When I have to attend a Catholic mass for a family event, such as a funeral or wedding, I can’t rid myself of a deep unease and defensiveness. I have spent years trying to understand this reaction, and the best that I can determine is that the Catholic parish and high school of my youth were very instrumental in dividing my family, and I cannot view the Catholic Church outside the lens of that experience.
Although born and baptized a Catholic to parents who soon divorced, I took an interest in the Baptist church my dad attended at the age of 12. When my mother and her Catholic family caught wind of this, they arranged a meeting with the Catholic priest of their parish who told me to stop reading the Bible and to keep away from this Baptist Church.
However, I’d already started reading the Bible for myself. While I had lacked motivation for a while, this opposition felt like they had something to hide and only emboldened me. The priests routinely pushed for me to stop reading the Bible and to place myself under the interpretive authority of the Catholic Church. This led to years of conflict and division in my family.
When you’ve experienced a particular church or denomination as a closed system that demands control and allegiance, setting itself up as the only correct path, any doubts, questions, or personal investigations are classified as rebellion. I didn’t necessarily set out to leave the Catholic Church. I was certainly drawn to the Bible and a Baptist Church, but I didn’t need the Catholic Church to set down an all or nothing, scorched earth approach.
I recognize that my experience of the Catholic Church is not uniform by any means. Some have had far worse experiences under the authority structures of Catholicism and some have had far more positive experiences. However, the key finding of my experience is that I will never, ever consider placing myself under the power of the Catholic Church ever again. Even entering into a Catholic Mass still feels suffocating.
For years I assumed that my resistance and discomfort were the products of my own flaws or failures to appreciate a different religious group. Today, I can see with a little more clarity that my feelings during the mass after those experiences are a direct result of the way the priests treated my interest in the Bible and sowed deeply painful division in our family.
When a religious system has betrayed you, it’s likely that you’ll never return.
I have watched many friends struggle through abusive church situations on the Protestant end of the faith. They have generally either left the church altogether or found a very different denomination. As they’ve run away from controlling and sometimes abusive power structures, many of them still do so with mixed feelings. They want to affirm Christianity or at least Jesus, but damaging experiences have made it impossible to feel safe in Christian community.
At the very least, I have felt safer in the more decentralized Protestant churches, but we all know Protestants have had their fair share of scandals and failures as well.
Just the other day I happened to overhear a man praying, and he more or less was telling God what’s up. I started to panic before I even realized what was happening. I wanted to run away. I wanted to shout “Get behind me Satan!” I wanted to tell him to stop trying to control God.
I have felt that urge to run away from the control of religion time and time again. I’ve avoided church, I’ve had panic attacks in church, I’ve felt like I simply didn’t have the words to explain to someone why attending church felt so difficult and negative for a season of my life. Many times I was a negative voice of criticism and division because I simply couldn’t see my own wounds.
I’m sure that many have assumed I’m just a sinner. They’ve quoted from Hebrews 10:25 about not forsaking gathering together, boiling down my hesitation if not revulsion at the church down to a black and white matter of obedience. Never mind that it’s likely the author of Hebrews never had something like modern church meetings/power structures in mind when writing this letter, it’s even more likely that the author of Hebrews could never have imagined how horribly church leaders would control, divide, and alienate those in their care.
Until you’ve experienced healthy church leadership that you can trust and that you can believe genuinely cares for you as a person, not as an attendance number, tither, or cog in the ministry machine, you’ll struggle to heal from past church damage. I know people who have grown up in what I would consider unhealthy denominations, but they were cared for by relatively healthy church leaders, and that has made all of the difference for them today.
They weren’t expendable. They weren’t controlled. And perhaps today they struggle to imagine why so many struggle to trust church leaders or to even attend church in the first place.
While I know that many find beauty and holy mystery in the mass, it has only felt oppressive and constricting to this day. Any person in his right mind would run away from that. I have only sympathy and compassion for those who struggle to attend church or have walked away altogether for those same reasons.
I can’t imagine that God would fault anyone for taking the very natural steps of protecting themselves after going through damaging church experiences. Perhaps that is the place where we can find hope—God’s mercy and compassion. This is the God who relinquished control, took the form of a servant, and showed us the way forward through resurrection. We can’t change the judgment and control of the church leaders from our past, but we can see the true mercy and grace of God with a clarity that exposes the frauds and may one day lead us to a place of peace.