Friday, August 31, 2018

My response to the Catholic Church's sexual abuse crisis

Kazuki Kobayashi/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
I have lived as an active, practicing Catholic for 35 years now, and in that time I've witnessed several huge "revelations" from the Catholic Church about heartbreaking abuse of members at the hands of its clergy, the most recent being the grand jury report covering six out of eight dioceses in Pennsylvania, my home state. (The quotes I put around "revelations," are quotes of anger and sarcasm, as the reports always include damning evidence of fellow clergy who, though not directly abusing, were complicit in its continuation.)

And as it happens every time such a "revelation" occurs, I find myself swirling down the same drain of despondent questions: Why do we as a Church continue to allow this to happen? What is wrong with our leadership that they can't fix, once and for all, this grave systemic sin in our midst? Is my best form of protest to leave the Church, or is it to stay and advocate for reform?

The last question is the most fundamental, and no matter my disgust, dismay, or despair, I always elect to stay. Why? Because in my 3.5 decades of churchgoing, my participation in very human parishes constantly reveals to me that the true Church is not the gilded halls of Vatican City, but the humble communities that strive, together, to make sense of a crazy world and a mysterious God.

Here are just some of the ways my churches have revealed the Body of Christ to me:
  • My childhood parish taught me that I had the ability to participate in lay ministry from an early age. I lectored, I sang, I served, all alongside other lay ministers who were using their gifts, talents, and interests to make manifest the Kingdom of God on earth.
  • My college parish underscored how a safe and welcoming community acts as foundational glue that binds its members through love, respect, and shared worship.
  • My time at a cathedral parish demonstrated the transformational and transportive power of liturgy, when prayerfully curated readings, music, and homilies created a serene solemnity that heightened my contemplation of mystery.
  • The parish where I met my husband exposed just how much influence an ordained minister can have over a parish community, in this case dramatically changing the tenor and personality of the church (in my opinion, in an exclusionary way) through force of will and exercise of power.
  • The parish I now attend illustrates the Body of Christ each week in a literal way: We all join hands through and across the pews to pray the Lord's Prayer together. And every.single.week, I well up when we do it. Because in that moment we really do become one body, welcoming every "imperfection" our society rejects and empowering our lay leaders to emphasize social justice so all might experience this tangible expression of grace somewhere in their lives.
When Pope Francis released his Letter to the People in God in response to the grand jury report, his message was based on St. Paul's words, "If one member suffers, all suffer together with it." For that reason, I was particularly receptive to my pastor's tearful homilies following the report's release exhorting us to actually do something, to demand "meaningful and transformational change" from our church leadership, ordained and lay alike.

In this spirit, I share with you the letter I plan to send to Pope Francis, as well as adapt for my bishop in Arlington and the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). I am but one cell in the Body of Christ, but cells agitate and move and work in concert with one another. So will I do for my Church in my insignificant way, because it can and must do better in the name of the God and Christ we claim to follow.

Letter to His Holiness, Pope Francis re. the Catholic Church's Sexual Abuse Crisis

Dear Your Holiness:

In light of yet another dramatic unveiling of clergy sexual abuse in America, I -- an actively practicing American Catholic woman -- write to you insisting on your bold, courageous, and creative leadership to address this systemic sin.

For too long, offending clerics' love of power (and the community's near-idol worship of them) has blinded our ordained leaders to the heinous crimes happening in their midst and clouded their conscience-driven judgment. Every level of church hierarchy -- from you, Your Holiness, to the Spiritan priest who leads my parish -- must unequivocally denounce and renounce the systems and bureaucracy that encourage complicit silence and criminal behavior.

While our collective prayer is certainly essential to the entire Church's healing process (as you called for in your recent letter), swift, visible, and lasting change led by righteous leaders must accompany it, or else their apologetic words are merely that: words.

As you prayerfully consider how to enact this change and demonstrate the Church's core commitment to the Body of Christ, please also consider the following as part of your discernment:
  • how you can encourage lay members, particularly women, to rise up and assume Spirit-driven, fruitful leadership within their faith communities;
  • how the Church's response might continue to divorce pedophilia from homosexuality within its discourse, and continue to show sincere, loving support for gay religious who lead chaste and celibate lives;
  • how existing charters, procedures, and processes for identifying and prosecuting criminal abuse can be enforced, improved, and made absolutely transparent, so that no other child of God need experience the trauma that so many have endured over the long life of the Church.
Your Holiness, I have great faith that your leadership, combined with the resolve of our entire, beautiful Body of Christ, can undo the systems that tie us to grave sin and instead rebuild a Church that emulates the emulates the Holy Spirit’s creative vision and nurturing wisdom. Thank you for all you are doing to lead us forward.


