My 12-year-old daughter became an altar server this winter, and I'm very happy about it. Not so much out of parental pride, although I am certainly proud of her for being willing to do such a public thing, and in church, at that -- for a tween, these are no small things.
My reasons for being happy have more to do with the future of Catholicism, something we are all thinking about as the Church gets ready to elect a new pope.
I love being Catholic. I come from a long line of Irish Catholics on my father's side and a long line of German Catholics on my mother's. I believe more in faith itself than in the primacy of any particular faith, and I imagine that I would have been happy as a Jew or Buddhist or Muslim had I been born into a different family. But that doesn't make me love Catholicism any less.
I love its ancientness, its rituals, its prayers and all the things it leaves unsaid in those rituals and prayers. I love how you can go to Mass anywhere in the world and it will be recognizable and the same, even if you don't speak the language. I love the way so many people have devoted their lives fully to it -- and to helping others through it. I love its deep tradition of social justice. And despite all the rules and traditions of Catholicism, real, grass-roots Catholics are wonderfully flexible. Real Catholics know that nothing should take precedence over the most important rules: Love God and love your neighbor.
It is, however, not always easy being Catholic. There's that whole Inquisition thing, not to mention other times in history when some not-so-real Catholics have behaved rather badly. There's the sexual abuse scandal. There are the Church's official positions on gays and birth control and divorce, and their resistance to letting priests marry (which is far more rooted in financial reasons than theological ones) or letting women be priests. There's the way they have been treating nuns recently, which is mind-boggling. There have definitely been times when people have wondered about me, or thought less of me, when I've told them that I'm Catholic.
But here's the thing: I believe strongly that if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. I want to be part of the solution.
So rather than criticize from the outside, which would be easy to do, I've jumped in. It's not just that I take my children to Mass every weekend. I do children's liturgy: Once a month, my dear friend Nancy and I take the children after opening prayers and do the readings and homily and prayers with them before bringing them back to rejoin their parents before communion. It's just as much a Mass as the Mass they leave for a while, and yet two women -- two moms -- do the things that priests usually do. Nancy and I love engaging the children in talking and thinking about faith; they are wonderful, clear-minded theologians. It's beautifully revolutionary -- and completely within the rules.
I'd always hoped that one of my children would want to be an altar server, and they always talked about it when they were little, but when they got old enough they chickened out or got defiant. That's fine -- choices involving faith should never be forced. I'd just about given up when Natasha said, "I want to be an altar server."
And now she is. And she does it with startling confidence, steadiness and grace.
She joins me now, from within. She is a woman with a role in the Mass, and every one of those we gather helps. But more than that, she is a child who has not only been raised in the traditions and tenets of the Catholic church, but raised to think and to question, raised to believe that all people are created equal, including gays and women, deserving of equal rights -- and that those rights are worth fighting for.
When I see her hold that cross proudly and walk down the aisle, it gives me hope.