A matter of spirituality
There is vigorous debate over the effectiveness of the Pope’s recent letter acknowledging the Catholic Church’s failure to prevent priests from sexually abusing children.
The debate is worthwhile and warranted, however is it missing a key point: Should Catholics disgusted by these criminal events consider abandoning their religious institution?
I have some thoughts on that because I was abused by a priest, although not sexually.
It happened many years ago when I was an altar boy preparing for Mass. I was in the sacristy with another altar boy and a visiting priest, who was late and in a tizzy as he gowned to go onto the altar.
The other kid and I were acting goofy, as young boys often do. I can’t recall what we were doing but it was something innocuous.
The priest grabbed my friend and tossed him toward the doorway leading onto the altar. He then turned on me and hit me hard across the face with his open hand. He tossed me into line and pushed the two of us out to begin Mass.
I was hurt and humiliated, so once on the altar I turned, stormed back into the sacristy, threw my surplus and cassock on the floor and went home.
My father was working in the yard when I arrived. He noticed I was upset and saw the red welt on my face. He soon had the story out of me, ordered me into the car and we drove back to the church.
We waited in the sacristy for Mass to end and when the priest came off the altar my father grabbed him by the throat and slammed him against the sacristy wall. I don’t remember my father’s exact words, but they were something very un-Christian, like: “If you ever lay a hand on my son again, I will kill you.”
Leaving, I turned and saw the priest, holding his throat, slide down the wall to the floor. That was the end of the incident, except for my father’s lecture on goofing around before Mass.
As I matured I found other problems with the church. Dogmatic thinking regarding birth control, abortion, its treatment of women, and of course its scandalous involvement, with governments and other religious institutions, in the Indigenous residential school system.
I came to understand, however, that the church was yet another human institution, run by imperfect humans trying to do good but at times misdirected to the point of doing evil. The church was a guiding light, but I discovered that my own spirit could be an important and sometimes more reliable guide.
Also, I was never inspired by church trappings. The stained glass windows, the gilded statues, the towering sermons and the sweet scent of burning incense did little to arouse religious fervour.
What did inspire me, and still does, are the people in the pews. Over time these have been family, friends and others who without fuss or pretensions radiate decency and humility. Imperfect people but people you admire and wish to be like.
I did not let a disturbed priest or other mistakes of the institutional church drive me away. I still go and sit in a pew, reflecting and thinking of those people and the people now around me.
They come for different reasons, anchored by various levels of belief and fervour, none of which is my business. My business is to reflect on who I am and how I should be living my life.
I don’t have to go to church to do that, but I do. I can do it where the statues are trees, the stained glass windows are mists rising off a still lake and the hymns are a breeze in the trees and a loon calling in the distance.
As Albert Einstein is reported to have said: “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
As I stare through treetops into a night sky I understand that I have an individual spirit to help guide me through the dark forests of life. I also understand that as powerful and important as I believe my spirit is, somewhere in that starlit sky is a greater spirit, more knowing and more powerful than mine.