Last week, the Catholic community celebrated Ash Wednesday, and for the first time in over a year, I voluntarily went to church.
Throughout my life as a Catholic, I have often skipped church, but my attendance was always more on than off. It wasn’t until my last year of Peace Corps that I truly began quitting church. For an entire year, I sat through an hour of barely-understandable readings and prayers—many of the words in the Bible are foreign in English, much less Spanish!—before I realized that I didn’t feel a connection. Going to church no longer offered me a sense of community, or that deeply satisfying feeling of self-understanding, or the closeness to God and to others that I once felt before. Furthermore, singing and quiet reflection time are two things that I have always relished about going to church, and neither of those things were present in Ecuadorian masses. (Believe me, there is no such thing as quiet in Ecuador.) So, I finally stopped going.
After returning from Ecuador, I attended mass with my parents for a few months, both out of a sense of obligation and a secret hope that maybe a fire would be rekindled. Instead of finding my way back to God, however, I found myself quietly fuming over politically-driven homilies about abortion and presidential elections and ranting to my family about our priest’s dictator-like behavior. I couldn’t even follow along with mass anymore; unbeknownst to me, the Vatican had changed the prayers I’d been saying since Kindergarten and many parts of the mass itself while I was in Ecuador. What I had previously assumed were differences due to translation or culture were actually permanent changes to how Catholics worship. Why can the Catholic Church make a major decision on how every priest in the world will say mass but not on who can lead mass? Or how to grant women positions of leadership in the church? Or how to become more loving towards populations that we’ve previously shunned? I would think as I loudly said the wrong words at the wrong times. After much stewing, fuming, and head shaking, I decided to quit church for good.
This Ash Wednesday, however, I found myself sitting in the hard wooden pews of the Catholic church down the street from work as the priest read the opening prayers of mass. Despite my willful indignation towards the Catholic Church, I find myself waiting in line for ashes year after year. Something about Lent speaks to me. Apparently, something about Lent speaks to many people. According to the Catholic Church and an article recently released by TIME, more lapsed Catholics come to church during Lent than during any other time of the Liturgical year. The Church hypothesizes that it’s the practice of fasting that draws people back to the Church during Lent. Naturally, the article implies that most regular and returned worshipers treat Lent as a second chance to make those forgotten New Years resolutions a reality, giving up chocolates, fatty foods, and other things that benefit nobody but the person doing the fasting. Although that explanation is entirely plausible, I would also argue that Lent is the one time in the Liturgical year when Jesus seems the most human, and therefore the most accessible as a religious figure. It is during this time that he escapes into the desert to reflect and pray. In his time of solitary fasting and worship, he is tormented relentlessly by the devil, constantly made to face his own weaknesses. He struggles with his own mortality and ultimately faces his fear of dying. Who can’t identify with that? And yet Jesus overcomes these weaknesses, resists temptation, and ultimately conquers over death. His story is one of faith and hope and triumph. How can we not be moved?
All theories about increased church attendance aside, I admit that most of us are prone to making superficial sacrifices during Lent, myself included. In the TIME article, Pope Francis elaborates on what it is he believes Catholics should be giving up for Lent:
[I]f we’re going to fast from anything this Lent, Francis suggests that even more than candy or alcohol, we fast from indifference towards others….
Describing this phenomenon he calls the globalization of indifference, Francis writes that ‘whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.’ He continues that, ‘We end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.’
As I read the remarks, I couldn’t help but think of the many populations to which the Church itself has been indifferent over the years: women, gay people, those who have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of priests and other members of the Clergy. Let us not forget that former Pope Benedict was, before his days of infallibility, responsible for addressing cases of child abuse within the church. As the Guardian points out, “The evidence of church delay and indifference, if not obstruction, throughout the 80s and 90s is copious – and it came about when the [former] pope was the Vatican’s most senior official, second in this matter only to John Paul II.” And yet, despite his inability, or rather unwillingness, to protect children, he rose to the most revered position in the Catholic Church, a position that involved providing daily counsel to followers on how to be good, loving, and devout disciples of God.
“If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?” the current Pope said when asked about the Church’s stance on homosexuality, and yet the Catholic Church still firmly condemns those who “choose the gay lifestyle.” Two short week ago, my best friend married her longtime partner and now wife. Despite her own reservations as a devout Catholic, my friend’s grandmother decided she wanted to attend the ceremony, to celebrate the happiness of her dearly beloved grandchild. When she asked the Church for permission to attend, however, she was quickly denied.
And the Church continues to uphold edicts against contraception and a whole host of women’s issues that the leadership can’t even pretend to intimately understand. I saw the harmful consequences of this most vividly in Ecuador, where women were literally weighed down by their children, their eyes dead and dull. In a society where men control sex and women, especially those who are married, have very little say in in the matter, the prohibition of contraceptives is especially harmful. Whether they want to or not, women continue to have more and more children and families quickly sink farther and farther into poverty while the Church tells them that this is a cross they must bear.
I know that I can’t and won’t forgive the Catholic Church for their shortcomings; they have never even asked for such forgiveness. And yet this suggested Lenten resolution still resonates with me. It touches a part of my heart that has been aching for a while now. It’s difficult to live without a wall of indifference. As a small town girl in a big, bustling city, I often depend on my indifference to survive. Every day, I am completely and utterly surrounded by people. On the train on my way to work. In the streets. In my own apartment building. Every day, I face the poor, the hungry, those struggling with addiction and mental illnesses. As I listen to my neighbors shout obscenities at each other and blast their bass so loud that I can feel the floorboards shake against my bare feet, I build my wall of indifference. As I walk past the babbling man on the corner with the crazy look in his eyes, I build my wall of indifference. As I work and work and wonder what good all this working is for, I build my wall of indifference. Out of fear and exhaustion and frustration, I continue to build and build my wall of indifference.
Just as Pope Francis said, all of this indifference has left me numb to the concerns and struggles of those around me. As the days become more and more hectic, I draw further into myself, enveloping my mind in an endless string of my own struggles. Now, I look out from a well of self-concern and perpetual dissatisfaction—with work, with Chicago, with running and writing, with myself—and I can’t help but wonder how I got here. Perhaps breaking down the wall of indifference is what will also break me out of this mold, this endless feeling of exhaustion.
Every once in a while, I contemplate going back to church, even more so in the past couple of weeks. Even if I never return to those wooden pews during this Lenten season, I’ll be thinking about how to lessen the influence of indifference in my life because I know that Pope Francis is right on this one; it’s a truth that I feel in my gut. Even if the Catholic Church, as an institution, has not always modeled responsibility in its words and actions, we have a responsibility to each other: to make a place for the joys and struggles of others in our own lives. As Brené Brown so poignantly says in Daring Greatly, “we cannot selectively numb emotions; when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive ones.” So as the Pope suggests, I’m not just giving up Starbucks for the next 40 days, although that is also part of my Lenten resolution. I’m also giving up indifference. Because as much as I want to avoid pain—my own or that of others—a life devoid of the human experience, good or bad, is really no life at all.