a touchy subject, who is holier than thou?

4549193615_81d22effef_bI was always told in the scheme of manners the things you should refrain from discussing at a dinner party are religion and politics. How about on blogs? Today might be the day for some rule-breaking as the topic of religion is on my mind.

We’ll start with me.  I am born, baptized and all that good stuff a Roman Catholic.  To me the church I was born into was quite different from the one which exists today.  Maybe that is because my first parish was a Jesuit one called Old St. Joseph’s on Willings Alley in the Society Hill section of Philadelphia.  It was and still is a beautiful church with an amazing history steeped in the very formation of this country given it’s location.  We have a family pew there.  If I am deadly honest with myself the last time I felt at home in a Catholic Church was that one. It was a church where both the beauty of the actual building as well as the disposition of the priests really made you believe.

We moved to the Main Line when I was 11 turning 12.  There we joined a parish called St.8279630940_c744af500a_b John Vianney.  When I was young, the pastor there was this amazing man called Father Ignatius Reynolds.  My great-aunt Josie had sung at his ordination mass as it turns out.  I liked him and his teachings, but was turned off to an extent as a new kid there when I had to go to Sunday School at the then parish school.  There I learned the cruelty of children of “good Catholics”. One of the nuns who taught us was completely senile.  The kids were merciless  with her. But then again, so were some of the kids with others.

Believe it or not, in 7th grade I was bullied in Sunday School of all places. The girl had a fairly pleasant sister, but she was the kid who had the less pleasing personality in the family and at that time she was mean as spit and a bully.  It wasn’t much fun to be bullied in Sunday School.  I  learned to stand up for myself when I realized no one else would and thankfully when I told this girl to buzz off, eventually she did.

The fact that this Sunday School was attached to a Catholic Church which did nothing to control some of the kids did in a way create an issue for me with the Catholic Church. Next issues for me would be when I got a little older.

When my parents moved from suburbia back into the city decades later they had their records transferred to a new parish close to them.  My records were to stay put as I was still on the Main Line.  But then I realized mine hadn’t stayed put.  So I called up the rectory and spoke to Father Lexus (what else would you call a priest who you had seen driving a Lexus?).  Father Lexus said to me “well I don’t know who you are”  I asked him with all due respect if he could possibly know all of his parishioners because not only was he new to my parish, he had another parish, which made him responsible for what is known as a twinned parish.  Father Lexus told me he would have to interview me and then decide.  Talk about a turn off.  I had been confirmed in the parish, him appointed about two seconds to the parish.  But hey, unfortunately with most affluent parishes, it is always all about the money.  As a fairly ordinary person in that regard, I was in a sense forgettable.

4630768420_7412f21d05_bThen an amusing thing happened after that.  I was on a train bound for NYC with a friend for a party and this little man in full clerical black robes to the floor glides by on the aisle.

“Who is that?” my friend asked.

“Cardinal Bevilaqua.  I think I will go say hello.” I replied

So I went up to speak to Cardinal Bevilaqua.  After all how often do you get to converse with a Cardinal?  He was a very pleasant man.  Of course because at his core he was a priest, he asked me what parish I belonged to.  I told him honestly I did not know and recounted a gentler, more polite version of the Father Lexus story.  Miraculously, a few weeks later, I started getting donation envelopes and parish mail again.  I was back in.  No great surprise there as he had appointed Father Lexus to my parish in the first place.

As a Catholic, and a resident of the Philadelphia area I will admit there have been many challenges to faith over the past decade or so.  Look at all the pedophile priests, one of whom the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and then Rome released from priestly duty and put back into my old neighborhood unsupervised for years.  Eventually he was one of the ones who went to jail but what kind of church puts a person like this BACK into a neighborhood full of children in the first place? And what kind of man who called himself a priest ever drove an old gold tone convertible Rolls Royce occasionally?

And then there is the whole Pre-Cana thing.  Back in the day, it meant that you were counseled prior to marriage by the parish priest who undoubtedly baptized you and knew your family. Times have changed, priests are fewer, and the Catholic Church also has turned this in to a warehouse money-maker.

