This guest post from Heidi Hess Saxton hit a chord with me because my in-laws aren't Catholic. My husband was raised as a non-practicing Protestant. Thankfully, they didn't give him a hard time when he converted to Catholicism before we were married. My mother-in-law has returned to practicing her faith and now attends a Presbyterian Church. She has willingly attended our children's baptisms and Christmas Eve Mass each year to see them in the Christmas pageant. I truly appreciate her willingness to do that even though it might make her feel uncomfortable. Religion is one of those things that we just don't talk about, however, and that does manage to keep the peace. I don't think that my children have realized yet that their grandparents aren't Catholic.
This would be a very different story, however, if I had been the one to change my faith and reject my parents' faith. I can't even imagine how difficult that would make life with my mother. And so, I admire how Heidi handled herself in this situation. I'm sure that I wouldn't have done as well.
My parents were visiting with us this week. Dad put in the dog fence (thanks, Dad!) ... and Mom roped me into one of "those" conversations. You know the kind: high in drama, low in resolution.
This time, the subject was Catholicism ... my practice of it, to be precise. I've had six years of intensive formal faith formation ... but because in her mind I've rejected everything she taught me, she can only conclude I've been "brainwashed." She accused me of considering her a pagan going to hell because she's not Catholic (where she got that, I have no idea). Yet clearly believes that the only reason I have any chance at heaven at all is because at one point in my childhood I prayed the "sinner's prayer." Not because I'm a Catholic Christian ... but despite it.
*Sigh* "I never said you were a pagan, Mom. I never even thought it."
"You say it all the time, with your actions! You wouldn't even go to church with us at Easter!"
And there it was. For her, the fact that I won't take my kids to their church when we visit them, or at the very least insist on finding a Catholic service that we can attend in addition to theirs, is proof positive to them that we consider ourselves better Christians than they are.
"It's not that we're better Christians, Mom. It's that I need all the help I can get to stay spiritually strong ... and the Catholic Church is the only place I can receive the Eucharist. It's the only place I can be part of the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church founded by Christ."
She rolled her eyes. "By what you do, you are teaching your children that Grandma and Grandpa aren't real Christians."
"Actually ... by not taking them to your church, especially when you have a communion service, I avoid having them asking questions about why you aren't Catholic. They notice stuff, Mom. They see that you don't make the sign of the cross when we say grace. They wonder why you aren't as excited as we are about Christopher receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. They want to know why Jesus isn't present in the tabernacle at your church, as He is at our church. They notice everything. I tell them that you are Christians, but not Catholic Christians, and we pray for the time when we can all go to church together ... in the Catholic Church."
"So you DO think you're better Christians than your father and me."
"Not better Christians ... just Christians who have access to graces that right now you do not. I'd be so happy if one day you would look more into the history of the sacraments, and let yourself consider what Jesus meant when He said, 'Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life within you.' I know how much the sacraments have changed my life ... and I think they would bless you, too."
"I don't need sacraments. I have my faith. I can read the Bible for myself. I didn't raise you this way ... and I'll never understand why you felt the need to forsake your spiritual roots."
A light hit. "Mom, how did Grandma feel when you decided to stop going to the church you were raised in?"
"It's not the same. I didn't have a personal relationship with God until I was in my thirties. I was baptized in Grandma's church, but I didn't know God."
"I met God in a profoundly personal way in my thirties, too ... through the Church. I came to know my brothers and sisters in faith -- all the saints in heaven. I came to understand that I have a spiritual mother who loves me and prays for me in heaven, just as you do here on earth." (I knew I was treading dangerous waters here, since Mom has told me how hurtful it is that I consider Mary my mother.) "And just like you, Mom ... I'm trying to raise my children to love God and serve Him with everything they have. That, I got from you."
She sniffed, considering this. "I do get a kick out of watching you lead VBS and doing all the arts and crafts I used to do when you were little."
"You were a great Sunday school teacher. You understood how important it is to be consistent with kids, to keep things simple and straightforward until they get older and can handle more complex issues. You brought us to church every Sunday, because Sunday is God's day.
"And that is what I'm doing with my kids, too. We go to church ... to our church ... because that is the faith we are practicing. We go to that church because, as Catholics, we are obligated to go ... and, because I want to be there. It's not that I don't want to be with you during that hour. It's that I have a higher responsibility, one that I take very seriously.
"Mom, I want you to know that I understand that you don't feel entirely comfortable at Mass, and that if you decide to go to your old church when you're visiting us, I won't be at all offended. If it means that much to you, I'm even willing to go with you to your church, by myself, on a Sunday when your church isn't serving communion ... so long as you don't give me a hard time about going to a second service to fulfill my obligation to God."
This was how the conversation ended. It's not ideal, when issues of faith divide families. God intended religion to unite people, to draw them closer together as they approach transcendent reality together, on their knees. And I suppose if we were all completely rational about it, and worked hard to understand each other's sensitivities and needs, the differences wouldn't hurt so much.
As it is, I could relate to what Moses said to God in today's first reading:
Then he said, "If I find favor with you, O Lord, do come along in our company. This is indeed a stiff-necked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins, and receive us as your own" (Exodus 34:8-9).
"Oh, Lord ... come along in our company. Even when at times that company is divided. Even at times when we can't understand each other. Even when at times we find it impossible to get past certain hurts, certain realities, certain conflicts. There comes a time when we have to make allowances whenever possible for the feelings of others ... but we cannot allow those feelings to deter us from doing what is right. And so, today I'd like to offer this prayer for those of us who have family on the other side of the Tiber ... close enough that we can see their tears through our own.
Lord of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob,
God of Sarah and Rebecca and Rachel,
From the beginning You created family.
From the beginning You ARE family.
One and holy Triune God, unify with bonds of love.
Soothe angry hearts and enlighten blinded minds.
Make us forgiving, consoling, kind.
Render us family, just like You.
Mother Mary, Queen of Sorrows,
See our pain and pray for us.
We are waiting for a miracle ...
Send out a miracle of love today.
"Copyright 2008 Heidi Hess Saxton (http://mommymonsters.blogspot.com/). Used with permission. All rights reserved."