I’m beginning to see that there are two types of Catholics. Catholics who have seen and experienced the ugly side of the Church, and Catholics who haven’t. They’ve only seen the goodness of the Church and how it bears good fruit in their life.
If you’ve ever been rejected or hurt by the Church (or members of the Church), or seen that there are situations in your life that feel more gray than its black and white rules suggest, you fall in the first bucket. If you’ve never experienced these things, you likely fall in the second bucket.
The truth is I never thought I’d be the one writing a blog about this topic. I have been a cradle Catholic. An active faith member for many years, I’ve never stopped going to mass or Church or doubted my faith. I’ve never considered leaving the faith. For most of the first half of my life, I fell in that second bucket.
But now I’m in the first bucket. There have been several vivid times in my life that have shown me an uglier side of the Church. A judging side. A rigid side. A side that excludes. A side that rejects. A side that hurts. Those experiences came after deep experiences and commitments in the faith, strangely enough. They came as I was actively living my faith. I’ve wondered and prayed about how I should process these experiences. What do they mean for my life? How should they shape my faith?
They made me see the imperfections of the Church, the members of the Church, the clergy, the personnel of the Church, and religion as a whole. They made me not idolize the institution, but rather see it for what it is. A bit broken. A bit in need of healing. Just like all of us. They have prompted empathy for all those who experience this side of the Church and come out even more lost, hurt, or excluded. They have made me understand why some people become “Nones.”
On a few different occasions, the Church rejected me for who I was. Two religious orders rejected my discernment due to a health condition which sent me down a different vocational path. Three ministries at different times in my life rejected my desire to lead or contribute in a new way. And then another more personal rejection happened based on an aspect of my life that I couldn’t change. I’ve also had family members and friends, rigid in the faith, use aspects of the faith to control what I do in my life when the course of action doesn’t make sense for my well-being and wholeness or that isn’t consistent with how God is leading me. I even had a clergy just stop spiritually helping me without any closure.
In these situations, the Church or members of the Church rejected who I was in some way in ways that didn’t uphold my dignity as a child of God or who I was. They found reasons to tell me directly or indirectly that I didn’t meet the standard they were seeking and that I didn’t fit the mold for a particular vocation. I truly don’t know if that's God. It sure didn’t feel like it and left me without peace.
Since then, I have found my place in the Church, largely outside of parish ministry even though I still go to mass each week. I was accepted by the third order of Secular Franciscans. I was accepted into a spiritual direction program. I was accepted by the St. Vincent de Paul Society as a volunteer. I was accepted as a writer. I have found my places of belonging, vocation, and mission with God’s help. This has taken many, many years.
As I look around at the circles of people in my life, I see others rejected by the Church who have followed a similar path. They almost left the Church and they certainly have had their share of anger and upset by the Church, but by God’s grace, they were able to find a place or pocket of the Church in which they belonged and were accepted. They found people who advocated for them and saw God’s goodness in them.
All of this shows me that God is really the one in control. He has helped me stay in the Church and find my place in the Church while having an arms length relationship with places and people who reject me, which tells me that if you look hard enough, you will find that there are places of belonging, community, and purpose for you too.
The Church is not perfect. It will never be perfect. Not to mention, there are some bad apples in the Church. But if God has led you here, trust that He has a perfect place in the Church for you. A place of beauty that will overcome the ugly pieces you’ve experienced.
The response to seeing ugliness in the Church is just this: See it for what it is. Accept its pain. Discern its meaning. And may it expand your experience of faith, enlarge your heart, and ultimately lead you to the places where you belong and flourish – and to the people who see your dignity, goodness, and important role in God’s story.