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  • Writer's picturejamesbriankerr

Peaceable Man Files #26: Two Priests, A Lapsed Catholic, and a Dog

In front of the fireplace with Bishop Senior (center) and Father Jim McGuinn

Random musings on my gypsy existence at my cabin in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania and wherever else life takes me.

Question: What do you get when you put two priests, a lapsed Catholic, and a crazy German Shorthair Pointer in a cabin for three days?

Answer: a communion of like-minded souls.

Last week I had my former high school classmate and long-time friend Timothy Senior, now an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, up at the mountain house for the first time. He brought along his priest friend Jim McGuinn, rector at the Malvern Retreat House. I brought along Cassie because, well, Cassie goes wherever I go.

Timothy and I have been trying to arrange a visit to the mountain house for a few years and we were finally able to make it happen. He and Jim are wonderful people: down-to-earth, broad-minded, kind-hearted, soft-spoken - altogether amazing ministers and representatives of the Catholic Church.

It was a great time. We broke bread, prayed together, drank some wine, watched a couple movies, talked politics and the state of the church, all while admiring the wintry views through the picture windows.

We even got a couple inches of snow one night, which made for awesome conditions at nearby Elk Mountain. I am no longer a skier, but Timothy and Jim took to the slopes for a half day and had a fabulous time. Mid-week is the time to ski at Elk. Very few people were out and the two priests pretty much had the mountain to themselves.

As for Cassie … well, she always has a good time up at the mountain house with all the room to run and bunnies to chase. The overnight snow made her an even happier dog. This crazy canine of mine just loves snow. She did zoomies while dipping for mouthfuls of the white stuff. Back in the cabin, she warmed up by the fire, her favorite place to be.

Like I said, a great time, but also a time for me to reflect on the state of my lapsed Catholic soul. How could I not with two men of cloth under my roof, including someone I’ve known for forty-some years?

Despite twelve years of Catholic education, I am not currently practicing the religion I was born into. I go to Sunday services only occasionally and no longer really have an anchor parish that I call my home.

The reasons, as I relate in The Long Walk Home, are complicated. I’m a deeply spiritual person, but I have this thing—call it a blockage—about religion. It stems from my father, who was not religious and looked askance at religious causes. Much to the chagrin of our Catholic mother, he used to remind his six kids frequently that more people have died over the centuries in the name of religion than anything else.

Hard to argue that point. But Dad’s distrust of religion went deeper than the Crusades or other past misguided deeds of the Roman Catholic Church. It had to do with the fact that a church, any church, is at its core an institution and in his mind, institutions, whether religious or secular, are not to be trusted. All institutions have their agendas, their ideologies, their biases. The bigger the institution, the more of that stuff you’re going to get.

He didn’t want that for his kids. He wanted us to think for ourselves, not have our truths handed to us. “Be not like dumb, driven cattle,” he used to say, quoting Longfellow. “Be a hero in the strife.”

By the time I moved into adulthood, my head was filled on the one hand with the strict rules and thou-shall-not teachings of Franciscan nuns, and on the other, with the independent-minded, rule-breaking exhortations of my father. Thus thoroughly confused, I went off into the world to figure it out on my own.

There, I quickly found out that things weren’t quite as black and white as I’d been taught in Catholic school. That awakening started when I studied at a public university and experienced, for the first time, the amazing diversity of skin colors, faiths, and perspectives there are out there in the world. I realized I needed to make room in my worldview for perspectives that went beyond my sheltered, Judeo-Christian view of God and spirituality.

As well, I got training in critical thinking—in learning to use my mental faculties to examine and question the underlying assumptions of things that were being fed to me, rather than just accepting them as truth. Wasn’t that why God gave me a brain in the first place?

The years went by and my awakening deepened. Now, it was life, not schools, that were doing the teaching. Three things in particular happened to change the way I looked at my Catholic background.

The first was that I got divorced. Nothing makes you feel more like a failure than getting divorced, especially when you were educated by nuns who taught that marriage vows were sacred and never to be broken.

Second, I witnessed the horrific revelations of the Church’s sexual abuse scandal—the way that thousands of deviant priests were protected by the boys club within the Church for decades while children and their families suffered. How could the Church be judging me, as a divorced person, when it had committed much greater crimes itself?

Through Timothy and the other priests I’m friends with, I’m aware of the tremendous progress that the Church has made in responding to that crisis and ensuring it never happens again. I’m also aware that the Church has not been alone with these transgressions. Similar child sex abuse scandals have been revealed in other churches as well as organizations such as the Boy Scouts.

Still, hearing these things just deepened my distrust of religions and institutions in general.

Finally, over the years I have more and more troubled by what I see as the exclusionary nature of many of the Catholic Church’s teachings. That women could not become priests or attain the highest positions in the Church. That divorced Catholics must get their marriages annulled in order to marry again in the eyes of the church. That gays, lesbians, and other marginalized communities could not come to the communion table if they dared to love who they wanted.

Here, again, the Catholic Church is not alone. Sadly, I see intolerance and judgment preached at the pulpits of many Christian churches and conservative groups. These teachings seem to me the exact opposite of Jesus’ central command to love one another without judgment, and I want nothing to do with them.

None of this had any effect on my spirituality or faith, which has only deepened over the years as I’ve gone through various tribulations in my life. I have never questioned the existence of a higher power, only in the liturgical robes that churches dress up that higher power with their official doctrine and dogma.

Being a spiritual seeker, I’ve tried different churches in the hopes that one of them would resonate with me. For a number of years after my divorce, I went to a non-denominational evangencial mega church. There was much I loved much about the church—the music, the energy, the community outreach programs.

But in the end, I stopped going there as well. Why? I was turned off by the fact that only men could become elders of the church. So much for progressive, in my opinion.

Jim McGuinn was blunt with me when we talked up last week: The Catholic Church has much to learn from the best practices of these evangelical churches that are drawing people, including former Catholics. We wish there was a way to combine the beauty of the Catholic traditions—the mass, the communion service, the sacraments, etc.—with the vibrant energy and sense of community that you get with an evangelical church.

Whether this is going to happen in my lifetime is unlikely. Maybe it will never happen.

What I do know is that I continue to seek. My restless soul needs more than it is currently getting. It needs a spiritual home, an anchor. It needs a greater sense of community and connection.

These are things that churches and parish give us. No man is an island. We all need to be anchored to something, I’ve come to realize, and if I want the connection and purpose that come with being part of a church community, I will have to accept the fact that I will never find a perfect church or religion, because they’re all fashioned by imperfect people.

Where this will lead, I don’t know exactly, except that it will be with the Catholic Church. I can no more remove the Catholic part of me than I can change my personality.

Yes, here I’m in my early sixties and still searching, still learning. It’s a journey that will continue until my dying day, and maybe even beyond.

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Feb 05, 2023

Good and thoughtful piece, Jim!

As a fellow member of the separated and skeptical Catholic brethren, I recommend "The Testament of Mary," a novella (based on a one-woman play) by Irish writer Colm Toibin. It's Mary, the mother of Jesus, telling the true story of his non-divinity, public life, passion and crucifixion to counter the propaganda that John the Evangelist and others have tried to persuade her to ratify. Beautifully written, honest and scary.

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