With all due respect, I think you should model love, not judgment.
Monday, November 9, 2020
To the White-Haired Ladies in my Catholic parish:
It pains me to write this letter. I grew up in a parish in New Jersey, 20 minutes up the Garden State Parkway from here and a 10-minute drive to the East.
When I was a homesick freshman at Douglass College, 1 1/2 hours away from my family, I found a strong thread to my girlhood at Sunday Mass in Voorhees Chapel, by the green Ravine Bridge. It comforted me to know that I was saying the same prayers as my mother, who was at the 12:45 p.m. Catholic Mass back in Dumont.
I moved into my own apartment in a cute Jersey Shore town, and joined a parish there. Since I worked in Manhattan, I also attended services on Holy Days at lunchtime there, at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral or St. Francis of Assisi on West 31st Street — a beautiful place to pray, with a website motto that says “We welcome all people.”
The seaside parish, which held rare Masses at the beach, was more homogenous and judgmental. Was it that, or that I was now navigating my faith on my own as a 26-year-old, not as Anne Garbarini’s daughter in a tight-knit Catholic community? (My Mom was in the Rosary & Altar Society and prayed novenas to Mary. She and my Dad raised four children in the parish.) I remember one hot, painful Sunday. I wore my cuffed white shorts and was accompanied by my then-boyfriend/now-husband. An older man wielding a walker chastized me outside the church.
“God doesn’t want to see you like that,” he hollered across the crowd. I felt ashamed and embarrassed of my tanned legs, but I didn’t lose my faith — I only questioned it. My God was a loving God, not superior and mean. I remembered a prayer card my Dad had given me, about God being like a father, glad if you stopped by “even for a minute” to visit.
I’ve been in our current parish, in this upscale town, since my husband and I married in 1991. The parishioners tip toward well-heeled, though I read that originally, the old church was built by immigrant servants who wanted a place to worship.
But I have a problem with your discerning eyes, dear White-Haired Ladies. And I do not mean your eye for the perfect cut of coat, the best diamond studs, the wealthiest man — for buttery leather shoes and a fine handbag. I mean your eye for disapproving of my girl in God’s house.
Do you have any idea what a struggle it is to get her to Mass in the time of Covid? Have you noticed how few people are filling the pews that are not cordoned off with ribbon? You are not in the image of God if you are judging. Case in point: “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.”
My Skipper (a pen name for her) does not show outward signs of having special needs, but she does. When you swivel your head and look disapprovingly at her, you know not what her journey has been. I cannot go into details here. You see a spunky, stylish and pretty brunette, age 13, acting fresh, pushing the envelope.
You do not see the fallout of a complicated past. She cannot be legally adopted by my husband and me, though we and our older daughter would love to make our tie official. The decision is out of Skip’s control. We are her legal guardians, and we are trying our best. So is she. To paraphrase a song, “She ain’t heavy, she’s our angel.”
When she says “This is torture” loud enough during noon Mass for you to hear, can you please not make me feel worse for taking her there? I like to think – in fact, I know – that when I, God willing, am a White-Haired Lady 20 years down the road, if I hear a teen talking like that or otherwise giving her adult a hard time, I will intentionally turn around and smile warmly. I will not sigh or wag my head in disbelief.
True, I was kind of a goody two-shoes preteen, in my navy blue knee socks. But I believe that the White-Haired Ladies in my hometown parish would have been caring and interested, in any case. That congregation was more salt of the earth. My church friends’ fathers included one shoemaker; two New York City busdrivers; one town garbage collector; two volunteer firefighters. The ladies were a part of the whole, a part of the fold. I remember them at the Christmas Fair, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, the May Procession, Christmas Day. I remember warmth, not judgment.
I don’t know about your life and you don’t know about ours. I imagine that you must have well-behaved grandchildren, and bully for you. Honestly, that is a blessing and a reflection of good parenting. But this is my girl, and I’m giving it my all and trying to keep the faith.
It is because of you that this Sunday I caved and told Skipper, “Okay, go wait outside.” And she was safe, but walked to a friend’s house nearby. We know our town well, so that was okay.
But did you expect me to leave, too? What of my prayer time? And my efforts to give Skippy the gift of solace, grace, beauty, inner strength, peace and spirituality — a gift you cannot buy?
Please pause before you sigh and roll your eyes next time. That’s all I ask.
Sincerely and thanks,
Alice Garbarini Hurley has stuck with Catholicism since her days at Saint Mary’s School. Her first grade teacher, Sister Agnes, who had blue eyes and rimless glasses, instilled fear in the heart but also faith in the power of prayer.