Why I walked out of Mass

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Article Parish Life Spirituality

Editors’ note: Sounding Board is one person’s take on a many-sided subject and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.

When tempers flare around the table of the Lord, is it ever OK just to head for the door?

I did something several months ago that I had never done in my life: I walked out of Sunday Mass in protest. No, fire and brimstone did not descend upon me; my leaving wasn’t followed by gnashing of teeth. In fact, I’m sure that if anyone noticed, they probably thought I was just going to relieve myself—which I was, just in a different sense.

Before I explain further, let me offer some pertinent background: I was raised Catholic, born to a Catholic family in a Catholic hospital and educated in Catholic schools. I was an altar boy, participated in serious religious retreats, and received all the prescribed sacraments (so far).

But mine hasn’t been so much a journey of faith as it has been a journey toward faith—church and sacraments, nuns and brothers and priests notwithstanding; or maybe precisely because of them. It’s a nuance that has to do with a perspective from a place on the road, because I imagine that from a 30,000-foot view it all looks the same; all journeys of faith are also journeys toward faith.

It’s also pertinent to know that I’m a journalist by trade, so I’ve trained myself to keep a healthy skepticism and an arm’s-length distance from my own opinions. For many years I’ve nurtured a healthy distrust of all organized religion, my own Catholicism included.

But for the past several months I’d been going to church on Sundays again. The priest who celebrates the Mass I go to is a longtime friend. I consider him a mentor, a spiritual and intellectual leader. I returned to church because I missed his presence in the context of Sunday worship.

The Mass is a Spanish service, standing room only. I’d say the congregation is about 90 percent immigrant, awesome choir included. I spent a large part of my childhood in Mexico, and I can tell the difference between a U.S.-born Latino and an immigrant by listening to the rhythms of their speech, by watching the way they carry themselves, and by how they dress for Sunday Mass. Take my word for it, these are mostly immigrant Latinos.

I felt at home among them, although not entirely in place with the overall organized religious context. Still, my friend the priest hadn’t missed a beat since I last attended one of the Masses where he presided. He was vibrant, relevant, compassionate. After that first service, he saw me, gave me a bear hug, and said, “I was so happy to see you here.”

So I went back twice. Then around the time when President Barack Obama’s administration issued a directive concerning health insurance in Catholic institutions, my friend the priest wasn’t there. Another priest was substituting that day. This priest was the parish’s pastor, an older, more conservative man who had come to our diocese from Spain.

He reminded me of the reasons I had stopped going to church. It took him all of 90 seconds to turn his homily into a diatribe against the administration’s policy. He misrepresented it by saying it forced women to have abortions, and then he said the congregants shouldn’t vote for the president. It was something along the lines of, “If Obama insists on doing this, then we should let him know we don’t agree on Election Day.”

That’s when I blew. I felt my fists tighten, my neck expand. My wife turned to look at me with what I sensed was concern. (I think she was afraid I’d challenge the priest out loud. But I wouldn’t, out of respect, for the same reason I still push my chair in when I leave the dinner table: Catholic school upbringing.) I said under my breath, “I didn’t come to church to be told who to vote for.” And then I walked out.

So what do you do when you walk out of church to a parking lot filled with empty cars? I paced. Over the years I’ve learned to tame what was once an unmanageable temper. I give myself room to be angry, and get over it—it’s my responsibility, after all. Ten minutes later, when the froth had gone, I returned to the back of the church and stood through the rest of the service.

I didn’t confront the priest. In fact, I said nothing to him at all. I’ve also learned strategic patience and knowing how to choose my battles.

My reaction surprised me. I’ve built a career on being a deliberate observer, a witness and reporter. I take my craft seriously. But this was another context—it wasn’t work, it wasn’t craft. This was a place on the road that I’d set aside to recharge, to fill the well. I’ve learned that healthy skepticism takes energy, that arm’s-length detachment requires a reserve of focus that needs regular replenishment.

During Mass I’m emptied of all the ideas and concerns that bog me down in the world, of all the pent-up energy stored in defense of who I believe myself to be, and in its place a palpable sense of oneness and community emerges.

Maybe this is what’s meant by the body of Christ—the feeling of being at one with the people sitting around you. Maybe it’s what I’ve come to understand as the sacredness of the human spirit. All I know is that I dip into it, and when I do, I lose myself and I come back replenished.

It bothered me that my recharge space had been imposed upon in such a manner. The very things that I come to Mass to empty myself of had been thrust upon me, my refuge had been violated by the very man who, given the context of the Mass, I trusted to lead our community.

Neither could I ignore my own political leaning at that point. I disagreed with the priest vehemently. I wouldn’t have minded if the pastor would have asked the congregation to pray for a resolution to the health care directive, or to pray for the president to understand the Catholic Church’s position. But he crossed a line when he told the congregation not to vote for Obama.

And yet my professional detachment forces me to consider that I was alone in walking out of Mass that day. I don’t know if anyone else in the church felt as I did, but I was the only person pacing among the parked cars in a huff that morning. Nor can I imagine what context, or hyper-sensitivity, would prod anyone else to up and walk out in the middle of a homily.

It’s telling, though, that I returned when my anger subsided. It wasn’t that I felt bad about leaving, it was that I wasn’t finished emptying and refilling—and the priest’s offense wasn’t bigger than my need. But I wonder if something was eroded in the process.

When priests or church leaders impose politics, arrogance, sexism, or inappropriateness into the space set apart from the world—like a foreign body in an otherwise healthy organism—there are sure to be repercussions. Because when congregants are turned away, for whatever reason, the body diminishes, it weakens.

In the end the congregation of immigrants at Mass with me that day may or may not vote for the president (they may or may not be registered to vote, for that matter). And I’ll continue to make my way on my journey, maybe back to church on Sunday, hoping to see my friend leading the entrance procession. Next time, though, I’ve got an earful for him.

"And the survey says..."

1. I have walked out of Mass in protest.

31% - Agree
50% - Disagree
19% - Other

Representative of “other”: 
“I would walk out of Mass if a priest’s homily crossed the line, but it hasn’t happened to me yet.”

2. When the author was upset by the priest’s homily, the most appropriate reaction would have been to:

32% - Stay until the end of Mass and contact the priest at a later date, after cooling down, to talk about it.
16% - Leave for a few minutes to cool down before returning to the church.
12% - Stay until the end of Mass and say something privately to the priest about it afterward.
11% - Leave and not come back.
10% - Take a deep breath, say a prayer, and let it go.
2% - Confront the priest right then and there.
17% - Other

Representative of “other”:
“Leave for the remainder of the Mass, but contact the priest at a later date to talk about it.”

3. It is never OK to walk out of Mass, no matter what the reason.  

16% - Agree
77% - Disagree
7% - Other

4. I have challenged a priest about something he has said in the context of a Mass.

55% - Agree
38% - Disagree
7% - Other

5. If you leave during Mass over something the priest says, you should:

31% - Confront the priest later.
29% - Just let it go and try again the next week.
26% - Find another Mass to go to that day.
20% - Pray in the parking lot.
11% - Go to confession.
23% - Other

Representative of “other”: 
“Find someone that you trust and talk it through.”

6. If I were a priest and noticed people leaving the pews during my homily, I would:

72% - Reflect on the response later and prayerfully reconsider my approach.
16% - Take note of what’s happening and wrap up.
16% - Ignore it and keep going.
15% - Try to soften the message or better explain myself so as not to upset anyone else.
4% - Take pride in being a true prophet.
1% - Stop in the middle of the homily and admonish those who are leaving, then resume as planned.
13% - Other

This article appeared on the November 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 11, pages 22-26).

Image: Darren Thompson