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How I love our Pope! Did anyone expect such a firebrand? He stands with the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized. He stands with our Mother Earth. And this week, he made a pronouncement that’s sure to send conservatives into a lather: He said, essentially, that it is better to be an atheist than a hypocritical Catholic.

What’s a hypocritical Catholic? Let’s speculate. Perhaps it is a person who claims to follow Christ but does not welcome him in the form of immigrants. Perhaps it is a person who vows to respect all life, but doesn’t believe in providing help to those in need or protecting our planet from those who seek to plunder it for profit. Heck, maybe it’s me — I’m far from perfect. Whoever or whatever the hypocritical Catholic is, the Pope’s words are a challenge to us: Put your money where your mouth is. If you talk the talk, you better walk the walk. If you want to truly follow Christ, you better leave your ivory tower or diamond-encrusted cage and get down in the dirt with the least of God’s children.

I know several atheists. They are good people. They do good not because they believe in a theological or religious system, but because doing good makes sense to them. Because they want the world to be a better place. Even the most embittered atheists have to make moral choices. That they would make positive ones, without any spiritual model to back them up, is nothing short of wonderful.

And yet, supposedly Christian and Catholic people make bad choices all the time. I can think of several Catholics in government positions who think cutting health care, Medicare and assistance to the poor is a sound fiscal and moral idea. Sure, our country was founded on the separation of church and state. But if being a Christian Catholic is who you are at your core, it ought to drive everything you do, right?

Jesus was known for calling people out on uncomfortable realities. It seems Pope Francis is walking in his footsteps. That’s a very good thing.

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I look at the form. It is the 2016-2017 stewardship questionnaire from my local parish —my commitment to volunteerism and financial support for the coming year. How much will I pledge weekly? What can I do to help out: bake cookies? Mow the law? Clean the chapel?

It is not the “giving” part of the equation that bothers me, that causes the hairs on the back of my neck to rise; it is the actual form itself. “Family name” it requests. Easy enough. But then, this: “Mother’s name.” “Father’s name.” Each with a blank. My heart drops.

I am not a mother. I have no children, for reasons too personal to discuss. And yet, if I am not a mother, how can I put my name in this space? The Catholic Church simply assumes that if I call myself part of a family, I must be the mother. Who else could I be?

Much has been made of Amoris Laetitia (Joy of Love), the latest in Pope Francis’ responses to Catholic family life. In it, he asks that each parish be open to family in all its forms, welcoming and supportive. As usual, the document has been blasted by both sides — by traditionalists for being too liberal and by liberals because the Pope does nothing to change the church’s response to LGBT persons or divorced Catholics. I will admit to hoping for more, but understand that the Pope must tread gently in these divided times. Still, the document does much to open the doors to families in all of their nontraditional, messy splendor. Yet my parish still asks: “Mother’s name”?

I sometimes get the distinct feeling from my Church that if I am not a mother, I am nothing. I have no role. I am unfruitful, an anomaly. I have missed the proverbial boat. When I tell my pastor that I am childless, he says, “That’s okay,” as if to soothe me. What have I done that was so terrible? Do I need to be told — over and over again — that a woman without children is a failure?

My husband isn’t nearly as unnerved as I am. “You should write your mother’s name in the space,” he suggests. But the onus on him isn’t the same as it is on me. Catholics are notoriously fruitful. I knew a girl in high school who had 13 siblings. I have more cousins than I can count — 11 in just one family. My mom is the youngest of seven. In the Catholic Church, I do stand out like a sore thumb.

And yet there have always been childless Catholics. My great-aunt Lydia and her husband did not have kids. How must she have felt, back when “family planning” was an anathema akin to mortal sin? (Not that the proscribed methods of the Catholic Church are much better nowadays…as my high school religion teacher once deadpanned, “I used the rhythm method. I have 11 children.”) A childless Catholic woman is either a “poor thing” (she wanted kids but couldn’t have them) or a harlot (she didn’t want them). There is no room for anything in between.

I consider my spouse to be my family. It is the two of us against the world, and we’ve done okay. After all, he once considered himself an agnostic; now he is a full-fledged Catholic. We attend Mass every week. We give, financially, and of our time and talents. And yet, there it is: “Mother’s name.”

In the end, I will put my name in the blank, mostly out of resignation. But is it too much to ask: Can’t I be a married Catholic woman in good standing, a real woman of faith…but not a mother?

There is a very real temptation to constantly focus on what the Catholic Church does wrong. And wrongness in the Church does abound: from statements of non-inclusivity by those who ought to know better to crimes against innocent children. But there are heroes, many heroes, whose praises ought to be sung. Let’s let the rafters shake:

  • For the religious men and women of India, the Middle East and Africa. It takes tenacious bravery to live your faith in regions of the world where 71-year-old nuns are raped and their convents ransacked. There is nothing on earth that can rationalize such acts. God be with these courageous men and women.
  • For our Pope, Francis, who continues to speak with boldness on subjects such as mercy and acceptance and social justice, going so far as to call failure to provide living wages a mortal sin. I am proud that Francis is my Papa.
  • For all the men and women who will become Catholics at the Easter Vigil this year. There are more than 200 of them in the Wichita area alone. My husband is one of them. It takes guts to choose, with open eyes, a faith tradition with such a rich history, both good and bad. Catholicism has been celebrated and deeply maligned, even through the first half of the 20th century, when Catholics were not allowed to teach at public schools, when crosses were burnt on the lawns of Catholics by hate groups, when riots by Lutherans targeted Catholics in major cities across America. The same anti-Christian bias continues around the world. These men and women are taking a real chance in walking away from their previous lives and into the Church: One of the women in my husband’s group is being shunned by her family, who are all Mormons. Additionally, members of our parish have taken significant time out of their lives to act as sponsors to these candidates — my husband’s sponsor is an amazing example of faith in action, deeply involved in parish life and a busy husband and father to boot. This change, this decision to enter the Church, has called for a heavy investment of time and spiritual energy by the RCIA candidates. This is not something entered into lightly. I am so proud of them. While I am eternally grateful to be a “cradle Catholic,” I cannot imagine the fortitude and faith required to take this leap as an adult.
  • To all the good shepherds out there, including our own pastor, who deal daily with budget shortfalls and the pressing needs of their sheep with good humor and holiness. There are an awful lot of them out there. You don’t hear news stories about them. They are unsung heroes.
  •  To all the faithful who struggle with the Church’s teachings yet hang on, hoping for change. To all of us who keep the ship sailing ahead with our work in ministries large and small. And to all people of faith, everywhere, who accept one another and celebrate the diversity of faith around the world and in our own country without prejudice or the arrogance of supposed superiority. Let’s all pray together for a better world. Amen!

 

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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