It’s not an easy time to be Catholic. In fact, I hadn’t regularly attended Mass since the 1990s, but like many lapsed Catholics, I still kept tabs, feeling gutted with every new scandal and disclosure of abuse. Things began to look up with the arrival of Pope Francis in 2013. Even so-called cultural Catholics like me could feel hopeful. With Francis, the church played to its strength, which has always been love. “Who am I to judge?” Pope Francis famously said, and even my most cynical friends responded in kind. “Maybe, I’ll go back to Mass.” All such talk ended by 2018, when a Pennsylvania Grand Jury alleged that more than 300 priests had abused 1,000 children across the state, setting off a flurry of subsequent revelations and horrors.
For years, the church has refused to budge on issues the culture has largely accepted, especially related to issues of sexual morality and gender. How long could the voter who supported reproductive rights, the man in love with his boyfriend, or the divorced mother continue to warm the seats? Catholics began abandoning their pews decades before the first wave of scandals broke in 2009, though the sexual abuse crisis certainly ushered more out the door.
In an essay calling for the abolishment of the priesthood in The Atlantic this past June, author and former priest, James Carroll describes a church crippled by clericalism and misogyny, racked by predatory behavior and the much more insidious culture of looking the other way. The message of Carrol’s article was clear: If it’s to survive, the church’s clerical structure must be eliminated. “The very priesthood,” Carroll wrote, “is toxic.”
Meanwhile, my home diocese of Rochester, N.Y. filed for bankruptcy on Sept. 12, making it the first of New York State’s eight dioceses to do so. When the state’s Child Victims Act extended the statute of limitations for survivors of child sexual abuse this past August, a one-year window opened to file claims. More than 600 lawsuits were filed statewide in the first month alone, with the bulk naming Roman Catholic dioceses for past abuse by priests. Like many communities throughout the northeast, New York’s cities have been plagued by lagging attendance and church closings for the past few decades. In other words, Rochester's bankruptcy was less of a shock than a sign of the times.
The church is crumbling, it would seem. Which is why I was so stunned by my return.
Most everyone I grew up with near Goodman Street in northeast Rochester attended Corpus Christi. A post-Vatican II parish complete with folk group and food pantry to help a neighborhood of mostly single mothers, the church was a rare source of sustenance and light. Still, by the time we hit our twenties, most of us had escaped the urban neighborhood and along with it, left the church. I returned a few years ago — first for Christmas Mass, then to interview a parishioner for a story, and then for no good reason at all. This unmoored me. Even as I sang the Psalm, I surveyed the rows of empty pews.
What is this loyalty? I wondered. So, what if the church closes? Why do I care?
But I did care.
I began to wonder what we lose when churches close. Because I’m a writer raised on Nancy Drew mysteries, I leaned into the questions. When I discovered the Virgin Mary statue I’d grown up with was missing, I drove to Buffalo trying to track her down. When I became curious about the waning sacrament of Confession, I went to meet the Louisiana priest who’d converted an old ambulance into a mobile confessional booth. Perhaps most startingly, I continued to return to the old church until the strange faces started to become familiar: The curmudgeonly man grumbling whenever anyone sat too close, the altar girl preparing for Mass. The man in tattered clothes splayed in the vestibule, softly begging for money while eating cookies brought up to him from the coffee hour after Mass.
A strange thing happened as the weeks and months passed. I became theirs and they became mine. We weren’t friends, exactly. We were simply people who sang and lit candles and hoped for good things together. But it meant something, I discovered, to sit beside those whose circumstances and politics and preferences differed from my own, if only to see how quickly such trappings fall away. Where else did we open ourselves to each other this way?
My return to church has not been all smooth sailing.
Sometimes I look up at the altar, note the lack of women, and feel the red rise to my face. Or someone says something that goes so against the grain of my own thinking, I start fidgeting and looking toward the door — but if I avoided every organization that excluded women from positions of power, when would I leave my house? If I exited the room whenever my views were offended, where would I ever meaningfully sit? The writer, Joan Didion, wrote, “You have to pick the places you don’t walk away from.” For some tangled knot of reasons, this is my place.
I don’t know how long my old church can remain open, but, while it does, you’ll find me at 8:45 a.m. Mass. Not because I excuse its failings. I do not. Not because I don't want change. I do. But churches are human institutions and like human beings, capable of profound goodness while being inevitably broken and bound to disappoint. The wonder is of the thing is how — even more than the singing of the Psalm or sitting in a pew whose curved back is as familiar as the bend of my own hands — opening myself to what appears so irredeemably flawed has allowed me to grow my own fumbling human heart.