What should church look like?

    What kind of church do you seek out, particularly as you raise children, when your husband is atheist, and your own experience with religion was forged by radical Catholic peace activists?
    (Shutterstock / Karlowac)
    (Shutterstock / Karlowac)

    There was a whisper behind us: “Those Berrigan kids don’t know the rosary.” Surprised, bemused, maybe a little scandalized — the noises rippled softly through the funeral home’s largest visitation room. I was in college. My mom’s younger brother had died of lung cancer and we were there to pay our respects to Uncle Bill — a handsome, voluble construction worker and father of three daughters, who had given up cigarettes and beer more than a decade earlier.

    It was a little scandalous. We were raised by a priest and a nun, people who literally spoke Latin and lived and breathed the essence of Catholicism with a capital C for decades. But, despite that — or rather because of it — we were raised in an early-church-sort-of-catholicism that didn’t have a lot of patience for pomp and circumstance.

    What did that look like?

    For starters, there was no rosary involved. Eucharist of watered down wine and old bread was shared around a circle in the living room, consecrated by whoever was “up” that week and shared by agnostics, atheists, Jews and even some Catholics (but it had been a long time since their last confession). It was pretty informal, but I recall that our father, Philip Berrigan, gritted his teeth when one woman shared the Eucharist with her dog, and would get mad at us for picking our feet or playing with our fingernails as the host was coming around the circle. We had nothing to compare this ceremony to, and so did not show the proper reverence (or even basics of hygiene) that he thought of as baseline.

    What else did our church look like?

    Bible study was in the front room on Wednesday nights — with friends consulting the experts — theologians and scholars like Leonardo Boff, Ched Myers, Walter Wink and William Stringfellow. In time, thinkers like Joan Chittister, Mary Daly, Dorothee Soelle and Miriam Therese Winter were also incorporated — opening the book, and delving into prayer together.

    Are you getting the picture, yet?

    Here’s another image: We used a worn Bible stuffed in the glove box or the lunch cooler, and pulled it out at the beginning of every car trip and before each meal on the job site (our family painted houses for a living). We were people who took the Gospel mandate of “love thy neighbor” and “blessed are the peacemakers” and “turn swords into plowshares” seriously enough to plan actions, organize retreats, hold banners, get arrested and go to prison.

    In short, our church did not look like a church with stained glass windows, remote and ornately clad priests, or strangely hard and mealy wafers. It looked like belief and life integrated, and in constant tension. So, no, we did not learn the rosary. On the rare occasion we went to church, we mumbled along with the prayers and tried to stand and sit when everyone else did.

    We were all baptized by our uncle Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest, in our Uncle Jerry and Aunt Carol’s backyard. We were confirmed much later on. My sister and I prepared for confirmation with a nun in Baltimore, a stalwart woman who practically ran her parish. The priest just came in for Sunday mass. We could easily distract her from our catechism by asking her pointed questions about the role of men and women in the church. Kate was in high school and I was just out of college when Bishop P. Francis Murphy confirmed us. I wanted to be able to call myself Catholic, to be a member in good standing of the tribe.

    Despite this, I never attended church regularly until the Fall of 2001 — when I just wanted to be in a room full of people feeling and breathing together. Then I started attending noon mass at Saint Francis Xavier in New York City a few times a week. I would tell my boss I was going to the gym and then go work my spiritual muscles instead. I loved the little chapel tucked behind the altar, the anonymous fellowship of the 20-or-so regulars, and the strange combination of rote recitation and deep solace.

    More than a decade later, when I moved into Maryhouse Catholic Worker in New York, I loved vespers. We gathered every night at seven, read the psalms aloud together and then brought into the circle all those who needed prayer. I found so much meaning in this half hour or so of daily prayer and communion. I looked forward to it so much. Vespers is old school Catholicism — the kind of thing my mom would have done with her family as a child. But in the well-worn dining room of a busy soup kitchen, homeless shelter and revolutionary Christian laboratory, the words, gestures and fellowship were a healing balm after a long day of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

    Now, my husband and I belong to All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation in New London and our son Seamus is being brought up within this incredible community. We bounce out of bed on Sunday mornings, ready to go to church. We often volunteer as greeters — handing out programs, making sure everyone gets settled comfortably and collecting the offering.

    Patrick is an atheist. He doesn’t believe there is a higher power who watches or cares about us. He says that he doesn’t need to believe in God to be a good person; he doesn’t need an ancient book to tell him what is moral. Patrick believes that we can find all the guidance and moral leadership we need in always asking the question, “How can I help?” The rite and ritual of the Catholic mass is off-putting to him. It would be hard to get him to go to church with me, but we both find comfort, fellowship and food for thought within All Souls’ vibrant, progressive and genuinely welcoming congregation. There is room there for what we each believe.

    I do miss communion and the long stretches of prayer and contemplation that are part of the Catholic mass. I am not alone in that. All Souls congregation is full of people who were raised Catholic, but are lapsed for lots of reasons. I’m not lapsed. I am a Catholic in waiting — waiting for my church to remember the Gospels, to be a justice and peace-seeking community, to be fully inclusive of women and to be welcoming to people who are not hetero-normative. Pope Francis is a step in the right direction, but there is a long way to go.

    Until then, I will say the rosary, make time for prayer and attend All Souls. And we will raise our kids to be knowledgeable and respectful of all religious traditions and practices, and help answer their questions as they find their own paths of meaning.

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