On a blustery Thanksgiving morning, six months after I moved to Oakland, I took my parents to celebrate Mass.
They were visiting me for the first time in this new city I called home, and I wanted to show them the newly-dedicated Cathedral of Christ the Light, which I’d been attending since its dedication Mass just two months before. That celebration swept me up: the hymns, the readings, the prayers were all given in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Tagalog. People wore big Sunday hats, kente cloth, silk Ao Dais, and Oakland A’s windbreakers. We passed the peace among us, pressing white hands to brown, smiles everywhere. It made the list of the most memorable and moving Masses I’ve ever attended.
I wanted to share this amazing place with my family.
We celebrated Thanksgiving Mass, and, at the end, greeted the couple behind us, an American woman married to a Nigerian man. My Dad and the man began reminiscing about Lagos, where my family lived for two years when I was in middle school, and talking about what has changed there since then. The man invited us to travel there with them. The woman invited me to join the choir. By the time we wrapped the conversation, it had been nearly 45 minutes. We all hugged as if we were old friends.
The garden project attracted controversy during its planning stages. It was designed by a clergy abuse survivors’ group, hand-in-hand with the Oakland Diocese. It is tucked out of the way, in a place where survivors can come and meditate, cry, heal, but where they can do so out of sight of passersby on the main plaza, and without actually entering a church.
I can only imagine how reticent an abuse survivor might be to enter a church.
We found the garden on the cathedral grounds map and rounded the corner of the building. None of us spoke. None of us could have spoken had we wanted to. I made a sort of broken sound as I read one of the two plaques that read “This healing garden, planned by survivors, is dedicated to those innocents sexually abused by members of the clergy. We remember, and we affirm: never again.”
My father raised me as a Catholic, though my mother is a staunch Protestant who would not compromise her strong and fervent beliefs to join a church with which she could not agree 100 percent. My father, too, was raised as one of six children in a devoutly Catholic family, and my father’s youngest brother is one of the most gentle, most wonderful priests I have ever met. He has chosen to serve his entire career in upstate New York, and I can only hope the small parishes where he has devoted his life have any idea how lucky they are.
Uncle Steve, you see, is one of the very best of the good guys.
He is a priest who understands how love, humility and deep and abiding faith, combined with intelligent, proper discourse, can lead to a higher understanding of the broken and human Church. His diocese has sent him in to help heal parishes during terrible situations because he is both deeply spiritual and a thoughtful attendant to his flock, but also an incredible parish administrator. Like all his siblings, he is brilliant at what he does, and passionate.
It is because of him that, after I got divorced, I pursued and got an annulment. He presided over my wedding, so I wanted to close the books properly, in the eyes of the Church, on the failed relationship.
It is very much because of him that I continued to attend Mass regularly, even after many of my friends had abandoned organized religion. In fact, for the first year I was in Oakland, I not only sang in the Cathedral, but even cantored at the Masses. I credit his influence with keeping me on my knees even as the pastor of that parish preached before the 2008 elections about how we needed to vote with our “Catholic consciences” on issues like marriage equality and abortion rights (I did vote with my Catholic conscience, which, I must say, is identical to my Genie Gratto conscience. I voted for Barack Obama.).
But for a long time, my resolve to stay in the Church has slowly crumbled as my faith has grown. Along the way, I’ve hoped for an American split from Rome, thinking that might create a more liberal Church that is more friendly to the issues I care about. But honestly, based on the news exposed over the past decade and my personal connection to those stories, I don’t think the American Church has any idea, either, how to comport itself in a good, rather than a harmful way.
Still, I’ve managed to reconcile, for years, my pro-choice beliefs, my support for marriage equality, my assertion that there is zero reason that women should not be priests, with my ability to still attend Mass and be fulfilled by its ritual power.
Even less than a month ago, when I got some news mid-day that socked me in the gut so hard I could do nothing but shake and cry at my desk, my first instinct was to leave the office and go and sit in a pew of the Cathedral, tears rolling down my cheeks as two of the musicians practiced hymns for a later Mass. I lit a candle. I sent my prayers for peace in my heart up toward the soaring, light-filled rafters. It was more sanctuary to me than anything else I could think of.
But the news out of Rome only gets worse, not better. And on Wednesday, I read a piece in The Stranger in which Paul Constant demands his own excommunication:
“I demand to be excommunicated because I do not believe women are second-class citizens. I demand to be excommunicated because your missionaries are informing impoverished citizens of third-world countries that birth control is a sin when it is in fact the single most important thing they could do to gain some small amount of control over their economic situation and health. I demand to be excommunicated because your church has become a hate group as virulent as any this world has ever seen, one that is unnaturally obsessed with the sex lives of good men and women across the planet. I demand to be excommunicated because I do not condone child rape or the concealment of child rape.”
I am not ready to make Constant’s demand. I am a woman who always harbors hope for good, for better, for change. But I noted, this year, that I didn’t bother attending services for Ash Wednesday. That I ignored Easter. That I ate meat on every Friday in Lent. I noted, this year, that I’ve stopped singing at the Cathedral, that I don’t go to Mass anymore, and that even thinking about the current Pope spikes my blood pressure. And I agree with everything Constant says: I do not want to be associated with any organization that espouses those values.
I am not a survivor of clergy abuse. But this issue has touched my family and, therefore, me. The Church is broken, and as long as its current leadership is unwilling to deal with its past and present in an unequivocal way that heals that break rather than rends it further, I must turn away. I cannot condone this. I cannot continue explaining to people how I reconcile my personal position with the fact that, by giving my time, my voice, and my money to any agent of the Church of Rome, I am supporting something so deeply and systemically flawed as to perhaps be unfixable.
I hope. I pray. I want it to be different in my uncle’s lifetime. I want a whole, not broken, sanctuary, one in which healing gardens like the one here in Oakland are unneeded.
I remember, and I affirm: Never again.