything, military and Republican to a fault, but no other word describes their collective Catholicism.) I grew up poorly catechized in the 1970s-era of God is Love and making banners, despite numerous Catholic elementary schools. I proudly went off to Notre Dame in the mid-80s knowing precious little about my faith, other than how to say the rosary and how participate in the mass, which I attended in my dorm every Sunday night, guitars and all. I dutifully carried on the family tradition of cultural Catholicism, still clueless about doctrine. I graduated school with a lapsed-Methodist agnostic fiancé (hard to find that at Notre Dame, but lucky me), determined to get married in the Catholic church, which we did. We even went shopping for a priest to do our pre-Caanan who didn’t object too strongly to our cohabitation.
Over the next 20 years, I drifted in and out of the Church, never quite leaving and never able to bring myself to join a different faith tradition. Because Catholic was part of my identity. I was very active in the church when my children were due for their first sacraments, and also during the summer when my youngest was born at 26 weeks and spent months in the NICU. But when life was good, we did not have time for a faith that provided little else than spiritual crisis management. The Church, and our large liberal parish, was there when I needed it and forgotten when I didn’t.
Five years ago, a mid-life existential crisis precipitated by the death of a dearly-loved and devoutly-Catholic uncle changed that. Although I only pinpoint that as “the moment” in retrospect. I had a gradual but significant reversion to my Catholic faith. Or to a new-to-me, more authentic Catholic faith. I started attending mass regularly with my youngest (although my eldest refused to go, already “lost” to the Church, refusing even to be confirmed.) I took on a faith-based part-time job. We started homeschooling, and joined a Catholic homeschooling co-op. I pulled my daughter from Girl Scouts and switched to American Heritage Girls, a christian scouting group. I started attending annual retreats with Dominican religious sisters. I began seeing a spiritual advisor to help me work my way through little struggles I encounter along the way. Even our friends and social circles now revolve around various Catholic communities. Every aspect and activity in our lives changed to something more faith-oriented. It was my own personal journey to the Benedict Option.
During this time, my husband was exceedingly supportive but not very involved in our faith life. Throughout our marriage, he was faithful to his commitment to “raise the children Catholic.” And we slowly upped the “deal” to include joint appearances at Easter and Christmas masses, not just funerals and weddings. He was on his own drift, away from a 10-year flirtation with Buddhism in the early 2000s, and towards what, I did not know.
I have also, predictably, been on a years-long effort to educate myself about my Catholic faith. On-line courses, books, reading plans, lectures, blogs, conferences. You name it, I’ve probably done it. Videos by first Matthew Kelley, and then Bishop Barron made my faith come alive for me personally for the first time ever. As I have learned more, I have loved more. I have intellectually confirmed for myself that the Catholic faith is the fullness of truth, and I am better for it. I have changed my personal position on nearly every piece of doctrine I chafed against as a young adult: the papacy, abortion, celibate male priests, the works. I have found an intellectual integrity in the doctrine of the church that I had never suspected exists. And the dogma I had never really had a problem with began to take on new and deeper meaning.
This journey has come to a head this year. This weekend, in fact. My eldest daughter is attending the conservative, non-demoniational christian Hillsdale College, and joined the conservative Catholic University of Dallas for the Summer in Rome program last year, taking classes in early Christian theology and Art and Architecture of Rome. These two schools have led her back to the Catholic faith, although it is decidedly a faith of her own, and not the faith she grew up with. She is talking about being confirmed next year. My husband surprisingly started RCIA classes last August, and despite profoundly poor catechesis from our large, liberal parish will be joining the church tomorrow night at the Easter Vigil.
So this all sounds delightful, right? Everything is working out. Except as I – and now we, as my husband and I are on a similar spiritual path for the first time in 25 years of marriage – go deeper into this journey, it gets harder to be Catholic, not easier. Let me rephrase that. It gets harder to be in the Catholic church. Through our study and our faith life, we have both settled on a very conservative interpretation of the faith. Far more conservative than our local parish. More conservative, even, than our diocese. And in reluctantly following Pope Francis’s writings and communique, it seems at times we are more conservative than the pope himself. Don’t get me wrong – we are not rad-trads, longing for a return to the Traditional Latin Mass or condemning the Our Father hand-holders in our own parish. But I am increasingly dismayed at how hard it is to find an authentic interpretation of the faith, at least in action. At any level.
Here are few examples of what I mean:
At our own local parish, my husband’s poor RCIA catechesis included no mention on the Real Presence in the Eucharist, no church teaching on rejecting artificial birth control or respect for life from conception to natural death, and not even any discussion on the rich tradition of beauty and truth in the Catholic church. (Honestly, I have not idea what they did talk about for two hours every week – all of what he has learned about the faith this year has come from his own study.) He was not instilled with a rosy vision of Catholicism, but to my eye a very murky one. No “unintentional lies,” just lies of omission. Thankfully as a 50 year-old pragmatist, he came at his conversion with an ability (and expectation) to separate the doctrine and tradition from the vagaries and shortcomings of a particular parish.
Our parish is about to complete construction on a $20M hall, which our pastor claims he wants to be the center of “building a community.” But any attempts to use the hall for our various homeschooling activities have been politely rebuffed or not-so-politely refused because of our Austin diocese’s stealth but persistent opposition to home education. Apparently “building a community” means putting in a coffee bar. (I’m not kidding.) The construction chaos also led the pastor to significantly curtail the hours of our 24-hour Eucharistic chapel, which I understand will likely not be re-instated once the construction crews depart for good.
At the diocesan level, things are not much better. As I mentioned, there is a passive but consistent sense of disapproval of homeschooling coming from the diocese. There is a strong and vibrant Catholic homeschooling community in our city, with a number of social activities, co-ops and part-time schools. But these all exist in spite of, not supported by, the diocese, who has an unofficial (or official but unpublished) policy of prohibiting parishes from hosting homeschooling activities. Apparently homeschooling is a threat to our local Catholic schools, most of which have waiting lists or are far too expensive to attend for your typical Catholic family with more than 3 children. So ironic, this. By far the most vibrantly faithful, well-catechized children I have ever met – as well as a number of priests and religious – have come from this homeschool community.
Even at the state level, the conference of Texas bishops seem more intent on fomenting discord within the state pro-life political community, advocating for open-border policies, and making generalized political statements than they are focused on the support and catechesis of the faithful in the local communities. (There is a great story for you to dig into here on the Church’s pro-life battles in Texas if you are interested.)
And then there is Francis. Sigh.
So many incidents in the last year alone that cause me to question the leadership in my church, and their lack of consistency with the spirit and doctrine of our faith. I pray for the bishops. I follow the bishops on explicit matters of doctrine. I just never seem to agree with most of what comes out of their offices. Or their mouths.
So as I gone further into my own personal reversion, I do find myself inching closer and closer to a kind of burnout. I am completely sympathetic to your reader in his repeated collisions with the brick walls of his successive conversions. For me, these brick walls tend to be the separation between the Faith and the Church. Rather than a burnout, I suppose it is more of a disillusionment. But I am confident I will be able to remain faithful, for a number of reasons. First, it’s not just me, especially now. I am on this journey with my husband and both of my daughters. Second, I am able (with a lot of work and prayer) to carefully walk that line between the Church’s 2000 years of tradition and teaching, and what it appears to be DOING in word and deed today. At least I am able, so far. And third, as I said, I am unshakably convinced that the Catholic church is the best representation of consistently back to Christ’s teaching here on earth. Not a perfect representation, but the best we have.
And yes. It IS a Good Friday.