Today is Ash Wednesday. I am Catholic. It is a very holy day, the first full day of Lent.
The voices of many priests float through my head “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
When I was a child, I loved being Catholic. We lived in Society Hill and we had two amazing churches right in my neighborhood. Across the street was Old St. Mary’s and down a little bit on Willings Alley, our church where our family pew still sits, Old St. Joseph’s, Philadelphia’s oldest Catholic Church founded by Jesuits in in 1733.
I was baptized and received my First Holy Communion at Old St. Joe’s. I received my catechism from Father Drain, one of the Jesuit priests at Old St. Joe’s. He was a marvelous man. I still remember the room in the rectory – full of stiff and formal Victorian furniture.
The Jesuits were my foundation as a Catholic. A couple of weeks ago, some fellow Catholics on a Facebook thread said Jesuits weren’t even really Catholic. I found that sad and offensive.
As an adult, I have had a love hate relationship at best with the Church and with being Catholic. I have yet to join a church in Chester County, as a matter of fact. Maybe that means my immortal soul is at peril, I do not know.
My love hate relationship lives in the pomposity and hypocrisy I see today in the Catholic Church. Let’s start with the whole sexual predator priest issue. They excommunicated a priest and put him back in the neighborhood where I used to live and he roamed free for years until he was arrested a second time and went to jail on a guilty plea as a sexual predator. Until he was convicted, we the neighbors had to watch him because no one else was.
Then there was the Monsignor from a parish in Wayne I was introduced to at a viewing. He berated me in front of people at a viewing for the fact that at the time I had said that I would be choosing NOT to be married in a Catholic church and that I found modern Pre Cana to just be about the money. He was awful. Ironically, he was removed a few years later as a pedophile priest.
I move out here, and one of the first Catholic things I am hit with are exceeding graphic pro-life signs along the property of a large Catholic church. Horrible glaring and angry signs. Who is the God they worship? Is he mine? I don’t recognize anger commingled with religion as healthy.
Recently, attending a funeral of a friend, I was actually in a church that finally did not feel alien to me. Philip and James in Exton. I found out later it was also designed by a friend’s late father. It was the first church in years that felt welcoming and warm when I walked in. And their stained glass windows were beautiful. As a Catholic struggling with the faith of my birth, it was a really positive experience.
Then came the recent issue of Villanova University and the larger than life crosses over Lancaster Avenue. It is something I have never understood and right or wrong, I think the university president is wrong. It’s not about his legacy, it’s not about a Catholic institution, it’s about the multi-faith world we live in. And a public road, a state highway.
I came home from East Whiteland’s Zoning meeting and flipped on Radnor Township’s commissioners’ meeting. What I saw was Villanova’s attorney in full Napoleonic glory brow beating Radnor into submission. Ok it is his job, even if he is always unpleasant when he represents Villanova. However….
I am Catholic, and if this was solely on Villanova’s campus NO ONE would care. But this footbridge is going to cross a public road that gets public funds, and to build this they will get some public funds, correct? This is NOT being anti-Catholic or a being a bigot it’s a question of a PUBLIC road. Not everyone in the world is Catholic, so how others feel about this bridge being overtly religious over a public highway should matter.
I challenge everyone to look at the bridge over City Line Avenue St. Joe’s University bult. It manages to be there without throwing Catholicism in everyone’s face. But then Saint Joe’s is a Jesuit Roman Catholic University and Jesuits aren’t really Catholic, right?
We live in a world of many faiths. I think if the bridge design featured crosses on the piers in bas relief, it would be in better taste. It would represent the religious foundation of the school without non-Catholics feeling as if someone else’s religion was being shoved at them.
As a Catholic I have always felt it was wrong to foist the religion of my birth on anyone. I know who I am, and strangely I retain my underlying faith, so how is it I am a bad Catholic because I agree with the critics of the bridge design? Look, we are not living in medieval Spain or France, we live in a country that is a melting pot of religions. We can maintain our own religious identity while being sensitive and considerate to the religions of others, right? Or we should be able to?
One of the critics of the bridge of crosses is a very close friend of mine. She is a senior citizen and a grandmother. She gives more to her community in a year via her generosity than most people give in a lifetime. Her comment about the bridge was that perhaps a more ecumenical approach to the bridge was better in today’s world. She also had the thought of why couldn’t the crosses be more subtle, carved into the stone piers instead of challenging everyone over a public road.
My friend feels the frightening aspects of attacks on certain religious groups quite keenly as her 17 year old granddaughter works after school at a Jewish community center and is being trained on how to evacuate children and adults in the event of threats like the recent bomb scares. This is the world legacy we are foisting on our children. It’s the whole hate begets hate.
Because my friend was interviewed by some media and expressed her opinion publicly, albeit very gently and politely, she has been demonized and vilified. Publicly, including in the media. She has even had conservative radio show hosts want her to come on the air, and I know damn well it’s not because they want to fairly represent her right to her opinion. It’s because they know she would be ratings gold if they put her on the air so people could phone in an essentially abuse her without accountability.
So she is now branded an anti-Catholic and a bigot and “she must have a bunch of pink crocheted hats.” She and others of a similar opinion, which I guess must include me are being compared to perpetrators of hate crimes. Hate crimes, you know like those horrible people who destroyed gravestones at historic Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia. Now these same critics are saying that even more people are anti-Catholic because not enough media attention and public attention was paid to a similar desecration of gravestones at Holy Redeemer Cemetery in Philadelphia. Doesn’t matter that no one can control the if it bleeds it leads philosophy of what is newsworthy to television station managers and newspaper publishers, right?
I am sorry but do these people HEAR themselves? People with a different opinion are anti-Catholic? Even if they are Catholic? Jesuits aren’t really Catholic even thought the current Pope himself is a Jesuit? It’s like committing a hate crime to say maybe rethink all those crosses on a footbridge crossing a public road driven by people of many different religious beliefs?
Religious pretzel logic.
Yes…religious pretzel logic. I am sorry but it is upsetting. And it’s why people struggle with being Catholic, or with any other faith when people are pushed to slavish devotion with no room for individual thought.
I was not raised to be this type of Catholic. Have I ever felt people went out of their way to make me feel bad for being a Catholic? Sure. How many Ash Wednesdays did I go to Our Lady of Victory in Lower Manhattan for ashes to return to my trading desk where I worked to have way too many people tell me I had schmutz on my forehead? And that continued for over a decade in my old office in Conshohocken every Ash Wednesday when I went to St. Matthews at lunch for ashes.
I found it offensive but I said nothing. It was not worth getting into it. I knew who I was.
But today after the past couple of days, I once again question the faith of my birth. I just do not understand how people who call themselves Catholic and Christian can spout what I feel to be such ugliness at the onset of one of the most holy seasons of the year? Maybe this is just a by-product of the ugliness of the politics that swarms our country at present. Whatever it is, it is sad.
Norman Rockwell had a painting truly appropriate for this post. Here it is: