As an ex-Catholic of 28 years I don’t exactly go out of my way to imbibe myself again in that faith. But sometimes (my Mother’s recent hospitalization being a case in point) I realize I don’t have much choice. Both my parents are devout Catholics and they can no more be separated from their Catholicism than from each other. It is a fundamental part of who they are. Their whole lives are seen and experienced through the prism of Catholicism.
There was a time when this irked me, particularly when I was a rebellious teenager, but now I’ve learned to accept a person’s faith or lack of it. So visiting my parents means I must benignly tolerate grace at every meal (although I don’t participate), or listen to their morning prayers. I know that except for major physical impairments, such as my mother has had lately, that they will be at Mass every week. The crucifix will hang prominently on their wall. Christmas cards will undoubtedly arrive adorned with nativity scenes with Madonna, Joseph and baby Jesus surrounded by halos.
For the devout, Catholicism is really more than a religion; it is a way of life. This is true of lots of religions, of course. In some ways Catholicism is less demanding than other religions. Muslims, for example, pray to Mecca six times a day and spend one month a year fasting from sun up to sun down. Mormons are expected to tithe 10% of their income to the church. Ouch!
The sociologist in me sees religion fulfilling the incessant need in most humans for order and predictability in a world that is often cold and chaotic. Most faiths have a set of answers. If life is one complicated crossword puzzle, it is comforting to know the answer set is in the back of the holy book and catechism.
But I confess that while I was with my Mom in the hospital I was surprised that the Catholic Church was there for her. I don’t think there was one day I was there that someone from one of the local Catholic churches didn’t stop by. Mostly lay ministers and deacons visited, but on the last day a priest from her own parish showed up. My mother didn’t have to find them; they found her. They prayed with her in her room, and gave her the Eucharist. (Naturally they asked me if I wanted to communion too. That led to an awkward “No thanks” exchange.) And I was frankly quite comforted by the presence of the Church at such a time of need for my mother. I was there to offer physical and moral support, but the church was there to offer spiritual support. And, unlike the incessant stream of health care professionals running in and out, there was no bill to pay. It’s cheap medicine. After my Mom returned home she was still a bit too infirmed to go back to Mass. No problem, my father went instead and brought home the Eucharist for her.
While the Catholic Church has many faults (as I’ve enumerated elsewhere) I have to grudgingly give them credit for being there for my mother in a time of intense need. She has already received the Sacrament of the Sick in case her Lord calls her home a bit prematurely.
Still, it is clear the Lord works in mysterious ways. During this dark time three of my siblings made the journey to Michigan to offer Mom the physical and emotional support she clearly needed. But of the four of us, only my sister Lee Ann, who happened to be there visiting when my Mom fell, is a practicing Catholic. The rest of us populated the ranks of the unfaithed and religiously disenfranchised. This too was a wakeup call for my Mom, who was genuinely surprised that we took time from our busy lives to be there for her in her time of need.
On the way home from Michigan I had to pass ten hours in a car alone. So I spent a lot of time listening to the radio. I tuned to NPR Weekend Edition. Liane Hanson was interviewing Anne Rice, author of many a bestselling vampire novel. Ms. Rice a few years earlier had returned to the Catholic faith after many long years of estrangement and now said that she believed again in the Church and the sacraments.
Sometimes I wonder if I might be gripped by the lure of the Catholic faith again. I can certainly understand that as I age and as death becomes less of an abstraction and more of a reality that, like my parents, I might take some great comfort in something familiar. Mostly I think of Catholicism and similar faiths as sort of societal approved thumb sucking.
But deep inside of me somewhere is a Catholic core planted very deliberately by my parents. I saw in the Midland hospital how much comfort the Catholic Church can provide in times of great need. While I think it is more likely that if I need ministerial services I will do so in the context of my own Unitarian Universalist faith, my faith does not provide answers, only more questions. In rocky times, particularly when life hangs in the balance, the lure of Catholicism may prove irresistible. My parents will be gone, and when I want to cry and go home to Mommy, Mommy Church may be the only place to go.