7397697016_1bafcdb312_bWeddings and funerals are BIG business – don’t get me started on the story of a friend who had to pay off her parish so she could have the music of her family’s choice and not the church’s at a family funeral. Or the other friend who buried a family member out of a church close to where they lived in Philadelphia who had the priest who conducted a funeral mass like “INSERT NAME HERE”  and said during his sermon “well we don’t know where [X person] is now.” Uhh we’re Catholic, this was a good man, so Padre how about trying heaven because if you as a priest can’t summon up the concept of heaven well Houston we have a problem, don’t we?  I am to this day, incidentally, honestly glad that the family was bereft enough that they did not actually comprehend what this priest had said.

But back to Pre-Cana.  If you want to be married in the church you are supposed to go to Catholic boot camp.  Now it is not being counseled by your parish priest it is instead teams of married couples who probably know little to nothing about you overseen by priests who know little to nothing about you. Rah rah go Catholic!   But you have to go through this process which includes a “Marriage Preparation Course” get a certificate and whatnot while trying to keep family members from going off the rails while you plan a wedding.  And oh yeah, you have to pay for this inconvenience. No wonder so many couples are stressed out when planning weddings, right? And don’t you love the concept of people who have zero commonality with you other than Catholicism telling you how you are supposed to enter your marriage and live your life?

6915491828_589cb3898f_bAnd then there is the whole thing about divorce.  You are supposed to get an annulment if you were married in the Catholic Church.  I still wonder to this day when a friend of mine’s mother in law got an annulment so her remarriage would be recognized if she annulled her first marriage like it did not exist did that make her children from that marriage illegitimate? After all she was getting her Catholic get and *poof* making the marriage disappear in the eyes of the Church, right?  People I know who have gotten annulments who are more my contemporaries age-wise have spent oodles of money in the process and it took forever, like you were being punished for getting out of a failed marriage.

I will admit freely I am a haphazard church goer.  Maybe it is indeed because of the rigidity of the “You.Must.Go.To.Church” of my youth.  Maybe it is because of the occasional Catholic guilt I get from my mother as an adult about not going to church regularly.

But contrary to what some uber-Catholics might think it does not mean I did not know who I am, or what my faith is because I do.  I just sort of figured God is all around us so would he really judge so harshly if I wasn’t an every Sunday church goer?

I had bits of this discussion with a younger priest (as in not older than dirt) I met while going through breast cancer treatment.  His name is Father Denny and he is the pastor at Our Mother of Good Counsel in Bryn Mawr.  He reminds me of the priests I knew and admired as a child.  He is a remarkable man and one of the reasons I liked him so much other than he was there for me to occasionally chat with when I was going through something difficult (breast cancer), he is also a gardener. If you live on the Main Line and you are looking for a priest who actually walks the walk and doesn’t just talk the talk, he is your guy.8279607406_30986ba04e_b-1

I have friends of many different religious persuasions. Catholic, Jewish, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Unitarian, Baptist, Lutheran, Quaker, Greek and Eastern Orthodox, and so on.   I have watched them struggle with their religions and churches, sat on the sidelines while their churches had some amusingly juicy scandals from time to time as well.  I also have friends who became ministers or who were off spring of ministers and rabbis.  These people in particular are amazing – they live their beliefs, they don’t foist their beliefs onto you and they are Godly and accepting for lack of a better term.  Really good people.

Now to where I am going with this post.  I might not be a devout Catholic, but I know that is what I am.  I  have no issue with people practicing and embracing  mainstream religion (although I prefer religion in moderation).  Where I go off the rails is with the super evangelical and so-called “born again” Christians. Off shoot religions. And these are the people who never in any way shape or form can ever truly respect you are not like them as far as religion goes and they love to recruit new blood and foist their beliefs onto you.  I have a huge problem with people who try to foist their religion on you.  It’s not right and I do not know that God.

