“I hope you’re ready for three days of church!” This is the caveat I presented my friend Maddie with when I invited her to spend Easter break with my family in New Jersey. As a cradle Catholic, I am used to the back-to-back Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday services. Maddie, as an atheist, knew only what her Religious Quest class had taught her. I warned her that grandma might try to convert her. She decided to take the risk.
As far as religious holidays go, Easter is not for the faint-hearted. Christmas, the other big Christian holiday, is a one and done church service, peppered with classic carols and hastened by the promise of a perfectly cooked ham, eggnog, and pies galore waiting at home. Easter, on the other hand, is for the devoted Catholic a time of fasting and mourning. There are three required services, each longer than a typical mass, and they are somber rather than celebratory, save Easter Sunday. There is less singing and more praying, and eating meat is taboo. Most people choose to just attend Easter mass out of habit or perceived obligation, if they even go at all.
Experiencing Easter through the eyes of a friend who has a completely different belief system than I do was fascinating, albeit uncomfortable at times. I found myself feeling bad that she had to sit through the long services with me, even though she had chosen to come with us rather than stay at the house. I awkwardly struggled to answer some of the theological questions that she posed during the service, even though I have been going to church my whole life. Ultimately, I realized that the Catholic service isn’t very inclusive, not only because it forbids Maddie from getting Communion, but also because the structure of prayer, tradition, and ritual excludes those who haven’t been to church before.
I have struggled with my faith since leaving home to go to Boston College. You might think that being at a Jesuit university would only strengthen my commitment to my religion, but the truth is I can count the times I’ve been to church at BC on one hand. If even habit can’t keep me tied to my faith, then why do I even call myself a Catholic?
What I’ve discovered through my own struggle with faith is that spirituality does not need to be tied down to an institution or a belief system. I believe in the story of the resurrection and in the Catholic teachings behind Easter, but at this stage in my life I don’t feel that going to church offers me anything new or profound for my faith.
On the contrary, the rigidity and severity of the church is what keeps me away when I am at BC, and is what made it so hard for Maddie to find meaning or value in the Easter services she experienced with me. Faith is most valuable on an individual level, when it consists of a personal connection to a divine being (or lack thereof) of your choosing, not when it is synonymous with waking up early on Sundays because “church.”
For some people, tradition works. For those who have grown up with it, the ritual of the Catholic Church can feel comfortable, safe, tried and true. What I think these people don’t realize from the inside looking out is that, while the values of the Catholic Church are meant to be universally applicable such as “love thy neighbor as thyself,” tradition can seal them off from reaching the general public. It’s no wonder that Easter has become about painting eggs and eating chocolate; the other meaning is kept locked away from the non-Catholics of the world, unless they want to seek it out. Any rational analysis makes it clear that spirituality or atheism, in their accessibility, are the way to go over organized religion.
However, every church service is not created equal. A lot depends on the priest and the homily he chooses to share with the congregation. If he can make the teachings of the Bible relevant and applicable to those around him, no matter their religion, he will reveal importance of Catholicism and do his part to keep it alive for generations to come. Without applicability and a modern worldview, the future of Catholicism is bleak.
Maddie sat in church with my family and I for about four hours this past weekend, and I don’t think she got too much out of it. Honestly, neither did I. But I’m not quite willing to give up my religion just yet. Catholicism has the opportunity to adapt and adjust to a world that desperately needs its teachings of love, compassion and justice; I just hope that it can make a change before its too late.