My Church is a Building

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

There are 14 stations of the cross around the perimeter of St. Timothy’s Church. There are 14 columns and 7 rows of symbols painted on the ceiling, and 12 lights hanging down from it. There are 10 candles on the altar and 9 chairs, and there is one cross in the middle of the sanctuary that is bowed to four times every Sunday. There are five arches in the back of the nave, though only three of them are doors. Despite all of this knowledge ingrained in my head, there is one number I do not know, nor could I even guess: how many times I have walked through these golden aisles, basking in the colored light streaming through the stained-glass and onto my white robe, feeling strangely at peace, and at home. 

I started altar serving over the summer between the second and third grades. My best friend at the time and I, who had been going to church together with our families for years before that, were genuinely eager to start this chapter of our lives. We had grown tired of the Children’s Mass, the gathering of kids in the church basement where they read an abridged and decipherable version of the week’s gospel. At the beginning of the Children’s Mass, we would sit down in a circle, and Teacher Barbara would ask us the same three questions:

“What color was the priest wearing today?” Green, of course. 

“What does that mean?” It’s ordinary time, of course.

“And why does he wear green?” Because the church is growing, of course.

Julia and I were banned from answering after a while. Most weeks, she and I would carry up the wine and bread respectively (yes, it was very important to us that I carried the bread, and she the wine). Until Barbara stopped letting us do that, too. We decided it was time for a change, so we embarked on our training. Since we went to church every week, we got a fair amount of practice and quickly ascended from shadows, to servers, to acolytes, to the best acolytes in the church. We trained the new servers as they joined and helped coach the older ones up. We served all the big masses and knew all the secrets of the sacristy, like the passageway behind the altar, where the key for the tabernacle was kept, how to properly light and keep lit the incense. It was a lot of power for a couple of twelve-year-olds to handle.

Sun shining from behind clouds

We were altar servers at our church for over ten years and acolytes for six. Whenever we arrived at church with our families, right up until we left for college, we knew there was a large possibility of being dragged into the sacristy to put on our robes, either filling in for someone or simply because no one had even been scheduled-- they knew we would be there. Over time, we began to take on other roles, as well. We would do the readings at the youth masses and pass out flyers or forms to the congregation. We would serve food at the reception after masses or sit at booths and accept donations. I did anything they asked me to, no questions asked. It wasn’t until last year that I began to wonder if I wanted to do any of it. 

Even as I very willingly went through confirmation, I had questions and doubts about the doctrine of the Catholic Church. I had trouble believing in the God that Catholicism preached-- supposedly one of love, but not all forms of love. I couldn’t accept that my God, the one who built me in his image and told me to love my neighbors, would one day not want me to marry under his roof. I wondered about Jesus, Mary, angels, saints, and if prayer really worked, but I never stopped going to church. I said the prayers word for word, served the masses without hesitation, closed my eyes and knelt and prayed after communion, even with the knowledge in my head that this wasn’t all right. It didn’t feel like a choice for me. It didn’t even feel like it was directly related to being Catholic. My church was just my church. It was just a building-- a big, beautiful building filled with people who knew my name, who knew my face, who loved me, who would welcome me with open arms and pray for me without hesitation. It was where I learned the art of public speaking, how to read music in the choir, how to be a part of a family and a community. It was where my grandparents raised my aunt and my mom, where they celebrated their biggest milestones, too. It was where I held my mother’s hand every week as we prayed together, saying the same words out loud but surely very different ones in our heads, and then, no matter what fight we may have had the night before or on the drive over, we would turn and hug each other, and everything would be alright for a second. It was where my family gathered together often, for holidays or sacraments, concerts or graduations, marriage renewals or funerals. It was always so much more than just a church. 

White Concrete Building

Ash Wednesday is coming up and I’ve been having a hard time deciding if I should get my ashes or not. The one Catholic mass I attended here at Kenyon was when my mom and aunt came to visit for parents’ weekend. The prayers tasted strange in my mouth after the petitions asked God to forgive women who murdered their babies-- our church would never have said something like that. Over winter break, I felt a bit strange in my own church, too; I felt guilty for allowing myself to glorify it so much. My church has many problems. Problems with money and corruption and cover-ups that I was somehow trying to excuse, trying to separate from the Catholic Church as a whole. As much as my church feels different, it still belongs to this corrupt institution that causes so much pain throughout the world, including to people I love who grew up being told that their existence was a sin. So, I think I’ve made up my mind. I say, “I don’t like the Catholic Church, I’m not Catholic, so I’m not going.” But as soon as those words are fully formed, I regret them. It feels like I’m rejecting my own identity, the only one I ever really had growing up. It feels like shunning my own family, both the one I was given by blood and the one I found in my church. But calling myself Catholic and going to the mass doesn’t feel right either, because I don’t even know if I believe in the necessity of the ashes, of lent, of the Eucharist, and of so many things that are integral to being Catholic. If I’m not a Catholic, and I’m not not a Catholic, who am I?

Ironically, the only thing I can think to do anymore is to pray, and that doesn’t seem to help much. I’m not very good at praying alone. I usually say my best prayers perched on a worn leather kneeler, hands clasped tightly to my chest, eyes on the ridiculously ornate altar in front of me, surrounded by other people pouring their hearts out, too. Even though I know my God is everywhere, I think I’ll always feel His presence most inside the towering walls of my church, the place where I first met him and began to find my own faith. I know I can never forgive the damage the Catholic Church has done and continues to do, not only to people I know who have told me their stories but also to people around the world that will never be able to speak about it. But nor will I ever really be able to leave behind this place that built me, the solemn building that is my sanctuary, my family, and my home. 

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.