My mom was standing on the front lawn of my best friend’s house surrounded by hundreds of other parents. I rushed into her arms, glad to be in the safety of her care. News helicopters whirred overhead as they passed through the grey sky, its dourness casting a shadow over the whole day. We were being evacuated from school, and being only in fourth grade at the time, I had no idea why. All I knew was that the quaint world of suburban New Jersey was no longer a safe place of serenity and security.
That day, 10 years ago, was the day the pastor of my church, Father Ed, was found dead in the church rectory. He had been stabbed 43 times, though my parents didn’t tell me that at the time. For the first few days after his death, I thought he died of natural causes, like all the old people in my town. There hadn’t been a murder in Chatham in over 50 years, and surely my Catholic school wasn’t the place for that trend to be broken. But, unfortunately, it was. That holy site — the center of my faith and moral creed — was violated.
The santicity of the church was destroyed in that instant, its status as a place of comfort forever lost. The man who was the gatekeeper of that community was taken from us. It seemed like no one was protecting its status as a place to feel in the presence of God. The one man in my life who I truly believed was devoted to God with all of his heart, and took that commitment as a priest seriously, was no longer there to provide me guidance. I truly thought he was God’s shepherd, leading his flock to the path of righteousness.
When he spoke on issues of Catholic morality, I felt he had full credibility. There was no outward hint of hypocrisy, either in his intensity or his actions. Hearing him speak, I felt like I could actually follow God’s path and devote myself to Him. Without that voice in my life, the spiritual journey felt far lonelier and more difficult. How could I follow Christ if God took away from me the only holy man I knew? How could God let a good man who had done nothing wrong die a horrible death?
And so began my path of disillusionment with the Church, his death sparking a long chain of events that would seemingly pull me further away from my spiritual commitments. What made Father Ed such a wonderful man was not just his enlightening sermons; he put his homilies in succinct, clear terms that any follower could understand. While I certainly appreciated the fact that Father Ed always had me home from Mass in under an hour, I felt like a shorter Mass allowed me a stronger grasp on the meaning of that day’s readings.
Soon after his death, Mass became longer, the homilies more drawn out, the singing more frequent and seemingly extraneous. Even worse, the Vatican changed many of the responses in 2011 with an update to the Roman Missal, the series of sayings and responses that guide the Mass. Ironically, the Church was trying to make the responses more in line with the traditional Latin Mass, but instead it made the Mass harder to follow and it alienated people like me from participating. We now had to say “And with your spirit” in response to the priest saying “May the Lord be with you,” instead of responding “And also with you.” The Mass I had grown to look forward to had changed, adding insult to the injury of no longer hearing from Father Ed. The meaning of the Mass became muddled, and I was no longer as receptive to the speaker, since Father Ed wasn’t the one standing at the lectern.
The situation became much worse when I went to high school. I was separated from my tight-knit Catholic community for the first time since preschool and now attended school where most people were not Catholic and sometimes outwardly hostile to religion. In my 11th-grade world history class, we had to read a book in which the author argued that religion was just an ideology to bind people together; it had no higher moral purpose or reason for existence. I tried to argue that religion helped fill in the gaps for what science could not easily explain, like what existed before the universe was formed. The only person who came to my side argued not in favor of religion but by using a scientific argument.
People tried to undercut my beliefs by using quotes from the Bible and arguing that Christianity was just another system built to oppress women. Arguing in favor of my faith became a lonely fight, and it seemed like I never had a good answer. This was a situation where Father Ed surely would have known what to say.
It didn’t help that my process for receiving Confirmation had very little religious content. Instead of taking religion classes every Sunday, my church mandated an all-weekend retreat, which we spent mostly singing non-Catholic songs and eating candy. I was hungry for how my faith could add deeper meaning to my life, but instead, I felt unprepared to commit to the Catholic Church as an adult.
I wanted to answer the most pressing question: How do I apply my faith to the challenges of modern life? I tried to answer that question myself by spending nearly 30 minutes in confession during that part of the retreat, harkening back to my fifth-grade days when I tried to be the last one to leave our quiet reflection time. But this time, I didn’t seem to find that meaning in my reflection. Instead, I felt empty.
Nowadays, there seem to be few links tying me to the Church. Sure, I still attend Mass, but only on the big holidays like Christmas and Easter, and mostly out of tradition. Last year was the first time I truly gave up something for Lent in a while. The pain of not being able to enjoy all of the great cuisine Ann Arbor had to offer, while strong, offered me the first deep connection to my faith in a long time. I felt like I truly made a commitment, and stuck to it for once, something I had lost in the mad dash of life.
While I am hopeful this will one day lead me to commit more to my Catholic faith, those issues with the Mass remain, and every day it gets harder and harder to commit myself to the Church. Though I may not attend church much anymore, I still try to have the moral code of Catholicism guide me, even if I often fail miserably. I just hope holy people like Father Ed can one day forgive me.