This is going to be pretty personal, even for me.
I was raised Catholic. Italian-Catholic, actually, which is like Catholicism on steroids. A lot of Mass, a lot of sacraments. A lot of religion at school. A lot of memorization. A lot of music, not much of it good; a lot of obligation. I would sit in Mass and cross my fingers that the priest would recite the second Eucharistic prayer because it was the shortest.
I didn't always pay attention. Sometimes I slipped out the side door right after Communion.
I was not a good Catholic.
I wasn't a bad kid; by today's standards, I was actually a really good one. I did what I was told. I made good grades. I respected my elders. I had to make up sins to confess to the priest when I took advantage of the sacrament of penance because, as that decent kid, I really didn't have an exciting, sinful life.
"I was disrespectful to my parents," I'd say, not really remembering if I had been or not. The priest would tell me to do better, then sentence me to one Our Father and two Hail Marys. And that was it until the following Friday, when I'd say the same thing.
So I guess I really wasn't a bad Catholic, either. I was probably like every other Catholic child of that time. I did what I was supposed to do, what I was told to do, and believed the way the church, and my family, said I should believe.
And then I got older. And then things changed for me, as they do for many people who grow up and try to determine his or her place in the world. I began questioning, and the answers I received didn't make sense to me. "Because that's just the way things are" never, ever works, and I always want whoever is answering the question to do better.
My questions largely revolved around God's rules, whatever we understood them to be, versus human-made rules. As I look back now, they weren't hard questions, and they were stereotypical of that time: Why are women's roles in the church lesser than the roles of men? Why does Catholicism tell us being gay is a sin when it's pretty clear that people are born with genetically programmed sexual identity? Whoever came up with the idea that we can't eat meat on Fridays during Lent, and how is that a sacrifice if a person doesn't even like meat?
I continued to ask my questions of different people and in different years. During that time, I married and had my own children and proceeded to raise them Catholic. I took them to Mass. I taught religious education (!). I didn't always buy into the lessons I taught, but it was important, I reasoned, to raise my children with a religious foundation, and Catholicism was what I knew.
When my children reached adulthood, they made their own decisions about organized religion. As for my journey, when the time came for me to no longer worry about their foundations, I bowed out.
I stopped going to church except on the rarest of occasions because I couldn't reconcile the hypocrisy of attending a church that was espousing things I didn't believe. I also couldn't wrap my head around the church's handling of the sex-abuse scandal, and felt that if I continued to attend Mass, I was condoning the fact that young lives had been shattered to maintain reputations that didn't deserve to be maintained.
Here's the thing, though: I may have stopped attending Mass, but I never stopped believing, and I never stopped praying. I believe Jesus is the son of God, and I believe He died for our sins. I believe in the resurrection. I believe in God not as a giant Santa Claus, but as a being that can bring clarity and comfort. I believe in prayer, and I believe in miracles.
But I don't believe in persecution and exclusion and entitlement and hypocrisy. I believe in freedom of expression, and I believe in equality of all humans. I believe in the words of Jesus: "Love your neighbor as yourself." "Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me." I try to help people. I try to do good things. I try to make the world better. Sometimes I fail.
But I keep believing and I keep trying. And today, I heard on the radio that Pope Francis went to a prison and washed the feet of some inmates, including those of a woman. And a baby. And as I listened to the story, something in it spoke to me, and I started to cry.
I'm not sure I clearly understand the need for the hierarchy of the Papacy, but I am a fan of this Pope. I may not agree with him on everything, or even on most things, but the guy is the real deal. He clearly doesn't believe in entitlement; he's inclusive and humble and hard-working. He seems to try to help all people with whom he comes into contact, and he doesn't shun any of them, even felons or lepers ... or those who happen to be gay.
The fact that he is trying so hard to change things, even if he can't change things enough for me to feel the Catholic church is "my" church, moves me to tears. And, cue the thunderbolts: His actions also make me feel that maybe there's room for me back there, in his church, again.
I miss Mass. I miss the ritual and the tradition. I miss Communion (which I would take even though I'm divorced, because that rule is insane) and I miss ashes on my head. I miss the prayers I grew up with; I even miss the bad music. I miss the stations of the cross and I miss a context for all my prayers.
But I don't know how it would work, exactly, if I went back, because although the fundamental beliefs are there, many differences remain. Can I compartmentalize enough to not feel like a fraud? Is it enough that I believe in the "big" things, but take issue with the details?
I want to take baby steps, but my mother-in-law is coming for Easter, and I want to take her to Mass. Ideally, I don't want to wait till Christmas or Easter to go back weekly, but I want to feel comfortable with taking stock and working my way back gradually.
I'm at a loss. I don't know where to start, but I do know that my stock explanation, "I'm spiritual, not religious," isn't entirely true. I miss having a church building in which I feel at home. But I also don't want to be judged as a "lapsed" Catholic. And I don't want to be lectured about my opinions and beliefs.
If anyone reading this lives in the Des Moines area and is in love with his or her Catholic church, please drop me a note and tell me why. Is it inclusive? Does the congregation reach out to the community, the city, the world? Would the people there be willing to make room for someone who's not 100 percent on board?
And one more thing: If you're inclined to judge me or others like me, do ask yourself, What would Jesus do?
My guess is: Because he hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes, he'd probably be OK with making room in his house for a liberal Democrat who asks too many questions but really misses the off-key singing of "Let There Be Peace on Earth."
After all ... it's Easter.