I often go to mass on the Sunday after a tragedy. I’m not alone in this, probably: it makes sense that peoples’ search for meaning would tick up after violence rips through their reality and unsettles their sense of “normal.” It makes sense that people seek a community with which to process trauma and a guide to help them learn to live with it.
I’ve yet to find either.
In the summer of 2015, I’d received a fellowship from my college to research and write about women and Marian apparition shrines. The fellowship brought me to Lourdes, France and Fatima, Portugal – where I was miserable. I’d just been through a trauma that would alter the course of my life. My heart and head were breaking. My heart wasn’t in my work, but I tried to understand the places where I found myself. What did they mean? How did they represent alignment or dissent from traditional Catholicism? How did they allow people (women) to voice pain and heal? How did they restate old trauma?
After the Charleston shooting, I went to a mass led by an American priest for English-speaking pilgrims in Lourdes. The mass was in an ugly, modern, sterile chapel, but where better to process tragedy and oppression than a church, right? White supremacy had been breaking the hearts and heads and backs of Black people for centuries on centuries. I benefited from that violent system. Where better to learn about how to live with that truth? Churches are spaces of individual and communal healing. Churches are spaces for us to repent and remake ourselves. Churches are spaces for societies to repent and remake themselves.
The priest opened his remarks by saying that he wanted to talk about the persecution of Christians. I expected him to mourn the murder of nine Black Christians at the AME church in Charleston. He didn’t. He spoke on an arson at a church from the first millennia in Israel. The church’s bookshop (but not the ancient part of the building) was destroyed. He reflected on that tragedy.
In the summer of 2016, I was in my small, predominantly white, wealthy college town. After the kind of year that tears you apart and makes you reconsider everything, I’d stopped going to mass every week for the first time in my life. I was learning to put myself back together. But the Sunday after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, which targeted LGBTQ POC, primarily Latinx folks, I went to mass at the church I’d attended on and off for the past three years. Churches are spaces of individual and communal healing. Churches are spaces for us to repent and remake ourselves. Churches are spaces for societies to repent and remake themselves.
The priest read a statement from the bishop. The statement mourned the loss of life in Orlando. It made no mention of sexuality or race. An institution that perpetuates homophobia didn’t mention that homophobia had killed 49 people.
Last Sunday, I went to mass with my parents at my home church in rural New England. It was the day after a massive white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Neo-Nazis and the KKK took to the streets with torches. The priest, smiling, gave a sweet, apolitical sermon about how we should look for God in the little things.
The Catholic Church upholds white supremacy when priests fail to see dismantling white supremacy as their work. This isn’t the religion of liberation anymore – this is the religion of power and empire. As such, it is complicit in the abuse of power.
Churches are spaces of individual and communal healing. Churches are spaces for us to repent and remake ourselves. Churches are spaces for societies to repent and remake themselves. The Catholic Church has a lot of repenting to do.