The Church that Seemed Beautiful

The Church that Seemed Beautiful March 5, 2019


We went to a beautiful parish when I was growing up.

It was quite a ways away from our house in Columbus. The parish didn’t have its own school, so it became the meeting place for Catholic homeschooling families all over Central Ohio.

It looked the part of a perfect Catholic parish. The architecture was a proper and just Norman Gothic vault with a choir loft at one end and a Communion rail on the other; the windows portrayed the patron saint baptizing pagan royalty. Only men gave the readings; only boys were altar servers. Many of the girls and women covered their hair with lace mantillas. We arrived at church on time and left silently when it was over, not bursting into chatter until we’d left the building.

The choir was the best I’ve ever known. The music would make your hair stand on end– not with horror but with that sublime delight that western church music so rarely evokes.  They sang Palestrina, Victoria, Handel; they once performed John Tavener’s funeral ikos for the memorial service of a priest I’d never met, and I was in tears.

The pastor was an outgoing, outspoken, extroverted man who kept us all in line. He taught the Confirmation classes, where I could barely open my mouth due to social anxiety but always had the right answers on tests. He threatened that if we didn’t get our selections for a confirmation name in to him on time, he’d force us to take an ugly saint’s name like “Cunegunda.”  He warned us time after time that the bishop would call on us during the Confirmation Mass’s homily and expect us to answer Catechism questions, scaring me half out of my wits, but the bishop did not.

The pastor thought my shyness was hilarious. He marveled when I shook with fear after giving all the right answers during my pre-Confirmation interview. He winked at me as I stood in line to get confirmed by the bishop, so my last moments as an unconfirmed Catholic were spent suppressing those hysterical giggles that so often come instead of tears when I’m startled. Then he told the bishop that my name was Therese of Leisure– his pronunciation of “Lisieux”–and I will be Therese of Leisure for the rest of my life.

I loved the pastor. We all did. He was funny, and his homilies were the best in the city. I wish, just once, I could have overcome my neurosis and told him so.

The people who went to that church were by all appearances the very best people, giant homeschooling families that drove to the church from an hour or more away. They showed up in fourteen-passenger vans with six or seven or ten children, all of them dressed to the nines, all named glorious poetic Roman Catholic names like Augustine and Gianna. There were children everywhere– running around in the foyer, babbling in the pews during Mass, playing in front of the church. There was always a baby to hold and compliment; always a gang of older children making amusing trouble.

Some of these people were wonderful. They were among the kindest, most welcoming souls I’ve ever met. I’m always the first to defend large Catholic families when someone claims they must be all guilt and neglect. These people genuinely loved their children and had more and more children because they loved them so much. And what’s more, they loved everybody’s children. No matter how busy they were, they always reached out to help other new parents in the community. They arranged baby showers and meal trains; they helped mind children and clean houses while other mothers were sick in bed. They didn’t just live Humanae Vitae, they lived the whole Gospel.

And then there were the others.

There was what happened to me, which I’ve described so many times before.

There was a mother who screamed at my six-year-old brother for a “sin” she imagined she’d caught him committing at the annual picnic. She made him walk into the men’s bathroom and get on his knees and repent, without saying what he ought to be sorry for; then she confronted my mother and told her to take her son to confession, though she still wouldn’t say what the problem was.

There was also a family that dressed their girls in floor-length denim skirts and jumpers for modesty’s sake. The mother dressed the same way. She seemed very friendly, as did her daughters, but the father did not. He was constantly making misogynistic jokes and snarling about how useless girls were. And the boys in the family were not friendly either. One of the girls confided to my sister that her older brother had come into her bedroom and offered her money to undress for him.

We were all so sheltered, that didn’t ring on our ears as sexual abuse, just weirdness. But my sister didn’t want to visit their house anymore anyway.

That was twenty years ago. I ran away from home about thirteen years ago. That enormous bevvy of young children has all grown up; the ones who were lap babies when I ran away from home are going to college now. Some of them have left the Church entirely and some haven’t. I hope that a new enormous bevvy of young children have replaced them. I hope that in every generation until Christ returns, there are people who live the whole Gospel and bring their children to Mass in great big vans.

I hope the ones who were being abused have all escaped.

I wish that there was a way that a culture of pious, helpful, good-intentioned people didn’t have to always exist side by side with a culture of piosity and abuse, but I don’t see a way out of it. I wish the loveliest and most carefully done aesthetics in our churches weren’t so often side by side with the cruelest people, but I can’t make that not the case. I wish that real movements of people leaving the ways of the world to follow the promptings of the Holy Ghost didn’t so quickly go wrong in human hands and start to seem more like cults, but they can and often do.

And this is all a very roundabout way of saying that I found out a couple of days ago that that outgoing pastor from the picture-perfect church is dead. And that he was permanently removed from the priesthood in 2008 for a “credible accusation” of abuse.

And I am mourning for that beautiful, perfect church all over again. For what I felt it was, and for what I knew it to be, and for all of us who live in such a dreadful world. I’m even mourning for the priest who named me Therese of Leisure.

It all used to seem so beautiful.

(image via Pixabay) 

Browse Our Archives