I took Adrienne to Sunday Mass, just like always.
I don’t like to go to Mass right now. I usually don’t receive Holy Communion. Religious trauma makes it very hard. But I think it’s important that Adrienne learns her prayers and hymns and receives Holy Communion if she wants to, so I brought her. We were at a church in the diocese that comes the closest Steubenville has to being neutral territory– a small, friendly Novus Ordo parish, a ways away from my house, where the music is modern but not bad and the preaching is fine most of the time. I couldn’t ask for anything more, considering where I live and how bad it feels to be in any church at all.
When I got there on the first Sunday of Advent, there was a bright red gift-wrapped box in the back of the church. I assumed was for donating cans to the food pantry, but it wasn’t.
The box, as it turned out, was for being a tattle tale.
During the homily, the priest explained that we were supposed to observe Advent by writing down the name of a friend or relative who had left the Catholic faith, dropping the name in the gift wrapped box, and resolving to pray for that person for the next four weeks. Then, after Advent was over, we could invite the person to Mass with us on Christmas.
I assumed I’d misheard him, but I hadn’t. When I got out of Mass and went to the foyer, I looked at the box again. There was a very small yellow label on it I hadn’t seen on the way in, declaring that the box was for submitting the names of people who weren’t going to church, and inviting them to Christmas liturgy.
I went home and mentioned this to some friends on social media.
“I’m sure my name is in that box,” said a friend. She can’t go to church anymore due to religious trauma, far worse than mine and also from the Charismatic Renewal. She knows people who go to that parish. I was pretty sure my name was in the box too, since I haven’t been secretive about the fact that I’m taking a step back from the sacraments for the moment in order to deconstruct my spiritually abusive upbringing and decide what I really believe about Christ. I consider that giving the Church a ten-minute warning, but plenty of busybodies around town think of that as having left the Faith. I know people whose spiritually abusive parents still live here in town, who have left Steubenville and Catholicism for other faiths or no faith at all because they were old Covenant Community people who suffered horribly. I’m sure their names are in the box. In fact, I had the terrible feeling that if I came back to that church, dumped out the box and started reading names, I would be reading my Facebook friends list.
Imagining rifling through the box brought up a new question: who gets to see the names written in the box?
Is the box going to be completely secret? Is the pastor going to read and pray over the names? What about the associate pastor? The pastor and associate seem like kindly people who wouldn’t do anything harmful on purpose. But I don’t think I like the idea of their having a dossier of lapsed or allegedly lapsed Catholics to at their fingertips just the same. And what if someone else read it? What if one of the old Covenant Community people got ahold of the list and started googling phone numbers? Lord knows what would happen.
Besides that, now that the weird Advent project has been announced, what do you think will happen when a lot of new people show up at Christmas liturgies? The whole parish will regard them as the apostate sinners whose names were in the box. That’s going to be awkward to say the least.
And anyway, what’s the point of this exercise?
Isn’t Advent supposed to be about preparing YOURSELF for the coming of the Christ Child?
Aren’t you supposed to be repenting of your sins?
Isn’t the first step towards repenting of your sins to take your eyes off your neighbor’s failings and look at your own plate?
People leave the Church for a million and one reasons, but based on my circle of friends, the main reason is because of the actions of others. We came to Christ to kneel at His feet, and we were chased away– some by horrific betrayals like priestly sexual abuse or abuse by a Catholic parent. Many by bullying and exclusion. Many by the silence and neglect that answered them when they asked for a little help. We would have liked to stay. I’m still trying to hang on, desperately seeking a reason to believe Christ wants me to stay. It hurts every moment I’m in a church. I didn’t do that to myself. None of us did this because we’re bad people. It happened to us because of what somebody else did.
If you’re going to have a box full of names in the back of your parish, have every parishioner write down their own name. Because they are the person they need to work on this Advent. They’re the ones who should undergo a conversion and show up at Christmas for a fresh start. If you did that, maybe some of us would have the courage to come back.
Or better yet, do it without naming names.
The best time to start your conversion is right now.
image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.