How to Become a Lapsed Catholic, and Come Back, in Several Easy Steps

by Justin Sengstock, Guest Contributor to Catholic Majority


lapsed catholic restaurantI was flopping at a friend’s Brooklyn apartment for a few days. The Friday I arrived, we had dinner at a pub. Mine was Guinness and chipotle shrimp tacos.

We chatted about a topic I no longer remember. Except that it caused him to observe: “We’re both practicing Catholics.”

I froze. For the first time in our decade-long acquaintance, this wasn’t true. He wasn’t aware of it. We’d never talked about it. I didn’t say anything now. I was a lapsed Catholic.

* * * * *

lapsed catholic church divisionIn the late summer of 2011, everything began to happen all at once and at every level: macro, medium and micro.

Macro: the Vatican was at last imposing the new Latin-inflected English. And the U.S. bishops began to openly ally themselves with the right wing. For all intents and purposes, they had done it for a while. Now they seemed not only proud of it, but proud of their pride.

Medium: my birth parish, where I’d actively served for thirteen years, swerved right. We’d never been liberal. We’d never been anything, in particular. But under a new pastor, we were on our way from “the-family-that-prays-together-stays-together” to “the-traditional-family-that-prays-and-engages-in-pro-life-activities-together-stays-together.”

Also, by now the people I knew who were progressive Catholics like me, and who shared my theological and ministerial interests, were firmly settled into their theological and ministerial jobs. And, now that they were being paid and had health insurance, they had shut up.

It was understandable. They had little choice. And I did not want their jobs to go to Opus Dei supernumeraries, or to remain vacant so that people might be left unserved. Still, I felt more alone. And I finally got what was ahead of me, what had to be ahead of me, if I myself kept going. It all rattled me more than I thought it would.

And micro: I had just accepted a position where I spent as much time commuting as I did working. I was unprepared for that. I felt unbalanced, exhausted. Meanwhile, an important friendship abruptly dissolved. I was sucked dry.

In this context, I arrived in the church sacristy one Saturday evening to do…something. I forget if I was reading, preparing the vessels, whatever. One of the other liturgical ministers greeted me there. She had news.

We were to have a series of workshops on how to conform our ministries to the new edition of the Roman Missal, and on how to bring the parish into conformity along with us. I think it was a month-long commitment. It was, of course, mandatory.

Her tone suggested that not only did she think this was wonderful, but she knew I thought it was wonderful, too. As she talked, something in my head froze, cracked off, and tumbled away down a hillside. I realized:

lapsed catholic dominationThis is a domination-and-submission system. It is an “it.” It does not care about you. It does not care what you are going through. On top of everything else surging up in your life right now, you are expected to be a nice boy, to take dictation like an obedient child, to smile while you encourage everybody else to do the same. You can’t stay nice. You are no longer a boy. Had enough?

I’d been formally involved with the progressive Catholic movement for the last year. (Think of groups like Call To Action, Women’s Ordination Conference, and New Ways Ministry.) I’d been writing about it online. An essay about my involvement was soon to be published in a book.

lapsed catholicBut this was the first time I knew in my gut what the real church refugees meant when they said they had to go away, because if they didn’t, they would vomit all over the sanctuary floor.

Next week, I resigned all my ministries by email. And except for holidays when family propriety demanded my presence – and, somehow, Holy Week – I did not darken a church door for a year and a half.

When I fulfilled my “Chreaster” duties, it was as bad as I feared. Father, alas, lacked the Roman mouth for sixty-word sentences.

* * * * *

lapsed catholic outside churchI don’t remember much about what I did on Saturday evenings instead of Mass. If the idea of going there made me want to throw up, being too deliberate and intentional about alternatives also made me want to throw up. I hibernated. I was dormant. I shut feelings off.

I did continue my writing. It was my act of faith, how I stayed connected to the fringe. I thought out loud about what I believed, about the edge-dwelling Catholics with whom I stood.

Almost nobody checked in on me. I had been prominent in my parish. Now, I got one card from a fellow Eucharistic minister wishing me a Merry Christmas and asking if I was okay. Otherwise, radio silence.

True, I would have hid from view if I had been sought out. I didn’t know how to explain my inner turbulence and didn’t want to. I didn’t even answer the Christmas card. But it was still a revelation that nobody really tried.

Perhaps they thought I was away at school. Perhaps they suspected my malaise, and didn’t want to know. When one leaf trembles in the wind, adjoining leaves go with it.

Or perhaps, despite more than a decade of involvement in everything from Market Day to liturgy to being the summer janitor to witnessing to the confirmandi, I just wasn’t that important.

“I opened myself,” Albert Camus wrote in The Stranger, “to the gentle indifference of the world.”

