For Christmas this year, I gathered up my courage and decided to do something I have not done in a long while. I momentarily set aside my differences with the institution of the Catholic Church and gathered around myself my love of the sacraments, the ritual of the mass and the hopeful message of Jesus’ birth and I attended Christmas Eve mass. I was saddened, frustrated and disappointed when I soon discovered there was no room for me at the inn. What I had hoped would be an evening of welcome and inspired hope was instead an evening of shame, guilt, intimidation, fear and gore. I was quickly reminded of why I left the Church in the first place and why I shall not be making a return.
Three years ago, after 41 years of active participation in my faith which included nearly twelve years of Catholic school, seven years of post-undergrad study in Catholic Theology and Spirituality, training as a Lay minister and Spiritual Director and ten years of active ministry as a Pastoral Minister (responsible for Adult Faith Formation, Sacramental Preparation, Spiritual Formation, Pastoral Counseling and Liturgy Coordination) in the Catholic Church, I left. I left the institution of the Catholic Church when I was informed by the new pastor that the work I was doing was “outside Catholic teaching and dangerous” and that he was ordering me to cease and desist. I was teaching Christian meditation and contemplative prayer, helping adults discover and cultivate an intimate and personal relationship with God and facilitating opportunities for ecumenical dialogue. I knew that this was the work God had called me to and I knew that I could not authentically live out this call within an institution that thought this work to be dangerous. On the same day, I resigned both my position and my parishioner status, knowing that neither I nor the work I was doing was welcome.
Three years have passed and while I have found comfort in contemplative prayer and in the company of other men and women who have felt equally unwelcome or alienated by their Church, I still have a deep love of the sacraments, the liturgy of the mass and many of the traditions of the Catholic faith. Attending Christmas Eve mass was a little bit of a test for me. I thought enough time had passed and maybe I could set aside my differences with the local and institutional church and begin to once again enjoy participation in the mass. Alas, it is not to be so.
For me, Christmas is about welcome and hope, love and peace. We hear the story of the Holy Family seeking a place to rest and finding no room at the inn. We see the innkeeper offer humble, yet safe accommodations in the stable. We hear of the miracle of Jesus’ birth and in the words of the Christmas hymn, we are reminded that Jesus’ “message is love and his gospel is peace.” We are invited to join in the celebration of the shepherds, wise men and angels over this amazing child who will remind us of God’s love and show us the way to remembering that love.
This is not the message that was offered at Christmas Eve mass. Instead, in this Gothic-style cathedral church, surrounded by statues of saints and magnificent stained glass windows and sheltered by flying buttresses, families and friends who were enthusiastically reconnecting in the Christmas spirit were shushed by the pastor for being too noisy. Then he shook his finger at us and shamed us into silence because “God is trying to talk to you and you need to be quiet in order to hear God’s voice.” Then the pastor remarked on how nice it is to see such a full church and aren’t we ashamed that church isn’t this full on Sundays. Then he bludgeoned us with visions of the terrible state of the world and how attending mass is the only hope for any of us and if we wanted to the world to get better, we’d better start coming to mass. This was all before mass even started. I could bore you with all the tiny details of how one was made to feel unwelcome at this mass, like the Gloria that was completely impossible to sing and known to nobody but the music ministers, but it wasn’t in these details that the final nail was placed in the coffin of my dreams of returning to active participation in the mass.
The final nail in the coffin was the homily and the activity that surrounded it. The 4pm Christmas Eve mass at this particular parish was billed as “the children’s mass.” As such, the pastor invited the children of the parish to the front of the church so he could tell them a Christmas story. This is how the children were invited: “I would like to invite the children to come up for a Christmas story…but not all the children, maybe only those from ages 4 to 7 because the little ones are too naughty and after 7 they start getting naughty again…and maybe a few parents could come up to help with any that might get unruly.” I don’t know about you, but if I were a child of any age, I’m not sure I’d want to go listen to the story after that welcoming invitation. As a parent, I sure as heck wouldn’t send my child up there to risk being punished for “unruly” behavior. This is the children’s mass, right? Aren’t children by nature curious, excitable, enthusiastic, highly spirited…and aren’t they even more so on Christmas? Not only were the children made to feel unwelcome, so were their parent’s in the pastor’s inference of their poor disciplinary tactics.
In spite of the pastor’s unwelcoming invitation, twenty or so brave children went up to listen to what I’m sure they and their parent’s expected to be a sweet story about hope, joy, celebration and love. Instead the children and all of us listening were met with a story rooted in fear and covered in gore. The story we were told was how the candy cane got its red color from the blood of Jesus’ suffering and death and how the white represents those who are bathed and made clean in the blood of Jesus’ sacrifice. And it is because of Jesus’ death and sacrifice that we celebrate Christmas. While I acknowledge the truth of Jesus’ sacrifice and the suffering he experienced for standing in his truth, is this really the essence of the Christmas message? More importantly, is this a story appropriate for children on Christmas Eve or any time for that matter? I’m not sure any of those present will ever be able to enjoy the fresh minty flavor of red and white candy canes again without first tasting the distinctly metallic taste of Jesus’ blood. YUK!
If the pastor’s intention was to horrify, intimidate and obliterate any vestige of hopeful anticipation, he successfully accomplished his goal. I watched the faces of the children as they left their place at the pastor’s feet. The looks of spirited enthusiasm had melted from their faces as they went to greet their parents in shocked and stunned silence, heads hung low and shoulders slumped in defeat. Christmas was no longer about angels and stars, miracles and dreams, a mommy and a daddy and their sweet baby in the manger. Christmas was about blood, suffering and death. My heart broke as I bore witness to their shattered spirits. At the same time, I watched the last nail being pounded into the coffin of my own Christmas hope of being able to enjoy the celebration of the mass within a community that speaks of love, compassion, mercy and joy and who recognizes the universal message of hope that sought to be born into the world in the person of Jesus. I was disappointed and saddened to see that in this Catholic parish, Jesus’ message of hope had been turned into a message of horror and intimidation. As such, I will no longer entertain ideas of returning to active participation in the local Catholic community when it has become painfully obvious that there is no room for me at this inn.
In the end, however, it is not about me and whether or not there is room for me at this inn. The deeper issue when contemplating Christmas is whether or not there is room for Jesus at the inn. What saddens me even more deeply than my own loss is that in the eyes of this pastor and the Catholic community over which he has jurisdiction, the only Jesus that is able to be seen is the Jesus of suffering and death. There seems to be no room in this inn for the Jesus of compassion, peace, light and joy. It is this that truly makes me sad. My prayer is that they will one day be able to hear the words of the prophet Isaiah and embrace them in their hearts:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom, a light has shone.
You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing…
For a son is born to us, a son is given us;
Upon his shoulder dominion rests.
They call him Wonder-Counselor…
Prince of Peace.