As Lent Wears On

When Sienna was about a month old, the Ogre and I began trying to get her baptized. We went to the class, we met the requirements, we selected godparents. When we filed the official petition with our parish to have her baptized, we were denied.

Sienna was not allowed to be baptized, said the parish, because she was born out of wedlock. She could only be allowed the sacrament of baptism once I had converted and we were married in the Church.

Our priest went to bat for us. He contacted the pastor of the parish where he was a visiting priest, explained our situation, explained the work he was doing with us, and received permission to do a private baptism. 

When I was in the process of converting to Catholicism, the Ogre and I went to a mini-engaged encounter. It was a full day workshop for couples who had been civilly married and wanted to have their marriage convalidated in the Catholic Church. I was not the only convert there; there were several others who were in the process of converting.

The whole day was excruciating. The couple running it, in true Diocese of Dallas style, managed to say some pretty terrible things. For example, after a half-hour lecture on how marriage is for life and divorce is not allowed, the woman related a story about a woman she knew who had been married to her husband for fifty years. The husband died, and after the funeral the wife said to the woman running our class, “Thank God that’s over.”

Then the woman running the class said, “Isn’t that terrible? It would have been better for them to quit than to stay in a marriage that bad.”

The whole day was filled with conflicting messages like that. The Ogre and I were pretty annoyed, as our marriage prep and my catechesis was being done by our wonderful and amazing priest. We were used to hearing…well…Church teaching, not whatever this couple was selling.

But our focus wasn’t really on the workshop. I was in the midst of a painful argument with my mother about my conversion and my wedding. The conversation I had with my mom that day, during the lunch hour, is still the worst and most painful conversation I’ve ever had with anyone. I hung up the phone, distraught and in tears. The Ogre went to tell the couple running the workshop that I was having some personal problems and we would need to eat lunch on our own, and then re-join the group after the lunch hour.

The rest of the day concluded without a hitch. We got our little paper certificates and left.

Three days later, the Ogre got a phone call from our priest. This couple had filed an official petition to the Bishop of Dallas, requesting that I not be allowed to join the Catholic Church and that our marriage convalidation be denied. They cited my tears and “refusal” to join them for lunch as a sign that I didn’t want to convert and the Ogre was forcing me to.

No questions. They never had one conversation with either of us. They made a decision based on my husband’s notoriously gruff demeanor and my tears, shed out of the pain borne of true conversion.

Our priest went to bat for us again, and after meeting with the bishop, my baptism and confirmation and our wedding were allowed to proceed.

When we first moved to Las Vegas, we began to attend the only Latin mass in the diocese. I wasn’t thrilled with it, as I prefer the Novus Ordo since my Latin is so nonexistent, but the parish came highly recommended. One of the things I appreciated was a large sign in the foyer that stated the dress code for Mass and the strict requirement of prayerful silence. It cited reasons for all of these in a non-judgmental, no-nonsense manner. I appreciated the reverence for Our Lord and the up-front manner in which these requirements were stated.

After about a month of attending Mass there, one Sunday morning the second reading was disturbed a little by some latecomers. At this particular Mass, latecomers were pretty rare, but I was impressed to see that very few heads turned, so attentive were the parishioners on the reading. Once the reading ended, however, heads began to swivel. Out of curiosity, mine did as well.

The latecomers were seated directly behind our family. They were clearly tourists, unfamiliar with this parish, and dressed perfectly for an afternoon stroll down the Strip. The father and son were in shorts, t-shirts and sandals. The mother was in a tank top and capris. The two teenaged daughters were wearing halter tops, very short shorts, and very high heeled wedge sandals.

It was certainly inappropriate for Mass, but looking at that family I felt nothing but sympathy for them. They clearly understood that they had stumbled into a parish that wasn’t the typical Catholic parish out here. Mantillas abounded, skirts swept the floors in every direction, full suits and ties adorned nearly every man. My husband and I were the most casually dressed, with me in a knee-length skirt and short sleeved shirt and him in an Oxford shirt, Dockers and no tie.

The family behind us looked sheepish and embarrassed. The poor girls kept pulling on their shorts, as if they hoped to somehow make them longer. I gave the mother what I hoped was a friendly, welcoming smile before turning back around.