Julia Rocchi

Prayer #326: For Our Wounded Body

As a body bears its wounds -- bruised, bloody, lacerated -- so our Body of Christ limps toward You now. How endless our capacity for self-harm, how raw the wailing for our injured parts.

Our only comfort right now is that we remember You love us, broken and bestial as we are, and that You heed our collective moan and wordless plea for healing. Salve our hands, our feet, our very souls, so that we regain the strength to limp back out into the world and transform our scars into marks of redemption.


Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The singular silence of mystery

Secret door. davefayram/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

My husband's grandfather laid gaunt on the loaner hospital bed, immobile, toothless, eyes unfocused and expression blank.

Meanwhile our baby discoed within me, all perpetual and exploratory motion, growing by the hour, eyes and teeth and muscle knitting together.

One human was inching its way toward full humanity; the other, slowly relinquishing his grip on it. Both were absolutely silent, but not the kind of restorative stillness that a drizzly afternoon or a solemn cathedral offer. This silence deafened all who were keeping vigil, because in it we recognized how much we rely on language to reveal our reality.

In our midst were two beings experiencing profound and mysterious change, yet neither could communicate the full force of their transitions. Those of us in the known state -- the long liminality of existence -- could only sit and wonder what was going through our loved ones' minds. Were they restful or suffering? Comforted or scared? Peaceful or resistant? In one of life's cruelest tricks, we will never know, because we don't remember life before birth and we don't learn about death until we die.

Or maybe the trick is not cruel. Maybe it's intentional, these frustrating bookends of amnesia and incomprehension. Maybe we are kept from grasping it because to be endowed with full understanding from day one might spoil the fruits of the lifelong pursuit. Maybe questioning and pondering are the real design. And maybe that's why our very young are mute and our very old are struck dumb -- to preserve the mystery's integrity.

My husband's grandfather now rests in the ground, and our baby continues to swim and stretch, and neither one is spilling secrets. As it should be. Our time for revelation has not come.

Prayer #325: Secret Passage

Where you come from, I cannot meet you.

Where you head toward, I cannot follow.

I can only lean against the door
and listen for your knock,
the anticipated signal
that I am ready to explore

the cozy garret
the sunlit hall
the windswept field
the soothing lullaby
the dripping peach
the nubbly sweater
the under-bed dark
the new punctuation
the curious question
the longed-for answer

that sits beyond.


Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The wound that will never heal

Wounded. premasagar/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

"Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. Be willing to feel your anger, even though it may seem endless. The more you truly feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate and the more you will heal. There are many other emotions under the anger and you will get to them in time, but anger is the emotion we are most used to managing. The truth is that anger has no limits. [...] The anger becomes a bridge over the open sea, a connection from you to them. It is something to hold onto; and a connection made from the strength of anger feels better than nothing.We usually know more about suppressing anger than feeling it. The anger is just another indication of the intensity of your love."

From "The Five Stages of Grief," developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler

With each unbelievable, dystopian turn of the world, I realize anew that I am grieving the country and the fellow citizens I once thought I knew. And as with all grief, my feelings are rarely linear or tidy or expected. The pain surfaces from something as brief as a click-bait headline or as in-depth as a book about systemic racism. Sometimes I want to throw a brick through a window; other times I want to curl up and weep; other times I want to vomit. But always, no matter my desired outlet, I return to the horrible conclusion that in the face of so much injustice, I am impotent.

I have been here before. In fact, I am here often. What makes it worse now is that since 2016 I have been awakening -- not just intellectually, but spiritually -- to the suffering, injustice, and casual cruelty baked into the very fabric of our government, our society, and our humanity. I will grieve more deeply for the rest of my life because my new tears carry acid. They flood the floor where I stand, burn away the boards, and drop me into a liminal space that reveals to me my previous ignorance, understandable but no less acceptable for being accidental or unrecognized.

I know now that I have marching orders. But are my steps too small, I wonder? Do I let apathy roadblock me more than I should? Just because we as a nation are well beyond the reach of "civility" (cue bricks/weeping/vomit), just because our collective sin is deep and wide and egregious, does not allow me to stay and flail in a morass of angry, despairing tar.

