For months after I completed the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in my parish, I would often crane my head around during Mass, looking for the 15 or so other candidates who had become fully initiated Catholics along with me at Easter. But somehow they had all vanished. As a returning Catholic who had come bearing a lot of doubts and questions after a 20-plus year ramble through the fields of punk rock and Berkeley politics, I was hungry for spiritual community, but I never quite found it in the RCIA. With five different Sunday services to choose from, perhaps my class partners were just scattered among them. A priest told me, “God will know when to send you companions.” While he had been right about everything else so far, I suspected he might be wrong about that.
Every week I drifted to Mass in a bubble until I got an e-mail message from my confirmation sponsor, who is a feminist, a liberal and a social justice activist. We had been introduced by our parish priest and had hit it off in our short conversations. She asked if I’d like to join her prayer group—a once-a-month gathering of a few like-minded Catholic women. “We pray together,” she wrote, “and complain about the church.” It took me about five seconds to reply, “How soon can we meet?”
The prayer ladies may be a little irreverent, but they are also the best Catholics I know. Two are single, one is married with kids, one has a longtime partner, and they are all actively involved in ministries. From their work—from giving spiritual direction to teaching theology to running the parish monthly dinner for homeless guests—they are role models as modern Catholic women, especially to me. They are all feminists, and they are all liberals in the best sense. We often talk about the desire we share for social equality, a solution to poverty in our communities, more people to make a greater commitment to helping others.
Often we talk about our problems with the big-C church. It’s not “blasphemy and a nice cup of tea,” but it is a chance to hash out frustrations we feel as lay people, and particularly as lay women, in a church that too often fails to include our voices. My own decision to come back to the church was one fraught with difficulties about the patriarchal structure of Catholicism and the backpedaling from the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. I feared that the church was cultivating a culture of secrecy. The priests and nuns I met shared some of these doubts and concerns, but here is the funny thing: they believed anyway. So do my friends. Catholicism at its best allows us to think critically, to examine things from multiple angles. That is what we do together. Their faith helps me hold on to my own, however tenuous it might sometimes be.
Our small community harkens back to the oldest days of the Catholic Church. When the pastor of our sprawling parish recently asked people to give him feedback on what the parish could do to cultivate community, the answer came back clarion clear: more intimate connection with others, smaller group gatherings, a chance to finally learn the name of the person you have been sitting behind for 15 years. Most of the people who came to that meeting were women, and their desire to forge lasting relationships within the parish came from a very human need: the need to be recognized, the need to be heard, the need to be understood.
That is what Jesus did for his disciples, including the women who stood at the foot of the cross as he died and the women who went to the tomb when he rose to live again. At a time when the church often behaves as though it is combating its own death, it is not surprising that lay people are crying out for greater knowledge of one another. If Jesus taught us to recognize God in the poor and the outcast, it is up to us to learn to minister to one another’s spiritual poverty and social rejection.
On the evenings when our group gathers, we learn what parts of our lives require nurturing and healing, then we read a short Scripture passage or prayer. We talk about whom we want to hold in prayer that evening, and we meditate together. It is in that time of silence that I most often sense the spiritual bond these women have cultivated for more than a decade. A Poor Clare nun I met last year explained her understanding of God as “relational energy”—the mutual exchange of compassion and love that our faith lives should provide. When our contemplative group concludes meditation and recites a psalm, that energy not only lingers in the room, but sustains us until we gather again.
I am the youngest member of the group. I feel I have gained not only four sisters but four spiritual directors, each of whom in her own way helps me to find my place in this faith, even if that place will always be on the fringes. Our ministry may be a tiny one in this vast, often impersonal church, but we try to carry the small light of our faith into our secular lives. Knowing my friends, I have no doubt that others can see it.