What I saw when I turned back around shocked me. Nearly every single face was pointed in the direction of this family, and nearly every single face had a hostile, unwelcoming glare on it. I was almost frightened, looking at all those angry faces.

And it didn’t end there. All through Mass, judgmental faces beneath mantillas or above neatly knotted ties would shoot disapproving glares toward the unfortunate family that had stumbled into their midst. Not surprisingly, the family did not get up to receive communion, but to their great credit they stayed until the closing hymn.

The parishioners couldn’t resist getting in one last shot, though. Before the final blessing, one of the men who did the readings stood up and went to the podium. We had been at this parish long enough to know that this was a definite break in the usual order of Mass. I expected some sort of death announcement or something equally serious. Something important enough to hold the congregation there.

The man then stated, firmly and seriously, that this parish had a dress code that it expected the faithful to abide by. He then read the dress code, emphasizing those violations that the poor family had made (NO tank tops….NO shorts…NO skirts above knee-length…) and then stated unequivocally that anyone who refused to abide by these rules were not welcome to enter into Mass at that parish.

I was horrified. I’ve never been so stunned, actually. I’ve seen my fair share of liturgical abuses, but nothing I’ve ever seen, in any Catholic Church, remotely approached that horrible speech. There was no love there. Christ was not in that congregation that day. We never went back.

The Ogre and I have bounced from parish to parish here in Las Vegas, in large part because we both have a self-righteous streak a mile wide. We expect our children to sit still, they don’t get toys or sippy cups or cheerios, and we’re not too friendly towards parents who let their offspring bounce around, flinging snacks and banging toys. We like priests who are conservative, and every time we hear yet another homily about how we must work tirelessly for peace and food for the homeless we get angry. Where are the homilies about not killing babies? we ask. Where are the homilies about not using contraception? we cry. Look at these women! I say, snottily. Two kids each. Of course they’re contracepting! (And on the inside, I think, their life must be so much easier than mine. Look at their cars. They probably have nice houses with real back yards. They don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from or how they’re going to afford to feed yet one more baby. Where’s my recognition? Where’s the priest telling me, you’re doing the right thing and they’re not?)

I’ve long held onto bitterness toward the parish that wouldn’t baptize our innocent daughter, born out of sin through no fault of her own. I’ve long held onto that sting of betrayal from the couple who petitioned that I not be allowed to convert. I’ve long pointed my fingers at the parishioners at that Latin Mass for their hostility, their lack of charity, their unwillingness to love. I’ve long seen our Church with her arms open wide, and the faithful in front of her with their swords crossed, not content to let in those who don’t pass their test. And I’ve seen myself as someone more loving, someone willing to forgive, someone better.

At the beginning of Lent I prayed for the humility to realize my own weakness. God has granted that prayer, in spades. I may not have been one of those who looked toward that under-dressed family with hostility, but I am one of those who glares at women with less than four children and judges them. I judge them because I envy them. I wish I could ignore the Magisterium sometimes. I wish I didn’t have to live with the burden of trying, yet again, to figure out NFP. And I feel like someone, somewhere, should point out just how hard my life is so that everyone can congratulate me for doing…well, for doing only what I ought to, and not really anything more. I should get accolades for doing the bare minimum, because look. She’s not even doing that much!

Self-righteousness is everywhere in the Church. It’s eating us alive like a cancer. We judge, we condemn, we gossip behind our chapel veils. We put on the guise of humility while thinking ourselves superior.

This Lent, I’ve been given the grace to realize that I’m broken. I’m sinful. My hubris is showing, and it’s a whole lot uglier than the excess flesh that some women show off on Sunday mornings. Yet amazingly, miraculously, incredibly, God still loves me. His arms are still open to me even when mine aren’t open to others.

