December 4, 2009

A Recovering Catholic?

Posted in Catholic, faith and doubt, Faith Transformations, Family, feminist theology, Spirituality tagged , , , at 7:08 am by Gina Messina

At the end of September my grandfather passed away.  It was a very difficult time for my family.  My grandfather was an amazing person who gave us all so much love and I miss him dearly.  I traveled home to Ohio to celebrate his life and I was honored when my uncle asked if I would participate in the mass by reading a passage from the Book of Wisdom.  In all the years I was a practicing Catholic, I had never participated in a mass in any way.  This would be my very first time, and even though I no longer considered myself a member of the Church, it felt very special to me to have a role in the mass celebrating my grandfather’s life.

It was a beautiful service and I felt a strong connection to my family and to God/dess as I participated in the rituals.  The mass was a great comfort to me.  Although I have claimed to be a “Recovering Catholic,” on that day I had to wonder if this was really true, am I no longer Catholic?  What does it mean to be Catholic?  Do I have to conform to the Vatican rules, or is it true as Rosemary Radford Ruether says that the “Vatican does not equal Catholicism?” 

So many things about my life as a Catholic has been troubling to me and so much of what the Catholic Church claims to be the way of God/dess I believe to be absolutely false.  I am angry at the Catholic Church. I am bitter towards the Catholic Church.  I believe the Catholic Church is abusive.  But can I still be a Catholic?  Can I hold on to that identity?  Can I remain in the Church and struggle against what I believe to be wrong?  Can I fight the fight or will I simply be perpetuating the victimization of women by continuing to participate in what I view as a violent institution that demands the suffering of women? 

While I believed my struggle with these questions had ended and thought my connection to Catholicism was permanently severed, participating in the celebration of my grandfather’s life through a reading at mass propelled me back to my place of questioning.    Am I Catholic?  Was I ever not a Catholic?  Can I make a clean break or will my upbringing and family heritage always keep me in a place of struggle and questioning?  It seems that every time I think I have the answer, I could not be further from it.  I wonder if perhaps living in the question is the answer.  So for now, although I am not sure that I want to call myself a Catholic or a non Catholic, I want to give myself permission to continue to struggle.  Right now living in the question seems to make far more sense than thinking I will ever have the answer.

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November 20, 2009

The Church of O: Practicing Oprah

Posted in feminism, Oprah, Spirituality tagged , , , , at 4:22 pm by Gina Messina

Although our topic for this week is waiting, at the last minute I decided to veer off track when I heard that Oprah would be going off the air.  There is much to be said about her and what she has offered to both women and men over the last near 25 years.  While Oprah is a leading talk show host and media queen, she is also one of America’s most influential spiritual leaders.  With over 26 million viewers, Oprah Winfrey has created a congregation that is inspired daily by the sermons preached from her pulpit.  Her message is simple: “Live your best life.”  According to the Gospel of Oprah, you have a duty to make yourself happy.  Although her parishioners are mostly women, men also partake in looking to Oprah for guidance on health, happiness, and salvation, including Barack Obama who referred to Oprah as his “host” during a speech on his religious beliefs in Iowa on December 10, 2007.

Viewing Oprah can be seen as a religious process.  Everyday people make time to turn on their television and listen to an hour of inspiration directly from the gospel of Oprah.  It becomes a ritual of attending “church.” Parishioners attend the service, listen to the message and then take that message, evaluate it, and apply it to their lives.  Further, the viewers go out and spread the message.  Oprah’s congregation is eager to share Oprah’s message for the day with family, friends, and even the stranger in the grocery store.  With her show airing daily in 132 countries and 205 television markets, Oprah is preaching to a much larger congregation than any other evangelist.    

Oprah not only reaches her congregation via her talk show, she has a multimedia empire through which her followers are able to her message.  The talk show host, producer, philanthropist, and spiritual guru speaks to her congregation through O Magazine, O Magazine at Home, the Oprah Book Club, Oprah and Friends on XM Radio, and Harpo Productions. In each of her media outlets, Oprah only ties her name to products that promote her message of empowerment, self-improvement, and self-actualization. 

Using self-disclosure, confession, and honest talk, Oprah has encouraged her parishioners to enter a new phase of life.  She calls for the sharing of inner life experience to shed negativity and emerge empowered with a new self worth.  A symbol of spiritual renewal, Oprah is a catalyst for a new religion in America.  She has redefined the religious experience.  As a spiritual leader Oprah Winfrey has influenced millions with her vision of possibilities and message of self love. 

Women across the country, including Melissa Ethridge, have claimed Oprah to be their religion.  They have turned to Oprah for their spiritual fix and have been inspired by Oprah’s message.  Oprah has provided them with a spirituality that no church can offer.  In the Church of O women are not oppressed, in the Church of O women to do not need to suffer, in the Church of O, happiness is a must.  Women receive tools for real life and are not made to feel guilty about it.

August 26, 2009

Recollections of a Catholic Girl-Womanhood

Posted in Faith Transformations tagged , , , , at 8:34 am by Gina Messina

Catholicism was a major part of my upbringing.  My entire family is Sicilian/Italian and from the “Old Country,” I was a first generation American; being Catholic was simply who we were.  I received the Catholic sacraments, attended Catholic schools, including graduate school, and was married in the Catholic Church.  When I was a child, being Catholic gave me a sense of pride.  I was mesmerized by the rituals and regularly had theological conversations with my father about why Easter was the more important holiday.  I felt very connected to the Catholic community and spent much time wondering why anyone would not be Catholic.  However, once I reached school age, everything began to change and slowly but surely I started to question everything I had been taught.

