When I was young, my mother used to look at babies and say “Aren’t babies just proof of God, Kathleen?” I grasped what she was getting at, mostly. In the way that babies are miracles and what else could explain their existence and the look they get on their faces when they discover they have hands other than God himself?
And although babies have stayed miraculously cute, being young turned into getting older and God turned into a concept I struggled with in a way I couldn’t always understand. A concept I still struggle with in a way I still can’t always understand, really.
I grew up Catholic, going to CCD after church every Sunday and making my first communion at the correct age. I was even cast in the Christmas play one year, playing my part to an Oscar-worthy quality despite my vicious Boston accent that has apparently since faded (“We ah a flock of sheep without ah shepahd”). But I was no Super Catholic; my parents raised me on a religion based in kindness more than the Old Testament, and the puffy white dress that I got to wear for Communion was definitely more important to me than the Body of Christ. In other words, I was a pretty normal kid.
Then, despite going to a public elementary school, I landed in a Catholic middle school where I started to question some of the words of Jesus that were being taught to me.
“If Jesus loves everyone, then why doesn’t everyone go to heaven?”
“How come murderers who confess and repent can go to heaven but gay people can’t?”
[Note: My religion teacher at the time was also a Deacon. I now realize that it’s a real Catholic miracle he still talks to me, the once-sixth grade girl who loved to give him a hard time.]
Despite my questions, I got confirmed anyway in the ninth grade. And even though I mostly did it because my friends were, I don’t regret it in the least. I remember that year as one where I felt the closest to God I had in a long time, maybe even to this day. But like most 14 year olds, I donned my robe and picked my new middle name and subsequently forgot all about those big religious questions and my objections to their answers for the next three years. Eventually, I even settled on a Catholic college as my chosen “home,” packing my things and heading off after graduation without many expectations at all, not knowing what spiritual journey was in store for me.
For most 18 to 21 year olds, college is a time of experimentation and finding yourself. For me, college did turn out to be a time of experimentation and finding myself, just not in the typical way 18 to 21 year olds do. I watched a lot of Netflix and did a lot of stress eating, skipping out on most of the parties and drunken nights (though I did embark on a legendary and singular bar crawl one time). I worked really hard and I graduated a year early. The only thing I struggled with (besides my weight and my social skills, obviously) was my faith.
I found God a few times, but never in the chapel on campus. I didn’t find Him in the two required theology courses and I didn’t feel connected to Him when priests spoke or administrators invoked His word in their speeches. But I did glimpse Him on a street in Camden, New Jersey once, and I spent a lot of time with Him on a playground in Ecuador. I wrote these times down. I tried to capture the memories before they faded like those sunsets of cotton candy and orange creamsicle colors that are so beautiful but so quick to leave. Sometimes I reread those pages and look around, thinking maybe I’ll glimpse Him again, but what sitting in pews and going to a Catholic college has taught me is this: God is not the Catholic Church.
God is not the Catholic Church.
Not for me, at least.
I have to be honest: this revelation has left me feeling guilty and lonely—angry, even—more than once. If God isn’t who or what or where I grew up believing Him to be, is it me that’s wrong? This question has even led me back through the Church’s doors on fruitless missions more than once; just give it another try, Kath. You can do it.
A few months ago, I joined the parish of a Church near my house so I could become a confirmation sponsor for a little girl I hold very close to my heart. As I met with the priest to get him to sign off on my sponsor paper, he asked me a few questions relating to my faith. They were pretty standard questions, asking about my own history with the Sacraments and how regular my church attendance is. And then, with a completely straight face, the priest raised his eyes to meet mine and said:
“Do you live a morally good life? I mean, you don’t live with your boyfriend or anything, do you?”
Through gritted teeth, I assured him I lived with my parents. (Thank God I don’t actually live in immoral sin with my boyfriend, huh?) In my head, I repeated the mantra that has come to give me peace.
God is not the Catholic Church.
God is not the Catholic Church.
Don’t get me wrong, God surely visits the Catholic Church with its parishioners on Sunday. But he just as surely doesn’t love me less for not being faithfully among them or for firmly believing that gay people totally do go to heaven.
God is the baby brimming with miracles that my mom pointed out to me as a kid, and He is the Ecuadorian boy who volunteers his afternoons to play soccer with the kids of the poorer neighborhoods, giving them a positive male role model and asking for nothing in return. God is the love that those people inside of the Catholic Church feel for Him and He is that person on the street in Camden.
Proof of God is getting an email from an old friend. He tells you how the purple, blue, green and white mountains of New Hampshire make his soul feel alive. He tells you that he read every poem on your blog to give your work the eyes it deserves, eyes “of people who love you and know of your talent and incredible energy.” He tells you of his love for his family and his need to experience other corners of the world and help. He tells you that you are loved, missed. You are good enough, Catholic or not.
God is the peace you feel as you finish reading your friend’s words and wipe your eyes, grateful and weighed down by a heart full of heavy blessings.
God is good.
This post is also featured on Real Talk Mag, which you can check out here.