US Catholic Faith in Real Life

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Is walking out of Mass in protest ever justified?

Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint |
When tempers flare around the table of the Lord, sometimes the best thing to do is to head for the door.

By Victor Landa, founder and editor of the Latino daily news website and owner of Palabrero Communications. He has worked for 30 years as a journalist, including doing television news for Univisión and Telemundo and as a columnist for the San Antonio Express-News.

[Sounding Boards are one person's take on a many-sided subject and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.]

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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 going to relieve myself--which I was, just in a different sense.

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, partcipated 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--the fact that all journeys of faith are also journeys towards faith.

It’s also pertinent 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 Mass on Sundays again. The priest who celebrates the Mass I go to is a long-time 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 90 percent immigrant, awesome choir included. I spent a large part of my childhood in Mexico, I can tell the difference between a U.S. 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 his Masses. 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 signed 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 pastor, an older, 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 directive. He misrepresented it, saying it forced women to have abortions, and then he said the congregants shouldn’t vote for the president, 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 voice, “I didn’t come to church to be told who to vote for.” And 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 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 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 healthcare directive, or to pray for the president to understand the Catholic institution’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 make my way on my journey, maybe back to church on Sunday, hoping my friend leads the entrance procession. Next time, though, I’ve got an earful for him.

Flickr photo cc by cmorran123