I went to a great Catholic school, and a lovely parish in my neighborhood growing up. I didn't mind going into extra innings when it came to morning prayers since it seemed to eat into our math lessons. I thought that Jesus guy seemed pretty neat, and Father Jim, our parish's youngest priest, always had some candy or a silly joke to tell when he visited our classrooms. Sure our itchy skirts failed to keep us warm in the New York winters, and our nun-teachers were a little scary, especially Sister Brigid who had a reputation as a ruler-smacking tyrant, but Catholic school formed my childhood, and Catholicism kind of defined me.
When I left the Immaculate Conception School for fifth grade at P.S. 131 (that's Public School, for all you non-New Yorkers), I befriended Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Baptist, Sikh, Protestant, and non-theist peers. That's when I started asking questions. I still believed in the Holy Trinty, sure, but uh, what about all these other religions? What if they're right, and us Roman Catholics are wrong? Virgin birth? Sure, I guess, but why can't priests and nuns get married? As I started to sense my own pubescent hormones kicking in, I wondered, Isn't this celibacy thing unrealistic? And how do we know the Bible is accurate, if the New Testament was officially written centuries after Jesus' death, and then interpreted by countless people two millennia later? And, most importantly, why can't I be an altar boy or aspire to be a priest? I was just as devout as any dumb altar boy up there. Besides, I'm a natural performer; a young Deloris Van Cartier — er, Sister Mary Clarence. I could rock that smock and flick that Holy Water all over the place with graceful flair! They had no idea what they were missing by not letting girls like me serve as altar boys. Hmph!
The answer to any of my questions was always "faith." I had to believe that what I had learned was simply true. And I did keep the faith. I continued to give up candy for Lent, and pray each week at church. I'm sure my parents (even my barely-religious dad) thanked God every day because all that morality and guilt kept me from doing much that resembled a sin throughout adolescence.
This continued into 2004: the post 9/11 Bush era, when all of a sudden, Americans started clutching religion in profoundly scary ways. I was a college sophomore and coming into my own as a politically active, progressive young woman, but I had remained smug over my home church's seeming neutrality on politics. I never heard Father Tom, the man who baptized me into the Catholic tradition 19 years prior, ever utter the words "homosexuality" or "abortion" from the altar. I felt pretty welcomed there, even though the big-wig Catholic leaders loved to shun people left and right.
But one Sunday morning during summer break, Father Tom broke the seal. I was entranced by the calm echo and soothing sunlight of our airy church, when suddenly I heard him mention the words, "abortion," "homosexuality," and then "disgrace," and "blasphemous." His homily, typically a thoughtful lesson about advocating for the needy, turned into a crucifixion.
My heart broke. I had never had an abortion, and was starting to understand the complexities of my own sexuality, but at that moment, Father Tom was talking to me. For the remaining 30 minutes, I could not sing along or pray. I could not say the Apostle's Creed, which I had dutifully memorized. I took communion, and a big swig of wine, but felt uneasy. I was the abomination sitting in the pews.
That was the last time I went to Catholic mass. Without saying much, my (also progressive) mother stopped waking me up for church. She did not abandon her faith, but she quietly respected my decision to back away from the Eucharist.
The Catholic church has been hemorrhaging people like me for decades. Had I not been challenged that Sunday, it would have been some other Sunday. Or it would have been due to the corruption at the Vatican, the discrimination against gay priests, shutting out the thought of female priests, the scores of unreported pedophilia, the unrealistic views of the bishops and cardinals, or people in power who use religion as a device to control and divide us.
Nine years later, Pope Francis is seen as this amazing disruptor of the Catholic establishment because he's from South America, and doesn't have a penchant for pricey Pope-mobiles or fancy shoes. This week he urged millions of Brazilian followers and Catholics around the world to try to invite people back to church.
In fact, before saying that women still should not be priests, Pope Francis said gay people should not be marginalized.
"If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?" he said to reporters on Monday. "The catechism of the Catholic Church says clearly that we must not marginalize these people who should be integrated into society."
Hey, that's fantastic. For LGBT Catholics and Catholics who support LGBT rights, this is a nice development. As the pro-LGBT Catholic organization Equally Blessed points out, Francis's words are a nice break from his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who actively argued that gay men can't be priests.
But we shouldn't be fooled. Pope Francis's words don't mean that the church's policy has suddenly shifted. They're still not fans of women assuming leadership roles, and it's not like seminaries will be recruiting at next years's pride parades. While gay men can ascend to the priesthood, women still simply cannot, and all Roman Catholic clergy still must remain celibate. And let's not even get started about contraception.
It has been 15 years since my last penance, and nine years since my last Catholic mass. But I am not seeking forgiveness, and I will make no penance. The closest I've been to heading back to church in the last decade was thoroughly enjoying Sister Act: The Musical last week. Maybe if the church was that sparkly, fabulous, and accepting, more wayward Catholics might give mass another try.
MICHELLE GARCIA is The Advocate's commentary editor. Follow her on Twitter @GarciaReporting. No genuflecting required.