My Lenten prayer is shifting, now. I think if I see any more of my weaknesses it will break me. I’m praying now for the grace to love everyone, unconditionally, the way Christ loves me. I’m begging God to give me the grace to avoid even the near occasion of sin. When I see a woman at Mass with one child, I pray that the thought “she’s contracepting, that sinner” never crosses my mind. I pray that I will have the grace to see her for what she is, a woman who, like me, is struggling to answer God’s call to motherhood to the best of her understanding. When I see a woman with a low-cut shirt and a too-short skirt, I pray for the grace to look upon her with compassion instead of disdain, and see someone who, like me, is desperately in need of the guidance of Our Lady.

This Lent has been one of the hardest of my short Catholic life. My heart has been wounded, and I’m grateful for it. I hope that those wounds allow me to feel again, to bleed for others, to love them as Christ loves me.

  • JoAnna

    Calah, I honestly cannot believe you became Catholic after all the cr*p that happened to you during your conversion. Wow. (Especially the parish that refused to baptize Sienna… that seems to me a CLEAR violation of canon law.) Thank God for your faith and your wonderful priest friend!I'm careful never to assume that small families in our parish are contracepting, for this reason: my stepsister and her husband have been trying to conceive a baby for years now, but have not had any success. They're in the process of adopting right now. On the outside looking in, they're your typical (Protestant) DINKs, complete with two pug dogs that they spoil shamelessly, but I know both of them are just heartsick that they don't have children yet. Before she was open with her infertility struggles, my mom used to constantly pester her about when they were going to have a baby, and my stepsister finally told her the reason why. My mother was incredibly ashamed and embarrassed. When I heard the story (from my stepsister) I was thankful I had been careful never to say anything, because I suspected that was the case but figured it was none of my business.Anyway, long story short, I always assume infertility before contraception. You just never know.

  • Sarah

    Wow, I cannot believe the hoops you had to jump through to join the Church! It's really important for us cradle Catholics to hear stories like yours so we don't get complacent that we have it all figured out.

  • E

    Beautiful post. We are all sinners and in needs of God's mercy. Pride is one of my greatest sins, and can relate to your experiences. Thanks for sharing!

  • Kacy Neinast

    Praise God for His mercy on us, we are all so prideful. Man, God bless you for loving that women and her family. For standing for what you know God has called you to. For loving those who the church has looked ill upon (because of their tank tops).2: Some women can't have babies, and while I do not believe in contraception and we use none, I cannot get pregnant. So, maybe God only gave those ladies two babies or one that they adopted because they couldn't have their own. Don't forget that God blesses us with children, but not everyone receives it in the abundance that He has given it to you. Love you!

  • Anonymous

    That is so crazy. My husbands parents(Protestants)live in Las Vegas and we(Roman Catholics) went to that Church while we were visiting. Although we were appropriately dressed, we felt very unwelcomed as the priest talked about his dislike for tourist and visitors to his parish in the homily. When he began to talk badly about the Bishop and the Pope in his homily, I started to have trouble breathing in there. I, unlike the family in your story, grabbed my three boys and my husband and walked out in the middle of Mass. We went back to my in-laws and I placed a call in to the Cathedral, the receptionist was very kind as I cried my story to her. She let me know that they were a renegade parish and were not in good standing in the diocese. We went back out to the Cathedral later that morning to attend Mass.Thanks for sharing your story! I am so proud of you and your husbands openness to life. Children are such a blessing from God. Sometimes when were in the midst of all the chaos its hard to see the blessing, but he is truly forming you and your husband into the man and women he wants you to be and giving the world a sign of contradiction. We are in the world but not of it. The world will never give you the accolades you desire, but there is a mighty throng in heaven who is cheering you on right now! Thanks for being a sign pointing to something greater. God bless your family.

  • Louise

    What an amazing post. I also find myself victim of my own self-righteous thoughts (and I sometimes wonder, self-righteously, if other people make self-righteous assumptions about me…talk about being preemptively judgmental!). And I definitely find myself wishing for a nice pat on the back for my long-suffering, bare-minimum adherence to the Church's moral teachings. Thank you so much for writing this, because I really needed to read it, especially during Lent!(And I am so, so glad that your awful experience in Dallas didn't push you away from the Church! That is just unbelievable!)

