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Pope Francis spoke out this week in support of Dreamers and in opposition to climate change deniers. (And before you say, “Who asked him, anyway?” let me tell you — journalists.) I am proud of my Church’s Papa, proud that he puts love and justice and mercy above other considerations. He is walking with Christ on these issues, welcoming the stranger and being a caretaker of God’s bountiful gifts to us.

In other news, Steve Bannon railed at the Catholic Church for its support of illegal immigrants, saying the Church needs them to “fill the pews.”

Oh really?

Immigrants to this country bring with them their faith. My own great-grandfather helped build the first Catholic church in South Dakota, knowing full well there weren’t any priests in the area, but believing nonetheless that one would come. Mr. Bannon’s ancestors, who arrived with the tide of Irish fleeing the potato famine (and who, by the way, never had official papers of any sort, who were reviled by so-called “natives” and blamed for lack of employment, among other things) brought theirs. Somewhere along the way, Bannon lost the thread of the narrative, which has always been love. A Christian who is without love is no Christian at all. The fact that his own predecessors were the Latin Americans of their day seems to evade him entirely. If you are glad that this great country embraced your own ancestors, how can you deny that embrace to someone — anyone — else? Who are you to say “too many”?

But back to Dreamers. And walls. Specifically, walls that the Mexican government will never, ever pay for, not now, not ever, never. The recipients of DACA are not criminals. They never have been. And they contribute significantly to our GNP. If we lose them, we lose money — lots of it. Surely, that’s an argument even the most hard-hearted can understand? How does America become “great again” by cutting off its nose to spite its face? And then building a wall around it to point out its stupidity in the most glaring of ways?

Love, mercy, justice. Anyone who claims ownership to faith in Christ must claim ownership to these qualities in their everyday, working lives. Day in, day out. Even politicians. And, yes, even “street fighters.”

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I remember my sister giving me the news (she always was dramatic): Cat Stevens had changed his name, converted to Islam, and given up music — his reasoning being that his new faith did not approve of it. I’d grown up loving Cat Stevens’ music — “Moonshadow,” “Oh Very Young,” “Wild World,” “Peace Train” — how could any child of the seventies resist him? I totally dug (to use the parlance of the times) the gentle, fairy tale quality of his lyrics, his reassuring voice, his seeming gentleness. And here he was, taking all of that back and calling it somehow wrong.

Yusuf Islam (as Cat Stevens is now known) has since seriously softened his stance, and has been performing and releasing new albums for a while now. He also contends that his rejection of music had much to do with feeling burned out, a state I can relate to. But at the time, that’s not how I heard it. At the time, someone’s religion broke a kid’s heart. That’s something religion should never do.

I didn’t grow up feeling disheartened about women not being able to join the priesthood, as it was something I never aspired to myself. But I know now that some little girls were disheartened. They grew up, and certainly some of them took their (religious) business elsewhere. Which makes the Pope’s announcement that he is putting together a committee to look into the reinstatement of women into the deaconate so important. I say “reinstatement” because women were, for many years, deacons in the Church, until the day they were suddenly and (let’s face it) inevitably deemed “not godly enough.” If the Pope makes good on this beacon of hope, it will be a sign of true inclusion for women in the Catholic Church. Not an end point, by any means, but a good start.

If I can be a part of something that undoes or prevents the breaking of a child’s heart by religion, count me in. God loves children — Jesus made this abundantly clear. Nothing that purports to be “of God” should damage, dismay or disconcert a child. Not ever. Just as someone who claims to be a person of God should do his or her level best to never cause anyone — least of all a child — hurt or sadness.

The Church has not always been good in this regard. I now know that an abusive priest called my childhood parish home, and when our pastor found out about it and went to the bishop, the bishop merely sent the offending priest elsewhere. I am certain this brought terrible sorrow to our pastor, a good and moral man. It also must have brought a lifetime of hurt to many children, who, as altar servers, trusted priests implicitly. Although I admire Pope Francis for being vigilant about this abuse, there remain hundreds of scarred hearts out there, the hearts of children who once trusted the wrong persons. Nothing can make up for that.

It makes the defection of a pop star seem silly in comparison, I know. But kids are fragile, their hearts easily bruised. It remains up to us grown-ups to remain on guard against this misuse of faith. Here’s to a future full of hope, a day when religion offers only (as a hymn Cat Stevens once covered notes so beautifully), “Praise with elation, praise ev’ry morning.”

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?