So what do I do instead? A year ago, Nature Boy and I went to see Anne Lamott speak about her book Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy. Given that the book appeared in the wake of the presidential election, much of the audience Q&A centered on the theme, "Good God, what now?" But I distinctly remember one woman around my age, visibly pregnant, coming to the microphone and asking, "I'm about to bring a child into this world. And now I'm wondering if that was the right thing to do."

I don't remember Lamott's exact response (sorry St. Anne), but as I sit here visibly pregnant myself, pondering the same guilt-ridden question, the answer I want to hear goes something like this:

The world has always been terrible.

The world has always been wonderful.

Still, babies come.

Because life brings with it hope. It gives us all a second chance -- and maybe a second or third or eighteenth -- to do better by the whole human race, to admit we aren't feeling brave but move forward anyway, to believe and trust that love really does win. That love must win.

As Rep. John Lewis reminded me today:

Time to get into good trouble -- the kind that heals our wounds from the inside out.

Prayer #320: To Live as an Open Wound*

To live the Gospel is to live as an open wound -- raw, gushing, muscle torn and bone exposed. No tourniquet can staunch it. No bandage can bind it. For faith is weapon and treatment both, a battle cry and lullaby, a charge and a destiny. The wound is Love; its cure, the same.


* Yes, I'm repeating a prayer I wrote earlier this year. I just can't seem to shake the idea of "wound as metaphor."

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

And God said unto the people: "You got this."

Infinite variety. Justin De La Cornellas/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

-- Romans 8: 22-27 NIV

Prayer #324: Wordless Groans

You think me deaf, but I am fluent in your unlanguage.

I catch your sighs and laments on the wind, sense the tension in your jaws, hear the smooth glide of tears past your snuffling noses.

And I answer you in the same unlanguage: It doesn't have to be this way. Not with all I've given you.

You, I give patience. You, I give eloquence. You, I give energy; you, authority; you, insight. My gifts are creative and boundless, unique to the receiver in how they are reflected and shared. Between all of you -- the billions of you -- I have given you exactly what you need, and all I ask is that you deploy it. No thank-you note needed. The gratitude will show through the use. Go forth and do.


Monday, April 30, 2018

The universe within me

Alkelda/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

You formed my inmost being;
you knit me in my mother's womb.
I praise you, so wonderfully you made me;
wonderful are your works!
My very self you knew;
my bones were not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
fashioned as in the depths of the earth.

-- Psalm 139: 13-15

How can I sleep when a universe foments within me?

Cells dividing, DNA directing, body parts forming, details emerging ... all part of a new life, a collision of reproductive goods, a flash of pulsing light where once dark nothing reigned. All this happening in me, right now, a soul inside a soul.

A miracle I could not comprehend until I felt its effects.

A miracle that in the peaceful still of midnight, when the entire world pauses, pregnant with possibility, makes its mother get up to pee. Again.


After thirty years of daydreaming about being a parent, I have become one. Yes, I'm pregnant. No, the baby won't be in my arms for several months. Already, however, I feel the weight of parenthood bearing down, the responsibility to do as right by this little person as humanly possible (oh, and how human we will be) because I and my husband chose to create them. We chose to toss our most essential selves into the cosmic roulette wheel, and now we choose to accept the outcome of the bet.

This first decision isn't the biggest we'll face. You could argue that step #1 was the easiest (and the most fun!) because parenthood and personhood and LIFE were still theoretical from our vantage point on the cusp of creation. Our lives did not change in the trying, but in the achieving, they were immediately transformed.

Talk about revelation on a cellular level. The very core of my body is no longer mine alone. Now I move and eat and sleep with another beating heart in mind, and that little heart demands significant energy and attention, despite the surreal acknowledgment that I have no idea yet who possesses that heart.

Honestly, would you let someone you never met push you around? You would if they existed because of you, that much I can say. Thus I find myself focused entirely on keeping this peapod-sized human alive so they have a chance to become the best regular-sized person they can be.

But my focus will not be enough -- not now or ever. Even if they come out perfectly shaped and developmentally sound, the world will inform and evolve them in ways I can neither comprehend nor wrangle. All our love, all our financial investment, all our insistence on the consumption of homegrown vegetables will not set the full course of our child's life. There will be something in them that is uniquely, solely theirs -- a way of inhabiting their time on earth that perhaps we can attempt to foster, or correct, or applaud, but that we will never truly own in the way they will.