  • KT

    I totally agree with everything you said. Every week that I walk into mass at our conservative parish I burn with shame as the mothers with a pewful of kids watch me walk by with my one child. I'd like to tell them how we have been trying for 2 years now for another and how hard it is to watch week after week as all of my college classmates announce their 2nd, 3rd, 4th pregnancies. Every time my sister-in-law and MIL tell me my daughter needs a sibling I smile politely and say "hopefully someday!" I think I am such a victim because I know they all assume we only want one child and I must be using birth control. I use NFP religiously, we easily conceived our first child with it, and for whatever reason it's just not working out for us right now. I am trusting that God has a plan. But every week that I see the stares I meanly think back, "you just can't get a handle on your life, don't be jealous because mine isn't as chaotic as yours." Humility works in so many ways. I could use a large dose of it myself. Thanks for your story. As a convert myself I saw a lot of what you mentioned. Better trained lay ministers in the Church is a must.

  • Debbie

    Excellent post! The comments here are heartfelt too. Your description of the under-dressed family and the other folks at that Mass was so vivid. I am like that woman with 2 children that you see at Mass. We practice a lot of abstinence around here. We can conceive, but have prayerfully felt called not to, (for other medical reasons). God called us to a small family. I have the same problem the other way, "I judge the large family because I am jealous." I too, am working on it, with God's grace.Thank you for an excellent post!

  • Anonymous

    Sorry my comment just kept getting longer & longer as I went… Great post. It is amazing how easy it is to feel judged within the church and to judge others. I come from a more liberal family background and live in a very conservative diocese. I am single and have several recent relationships end very early on because I choose to hold fast to the teachings of the church by waiting until I am married. I feel called to marriage, but I have not yet found the person for me. The search can be painful especiaally as more and more of my friends get married and start families. My siblings and I do a lot of work with the poor and with people with disabilities and I constantly find myself having the opposite problem of wishing there were more sermons on helping other than on contraception & abortion. It is not that I don't care about and work to try to change the abortion issue, I do… I just have come realize that God has given me greater strengths working in other areas and that the best way for me to serve Him is through working towards social justice. I teach in a public school working woth kids with severe autism. I use the patience God has blessed me with to keep working after being punched, kicked, scratched, spit on, etc… I do my best to show compassion and love to my students and try to a postive role model for them. Then I go to church and listen to a sermon about how public schools are evil and I feel hurt and I feel judged. I feel like I am doing my best to live out the calling God has given to me. I hate going to church and leaving feeling angry or rejected. I find that these experiences have caused me to become angry and judgemental towards some of my more conservative brothers and sisters. I see someone in a chapel veil and assume they will judge me, so I judge them first. I assume that these people don't care about the poor and only care about abortion. I see all of the gold in a new church and get upset thinking about all of the street kids my sister works with and how many of them the money spent on those fancy things could have helped instead.

  • Anonymous

    (continued)I think what struck me most about your post was how very different our current lives and vocations are, but how we have both felt the same at different times. We both experienced the same feelings of rejection and judgement from a place that should be and frequently/usually is a place of compasion. I thank you for sharing your perspective because I know it will make me think twice before I make assumptions or pass judgement on someone in similar shoes to your own. One of my favorite readings in scripture is Paul's analogy of the body in Corinthians. When I am struggling with trying not to judge those within the Church who may express their faith in different ways than I do I try to think of us each as different parts of the one Body of Christ. As with all of us no body part is perfect and some parts may have more obvious outward flaws than others, but we are all still part of the same body. Whether we are single. married with no children, married with 12 children, or in the religious life we are still part of that body. Whether we like to go to a more conservative Latin mass or a more liberal mass with folk music, we are all still part of the Body. Maybe the family in inappropriate clothing at mass is like a broken arm in a cast where the weakness is easy to spot, but someone in a chapel veil and long skirt is a clogged artery leading to the heart. Jesus reached out to those with both internal and external flaws with compassion and love and He calls us to do the same in the best way we can. Hopefully everyone we encounter in our parishes is trying their best to follow the teachings of the Church. I don't think any of us live those teachings out perfectly 100% of the time. Whether our brothers and sisters have obvious external failings or those that are hidden we are called upon to love. Whether they are a foot, an arm, a lung, or the brain, they are all a part of the Body of Christ and we need them each to be a whole.