The first step of my religious journey

Part 1 of a multi – installment Lenten series, “Mapping my Religious Road”

1. The First Step – Who was most responsible for your first understanding of religion? What was unique about the first religious community that shaped you? How do you feel about that community today?

My religious journey began with my mom. She’s a Portuguese Roman Catholic. My unique religious formation was Mom’s Catholicism. I grew up in the ’70s and as Vatican II unleashed a wave of liberalization of the worship service and folk masses, my mom church shopped to find parishes with liberalized priests as well as piano and guitar music. To this day, I don’t really care for organ and choir music. I appreciate it and the efforts of organists and singers who make it, but my religious musical tastes were ingrained in me during a decade of folk masses. If I could have music of my own personal preference in church each Sunday, it would guitar bands of some kind – rock, pop, folk, bluegrass, etc.

My mom was caught in between two Roman Catholic worlds – the pre-Vatican II one in which she grew up and the immediate aftermath of Vatican II and Humanea Vitae (the 1968 Papal encyclical that upheld the Catholic teaching banning birth control) with it’s offering up and then retracting a liberating ethos thus beginning the exodus of people leaving the church in North America and Europe. Because of this liminal Catholicism, my Catholic upbringing included celebrating sacraments such as baptisms, first confession, first communions, confirmations, and weddings. Not only mine and my brother’s but my those of my cousins and extended family as well. We didn’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent, but we weren’t real strict about “giving something up” either. We went to church every Sunday (or sometimes on Saturday evening), but we didn’t practice devotions at home such as the rosary or even regular grace before meals. We made our first confession, but really didn’t go after that. We had to go to CCD (religious education) but we were never going to be sent to a Catholic school. Mom’s Catholicism was not Roman Catholicism, but her own cafeteria variety.

Mom’s Catholicism included prayer – lots of prayer, but prayer “in my own way,” as she would say. It also included angels. My mom heard angels singing while being “in the spirit” at a prayer meeting one of her more evangelical friends invited her to one time. She’s been a believer in the angels ever since. My mom was also a big follower of faith healers like Father Ralph DiOrio. She was also into astrology and psychics such as Jean Dixon and Sylvia Browne. I’m convinced that if my mom had come of age in the late ’50s-early ’60s instead of the late ’40s-early ’50s, I wouldn’t have grown up Catholic because my mom would have become a New-Age/Pagan Earth Mama type.

I still pray quite a lot for a Unitarian Universalist. The way I pray and the to whom/what I pray has changed a lot over the years, but the practice has remained steady. I have never heard angels singing, but I have been fascinated by angels – the messengers of God in the Christian and Hebrew scriptures. I’ve preached on angels in a sermon that cited Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas, and Andrew Greeley. I’m not much for horoscopes or faith healers, but I believe in the healing power of touch and have learned Reiki. My Mom’s Catholicism also gave me an ecumenical and interfaith sensibility. Mom had her belief and practice and let others have theirs. She attended worship and prayer meetings with friends of various faiths. When I was in grade school my two best buddies were the son of the local congregational minister and one of the Jewish boys in my grade. (A Catholic, a Protestant, and a Jew walk into a playground…)

Mom’s Catholicism was a huge influence not only on my spirit but on my life. I briefly considered becoming a Catholic priest, but instead went to Harvard Divinity School and taught theology in Catholic high schools (I even based a YA novel on my experiences) for almost a decade before I became a Protestant minister. Although I ended up leaving the Catholic Church due to the misogyny, homophobia, pedophilia, and hierarchy, not to mention the high Christology and disagreements about the fallen nature of humankind and the existence of hell, I am still powerfully influenced by the spirituality and theology of my Catholic youth. I have a strong passion for social justice that originates in the Gospel and missio dei and propels my missional sensibility. The wing of the Catholic Church I inhabited as an adult was the place of Dorothy Day and Romero and liberation theology. I am still basically a Jesus follower, if not a Christian by denomination. I still think in terms of sacrament but my sacramental theology goes far beyond the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church into the realm of the people, places, and events of our lives. I retain my love of ritual, candles, and incense.

I am not a “recovering” Catholic. I was never abused by a priest or a nun. I never attended a church where any priest preached about going to hell or the inferiority of women and queer people. The one time my mom was treated with disrespect for being divorced she marched us right out of church in the middle of the worship service. I am very lucky that I never experienced the worst of Catholicism and because of that I was able to bring much of it with me into my Unitarian Universalism.

My mom was incredibly proud of me when I got ordained and she subscribes to my church’s newsletter and watches my sermons each week on YouTube. And she still attends Mass every Sunday. “Mostly,” she says, “because I’m too old to change and I like the people there.”