Every time I picture how our child will look (dark hair, wide-eyed stare) or act (curious, cautious) or feel (sensitive, delighted), I must remind myself of the infinite combinations that lie ahead. After all, we want this child in our lives not to satisfy our egos, but to manifest the depth of creation. Their existence, no matter its ultimate window dressing, will testify to that wonder every day of their lives. In this way our child is a constant prayer; their formation, a radical act of hope; our stewardship, a daunting display of trust.

I hope we can live up to it. (Read: Please dear God, don't let us screw this up.) Because this journey has precious little to do with bulking up on folic acid or bulwarking our finances. It's about taking the same care with our hearts I am taking with my body -- the same attention and attunement to nature, the same surrender to unseen forces, the same orientation toward the divine.

Child of ours, you are fearfully and wonderfully made. For that alone we stand in passionate awe, already overwhelmed by love.

Prayer #323: The Heart of the Matter

Of all the natural forms I've seen You take -- cloud-shrouded mountain peaks, technicolor sunsets, vast purple star fields -- not once did I picture You as a blurry kidney bean on a shaky sonogram screen, shifting in response to a poking wand, focusing every ounce of energy on throbbing an infinitesimal heart.

The rhythm of iambic pentameter, poetry scholars say, mirrors the heartbeat, which is why our human speech falls so easily into the pattern: that what we speak will echo what we are. But today, when through the womb's swishing tides I heard my child's undeniable pulse -- da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM -- I thought the scholars' assessment incomplete. We are more than actions, more than words. We are at our core simply alive, and anything that shares this fundamental state can communicate without language, matched beat for beat in our energy and potential.

As I entrust my body to you, Ultimate Creator, let we who shepherd this new life also entrust our hearts -- not the reliable workhorse pumps in our chests (though please, protect them too), but rather our limitless capacity for soul-fed love, our red-blooded zest for communion, so that we prepare with intention, participate with solemnity, and celebrate with unbridled joy.

Alleluia, Amen!

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Come sit with me

Picnic snack. Tara Faul/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

"Is it the doorbell ringing? Quick, open the door! It's God coming to love us. Is someone asking us to do something? Here you are! ... It's God coming to love us. Is it time to sit down for lunch? Let's go -- it's God coming to love us.

Let's let him."

-- Madeleine Delbrêl

What if all God is saying to me is, "Come sit with me. Sit down. Just sit." And all the while God pats the picnic blanket, lays out a snack, picks off the stray piece of grass, readies the spot meant for me alone on the brightly checked cloth. The lure is strong. Sun-warmed and soft, it beckons me. But I am not ready to sit. Or rather, I am not willing.

God's sincere request -- "come sit with me!" -- is not difficult to heed, but sometimes feels impossible to fulfill. How can I sit when I have goals to pursue and tasks to complete, when I have human relationships that require attention and care? Why should I sit on a blanket with a God who is everywhere, around me and within me, just to partake of a snack when I could instead expend energy to act on God's word? Surely I know what God wants of me. Surely God wants me just to "do it," whatever I perceive "it" to be.

In my mind, to sit is to surrender, and not in the meaningful spiritual way. It signals rest where I see no room for rest, and quiet where I do not wish to listen. If I sit with God, I must BE with God. Not that being with God requires small talk or logistics. We're not at a cocktail party. It merely requires I show up. But showing up does mean relinquishing something else -- like fun. Or ego. Or control.

No wonder I continue to decline God's invitation.

Yet God keeps asking and patting and putting out snacks anyway. How miraculous that the blanket never scratches and the food never stales. How wondrous that the request never changes: "Come sit with me. Sit down. Just sit." A simple act with profound results, if only I accept.

Prayer #322: Picnic

One day, God, I'm certain you'll tire of following me around with your re-folded blanket and your picked-up shoes and the basket full of goodies that I never help you lighten. One day you will notice that the sun has set, or the food has molded, or the park where you've been pursuing me has been bulldozed to make way for a housing development, and you'll shrug your divine shoulders and think, "Better luck with the next one" before you head home to put up your feet.

No one can keep up a pursuit this long, especially when there's no reciprocation.

This is how I escape you, right God? I'll pretend I don't see or hear you. I'll pretend you're incapable of loving me. I'll pretend you're pretending, too, but only I will be none the wiser.


