White Smoke

A’s lips purse tight as she talks about having to deal with the Church in Newfoundland for her mother’s memorial, the distress of watching her mother absorbed into the anonymity of being a soul of the faithful, Charlotte Mary backgrounded to the rote tropes. Having to navigate with and around a Church she left long ago, an institution that seems held together by tarnish and rust.

I empathize, nodding, and also find myself scanning the scene for what her mother’s siblings need from this memorial. The funeral mass and wake rituals, predictable and known, are for them. And, it’s hard to let that be the end. I’d feel just as agitated, my fury at the church rarely too far under the surface.

cemetery cross

I left the Church completely decades ago, at around the age of 21, literally quietly walking out during the Easter Vigil when it was time to renew baptismal vows and I realized I didn’t believe any of them. I’d gone to Mass tentatively, a question about whether there was anything in the ritual, in the comfort of the candles — and despite the warmth and folkiness of the university setting, it was just vanished. Since then, people around me known not to get me started on the Pope, on the Church, the only topic that makes me grow wild-eyed and spittle-flecked. The homophobia, the gender stuff, the secretive abuses, the harm to the planet and developing countries caused by the stance on birth control, the hideous power machinations, the glorification of suffering.

I’ve never fully understood my fury, the easy route being the gender stuff, the abuses, the politicization of the Church in Canada around same sex marriage — it’s hard to feel warm toward an institution that commands one’s parents to reject you from the pulpit. But I also realized last week, watching the flurry of the Papal Conclave that, atheism aside, I have a deep, deep sense of betrayal about the loss of the church of my childhood.

Pope Francis came into being when I was delayed at the Vancouver airport, shoveling carrots and tortilla chips with salsa into my mouth in the lounge. In transit, captivated by the novelty of News Unfolding As it Happens. CNN breathlessness I don’t encounter much in my life without live TV.

Stuck in that lounge, I had a weird, emotional moment when they announced who it was. The name Francis echoed the Franciscans who were the priests of my childhood. I’ve always recognized that my basic moral framework — my sense of social justice, my belief in the one-ness of humanity, my sense of obligation to do something in the world beyond the edges of my skin that moves toward equity — came from what I referred to as my hippy-dippy catholic childhood of the 70s. There’s been a lot of discussion this week about the turn away from social justice to dogma with the advent of John Paul II, and I was glad to hear my experience affirmed. Ironically, I learned to ask questions about the world and my place in it from the particular “Let there be peace on earth” version of Catholicism I was confirmed into at the age of 9.

And, I realized this week, I learned how to reflect on the kind of person I most want to be in the world, from the reflective practice of post-Vatican II confession, sitting across from Father Mike in a “confessional” that consisted of two chairs, a face to face conversation not about sin, but about what I saw as my best self, how I could bring that to life. The core of what I now do in my day to day work, day to day life, highest purpose work.

I was lucky in my version of Catholicism, had a brief window where I was fed something that stuck, around the edges of the dogma. When I started high school, the new pope elevated more conservative Bishops and Cardinals and for a while, the girls were kicked off the altar in my diocese, and reflection was supplanted by doctrine, reinforcement of the perverted structures of the institution.

I carried my source with me, re-rooted in new, nourishing places throughout my life. Think of myself as an emigrant from Catholicism more than anything. Feel grateful that my upbringing taught me why religion is important to so many people, how faith works. It’s helpful to know that, even as I don’t remotely identify with that version of faith. I spend a lot of time with religious people, and it’s important to understand it, recognize that perspective. And, I completely understand A’s anger at her experience with the church in Newfoundland.

When I was in Paris at New Year, sick with dengue fever and light-headed, I accidentally found myself at Notre Dame just as Mass was starting. I was relieved to sit down.  I entered the ritual, said the French prayers I remembered, went to communion.


I explained it later as “I may be an atheist, but I am a cultural Catholic of French heritage.” It seemed fitting to walk through the ritual when I found myself in one of the most sublime churches in the world, as in need of comfort as any other point in my life.

And, I realized the other day that it’s the only ritual I could do that my ancestors would recognize. The line of centuries of French Catholicism ends with me, and I’m okay with that. There’s a certain good riddance, hand-washing-of-it aspect to it. A finality. And, there was a moment in that church where I wasn’t me, where I was Cate-through-history, inhabiting the women who came before me.


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