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A healing garden and an affirmation

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.

“I want to show you guys the healing garden,” I said then. “I haven’t been able to figure out where it is.”

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.

17 Comments on “A healing garden and an affirmation”

  1. #1 Libby
    on Apr 9th, 2010 at 7:18 am

    This is a really wonderful post. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. #2 Mark
    on Apr 9th, 2010 at 7:24 am

    Amen. The church needs more people willing to speak plainly, boldly, and eloquently (as you’ve done here). Thanks, too, for bringing Paul Constant to my attention. It’s reassuring to see that there are a few sane voices inside the Catholic church.

  3. #3 inadvertentgardener
    on Apr 9th, 2010 at 7:46 am

    Libby and Mark, thank you for reading.

  4. #4 Sean
    on Apr 9th, 2010 at 8:12 am

    Very moving and well written.
    At Christmas I was surprised when my 87 year old daily communicant, rosary in the purse carrying grandmother voiced “he’s not as good as the last Pope” at the broadcast of the midnight mass. I was surprised but slightly bemused because as a first generation Polish American, I thought it revealed her devoted affinity for our first Polish pope.

    At Easter she was just apoplectic at the mockery the church had made of itself.
    I thought it noteworthy that the church isn’t just losing their youth, but their elders who have lived long lives with the church as their foundation.I wonder just how soon their will be more people standing in the garden then in the cathedral.

  5. #5 Anita / Married ...with Dinner
    on Apr 9th, 2010 at 8:19 am

    Brava, Genie. I’m in awe of your continued faith, which makes your outrage all the more poignant and credible.

  6. #6 Jan Davis
    on Apr 9th, 2010 at 11:07 am

    Hi Genie, Thanks for opening your heart about the Church. I am still a Roman Catholic and always will be. A church that has been around for over 2,000 years will make a number of grave mistakes. I keep praying. Peace Be With You, Jan

  7. #7 Tony
    on Apr 9th, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    I’m so impressed with your faith and compassion. Thank you for making the world a better place.

  8. #8 Alexandra
    on Apr 9th, 2010 at 9:47 pm

    Great post. So sad. Glad that you have a wonderful uncle who is also a wonderful priest.

  9. #9 Michelle
    on Apr 10th, 2010 at 7:10 am

    Thank you Genie, this was a powerful post and I’m sure will mean a lot to many people. Sometimes the people who are all to willing to take rights, liberty, and safety from people are the ones with the loudest voices, thank you for being a strong voice in the void.

  10. #10 Heather's Garden
    on Apr 10th, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    Genie, I was raised Catholic as well, and was maybe overly involved in church activities, even leading a youth group to Denver to see the Pope in 1993. I left the church for all the reasons you mentioned in 1998, but there was one reason more. I made an appointment to meet with the leader of my parish, a monseignor, to discuss my concerns about marrying a man who didn’t believe in God and was raising his children without religion.

    During our meeting he said, and I quote, “Don’t worry, Heather, your marriage is doomed to failure, come to church more often.” Incredulous, I said, “Excuse me?” And he repeated, “Don’t worry, your marriage is doomed to failure, come to church more often.” Needless to say, that coupled with all of my concerns with church policy made it my last time in that church except for funerals. Nearly 12 years later, my marriage is going strong, despite challenges, and my faith is completely gone. I miss the community that belonging to a parish gives you, but other than that, I don’t feel a loss. It did, however, take a long time until my reaction to a shock wasn’t to call out to God — September 11th almost drove me back to the Church. Even now I enjoy attending mass, even though it’s only weddings, funerals, and baptisms that make go, you just can’t take the Catholic school out of this girl.

    I applaud your courage in writing (and so eloquently) on this subject. There’s nothing quite so polarizing as discussing religion. I’ve had more than one friendship cool as a result of voicing my opinion.

  11. #11 Martha
    on Apr 10th, 2010 at 7:35 pm

    I have been very disappointed with the Church for many years for various reasons, but mostly for their lack of action regarding child abusers within. I won’t step foot back in any Catholic church. I won’t be party to an organization who harbors criminals. Aiding and abetting the worst of the worst, those who commit crimes against children. Until the church turns over all the records of priests who have abused children to law enforcement, I will never go back. This is the only stand I can make – by removing myself. This is a painful action to me as it leaves me without the direction I grew up with. I don’t knowingly interact with criminals, I don’t invite them into my home and I certainly would not proceed thru my religious life with a pedophile as my spiritual leader.
    Dear Pope,
    Do the right thing. Take responsibility for your lack of action against pedophiles and turn over ALL criminals hiding within the walls of Catholicism. That is the right thing to do.

  12. #12 Steve and Rosie
    on Apr 11th, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    Eugenia:We were moved by your words. We have been deeply concerned about the climate in the Catholic Church, even though we felt compelled to leave years ago because of the Church’s position on women as priests and how that might impact our daughter and other young women. The continuing revelations of clergy abuse are chilling, and none of us really understands the far reaching ramifications of those acts, not only on the victims themselves, but on those who try to clean up the resulting mess while staying true to the Church they love. The carnage is far- reaching and personal for many devoted Catholic priests, nuns, and the parishioners and laypersons who choose to serve. However the Church manifests itself in the world, it is still a place where you can find comfort and center yourself, an experience which you recently described. We hope you can find your own place again, where you can help make a difference for your uncle and all who have been touched in some way by these tragic circumstances. In our family, we all have different “places”, and we are all still searching, too. We think it’s okay to be where you are now. The most important thing is that you care.
    Steve and Rosie

  13. #13 Jeff Shattuck
    on Apr 12th, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    This post s beautifully written and even more beautiful for its restraint.
    You could have sworn and called the pope names and denounced organized religion and on and on, but instead you spoke from the heart and for that your words are truly powerful.


  14. #14 Twill Jill
    on Apr 14th, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    I didn’t expect to read this post on a gardening blog. The Church hurt my family 15 years ago and that’s when I slipped into lazy Catholic status. I wasn’t surprised when news of the sex scandals first broke out in Boston. I’m not surprised at the depth that’s being revealed all these years later. Your post was so eloquent, and was both gentle and forceful at the same time – and something so many Catholics would agree with. And how fitting that you published it on a gardening blog. In the last 15 years, I’ve found that I feel closer to God in my garden than I ever did in a church. Thank you!

  15. #15 Fred
    on May 10th, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    Well written and eloquent for sure. However I must say that I (also a Catholic for my entire life) cannot understand some of your views.

    I understand and share the outrage at the abusive priests and the Bishops who covered it up. But as angry as this makes me (and it makes me very angry) I am certain that intensity of my feelings come nowhere near to those of the people who were abused and their families.

    But I don’t see how that ties in to outrage at Rome. Especially as it is the current Pope who spear headed the reform that is not a little responsible for bringing the recent cases to light. This is the Pope the who met with an abuse victim in Malta who later said, with tears in his eyes, “I hope you realize you have a Saint in Rome.” This is the Pope who started defrocking abusive priests by summary judgment, rebuked the Church in Ireland, and caused a stream of resignations of those bishops involved in the case.

    Criticizing Benedict over the abuse case is like criticizing Michael over the fall of his brother angels.

    I understand that this, and all the issues brought up by Constant, are emotionally charged issues, for many people more so than I can begin to imagine. But please keep in mind that though the Church is full sinners, it still has its fair share of Saints, and that Christ will stand by his promise to never abandon it.

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