I got a funny response to one of my posts once. It was litany of reasons (tagged “an interesting read”) why Catholicism is wrong, wrong, completely wrong. I ignored it. Not because you can’t teach an old dog new tricks (I am neither terribly aged nor canine), but because Catholicism is ingrained in me. It is woven into my being like a fine silk thread. Once, someone asked me if I was “a cradle Catholic.” I responded that I had been born five weeks early — my mother had gone into labor during Mass on Christmas Day — and that I’d been born in a Catholic hospital and named after a priest. (Fr. Lawrence Smith, devotee of his namesake, St. Lawrence, and who himself is surely a saint now.) You don’t get more cradle-y than that.

One of complaints in the aforementioned litany concerned the sacrament of Reconciliation. Having just experienced the sacrament’s sweeping beauty just last night, I thought there no better time than the present to explicate it further. My detractor noted, “Only God can forgive sins.” Yes. Of course. A priest does so as a representative of God. Jesus himself told the apostles that whose sins they forgave in His name would be forgiven in heaven. Sweeping aside the notion that priests (as vowed disciples of Christ) are the successors to the apostles — I can’t sweep it aside, but maybe someone else can — there is more to the story than merely this.

All sin is public. You may think that diatribe you utter in the privacy of your own home has no ripple effect in the larger world, but you’d be wrong. All sin affects others because it causes you to be estranged from the Church; and, as we know, the Church is made up of the people of God. What I do wrong hurts you. It changes the air between us. It warps all of my relationships on a molecular level. The priest, as the representative of the Church, extends mercy to me on behalf of those I’ve wounded. I can’t apologize to all of you, but I can apologize to the person who shepherds our local flock.

True, priests are not perfect. There are a few bad apples, just as there are bad doctors, bad politicians and bad truck drivers. This imperfection — and I promise you, most of the men I’ve known as priests strive hard to avoid imperfection — does not make a priest incapable of being the conduit of forgiveness. If a baby were dying before my eyes, I could baptize it — and I’m not even a priest. Sinner that I am, God can still use me to do God’s work.

We used to call this sacrament “Confession.” The Church updated its language more than 30 years ago to reflect the fact that it is so much more. The sacrament is greater than just a personal unburdening of sin. It is a celebration of mutual healing: I am healed, and the community I’ve wounded is healed as well. What a lovely two-way street it is!

Reconciliation is a beautiful thing, especially at this time of year. Advent calls us to walk together to that place where we behold the Son of God in all His humanity, in all His glory. I can’t walk with you if we are estranged from one another. Even if you think Catholicism is wrong, wrong, completely wrong, you must admit: Anything that brings us together must be a good thing.

The Pope is coming! The Pope is coming! Already he is in the Americas, being besieged everywhere he goes by happy, hopeful people. Our Papa is a ray of sunshine after a very long stretch of darkness. I’ve lived half a century, and Francis is the first Pope that has prompted optimism in my soul. No, the Church isn’t actually changing much, but even hearing words of acceptance, possibility and radical positioning with the poor and marginalized causes me ineffable joy. As it does in many others. This is where the Church should be going.

Alas, Francis has hinted that his papacy may be short-lived. While I sympathize and understand — being Pope must be the most exhausting position possible — I hope it will not be so. The Church needs the breath of fresh air Francis brings, and I fear that if he steps down (or God forbid, dies), the Cardinals will waste no time in reacting with a swift slamming of the door, almost certainly installing a Pope more reactionary and conservative than even Francis’ predecessors. While Francis is certainly loved, he is also feared by those who would keep the Church immured in the Middle Ages.

What else is in the news? Reaction to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on gay marriage, that’s what. Already some people are nervously squawking about religious freedom being breached. Don’t worry, chickens! The Church is not changing. Yes, civic marriage is legal for homosexuals. But they cannot receive the sacrament of marriage from the Catholic Church. The Church decides who receives which sacraments (and why). They cannot be made to change by anyone outside of the Church.

Which is not to say that homosexuals cannot receive sacraments. Clearly, they already do. Still, it’s safe to say that whether you (or anyone) is “good enough” to receive one sacrament but not another is an assessment that only the Church in its infinite mystery is allowed to make. Women, for instance, cannot receive Holy Orders. In fact, only a man can hope to attain all seven sacraments. The rest of us are excluded not by unfitness so much (though many in the Church hierarchy might argue this point) as because of things we cannot control. Because we were born women. Or gay.

Is this fair? I don’t think so. But I don’t make the rules. However, I believe I can state (as our pastor did) that the Church will not be performing gay weddings anytime soon. On the other hand, our pastor also warned me not to express the opinion I just expressed at the top of this paragraph. I will continue to do so. Because what has sustained me though all of the dark nights of the Church is my right to dissent.

