One of the more recent memories of attending mass I have is a couple Christmases old at this point. I was attending Christmas Eve mass with S.’s family in upstate New York. The time came for communion and, as he does every Christmas we spend together, my father-in-law encouraged me to take communion despite the fact I’m not Catholic and, as I do every Christmas we spend together, I desperately shook my head and instead knelt to pray, memories of the time when I was nine or ten and attending mass with my next-door neighbor and the priest refused to give me communion when I lined up behind my friend, even though her parents had assured me it wouldn’t be a problem. I had been mortified, and have no intention, even as a woman in her mid-thirties, of allowing that sort of thing to happen again. This particular Christmas I watched as the rest of my in-laws lined up for communion, taking the wafer placed in their cupped hands but surpassing, as the whole rest of the church seemed to as well, the wine chalice. When S. came back to his seat I leaned into him.
“Why is no one drinking the wine?” I asked.
“No one wants to get the flu,” S. responded. I watched as member after member of the church swallowed the body but rejected the blood, walking back to their seats. It felt so sad – so incomplete.
“Why don’t they just put the wine in individual plastic cups?” I asked, familiar with Presbyterian communion – grape juice in little cups, and the leftover communion bread making its way to the potluck tables after service.
“We just don’t,” S. said – often his family’s explanation for the workings of their church.
I’ve long been alternately repelled by and attracted to the Catholic Church. I grew up in a rather anti-Catholic family. My parents believed all the pomp and circumstance of the Catholic church was a direct violation of serving Christ, that the Pope used and abused his position, firstly, and that his robes and gold jewelry was obscene, secondly, but perhaps what really stuck under their craw, what just drove them crazy about Catholicism, was the active encouragement of people, rich or poor, to forgo any sort of birth control. Environmentalists first and foremost, my parents believe vehemently in the zero population theory of reproduction and very little drives them crazier than the idea that there are families having baby after baby simply because the church says to.
But all that anti-Catholic rigor from my parents couldn’t compete with the fact the majority of my friends growing up were Catholic and I felt, from their first communion straight through their confirmations, that something was being kept from me. The first communion dresses and parties! The taking of a saint’s name! And don’t even get me started on confession – I’ve been intrigued by the idea of confession since the first time I heard about it. All of this wasn’t enough for me to pursue Catholicism as an actual faith, but S.’s religion felt like an extra-added bonus to his extraordinary person – maybe I would never commit to practicing Catholicism but marrying a Catholic could only feed my fascination with the church.
The last few weeks, though, my fascination has soured as more and more heinous news pours forth from the church. At one point, so entirely incensed on the subject, I told S. I highly doubted I would ever step foot in a Catholic church again, Christmas or not and he, equally angered and quite saddened, said he understood. I’m not sure if I will actually hold to that resolution or not – a lot will depend on the next several months – but even as I made the declaration to S. my heart softened the tiniest bit as I thought about the book I was reading – Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather, part of the From the Stacks reading challenge.
This book is stunning from start to finish. It follows the (fictional) life of Father Jean Marie Latour, the Apostolic Vicar to New Mexico in the second half of the 19th Century, as he attempts to spread his faith to Indians, Mexicans and a host of others in between. Cather created the character of Father Latour with care and compassion, and from his struggles with priests refusing to practice celibacy to his relationship to the land – “the vast territory of red hills and tortuous arroyos” – Father Latour is at once a compelling and calming vessel for Cather’s various stories.
This is a quiet book, but a lovely one, a book that served as both an anecdote for the rather joyless books I began the year with and as a reminder, as news started brewing about the child molestation charges against the church, that despite all the ugliness and horror we are hearing about, there is an equal amount of beauty and mystery the church provides, even, and perhaps especially, for those of us who aren’t a part of it.