Well, I did it. I finally met a family that I had to refuse membership at Saint Miriam.
It has been 16 years as pastor now and I have never once rejected any membership request until now. In truth, I once had to explain to someone who was attending (and often under the influence of alcohol) that they were always welcome at church, just not drunk. He was angry with me, but I knew it was the right thing to do. “You can always come,” I began, “you just can’t be here when you’re drunk because you hurt others with what you say.” I finished. He never came back. I was hurt, but it was the right thing to do. So was this. I will explain.
It is almost an irony that in the gospel this past Sunday from Matthew we hear Jesus tell us, “…do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders…” Sadly, Jesus was speaking of the religious leaders of the day. The very same could be said of many who wear a collar now. Pope Francis recently said he dreams of a church that is one of mercy and welcome. Sadly, we are not even close.
Now for this story: Many months ago, a wonderful family joined our school. Their children excelled and they were exposed to everything we believe and how we love and welcome everyone. They so enjoyed it all, and it was so in keeping with their belief system and worldview, that they began to explore being part of our parish life, too! As lifelong Catholics it was something they were somehow drawn to, a place that they could find hope and raise their children in their faith, but with tolerance and acceptance of all others and other faith traditions, as well. Finally, after many months they decided they wanted to make Saint Miriam their spiritual home. They were excited and began becoming more involved. We were lucky to have them.
At the same time, their daughter was attending a local Catholic school. There, she also took her faith formation classes as they prepared all the children for First Reconciliation and First Holy Communion. It was a joyous time! Now, the school rotates pastors from various local parishes to serve as celebrant that day and as they moved closer to the happy occasion, they were met with devastating news! They were told that their daughter could not join her class. She would need to sit in the back of the chapel – with the other ‘non-Catholics’ – and just observe because they learned that she was attending Saint Miriam.
After they protested, a meeting was arranged one morning with the priest who would preside that day and he regaled them with all the rhetoric of why were not ‘really Catholic’ and how I, as pastor, was not a real Catholic priest and how we were not a good place despite them being drawn there. He told them, however, that if they registered at a Roman Catholic Parish soon, then he would allow their daughter to make her sacrament with her class, but if not, there was nothing more he could do.
I listened to them tell me of this ordeal and tell the sad and awkward details of their meeting with this priest, and I could not help but think of what I often say, we – as Catholics – have become so focused on rules and regulations that we have lost the love and grace of God. We are often failures. This time included.
I prayed about how to respond, and I sought counsel from Father Liam. Then it hit me, ‘We had no choice. We had to reject them.’ It was the only thing we could do. We both agreed. We both cried. I made the call.
I visited by telephone with the family and explained to them that I was terribly sad, but since they never officially transferred their records to Saint Miriam, and since they had not even requested those records, they were – in fact – still practicing Roman Catholics. They needed to remain so. I had to reject their request to join our parish because as a priest, a pastor, and yes, a dad, it was incumbent upon me to reject them so they could endure the additional pain of not doing what would be ‘right’ and ‘comfortable’ for them, but rather to sacrifice for their daughter. We all sacrifice for others. That is why we are Christian.
In the end, their child is only 8 years old. She couldn’t possibly understand the Church, policy, politics, canon law and the abuse of pastoral authority. No, she couldn’t, and she shouldn’t. Not yet, not now. Father Liam and I decided that we wanted for her what we want for everyone who comes to Saint Miriam: to feel loved and embraced by the Church, even at the expense of Saint Miriam, even in our sadness. Moreover, they couldn’t make this decision under duress; it would not be fair to them or to her, or to us. No, they could not become members of Saint Miriam. They needed to remain within the diocese; they had to do this for their child. I needed to do this for my soul.
I am not sure when a priest abandons his calling. I am not sure when a priest places politics over grace or division over love. I am not sure when a priest decides that turning the Church’s back on a naive 8-year-old little girl, full of love and dedication to God’s holy Church, and one who worked so hard to prepare to receive the sacrament with her class, was worth throwing away, by ‘tying up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on [her] shoulders…” but I do know this: this is one of those priests. This is one of those days.
So, we are asking on this Giving Tuesday to support us. Not because we are perfect. Not because we always get it right. Not because we are perfectly Catholic or perfectly Christian, because we are none of those things, admittedly. We are broken and just trying the best we can to listen to God and follow Jesus, even if we get hurt or scorned in the journey.
So, no, we are not asking because we deserve it, we are asking you to give to us because without us – with all of our imperfections and blemishes and mistakes – there is no alternative and then those guys who have forgotten their vows, those bishops who instruct their priests to reject and scorn, those pastors who so easily can harm a little girl and exposure her to the worst the church can be…they win.
Please, don’t let them win. Give today so we are here tomorrow.