As Lent Wears On

As Lent Wears On March 30, 2011

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.

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