Catholicism is in me; in my bones, in my blood, in every breath I take. It is not a garment I wear, a hat I pull out at appointed times. I really feel that it is who I am, or at the very least that I am who — and what and how — I am because of my Catholic upbringing, and I treasure that realisation. I do not think I could be anything else even if I wanted to.
Yet the world does not stand still, nor does anything in it. The faith I had as a child was already evolving as I grew into a pious young man whom people looked to as part of the future of the Church they loved. Through four years of seminary training and experience, that faith of mine grew, flourished, and expanded. But I also found that the world, and the people in it, were far more complex than I had previously suspected. The lines between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ began to blur, as did those between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, the principal labels by which I had defined my faith up to that point. By the time I left formation I saw the label-slinging polarisation in the Church as a devastating source of ongoing turmoil and confusion for countless souls, and I no longer wanted any part of it.
But my faith, or rather my experience and expression of my faith, depended in a large part on precisely that polarisation. Without labels to guide me, I stumbled along in a confused world of doubt, utterly alone.
For I was also bereft now of a faith community, something I had vastly underestimated my dependence upon. ‘Community’ is a word I retain a certain ambivalence towards. Outside of my family I have very rarely felt a sense of community in my life. I was withdrawn from the company of my age-peers when I was six years old. When I was nine we moved from the small town where my parents knew everyone to another small town where they knew no one. Two years later we moved again, to yet another close-knit rural community in which we could never live long enough to hope to truly feel we belonged.
Our family was active enough in the parish, but not enough for me to think of it as a community we were a part of. (Remember that whole small town thing I just mentioned?) For me, church was always something I was good at, not something I was a part of. I knew my prayers, I knew the liturgy, I excelled as an altar boy. Yet my very involvement at church quickly did more to set me apart than it did to draw me in. And before long I became ‘the seminarian’ and all the other kids (and many adults) just sort of gazed at me on my pretty pedestal more than they got to know and accept me as a person.
Seminary was all about community. The concept was crammed down our throats until we choked on it, every official sentence built ponderously around it. But despite that catchword overload, it really was a community for me. Of course it was a community of faith, but even more than that it was a community of men, thrown together by their pursuit of a common goal. The men there were the largest, closest community I have ever been a part of. Those ninety-odd souls included my friends, my boon companions, my confidants, my mentors, and even my adversaries. We were a community of young men on a common journey, a deeply personal journey down a path fraught with doubt, surrounded by back-stabbing, swirling with Byzantine political intrigue, littered with false prophets, riddled with unforeseen agonies; a bewildering labyrinth of alternate routes that all seemed easier than the one being trod. Many of us fell along the way; some were missed, others were not. It was a far from perfect community, but it was a very real one for me, and one I felt deeply attached to. When I walked out that door for the last time, I was truly out in the cold, cold world, very much alone.