I was raised Catholic by my off-the-boat Polish mother and mostly agnostic father. Every Easter, he would don his sport coat and mention converting in his soft-spoken way. He had been raised Methodist, I believe. He didn’t practice anything; he would sit in the truck reading the paper while I rolled my eyes and reluctantly attended Sunday school at the Catholic college in our hometown. I would often be rushing to finish my homework for the class right before, or on the cold dash of the old F-150 as Sunday morning country oldies played over the speakers. Because it wasn’t academic, my dad would shake his head and simply remind me to be more timely in my work before going back to humming along with George Jones.
My mother, however, was still very much a practicing Catholic. She was a member of Holy Cross Church in our hometown and would go to Mass on Saturdays, as she enjoyed the music more; the cantor was usually Anne DiSanto, half of the couple who ran the music studio where my sister and I took lessons. While I was young enough, then my sister years later, she would go to the children’s mass on Sunday mornings, but she preferred to attend when the sky outside was dark and the candles shone brighter on the stained glass. She would sing along with the hymns tunelessly, not so much to make a joyful noise, but because it was what one did. She knew the aerobics like the back of her hand and taught me the same, the patterns of sitting and standing and kneeling. I’d be reminded that the kneelers she grew up with had no padding so I should be both grateful and still, or at least quiet. She knew the various prayers and creeds like she knew to spell her name, but still opened the hymnal and read along as if the words were somehow unfamiliar to her. She never talked about faith or religion or even Catholicism with me; church was just a simple fact of life, something routine that did not require explanation, like grocery shopping.
When I was thirteen, I came out for the first time – I declared that I liked both boys and girls at the table with my parents in the kitchen. They were not rocked by this news; the response I got, as I sat somewhat nervously with my pre-algebra homework, was that it was a phase, followed by a complete dismissal of the subject. It didn’t come up again until after my father had passed and I came out again, as gay this time, to my mother at age twenty-one.
Growing up Catholic, I never remember feeling the need to go to confession or being worried about going to hell for being “90% gay,” which was the best way I could think to identify, since “queer” wasn’t in my vocabulary at that point. I even went to a Catholic high school (yes, schoolgirl skirt and everything). I never worried about my soul or my education; I was never treated differently because I was out. It likely helped that I had a steady boyfriend – who did not go to my school – but even if I hadn’t, I think my high school experience would have been just as wonderful. It was a family, a community I came to depend on quickly. When scary and terrible things happened – my father’s ALS diagnosis, 9/11 – it was where I wanted to be. I wanted, needed, those teachers and friends, nuns and clergy. I enjoyed the faith as it was revealed to me – it meant a net woven of unbelievable strength that would break whatever falls the world had in store for us. I became a member of the “God Squad,” the senior peer outreach class who helped put together the retreats for each class and served as alterfolks for the monthly masses. I still get those songs stuck in my head on occasion. I carried my faith outside school as well, becoming a Sunday school teacher as part of my senior year community service. The day I turned 18, I got my first tattoo – the rose and cross of St. Therese, chosen in part for her love of writing and nature. The Little Flower, as she was often referred to, was young and stubborn known for her convictions and passion; a strong choice for patron saint for a teenage girl.
After graduating from my close-knit Catholic high school, I went to Brandeis University, a predominantly Jewish liberal arts college outside of Boston. I felt the loss of community acutely, and half-heartedly looked around for another church. Nothing fit; I already understood that what I was looking for had nothing to do with faith or religion. I was looking for that unquestioning acceptance into a community based around ritual, attendance, and routine.
I found it years later when I started to attend Pilgrim St. Luke’s in Buffalo. By this point, I had long considered myself a recovering Catholic, being too divorced and too gay for their doctrine. I had come to learn much more of the violent history of the church, not just the glossy version presented to us in high school, but how religion has been wielded as a deadly weapon by Christians throughout the ages. I was fed up with the absolute patriarchal institution on every level; politically I was frustrated with the influence of the church in reproductive and civil rights, and personally, I had finally come to terms with my views on death, reincarnation, and the absence of heaven and hell as destinations for once-mortal souls. The Catholic church – as institution and dogma – had long since ceased to make sense; all the preaching and morality and promises of eternal life could not overcome the strata of control, power, and intolerance for it to ever be a place I felt welcome again. But Pilgrim St. Luke’s didn’t care about what the Catholic church had always taught me were sins. Instead, they were open and affirming with their motto of “God is still speaking,” and their extravagant welcome, no matter where someone was on their faith journey.
I have not been back since my father-outlaw’s funeral service nearly four years ago. Today, I have to look up the Wikipedia for St. Therese to remember her miracles. I still carry her mark behind my right shoulder, a little faded from 15 years of summer sun. I still have to catch myself so as not to respond, “and also with you,” when people quote Star Wars, and I know that “Gloria” has 18 syllables. But what I believe has overcome my learned responses and ground me to my core. I believe in the sanctity of the natural world. I feel an undeniable connection to trees and stones and fields. If I pray, it’s to all those who have gone before me. I am not washed in the blood, but the ocean. There is no heaven I raise my eyes to, but the wind and sky. It is not the light of the world that guides me, but the fires left by the witches they could not burn. I am a child of the earth. Maybe that’s why even in high school, when I had to choose a patron saint, I chose the Little Flower. I hope she’d understand that I will always carry her with me, a wildflower through all seasons; she bows her head in prayer as I lift my face to the moon, and we meet on sacred ground.