* * * * *

And then, for no obvious reason, the fault lines shifted. In New York, when my friend casually noted that “we’re both practicing Catholics,” it was like the liturgy workshop announcement. It shoved me at some level to which I had no ordinary or voluntary access. But this time, it did so in reverse.

lapsed catholic saint patrick's cathedralTwo nights later, we went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. He insisted we’d sit in the front row, which was still empty, even though this was St. Pat’s and Mass was in less than five minutes. We then endured a wooden Sunday liturgy. The homilist, a fresh-faced young priest with very precise hair, compared holy matrimony to the sport of rock climbing, and this with the aid of several bad bullet points.

But what was remarkable, shocking, was that I felt at home again. Here is my house.

This was January 20, 2013. On February 11, while riding to my morning train, I heard the news. Pope Benedict XVI had resigned.

I felt no glee. In fact, I was sad. Like Holden Caulfield at the end of The Catcher in the Rye, I’m capable of missing anybody and everybody, including Benedict.

But behind the reasons of health and age, the pope’s retirement carried an implicit message. This isn’t working. Somebody else can do a better job right now. I sensed we were living in new times.

I wanted to be around for them. The inner voice returned: Had enough?

Ash Wednesday was two nights later. After I got home from work, I didn’t go to my home parish. I drove five minutes in the opposite direction, to the next town over.

At my old church, I had loved the understated marble and chandeliers, the new organ, the constant whiff of incense. At this new church, the garish red carpet didn’t match the two-tone altar, or the compressed-wood paneling, or the dust-colored tile, or the purplish mosaic stuff, or the big castoff crucifix inherited from an Italian parish that shut down. The Stations were tacky plastic. Almost all the music was piano. The air smelled like sea salt.

But I knew several parishioners already, fellow refugees from my former home. The pastor, a personal acquaintance, used phrases like “preferential option for the poor” as if he understood and lived them. These folks emphasized their community services: the seasonal homeless shelter, the food pantry, the pantry garden.

“Turn away from sin,” Father said as he pressed ashes into my forehead, “and be faithful to the Gospel.”

I returned there the following Saturday night, and most Saturday nights since. Not all, but a big majority.

My time as a lapsed Catholic was over, as matter-of-factly as it began.

* * * * *

I don’t have electrifying insights from my eighteen months off. My alienation was, and is, less than that of some others. You can argue I dropped my privilege knapsack for a while in disgust, but then picked it up again.

See, if I decide to shut up, I can go back to “passing” as whatever the official church wants. I am not a woman who realizes, observing what happens behind the altar, that her very body is rejected as an image of Christ. I don’t identify as gay or bi or trans* and I will never understand, from backstage, the tension of not being properly binary in an institution that makes a fetish of it. I am not divorced and remarried, and therefore not denied Communion. So my takeaways will not resonate with everyone.

But what I did learn: for me, staying away became a feedback loop. It eventually caused and reinforced the feeling from which it had resulted, that of drinking acid. It wasn’t healthy. It had to stop.

I also know that for some people, and I am one of them, you are religious because that is what you are. You do violence to yourself by resisting what Dorothy Day called “the need to worship, to adore.”

I further know I’m not suited for non-Catholic alternatives. Our wider lower-case-t tradition is still, with all kinds of trembling and kaleidoscopic meanings, what was from my beginning, what I have heard, what I have seen with my eyes, what I have touched with my hands (cf. 1 John 1:1).

Yet I have learned, too, that sometimes you must go away for a while to claim who you are before giving yourself to a community again. And I have learned to stop saying you earn the right to complain by showing up. Some people must draw deeper on their inner reserves to show up. Inner reserves vary from person to person, from time to time. These days, mine definitely do.

I have learned, above all, to be ordinary. I was a lector. I distributed Eucharist. I was behind the scenes. I knew how to swing a thurible: sets of three swishes to symbolize the Trinity, and make sure you clank the chain. I held sacramentaries beneath bishops’ faces. Seminary rectors gave me their cards, telling me we should talk. Jesuits asked me if I’d consider becoming one. It was a big deal, at my university, to be asked to give a student homily. When I graduated, I had done it twice.

lapsed catholic sidewalkAt the moment, though, I’m an anonymous citizen of the pews who is able to do some things, but has most things done to him, or done at him. I am better able to look at the church from the outside in, or in a Mike Royko phrase, from lying on the sidewalk up.

Here, I find value. If there was a “point” to my exile, that’s it.

[Justin Sengstock is a contributor to the books Hungering and Thirsting for Justice: Real-Life Stories by Young Adult Catholics and An Irrepressible Hope: Notes from Chicago Catholics, both published by ACTA in 2012. He writes for YoungAdultCatholics – a blog of CTA 20/30. Justin has a B.A. in theology from Loyola University Chicago and has worked in the public library and nonprofit sectors. You can visit his personal blog here, or follow him on Twitter at @SengstockJustin.]

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