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Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned: Confessions of a “cafeteria Catholic”

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, April 12, 2005

“I’m no longer a practicing Catholic … I’m so good I don’t need the practice anymore.”Cute humorous witticisms such as that served as a nice deflection, so I didn’t really have to answer the question of why I didn’t go to Mass.Originally, I skipped Mass for the same reason most kids do: I considered it ridiculous that anyone would waste a perfectly good late morning and early afternoon to dress in fancy clothes, sit (and stand, and sit, and kneel, and sit, and stand, etc.) in a stuffy, dusty building and listen to some old geezer drone on for 90 minutes. It seemed pointless. And since my Catholic mother eventually divorced my non-Catholic father, when she avoided Mass, I got to avoid it, too. When she felt guilty about missing Mass, I lost an opportunity to sleep in.I think the real turning point for me, though, came during a retreat offered by my Catholic high school. During their junior and senior years, students were offered a two-day retreat at a campground with teachers and clergy, ostensibly to grow in their faith. I went because I could miss two days of class to hang out with my friends. In the morning, we walked to a secluded spot in the woods and celebrated Mass. It was there when I realized why I disliked going to church: church was a place of worship for God that was created and controlled by man. The outdoor Mass allowed us to worship God in the glory of His creation, and I felt the presence of the divine unimpeded by the construction and the rhetoric of man.I quit going to Mass after that. I didn’t feel ashamed in the least.The child-molestation scandal that rocked the Church while I was in the midst of my years at this Catholic university only served to bolster the argument. Here these men, allowed to perform the duties of the apostles in the service of Christ, still could not escape the crude evil of their own human tendencies to sin. If we couldn’t trust these men with the most innocent among us, our children, who could we trust?But I always felt I could trust the Holy Father, John Paul II.By lapsing into grave sin and betrayal of their congregations, many clergymen proved that they are no better than the worst of the sinners they are called to reconcile to God’s loving grace. But John Paul was a shining example of living faith, even forgiving the man who tried to kill him in 1981, Mehmet Ali Agca. Furthermore, he won Agca over so much that he called John Paul his “brother” and grieved over his death. The faith and charisma demonstrated by that one act of forgiveness alone borders on mind-boggling.Yet while nobody doubts John Paul’s charisma, arguments have sprung up from all over about the wisdom of his so-called “closed-minded” faith. But John Paul’s never-before-seen appeal was anchored on the eternal truths of Church teaching. No matter: the conservatism of the Church under John Paul is being blamed for everything from the explosion of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa to the departure of millions from the flock. Let’s settle these arguments quickly. First, blaming John Paul and the Church’s stand against contraception for the AIDS pandemic is an incredibly strained leap of logic. According to the theory, sexually active Africans, by following the Church laws, are transmitting AIDS to their partners with horrifying frequency. But, if Church doctrine were truly being followed, they wouldn’t be having sex outside of marriage, so the rate of AIDS transmission would be much, much lower.Second, millions aren’t leaving the Church in a mass exodus because it’s too restrictive. Even more “open-minded” organizations are having trouble reaching out to materially wealthy and spiritually complacent societies. People are leaving the Church because they’re too lazy to follow it.Like … me.And now that John Paul is gone, I am ashamed of myself. Ashamed because I let my pet peeves about the ugliness and sensory discomfort of the buildings, the dullness of the homilies, and the evils of some priests distract me from following his more wonderful examples and growing into the fullness of a faith, which never really left.Please forgive me, Holy Father, for I have sinned.When John Paul left this earth last week, millions of people made a pilgrimage to Rome to view his body. Cardinals convened to determine who should succeed him. The president ordered American flags lowered to half-staff.And the streets around my local church were lined with parked cars for three blocks in all directions. Mike Marchand graduated from Notre Dame in 2001 and is a former Viewpoint columnist. This column was originally written for his Web site. He can be contacted at [email protected] views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.