Sometimes prayers are answered when you least suspect them. Francis is proof of that. Let us pray for many more open doors.

Recent news item: Cardinal Timothy Dolan responds to those (the majority of Americans) who think the Catholic Church is out of touch. Of course, he says. The Church deals with eternals; it is bound to be out of step with our ever-changing, fad-driven world.

Only one problem: No one is asking the Church to hand down a dictate on skirt hemlines this season, or whether pink is the new black. (It isn’t, is it?) There are eternals, and then there are those things thought to be eternal — like the Earth being the center of the solar system — that we learn are simply wrong. Knowledge must not be shunned because it is new. Just ask poor Galileo.

But Dolan’s right about one thing: The Catholic Church is likely to be at odds with Americans because it is not very American. America is all about racing to the finish line and getting there first; the Church concerns itself with shepherding the entire flock to its destination. Americans focus on individual success; the Church with sharing. In many ways, America can be boiled down to its mythologized icons, both real and imagined: We are Daniel Boone, forging the way West, doing just what we want to do — gollblamit! — rugged individualists to the core.

That’s not how the Church works. Take the sacrament of Reconciliation, for example. Forgiveness is a beautiful thing, but it only takes one person to do it. Reconciliation is different in that it insists on mutuality. And not just between a person and her God, but between the sinner and her Church — the body of Christ. It emphasizes the notion that what we do we do not do in a vacuum: Our actions affect others. And to be truly forgiven demands that both sides are reconciled to one another. This notion hasn’t much place in an America that accepts half-hearted “apologies” from sports figures, musicians and others for their bad behavior but does not demand from them any real action to promote healing. Saying “I’m sorry” is considered enough. And for a minor slip-up, maybe it is. But for ongoing, unrepentant, ingrained proclivities to violence, abuse, prejudice, or hatred, it falls short.

One more funny thing about the American Catholic Church: Most of us tend to be conservatives. I’m hoping Pope Francis will get us to expand our thinking on that front by promoting social justice — which includes working for the poor, immigrants and marginalized among us. Me, I’ve never much understood the correlation between Catholics and conservative thinking. I tend to agree with the great and wise Graham Greene:  “Conservatism and Catholicism should make…impossible bedfellows.” There’s nothing conservative about love. And shouldn’t that be the heart of any religion?

No, I’m not going to go all Chris Crocker on you. It’s just that there’s been a fair amount of flak kicked up around The Pope’s recent announcement that he’s decided to retire. “Retire?” Some query, “I thought the job was for life!” I’ve even heard someone accuse Benedict XVI of betraying St. Peter. Seriously?

At 85, Pope Benedict is no spring chicken. He’s had heart surgery and walks with a cane. He no longer feels that his health is strong enough for him to effectively lead The Church. I think it’s admirable of him to call it quits. The Church needs a strong hand at the wheel, and if he no longer feels up to it, why make him wait out the clock, sick and feeble, unable to be more than a figurehead?

As to St. Peter, yes, he set the precedent of serving as Pope for life. However, our best guess is that he was about 65 when he was martyred, and that’s a long way from 85. He could not have guessed how lifespans would be stretched out in our time, or how much the role of Pope would change.

What’s more, Jesus said nothing about how long The Pope must serve. Our basis for this tradition comes from the idea of apostolic succession. A little flexibility is in order here, as traditions can and do change. When in doubt, the Bible tells us, go with what the Bible says. And since it says nothing about this particular instance, the Pope seems well within his rights.

I, of course, hope that our new pontiff will bring with him a wind of change to reinvigorate and reenergize our Church. It is unlikely. Cardinals tend to be old, conservative and resistant to change, and they vote based on these attributes. I’ve not much to say about any of the names being bandied about by the press; it is too early to judge. But I will say this about America’s “great white hope,” Cardinal Dolan. I hope he is not considered. I find him gleefully dismissive of women, the poor and gays at a time when The Church can no longer afford to alienate these groups. I’ll go further: I don’t think he is a kind person, or a humble one. And if the Catholic Church is to be a beacon of hope to the world, we need the kindest, most humble person we can find at the helm. Our credibility has slipped far enough, thank you very much.

The month to come will reveal much. I find it ironic — or perhaps providential — that this time coincides with Lent. What better time than now, this period of reflection and repentance, to consider what we need in a new head of the Catholic Church? I can only hope the College of Cardinals take their responsibility seriously.

I also hope that we can come together to thank Pope Benedict for his service and wish him well in retirement. I may disagree with some of his beliefs, but I honestly think he did the best job he could do. We cannot ask for more.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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