It’s weird to be back in the Our Lady of La Salette parish center after all this time. It reminds me of pancake breakfasts and Sunday school and construction paper and dumb icebreakers at confirmation retreats. It smells like my elementary school cafeteria. It feels like Lent.
My mom volunteered to help set up this art show/bake sale (what is a church event sans the Ladies’ Guild bustling about with sweets?) and asked me to come with her. I think she hoped the church would suck me back in if I got close enough, would make me wish I had not stopped going to Mass the instant I started going to college.
See? Remember Father George and his friendly beard and his nifty paintings? How could you not love this man and everything he stands for? Remember the Lloyds? Kelly’s a Eucharistic Minister now. She’s devout and happy. See?
I smile at Father George, feeling suddenly, inexplicably guilty. I do like his beard and his paintings. I hope he will not ask about my spiritual life.
I should not feel guilty; I made a decision and by God (get it? God?) I will stand by it. But I do feel guilty. Maybe I have made a horrible mistake. Maybe I should come groveling back to the church. Maybe I should become a priest.
Have I lost my mind? A young lady cannot just barge into the tree house of the priesthood uninvited. No, outside there is a sign, clearly marked “No Girls Allowed,” and an invisible titanium force field. The boys inside have squirt guns and water balloons. And rocks. These vehement exclusionary tactics have always puzzled me.
Catholicism is puzzling. Take purgatory. I was in seventh grade the first time I saw the word. It kept appearing in this tattered blue prayer book I had, so I, bold and curious youngster that I was, asked my catechism teacher about it one Wednesday evening. What was all this purgatory business? And why had there not been poster board presentations with relevant magazine clippings on the subject? I wanted diagrams, visual aids. I wanted parables with memorable titles.
My teacher was a frank and cheerful woman. She answered frankly and cheerfully: “I’m not sure we’re teaching that anymore.”
She explained purgatory in terms of sins and souls and clothing and being properly dressed for formal dinners. Your soul was the formal attire. If it had too many stains (sins) on it by the time St. Peter was checking the guest list for your name, you went to Hell. If it had fewer, but you still looked a bit riff-raffy, you went to purgatory. You stayed there and kept quiet and thought about what you had done. It was like sitting in the corner for time out. “But I don’t think we’re teaching it anymore.”
What? You’re not teaching it anymore? Can you do that? Just change your mind like that? Say, oh, hell (or purgatory, as it were), we don’t believe that anymore and then watch as the concept vanishes in a poof of dogmatic modification? Is that allowed?
Who decided about purgatory? The Pope? Was he unwinding at the Vatican one sunny afternoon, reading a little Revelations and sipping a little lemonade, when he thought to himself, “You know, this purgatory thing’s kinda silly. I think I’ll sack it. Tomorrow. There will be a memo. I can finally use that cool Jesus-on-a-pogo-stick stationary Ron gave me for my birthday. Goody, goody.”
And if you can discard one moral absolute, who’s to say that in 20 or 50 or 100 years, they won’t decide it’s okay, say, for women to be priests?
“Oh, no. That’ll never happen. You’ll see married priests before you see female priests.”
“Women can’t be priests. It’s in the Bible.”
It is? Where?
“Well, it’s not in the Bible per se. But you see Jesus didn’t have any female apostles -”
What about Mary Magda –
“And there were no women at the last supper -”
What are you talking about? It was Passover. There would have been women and children everywhere. Besides –
“Shhhttt! And anyway, it’s tradition. No Girls Allowed. Invisible force field, remember? God’s divine force field. And lasers. Also invisible. Sorry. Does anyone else have questions?”
The best friend of the boy I had a crush on raised his hand and asked if this would be on the test. I banged my head against the wall. No, frank-and-cheerful said. This would not be on the test. It wasn’t important. Just forget it.
Aubrey Henretty can be reached at email@example.com.