In any event,  have noticed an alarming and disturbing religious trend in this country and in this state over the past few years.  It may partially be like a knee jerk reaction to politics to an extent, or a reflection of the economy, but in a lot of cases I see people struggling to define themselves who in their quest for that fulfillment are getting sucked into groups who I find disturbing and almost cult like.

I know people who were born into traditional religions who have become “born again”. At first I was happy for them because it seemed they had found peace or whatever.  I even went to bible study with one of them to check it out and to try to be supportive of a friend’s new religion choice.

What I found wasn’t so holy or spiritual, it was kind of disturbing. And cultish.

I entered this room of mostly women. There were some men.  There was all this singing and evangelical tent preaching hand waving and I found myself struggling, but tried not to judge.  Then there were these weird God discussions.  I kept waiting for the bible study format I was familiar with to appear – you know when they discuss actual bible passages and go over bible passages they were supposed to review from the previous week?

I looked around the room at the people.  One woman I recognized.  An older woman who at one point had lived in my old neighborhood.  She was born Jewish, married I believe a Catholic.  She then became a Jew for Jesus and then joined that cult-like Church of the Saviour in Tredyffrin Township.  Ironically, in spite of all her attempts at piety, she was one of the nastiest women I had ever met.  She never did anything to me, I gave her generally wide berth – but I saw her do things to people which blew my mind.  I also once witnessed her go into a racist, profanity laced tirade in front of a police officer when she had caused an accident that was so astounding I seriously thought she needed an exorcism.  (She was practically foaming at the mouth while spewing her vitriol)  And there she was reinvented once more, this time a born again Christian.7397665310_cd68d37125_b

After the bible study I remember asking my friend about people in the meeting.  Some had given off weird vibes.  Ends up a few were recovering alcoholics and whatnot, but instead of going to traditional AA and NA meetings, they were part of this group.  There was also someone with serious emotional imbalances who was a danger to themselves and others unless medicated, but this group thought meds wouldn’t help him but Jesus could heal the person so they prayed over them.

I never went back to another meeting although I was asked.  I was polite, I was not critical or judgmental.  But as time has passed this group has sucked this person I know in further.   Now it is at the point where these born again people have replaced a lot of their long-term friends.  They go on these trips to see all these Christian speakers.  Now I thought the Catholic Church liked to make $$, well you have seen nothing until you see all the little nickel and diming that all adds up in the realm of being born again.

These born agains follow people like Joyce Meyer and Sid Roth just to name a few.  Joyce Meyer is one who has been watched for years and in 2003 watchdog groups called on the Internal Revenue Service to investigate Meyer and other TV preachers. Every summer Joyce Meyer does this evangelical conference in Hershey PA that people do bus trips too. She is like this multi-million dollar brand and didn’t people learn from the fraudulence that was Jim and Tammy Faye Baker?  If Jesus walked around with bare feet and plain robes giving things away, how is it these people are raking in the dough and claiming to live in God’s image?

And let’s talk about this new image of God for a moment.  Was the God you were raised to believe in an angry judgemental deity? Was he homophobic and intolerant?  I have to ask because some of these searching off shoots of traditional religion do just that.  Take the ever charming Westboro Baptist Church which in a twisted sick move as per the Huffington Post praised the death of those Arizona firefighters recently and said they would picket funerals.

Truly, I try not to judge where religion and religious beliefs are concerned. However I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the fact that some of the born again Christian beliefs some people are turning to is kind of scary.

What scares me is that these groups have turned some people who used to be very much live and let live into incredibly intolerant beings.

How is worshiping that brand of God productive or positive? How is going from believing in an all-embracing God to a judgmental deity a good thing for anyone? And how is it positive in the way they try to control everything that goes on amongst their members lives? If you know people who are part of these groups, you know the deeper they get into the group the less time they have for people in their lives who aren’t part of that group. Almost cult-like in some cases.

Extremism isn’t good for the soul. Be who you are.

And do I believe in God or a higher power? Yes. Perhaps I am more spiritual at times than religious these days, but that is o.k.

Anyway some may not like this post.  Some may find it irresponsible or wrong, but I think we need to talk about these things.  Discussion is not wrong.