Why stay?

by Phyllis Zagano

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"Why do you stay?" "How can you stay?" I get these questions all the time. So do you.

Why do you and how can you stay in the dysfunctional, embarrassing, confusing Catholic church, with all its luggage? It never ends. Just when you think one case is unpacked and put away, the Catholic baggage carousel makes a turn and another one shows up.

The small ones are almost more bothersome than the large ones. So the visiting priest insists on taking over the deacon's lines. So the pastor eliminates the names of the pastoral council from the bulletin. So the bishop has a new rule about who can distribute Communion. So the bishops' conference wants all the seminarians in cassocks.

And so it goes.

We've suffered the big hits: the priest who molested 150 children, the pastor who gambled away the parish endowment, the bishop who covered up the pederasts. The stories came and went, and the great engine of the hierarchy chugs along as if little, if anything, has happened.

Do they get it? The new episcopal fashion statement is silver chains and crosses. But at their meetings, they swap stories over hot lunches, ride in luxury buses, and attend fancy receptions run by special clergy- and religious-only psychiatric treatment centers.

There is much to be embarrassed by.

So why stay?

The prelude here belies the real question.

I do not belong to a church of good-old-boy camaraderie or to one that looks the other way. I know the criticisms of clergy, and I know not all can or should be criticized. The complaints are not all that different from those about any bureaucracy. The church has grown into a multinational corporation that can rival any other, and it has its own bureaucracy to manage its affairs. (That, of course, is the church's Achilles' heel: Ministry in too many places has been replaced by bureaucracy.)

But I do not belong to the church of the bureaucrats. I belong to the church that is the People of God who have seen and heard and believe the Gospel.

I think the bishops and their priests believe the Gospel. But they are increasingly tangled in the bureaucratic web that complicates their every move and reminds them there's a lawyer around every bend.

If you look down the toll road that bureaucracy says leads to salvation, you will see that many toll booths make some sense, and some others make a lot of sense. It's just that too many toll takers are so bored, so angry, so heartless in their unwillingness to make any change that the road backs up and folks go over the median to someplace, anyplace, else.

But to whom shall we go? The fact is, being Catholic does not mean being a toll payer any more than it means being a toll taker. It means carrying or being carried by the Gospel in all its forms, in all its iterations. It is less about judging and more about enjoying the very precious days of life we have.

I know the church's hierarchy seems to have transcribed every single saying of Jesus into one law or another. But the church that I belong to is not one of law. No, the church I belong to is the church of the prophets. It is the church of Oscar Romero and of Dorothy Day. It is the church of soup kitchens and children's shelters. It is the church that finds that both women and men are made in the image and likeness of God, and that they can and really do image Christ.

So the church I belong to is not so involved with bureaucracy. The church I belong to is more interested in the Gospel.

That is why I stay.

[Phyllis Zagano is senior research associate-in-residence at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. She will speak Sept. 19 in Philadelphia. Her newest books are Mysticism and the Spiritual Quest: A Crosscultural Anthology and Women in Ministry: Emerging Questions about the Diaconate.]

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A version of this story appeared in the July 3-16, 2015 print issue under the headline: The ever-present question: Why stay?.

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