“Have you ever heard of a girl named Mary-Kate?”
The above is an excerpt from a letter I wrote to Pope Francis when I was 11 years old. I thought, perhaps, there might have been a prophecy about me that I hadn’t yet heard of, and I wanted the answers straight from the source. While I now look back and adore the wholesome and comedic nature of this question, my younger self’s vulnerable desire to have been created for something divine still lingers with me. In middle school, I frequently looked toward religious statues, hoping they would miraculously speak to me. I stared at them, my eyelids spread as wide apart as they could. If they did indeed come to life, I imagined that God would then tell me my life’s purpose. I’d never question my future again.
I am no stranger to the Catholic church; I attended Catholic school for 12 years. But now, as I am removed from that environment, the time between my church visits keeps getting longer and longer. Within the past four years, the only time I went to church was to cry in the quietness of the pews. I feel too Catholic for nonreligious people and like a fraud to the active parishioners.
In the past, when I’ve embarked on revitalizing my faith, I’ve been weakened and ultimately obstructed by social pressures. I was fearful of my peers witnessing my worship and thereby assuming I led a conservative lifestyle. Oftentimes, the judgment others hold toward other Christian organizations gets applied broadly to Catholics. For example, evangelical Protestants have been closely tied to right-wing extremism, especially as the term “Christian nationalism” enters the mainstream vernacular. In truth, Catholics are more of a mixed bag politically and have been historically less represented in American politics (there have only been two Catholic presidents while there have been 39 Christian presidents). Rather than connecting America and God, my family’s commitment to celebrating St. Patrick’s Day is on nearly equal footing as being a practicing Catholic. Nevertheless, social pushback stifled my public relationship with God.
But, recently, I’ve become exhausted from living within the ambiguity of my faith. Am I a believer? Or is my tie to Catholicism merely cultural rather than spiritual? I want an answer.
Based on this desire, I decided to immerse myself in church for 24 hours. A full sunrise and sunset length of time to reckon with my faith.
I took my first few steps into St. Thomas the Apostle Church for the evening mass, and my stomach mimicked the sensations of being on a rollercoaster. The tall, arched ceilings flaunted their spine-tingling murals while the stained glass windows ushered me into the hallowed space. Wow. I was really doing this. And I was nervous as hell (a pun, but not really, as the painting of Jesus looked fixedly at me).
Father Dan of St. Mary’s Student Parish was visiting and delivered the homily, a sermon typically elaborating on lessons of the previous liturgical readings. As he spoke, he made a remark about how God invites us to life of fullness, and still, sometimes, we deny it. My stomach dropped with this comment. It rang true to me: I have withheld participation from the many graces of God, namely not spending enough time in reverence of Jesus. I was conscience-stricken. However, my jittery ego quickly got defensive. I began to argue with myself, mentally citing all the offers from God I have humbly embraced: I use my talents as a vehicle for change, I spend time appreciating the nature He created and I do all I can for my loved ones. Father Dan’s speech broke up my harsh cross-examination of self as he mentioned gratitude as a tool for recognizing God’s daily offers to us. I relaxed; I could easily exercise gratitude and implement something actionable into my life that would strengthen my bond with God.
After mass, approximately 30 people remained silent in their seats. I never fully understood the oxymoron “silence is deafening” before that moment. Dozens of people, in perhaps the most echo-inducing room in Ann Arbor, engaged in personal prayer, and my ears were in genuine pain. There was a high-pitch ringing to the quiet that made me ache. I rejoiced when someone would shuffle in their seat or walk down the aisle, as the noise momentarily filled the room. However, others weren’t bothered by the lack of noise, as their thoughts and presence were submerged in their faith. But, my mind was frozen. I was too nervous I’d cry loudly if I prayed and too afraid of being blasphemous to let my thoughts drift elsewhere.
As the church attendees exited, I was told I could not stay at St. Thomas overnight, so I traveled to an adoration chapel 20 miles away. However, when I reached the door, I found that I needed a code to enter. A sign on the wall said that any member of the parish staff would give out the code if asked. So, at 10 p.m., I found myself calling the personal phone number of a priest and leaving a voicemail. My efforts were not fruitful, and I was tasked with finding another 24/7 chapel. I was fiercely determined to complete my 24 hours. If I stopped, I feared I’d forever exist as a lapsed Catholic unsure of my relationship to God. I needed to find another chapel.
As I entered my car to continue the journey, I took a step back to check in with myself. A new passion was rising in me — I was actively fighting for my faith. My soul was in anguish, and I craved to be in a holy space. In an empty, dark parking lot, as I furiously googled local churches, the first “shift in faith,” as I like to call it, occurred. I could feel my tie to God again — I was right there tugging on it. Something I had forgotten how to do.
Thankfully, another open, code-less chapel existed. It was about the size of my bedroom, with only two rows of seats. In my time there, I read all of the “Book of Genesis,” some portions of the “Gospel According to Mark,” and, in a journal, wrote out my train of uninterrupted thoughts on religion, which spanned 10 pages. At the same time, a man spent the hours of 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. on his knees, looking at the painting of Jesus on the wall. Was I selfish, in comparison, by spending these same hours thinking about my own relationship with Catholicisim instead of putting my focus on the Savior? It was nearing three in the morning when I decided to copy my fellow worshiper.
Suddenly, kneeling to Jesus, I began to see the image of his face move. Goodness gracious! Was it finally the jubilant sign from God I had spent more than 20 years searching for? Definitely not. I was sleep deprived and made the decision to stop venerating Jesus in this fashion to avoid hallucinating another “miracle.”
I returned to my journal, and by sunrise, I had highlighted the questions that kept me distant from religion: Can my personal politics and morals live alongside my religion without being a hypocrite? Why is it that every girl I went to Catholic school with no longer goes to church? I did not find concrete answers, but through my exploration, I became comfortable in the inconclusiveness of it all. There might not be a perfect answer, but that doesn’t have to stop me from pursuing my faith.
I reentered St. Thomas for 7 a.m. mass. I stood in awe of the space, no longer daunted by the paintings and architecture. My stomach was long off the rollercoaster from yesterday. My palms open, I began to pray. I entered the meditative state I’ve yearned for years to achieve. I felt a wave of inner-peace; the type of peace that only shows itself once you place trust in a higher power. The silence that pained me before was now a friend eroding my anxiety. Behold, the second “shift in faith.” Pursuing mindfulness, I sat present with the Holy Spirit, thoughts of myself finally on hold while I focused on gratitude and service. The statue of The Virgin Mary and I made loving eye-contact, absent of my desire for a divine sign to interrupt the connection. I cannot pinpoint the specific moment when my heart opened and I more easily existed in the church, but I hypothesize it was the simple, yet committed act of staying in conversation with God throughout the night.
As my time of immersion ended, I pushed the weighty wooden door of the church open to join the bustle of a Monday afternoon. A breeze ruffled my skirt and whisked through my hair, while the cold air rouged my face. Thank you, I refrained. I welcomed an appreciation that I would not have been endowed with if not for my last 24 hours. My soul was lighter now and more readily available to accept basic joys like the changing of seasons.
Later that evening, after some desperately needed sleep, a shiver from the fall weather was met with soft, but noticeable disdain. I need to go back to church, I thought and clasped my Celtic cross necklace.
The Pope never wrote me back, but I don’t need a response anymore. I have all the faith inside me that I need.
Statement Columnist Mary-Kate Mahaney can be reached at email@example.com.