Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Why I (finally) Stopped Attending Church...

In 2014, I blogged about why, despite many issues with hierarchies, politics, and status quo culture, I still attended church:

I think, for me, it comes down to the deep love and devotion I have for the Eucharist itself, known by many names across many traditions- the Lord’s supper, holy communion, the holy mysteries, the breaking of the bread, an t-aifreann… I’ll struggle with teaching, doctrine, music, practice and people, but all that recedes into the background for me when I am in the presence of the elements- this bread and this wine that at the same time we believe to be so much more.
This is where I meet Jesus. 
If that connection to the Eucharist ever goes away- if that feeling of stability and connection to faith and history ever recedes- then I will indeed stop going to church…

(You can read the whole thing here.)

Well, I haven’t been to Mass in over a year now, so I think it’s safe to say that I am no longer a regular attender.

I don’t go to church any more.

And no one, I suspect, was more surprised than me to discover that, in the end, it had nothing to do with the reason above, the reason that I thought was my bottom line.

For the truth is that I still have a deep love and devotion to the Eucharist;

I still feel deeply connected to the body and blood of Jesus. I still think of it as the place I meet- I commune- with Christ;

I still feel a deep connection to my faith, my Church, the universal, eternal body spread across the ages…

But I don’t go to Church any more. And the pain from that is deep and awful.

So what happened? Why don’t I go? Why stay away when staying away brings such hurt?

While I don’t think it necessary or appropriate to go into minute details, it suffices to say that just about two years ago, an 18-year relationship came to an end and for about a year my world fell apart.

As anyone who goes through that kind of trauma will attest, everything warm and familiar, stable and secure vanished. Everything within me and without transformed into pain and loss, confusion and fear.

I had been attending my local Catholic parish for about two years previous to this, and had built some relationships there. I’d met people at suppers, meetings, prayer groups, and in my role helping to facilitate the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) programme. I felt close to a small but solid group of people in the parish.

The church was a bit of a culture shock coming from the Irish Catholic Church, and I had struggled a bit, but most of my struggles were, I thought, fairly mild. Again they weren’t really about my personal faith, but about aesthetics, emphasis, tone, and priorities. I still didn’t like the music; I still struggled with the fawning over John Paul II and Mother Teresa; I still didn’t like the careless talk and jokey homilies; and I still thought the teaching materials were too conservative.

But the liturgy was there. The elements were there. The one, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church was there.

So I was there.

And in my moment of greatest pain and need I turned to the Church.

I reached out to the deacon of our parish, phoning him at the church. I told him what happened. He was kind and sympathetic, but I could tell from his manner on the phone that I’d caught him as he was going out the door. He told me that our former priest, who had just retired in his 80s and was in poor health, had just been hospitalized and wasn’t expected to live much longer. He told me that I should really get in touch with our new parish priest, who’s first Sunday had been the previous week.  

Now, I did understand that this man, who had a lot of responsibilities within the church on the best of days, was not going to be able to drop everything- particularly a hospital call. But he had handed me off to someone I didn’t know and didn’t know me and I never heard from him again. He had fallen back on the basic Catholic chain of command; in a strictly canonical and theological sense, my personal relationship with the priest was immaterial.

In his eyes, my problem needed a priest- any priest. But regardless of that, actually my problem needed a friend and a cup of coffee…

I reached out to an older couple who had had me over before. They cooked me dinner, which did feel good. But my guess is that our relationship wasn’t deep enough to be invited over more than once…

I kept going to Mass as I normally did, but I was an emotional wreck. I would just sit there in tears.

I was in tears as I passed the peace to those around me.

I was in tears kneeling for the Eucharistic prayers.

I was in tears as I went forward and received the elements.

‘The body of Christ.’ (weeping) ‘Amen…’

‘The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.’ (weeping) ‘Amen …’

I was in tears as I returned to my seat and in tears as I knelt in prayer.

I was in tears after the service. I would sit or kneel in silence, in tears.

It was the same for four weeks. My emotions were real and raw. Yet in those four weeks, no one sat with me or comforted me. No one phoned. No one dropped by.  

Never had I felt so alone.

I wasn’t angry; I was too fragile to feel anything but grief.

But I was embarrassed and hurt.

The fifth week, I couldn’t face doing it again…

… Which pretty much brings us up to the present.

When it comes to that particular parish, I find myself not so much in a place of not wanting to go back as not really knowing how. I’ve lived in the Christian context my whole life, and I don’t want to feed one particular false assumption that many Christians have- that those who are ‘struggling’ may drift away, but they always come back, and their return is the sign that the ‘struggles’ are over.

But I don’t really know if my ‘struggle’ is indeed ‘over’. I’m no longer dealing with the depths of despair that I had at the beginning; my former wife and I see each other often, we like each other, we raise our two kids together, trust and respect each other, and are good friends.

But… I still feel loss now and again. I still feel lonely now and again… and my local parish wasn’t there for me when I needed them the most, and that weighs heavily on me. I don’t want them to be put in the position to see me arrive for Mass again and make the assumption, ‘oh, he’s back. He must be better.’

I am better… But they didn’t help me get better.

I haven’t left the Church; if I were back in Belfast, I’d be at Clonard Monastery. If I were in Jerusalem, I would kneel and kiss the Stone of Anointing in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. If I were in Bethlehem, I would join pilgrims in the Church of the Nativity. I pray daily. I’m regularly in the Prayer Book. I burn candles and incense in front of the icons often. I’m still moved by the same theological books, the same devotionals, the same biblical texts. I feel Catholic. I am Catholic.

I haven’t left the Church.

But I have left my parish…

And I don’t think I’m missed.


  1. Any church where the Holy Spirit is quenched, is dying or dead. Been going on for 2000 years. I know it's lonely, been going through something similar myself. Isolation will kill you.

  2. With you there, Jon. I keep trying different churches and getting disappointed, but still stubborn enough to keep trying, despite this, mainly still there for how the music lifts me, even if its only a good organ and no choir.

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