I am Irish Catholic. That is not just a religion: it is an ethnicity. My ancestors fought to practice their religion, were persecuted for it, starved because of it, were tortured, rendered second-class citizens, and mocked because of it. My father’s family instilled a deep sense of pride and ritual around our Irish Catholicism. We went to Mass together at family reunions. We all learned the catechism, we said our rosaries, we believed in the mystical and reverence and glory and guilt that are the gorgeous tools of Irish Catholicism. My family is firmly, undoubtedly, unquestionably Catholic.
But I married a Protestant. And not any Protestant: a practicing, loyal, church-going, devout Presbyterian who reads his Bible, majored in religion, went to church even while in college, and likes things like coffee hour. Coffee hour? In the Catholic church, we get in, get God, and get out. Forty-five minutes tops, confession on Wednesdays, and no talking to each other. Completely different sides of the liturgical and social spectrum.
To ask him to join the Catholic Church would be to ask him to renounce his previous religion as false, as not the true church. To ask me to give up Catholicism would be to ask me to do exactly as my ancestors had been asked to do. I could feel my great-grandfather looking down at me, shaking his head, telling me no–not after all we’d done, not after all it had given us and cost us.
So for the first eight years of our marriage, David and I worshipped separately but together. When we went to the Catholic Church, David couldn’t take communion: he was an outsider. When we went to a Protestant church, I was uncomfortable, an outsider. Church just isn’t holy to me if there isn’t a Vatican rag: kneel, sit, stand, kneel, cross yourself, genuflect, and turn yourself around. Like the holy hokey pokey. Little cups with shots of grape juice every few months for communion? What? Inconceivable. Not right to my Catholic brain. We need real wine in a fancy chalice for it to be God’s blood.
When we were working on our Ph.D.s, David and I would alternate Sundays: one Sunday at the Catholic Church, the next Sunday at a beautiful old Episcopal church. This was the first time either of us had been to an Episcopal service. The service made sense to me. In fact, it’s the same, if not even more liturgically traditional. If I squinted, I could pretend it was a Catholic service. And David could take communion there, was welcomed there, wasn’t asked to renounce anything.
So I talked to God quite a bit. I talked to my ancestors. I talked to my soul. As an enlightened, educated woman, of course there were things about the Catholic Church that bothered me: unmarried clergy, male-only clergy, other doctrines about sexuality and gender. There were things the Catholic Church just didn’t see yet that needed to be seen. And it was as if the Episcopal Church had taken the wrong parts out of the Catholic Church and kept all the beautiful, good parts that matter.
So when we moved to this town down south, I knew this was our church, that this was where David and I belonged, the church in which we could raise our children knowing that we fully believed in all they taught, in all they felt, in all they wanted. That this was a good place–truly good–in a world full of people who confuse “evil” for “good.”
We believe in the Episcopal Church, we believe in the history of its service and what it teaches us about the past 2000 years, we believe in the holiness of the words, we believe in the sacredness, we believe in the intelligence of each other and all the people who gather here. This church is good; this church needs to be alive; it needs to show this town that history and thought actually matter and that you can find those things here. It needs to be a home for people who seek those things, like it is for David and me. That’s why we should support it.
But if I avoid coffee hour, know it’s not you. It’s the Irish Catholic in me.
Dr. Erin Clair