Making Room: Reflections on the End of Lent

St. Michael the Archangel and St. Joan of Arc by Fr. William Hart McNichols, SJ

St. Michael the Archangel and St. Joan of Arc by Fr. William Hart McNichols, SJ

by Jen Owens

As the season of Lent draws to a close, I am struck by how different these past forty days have been from what I expected them to be. Before the season began, I promised to practice better self-care, attend Mass every Sunday, and regularly meet with my spiritual director. Who would have thought that I had to abandon the second one to honor the first one?

Certainly not me. Despite my concerns about exclusive language, attending Mass has always been a spiritual practice that grounds me, that keeps me rooted, that helps remind me of who I am at my core. The drama of the Eucharistic meal is a compelling one, and the way in which the essence of Christ becomes a part of the essence of me fills me with a sense of mystery and awe. The communities I have known through first-hand experience remind me of the potential the church has to be a Gospel community committed to love and justice.

However, the institutional church consistently disappoints me. Last fall, the Vatican threatened Fr. Roy Bourgeois, MM, with excommunication for giving the homily at the ordination of one of his fellow organizers into the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement. Fr. Roy’s work to close the School of the Americas breathed life into my faith as a college student in the late 1990s. Protesting at the gates of Ft. Benning allowed me to see the Mass in a new and liberating light. And when this Lent began, we seemed to be dealt one institutional blow after another—the situation in Brazil that Kate Long blogged about so movingly, the pope’s dismissal of the effectiveness of condoms in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa, then more recently, the firing of Ruth Kolpack from her Madison, WI parish for her master’s thesis advocating inclusive language.

I am disappointed because of the message that I hear beneath these actions. No room for you because you stand in solidarity with women who seek ordination. No room for you because you chose to protect the life of a nine-year-old mother. No room for you because your image of God challenges the norm. If there is no room for people like Fr. Roy, this young girl’s mother, and Ruth Kolpack, how long before a member of the hierarchy decides there is no room for me?

I never thought I would end up giving up Catholicism for Lent, as one of the other authors put it. But the more I try to make sense of my decision not to attend Mass, the more I realize that this is about something bigger than the researchers who list Mass attendance as a prime criterion for Catholic identity allow for. This is about finding a means to pray without being judged for the way in which I feel God calling me to interpret and act upon the Gospel. This is about seeking a community in which the gifts of women are honored and affirmed. This is about imaging God in ways that free our imaginations to grasp the Divine anew.

In the end, my hiatus from attending Mass was a stop-gap measure, a time to stick my finger in the hole in the dam before the community can gather together to repair it.

Jen Owens looks forward to spending Easter Triduum this year with The Paulist Center community in downtown Boston. She is also grateful to her mom, to Kate, and to the community of authors for reminding her that there is always room for her in the Catholic Church.


5 Responses

  1. Love the post, Jen. You manage to express many feelings that I share in such a compelling and precise way. I too have found this Lent to be a particularly difficult time for me, and I find my Catholic spiritual identity regularly challenged by my own conscience. But, we remain standing here with fingers in the dam preferring that to turning our backs to the hole.

    I wish you a blessed and serenity-filled holy weekend.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing that, Becky. I really appreciate it. It’s a comfort to know that community can grow from these often isolating experiences. Peace be with you in the days ahead.

  3. Hey, all the Beckys are weighing in. I was really struck by this post, Jen… I have felt so similarly lately, as perhaps my posts have demonstrated. In my adult life thus far, I seem to have this strange relationship with Mass attendance, never able to consistently do one thing or the other in terms of going and not going. And a lot of that comes out of the exact tension you and Becky are talking about here– the nourishment of the participatory story of Mass, and my deep connection to Catholic spirituality (not to mention my perpetually attractive and troubling friend on-and-off the cross), in tension with the sometimes violent exclusion I/we feel from/by the church hierarchy and the structures of oppression that often uphold the hierarchy. As I’ve written, lately I have also felt a lot of anger when actually in church…

    This came rather to a head when I was trying to figure out what I was doing for Easter. My mom wanted me to come home and bring Charlotte, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I felt this profound disjunction in the idea that I could not be what (I assume) most of the members of my home congregation see me as (a spiritual, good, talented Catholic young lady with a strong connection to their community), and also be with Charlotte as my girlfriend.

    But if I stayed here, I felt like I would be adrift at my favorite time of the Church year, with no real church community, and not really any other Christians to celebrate with.

    At the moment, my story is at a fairly happy juncture. I talked this over with my mom, and she proceeded to out me to a few of her friends at church, with good results. I decided to stay here, and found a church that so far is shocking me with its beauty and inclusivity, though I’ve only been there twice. Basically, though, on Palm Sunday, this astonishingly joyful priest got up there and started talking about the woman who anoints Jesus and how she is giving him a sacrament, and how she is counted worthy to give him a sacrament, and how we should all wrap our heads around that. And then he said that the Catholic Lesbian group at the parish had given him a gift of this picture recently, a picture of the cross with the legend across the bottom, “The Women Stayed.” Or something along those lines.

    So I’m feeling better than I have for awhile about going to church, and I have a place for the Triduum, which makes an enormous difference to me.

    But in any case, I feel strongly knit up in the experience you have described. You are a source of beauty and strength to me– I love writing for you, and I love this community you have inspired.

    I will be holding you up in my Easter prayers this year, and all of us who stand somewhere between staying and going… for standing anywhere is standing in relationship.

    Becky F

  4. Thanks so much for sharing a little bit about your experience with these questions, especially that lovely line, “for standing anywhere is standing in relationship.” I really appreciate that. When you’re going through it, it’s easy to feel like you’re the only one. So I’m glad to hear that I’m in the company of good folks in the ups and downs of this experience. And I’m so glad to hear that you’ve come across a church community that is welcoming to you and to Charlotte. Whether you decide to commit to that community for a Sunday or for many Sundays, my prayer for you is that God will continue to bless you with communities that love and nourish you and challenge you to grow. Peace be with you during these holy days.

  5. […] able to attend Mass, a spiritual practice that had propelled me forward in the past. As I wrote in another post toward the end of Lent, all too often, I hear the message from the institution, “No room for […]

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