My brother, sister and I attended Catholic school and started learning about the Catholic faith in school in the first grade.  After my first week of school I came home terrified believing that Satan would burn our home down because we were good Catholics.  I still wonder why a teacher would be discussing concepts like this with first graders, but they did and I was traumatized.  I started refusing to get out of the car each morning because I was fearful of what I might learn next, I nearly failed the first grade because I had so many absences.

During this time it was still acceptable for the nuns to hit their students.  While we had some kind and compassionate teachers, we had several nuns who can only be described as being cruel.  My poor brother vomited every morning of his second grade year because he was so terrified of his teacher. I often wondered why the nuns did not have to follow the rules of the Church like I did, I also wondered if they acknowledged hitting us as a sin when they went to confession.

Growing up I distinctly remember thinking about the concept of the Trinity, acknowledging that it did not make sense, and then accepting that it was not my place to question.  I thought about faith quite frequently and what exactly that word meant, and for me it implied that I should always accept what I was told and never think about anything outside of it.  That line of thought worked for a while, but once I made my First Confession, I started to have questions.  By the time I was twelve I started to make stances.

In the Catholic tradition, you must confess your sins with a priest before receiving Communion.  Confession was a ritual that I found incredibly problematic. Why should I confess my sins to a man, priest or not, who was clearly also a sinner?  Why could I not simply keep my sins between me and God?  Confessing to God made much more sense to me and because of that I refused to go to Confession.  At the age of thirteen I was becoming a rebel in the Church. 

Receiving the Eucharist in the Catholic Church also became a major struggle for me.  My parents divorced when I was twelve and were refused Communion from that point on, I was devastated.  I felt that the Church had labeled my parents sinners and refused them the opportunity to be nourished spiritually and develop a closer relationship with God.  How could I possibly participate in this sacrament when my parents were being so unfairly denied?  After the divorce, our church attendance was scattered and did not spend as much time thinking about how I felt that our family had been rejected by the church or whether or not I should go to communion.

Although it felt as if my family’s relationship with the church changed following the divorce, my father still referred to himself as a strict Catholic and demanded that we maintain our Catholic identity and be married in the Church as adults; after all, a marriage would not be valid had it occurred in any other fashion.  My brother, much braver than I, chose to be married outside of the Church and had the wedding performed by his World Religions professor.  He and his wife had chosen prayers from different traditions and crafted an incredibly unique and beautiful ceremony. Rather than being appreciated for its spirituality and celebration of the bride and groom’s relationship, it was the gossip of our family for quite some time.      

I was married in the Catholic Church three weeks shy of my twenty-sixth birthday.  Naturally, we had to attend the Pre-Cana course before receiving permission to marry. I was shocked when I was told by the priest that it was expected by the Church that I quit my job and stay home to have children immediately, anything less would be frowned upon.  The work I was doing as an advocate for rape and domestic violence survivors was not nearly as important as bearing children to bring up in the faith.  On our wedding day, as my husband and I received the sacrament of marriage in the Catholic Church, a marriage that of course would be recognized in the eyes of God, my husband was denied the right to receive the Eucharist.  He had been baptized a Lutheran and therefore was not a welcomed member of the Catholic community. 

It is interesting to note that the priest who was supposed to marry us did not because he had committed suicide after two children he had molested came forward.  While the Church was very concerned with whether or not I was going to work or have children and that my husband not receive the Eucharist because of his Lutheran background, our pastor was sexually abusing children. 

Following our wedding, because I felt strongly that the Church clearly did not practice what it preached, repeatedly discriminating against its members and labeling them as it chose, I decided to no longer attend mass or receive the Eucharist.  With that action I let go of part of my cultural identity and wondered if I was distancing or perhaps even severing my relationship with God.  Regardless, I had to stand firm and not participate in a system that seemed broken. 

There were so many reasons I felt that I just could no longer be proud of being Catholic; the Church’s refusal to ordain women, its patriarchal structure, condemnation of the use of birth control, the sex abuse scandal, the new ultra conservative Pope Benedict XVI, and my list continues.  I began to question my faith and eventually felt comfortable calling myself an agnostic at best, but likely an atheist.  If truly there was a God, why is there so much evil in the world?  How could God stand by and watch the brutality, oppression, poverty, and death that transpired continuously?  I took my faith and put it in myself and believed that if I wanted to see change in the world I needed to act responsibly and be part of the process rather than saying prayers that fell on deaf ears.

 I did not receive the Eucharist again until my Great Uncle Stash’s funeral in April, 2007.  I attended the Catholic service and as I stood watching the lines for Communion form, I wondered if I could again partake in this ritual; if I could celebrate the life of Uncle Stash and commune in his honor.  It was at that moment that I decided that I did not have to abide by the rules of the Catholic Church.  It did not matter that I had not been to confession in more than ten years nor did it matter that the Church said that my parents and my husband could not participate in the ritual.  At that moment the Church had no authority over me and I received the Eucharist. I began to heal my relationship with God, not through the Catholic Church, but through my own agency. 

Agency to leave the Church and then reclaim a spiritual life on my terms is what has been my saving grace.  Coming to California gave me the freedom to explore Christianity outside of Catholicism and to explore spirituality outside Christianity.  I am still fumbling around trying to figure out exactly what spirituality in my life is.  I have found the Goddess tradition to be very redemptive in my personal struggles and honestly feel that I am in prayer when I am listening to a good DMB song.   I find that living in the question and continuously exploring my beliefs is where I need to be.  My graduate school experience and the community of women I have found here has offered me a greater spiritual awareness than I ever had in the years I belonged to the Catholic Church.  I feel that I am finally in a place where I can grow and evolve and although I still sometimes question my identity as Catholic, I know that I have an incredible spiritual journey ahead of me.