Why I Returned to Church
Reflections on Pope Francis’ Year of Mercy and my return to being Catholic
Illustration Credit: Returning by Ellen Rooney
I’m an unlikely Catholic. When nuns forced my childhood self to contemplate the Stations of the Cross, I was mainly belligerent. Why should I feel responsible for Jesus’ brutal treatment nearly 2,000 years after the fact? When nuns tried to railroad me into confirmation—my adult decision to join the church—I refused.
Boy, was I surprised when more than three decades later I felt a pull to return. It wasn’t the homophobia, pedophilia, sexism, antichoice position or bizarre stance on birth control that beckoned. Nor was it Jesus. Instead, it was the incense, candles, saints, relics, statues, stained glass and, most of all, the holy water and the Holy Spirit. Plus, Pope Francis had come into power. He’s smart, humble, stubborn, and ready to shift the church away from shaming poor, weak individuals and toward shaming large, abusive power structures.
Returning was frightening and emotional. But at my neighborhood church, the cherub-faced Vietnamese priest gave me a comedic lecture about keeping God waiting so long, then shook my hand and welcomed me back. I was stunned it was so simple. No year of penance, no cat-o’-nine-tails. I was in.
As soon as I heard about Holy Doors, I wanted to walk through one. These symbolic doors grace only seven important cathedrals in the world. The most famous is on Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. The other six are in Rome, France, Spain, and Quebec.
Normally these doors are sealed from the inside by mortar and cement. But every twenty-five years, in jubilee years, they’re ceremoniously opened. Pope Francis declared a special Year of Mercy starting in December 2015 and called for all the holy doors in the world to be opened for the duration. I wanted to believe that walking through a holy door during the year of mercy would make me a kinder, more caring and merciful person. And in Quebec City, I got the chance to find out.
On December 12, 2015, Cardinal Gerald Lacroix opened the holy door of Notre Dame Cathedral de Quebec. Holy doors are located on the sides of cathedrals. The idea is that rather than automatically drifting through the front door, you have to make a conscious decision to enter. Also, holy doors are entrances rather than exits. You can only walk into, not out of, your faith.
After mass, people lined up on a dark and chilly night to enter through the holy door. The line reached around the block, but
moved quickly. We plodded along, chatting while awaiting our turn.
As I drew near the front of the line, I tried to cultivate a meditative mood. I hoped to feel something when I crossed the threshold. As I started to focus, a woman beside me turned her phone to selfie video mode and started narrating her trip through the holy door. The man on my other side wanted me to photograph his trip over the threshold. No, I said. No. I tried to focus on the spiritual, but suddenly I was at the door, pausing for two seconds, and through. It happened so fast I wasn’t sure if I felt anything or not.
Inside the church, I lit a candle in front of a Mary statue and contemplated mercy.
I photographed the tall green candle I lit after entering the holy door and set it as the wallpaper on my phone, a reminder of mercy. My year-of-mercy goal is to reset my default, so I give people the benefit of the doubt rather than automatically assuming they’re jerks. This sounds like what any halfway decent person would naturally do. But how often do we readily extend this mercy to other drivers, our partners, or relatives at holiday dinners?
Growing up, hearing, “See what he’s going through for your sins?” while a forehead-poking thorn streamed blood into Jesus’ eye, I never would have considered the church merciful. But when I came back decades later and the priest in my neighborhood church smiled and said, “Welcome back,” it felt merciful beyond my imagining. And maybe showing mercy is as simple as assuring ourselves and the people around us, You’re welcome here. You belong here.