Saturday, February 17, 2018

And just like that, a decade

Strike 10. xtfer/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Yesterday I exited the Metro turnstile at Ballston and went back in time. With stunning clarity the 8.5 years of this exact motion appeared in aggregate before me. I was 24. I was returning from work in Dupont Circle. I was walking home to my rented townhouse.

But none of this was true. I, aged 34, was getting off at Ballston so my husband could pick me up in our car and we could head to our church in South Arlington for a Mardi Gras pancake dinner. After that we'd return to our single family home one metro stop farther (with a stop at the grocery store first), where we'd complete a couple chores, have tea, and settle into bed.

Ballston doesn't look the same anymore, and neither do I. The gas station behind the old townhome is gone, replaced by a huge apartment complex that obscures the familiar bricks that used to greet me every evening. Three new people inhabit the space where I poured my heart into many festivities, tears, and routines. The surrounding area has morphed too; the mall is ravaged, buildings are new or emptied, restaurants have come and gone, and with them all my sense of place, the halo of my wide-eyed youth.

Don't get me wrong, Ballston's general 1980s-era architectural aesthetic remains intact, but I view it with different, older eyes. I now live in the settled 'burbs by comparison, where houses are homes grown organically across the decades. My neighborhood has lawns and shrubbery, a host of tasteful additions. I can no longer walk to the grocery store. We have not only a driveway, but a car. We have not only a yard, but a garden. And all this with a spouse.

Yes, circumstances certainly have changed since February 3, 2008, when I first moved to Arlington. As I wrote at my one-year DC anniversary:

I'm overwhelmed by excitement. And loss. And a profound sense of growing stronger, growing smarter, growing up.

At my second I wrote:

I mark milestones mainly because they're a socially sanctioned form of navel-gazing, much like blogging or karaoke. They compress all your major victories, minor frustrations, and regular chores into one convenient timeframe, and push all the trends you missed (or chose to ignore) to the surface.

At my third:

At this rate, I'll be published in 2052. If I'm lucky. But who cares?? I'm having a ball and loving that I'm a writer who's actually writing. Finally.

And at my fourth:

... this time around I'm older and wiser. I know that peripheral vision doesn't deliver the full picture. I also know I'm made of tough enough stuff that I can look the oncoming year straight in the eye and say, "I have scant idea what you're bringing, but bring it anyway." And I know that I'll mean it.

I didn't write any more DC anniversary posts after that. A shame, because boy, did a lot change in the intervening years. I broke off a long-term relationship, I lost two grandparents, I dated, I earned a graduate degree, I fell in love with Nature Boy, I progressed in my career, I traveled to many new places, I changed parishes, I moved, I married Nature Boy, I got published, I witnessed a change in administration (a very DC thing to say, I know), I got published some more, I became more involved in social justice, I kept writing and blogging ...

Through it all, I dreamed. I hoped and cried and wondered. Set new goals, reached them, set some more. Checked out heaps of books from the library. Learned new board games. Acquired a few cookbooks. And acknowledged on February 3, 2018 that I am legitimately an adult in her mid-thirties, a citizen who has called a place home for ten years, a person who has put down deep roots as the river swirls around her.

I am still me, though. The words that marked my milestones from 2009-2012 resonate with me today. I recognize her, this growing girl-to-woman who wrote with increasing steeliness. In her voice I hear the frequencies of curiosity and confidence, worry and optimism, stubbornness and laughter that carried her to where she sits today, and that will carry her for decades to come (which is good, because her back is starting to hurt more).

Best of all, I have hung pictures at our new house in less than two years. If that's not a sign of maturity and wisdom, I don't know what is.

Prayer #321: Count to 10

1, 2, 3, ... I tick the numbers off my fingers, off my toes, off the Rosary beads and Commandments, this magical, mystical, whole number that ends one cycle and starts another.

4, 5, 6, ... I read you are the number of heaven, the number of "the world and universal creation." You require two numbers to complete you; all other fundamental numbers roll up to you.

7, 8, 9, ... Strike, dime, after, pole, hang, top, lords a-leaping. Your ordinary invocations belie your significance. You are complete and perfect, just as you are. Transitions are chaotic (and indeed, what is life but one endless transition), but you are the anchoring hinge.

10 ... On you I rest. On you I turn. On you I begin again.