My Lost Saints

by Susan Matthews

I read a letter to the editor yesterday in The Philadelphia Inquirer that urged Catholics to speak out. Later in the day, I overheard two older women talking about an accused priest with whom they were friendly. Their blind acceptance of his innocence despite overwhelming evidence was baffling and enraging. A Web site is born and begins with an essay I wrote. Please share your thoughts.

My son told me how much he enjoys Mass. I knew my little guy liked Bakugan, Star Wars and loud music, but Mass? Instead of being happy that Catholic school tuition isn’t wasted on him, I had a sinking feeling. It was then I realized how much I’ve lost in the wake of the continuing Catholic Church pedophile scandals. I had, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “lost my saints.”

When I was his age, the Catholic saints were my action heroes. Their brave lives and gory deaths fascinated and inspired me. They stood up for their beliefs against all odds. I’d even played Mass. My little brother and stuffed animals lined my makeshift pew as I read from the Bible. It didn’t occur to me that I’d never seen a woman priest.

After college, I took a job as an editor with The Catholic Standard and Times, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. This was during the 90s when so much of the abuse was being covered up. I had no idea at the time, but I had plenty of other concerns.

My boss, a priest with a doctorate in theology from the Vatican, explained the distinction between doctrine and tradition. Tradition with a capital T, he said. Also, celibacy for archdiocesan priests was a promise rather than a vow. While I respected his honesty and devout belief, the information tugged at me. For years, I wondered about confession, birth control, the role of women in the Church and the indictment of gays. Now I understood much of our practice of religion had nothing to do with actual doctrine or vows. Throughout history evil, greed, sexism and bigotry shaped much of what now constitutes Catholic “T”radition. I still needed to believe the Church was holy and good. Who was I to question?

Then came the sickening discovery that a priest, who had taken my husband, his brothers and other boys on childhood camping trips, had been a pedophile, known as such to the archdiocesan administration for decades. While my husband and his brothers were unharmed, so many others were not so lucky.

The Church hierarchy, and now possibly even the Pope, have allowed a legacy of depression, suicide and depravity. I find that to be as evil, if not more so, than the priest pedophiles.

It is our God-given right and responsibility to question. In politics, I’ve always thought one shouldn’t complain unless participating in change. But this isn’t government. This is my soul. With whom do I register my complaint? Where do I vote? What do I do here and now if I want to actively take part in reforming my religion? Where are my saints?

It seems contradictory, but I will continue to send my children to Catholic schools. I have no doubt God is present in what they and Catholic Charities accomplish. I’m friendly with several priests and two of my great aunts are Sisters of St. Joseph. I have tried to separate my faith from my religion, as my mother suggests. My father argues that Catholicism has endured centuries just fine.

But I find that lack of spiritual evolution unacceptable and I can’t sit in Church as if nothing is wrong. I’m by no means suggesting that other religions have it over Catholics. Having written for The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Living Religion section, I covered many faiths. Some people believe any organized religion becomes corrupt. Where does that leave society?

There’s a desperate need for faith and organized religion. Yet, church pews are emptier and fewer people are entering religious orders. Apathy, rather than reform, has taken hold. So much competes for our attention and, yes, sometimes we are lazy.

Instead of walking away from organized religion, we need to fix it. I just don’t know how. It’s not the sins of the past and present Church that concern me — it’s the Church of the future, or the lack there of. I want my children to experience the peace that comes with belief. I don’t want to rob them of their faith. The Church may do that soon enough.

My son deserves more. He deserves his saints — the ones I’ve lost.

6 thoughts on “My Lost Saints

  1. Susan
    Every thought that you express in this commentary is the way that I feel.I also am raising my children in the catholic faith while feeling more and more like an outsider.It is a Church I barely feel comfortable with and a leadership that is more morally bankrupt than any sins of those of us in the pews. There are many us out here. So what do we do?

    1. I’m still trying to figure out what to do and I’m certainly open to ideas. I do know the first step is to speak out and be heard. I’ve got something in the works. Are you in the Philadelphia area? Please spread the word about this site to anyone you think might be interested.

  2. Hi Susan
    Yes ,I am in Chester County. I have already emailed your website info to a few friends. I also want to do something,have a few things in the works myself,and know of others who feel the same way. Any way to contact you off site? Have a few experiences with the Archdiocese I would like to share with you. Kathy

  3. Susan,
    Kathy informed me of your website and I am thankful. Reading your article, “My Lost Saints” was like hearing myself talk. I, too, am determined to keep my faith despite the horrors that are happening within the Catholic Church. I, too, have children attending Catholic schools and feel that we are in a good community of people. I know, too, that the teachers are having a very difficult time dealing with all of this. To me, at this point, the holiness in our Church is in the pews and in the hearts of the many parishioners, without whom there would be no functioning churches. I feel, in fact, closer to Jesus because I have no doubt that he is heartbroken over the failures and sins of the Church leaders and is waiting desperately for them to “do the right thing.” It truly is a test for us to try to keep our faith when the very people who are supposed to be leading us are making it so difficult. I will keep up with your commentaries. It feels good to know there are others on the same page.

  4. I was struck by your observation, “Their blind acceptance of his innocence despite overwhelming evidence was baffling and enraging.”

    While many Catholics state they want to change the Church, there are many Catholics who simply accept and even relish the status quo.

    I am frustrated with reformers who rant about the Church hierarchy (as if replacing 5000 bishops would actually change the Church), and then do not assume any responsibility for the state of the Catholic Church.

    I have asked the following question of many “reformers”, but none could satisfactorily answer it.

    “How much money does a parish priest earn?”

    Were it not for the Catholics in the pews who blindly donate money each week in the collection basket, the Church as we know it would not exist. My point is that lay Catholics do not take responsibility for their Church.

    Perhaps the most significant changes in the Church in the past fifty years is the effect of the decline in the number of priests and the decline in the enrollment in Catholic school. These changes have nothing to do with the Catholics in the pews, but have been caused by the Catholics who are no longer in the pews.

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