Dear Pope Francis,
A few weeks ago, my friend Lauren invited me to be a regular contributor on a faith based blog she wanted to start. I had a panic attack.
I was so overwhelmed. It wasn’t the idea of writing regularly again or of saying what I think and having a real conversation about my experience with faith, with the church that was overwhelming. It was fear.
I had this feeling, deep inside that what I would say would make people angry; that I’d be disliked for it and pushed away. I didn’t even know what I wanted to say, but I was afraid of finding out. I still am.
I’m afraid of a lot of things. Sometimes I think I’m afraid of everything. My New Year’s resolution this year was to stop being afraid of living my life, but I’ve been finding it’s not that simple to just stop being afraid of things.
I go to mass on Sundays and it brings me some respite. For an hour, I can sit in church and know God is there. When I look around, I don’t see very many young men and women my age. I hear people talk a lot about how young people just can’t be bothered to come, about how we need to be drawn in, and I don’t disagree.
I spent a year and a half away from the Church in between high school and university, but it wasn’t a lack of desire to go that kept me away. It wasn’t the musical style, or what the priest said in his homily. It wasn’t peer pressure from friends outside, or even rebellion against family and friends inside. It was fear.
I’m not afraid of God. I used to be, but we’ve been through a lot together and it’s hard to be afraid of someone who clearly (for reasons I still cannot quite fathom) loves me so much. I’ve called him names and doubted him again and again; had tantrums mostly directed at him and he hasn’t stopped loving me. The moments when I understand just how much he loves me are terrifying, but God isn’t.
What I am afraid of are the people inside the church. I know they are all good people, but it’s very intimidating to go in sometimes. It started being scary for me just after I graduated high school.
I was enrolled in a linguistics program at a big university and had made friends with a group of girls during Frosh Week. I was only 18, but the students’ union at our school hosted all ages pub nights at a bar near campus and I went to a few of them. I didn’t really drink much, and in comparison to what my friends were wearing I looked like a nun. I had a lot of fun learning how to dance and I met a lot of really nice people. I didn’t do anything wrong.
My school friends didn’t care that I went to church, or that I dressed differently than they did and thought differently about pretty much everything. All they wanted was for everyone to have fun, and for me not to push my beliefs down their throats without an invitation. Every time I went to church, it felt like I was being told to choose either my school friends or the church, except that all I had at the church was God, and I’ve never been one to think that it’s the only place he can be found.
I eventually stopped going entirely. I dropped out at the end of my first year and spent the next year evaluating my life and deciding what I wanted to do for a career. God and I ran in to each other again through the one Christian friend I had made at school. I started going to a Baptist Church with him and was happy to be back. I enrolled in a different program in a different province and when I moved, I did not expect to be going to the Catholic Church. (I did, but that’s a story for another day.)
The Catholic Church at my new university was very different. It was nowhere near full, but the handful of young adults there were different from the ones I had encountered before. I was recruited for the choir almost immediately, and the people I met did not seem concerned that I enjoyed dancing or that I liked beer.
They made jokes about the times they had come to mass hung over or in the same dress they’d worn out the previous night, and they talked much more critically about what the church teaches. It was an incredibly enriching environment for me because I didn’t feel judged or looked down on for being young and doing things a lot of young people do. I could be honest about where I was, and I could question anything.
Instead of being told this is what the magisterium teaches so this is how it is, people tried to actually engage my question and help me find out why the magisterium teaches something. At my university church, it wasn’t a bad thing for me to want to know.
The difference between a community that meets you where you are and encourages you to muddle along and a community that expects you to be a saint from day one is what keeps the fear at bay and makes a church welcoming for young people.
We don’t want to stay away. We just aren’t sure we’re wanted.