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(I wrote this piece in October of 2005 for the now-defunct Catholic New Times, a newspaper for progressive Catholics.)

I had two recent experiences that bookended my summer and also presented me with a graphic picture of the range of views in today’s Catholic Church.

At the beginning of the summer, I went to Mass in a big beautiful church in another city. I was enthralled by my surroundings but unfortunately, as the Mass progressed, I became grateful for the beauty, grateful for something other than the words of the homily to put my mind to.

The homily was spoken by the deacon and early on he asked us to consider the evil that surrounds all of us, every day. Yes, indeed, I thought – and considered racism, domestic violence, illegal wars, child abuse.

“Birth control,” he intoned solemnly. Oh dear Lord, I thought. He’s opening with birth control. He went from birth control to divorce to abortion to – his real destination – same-sex marriage. He was followed by the priest who asked us to pray that the politicians in Ottawa would not pass the marriage bill.

I dragged myself out of church that day, feeling rotten, and said to my husband, “This is not how a person should feel, leaving the Mass.”

I have never been subjected to this style of preaching. I am fortunate – blessed, even – to be in a parish where the priest is a scholar and historian, who uses his homily to interpret the day’s readings and to give us a greater understanding of the teachings of Jesus.

In our church, we don’t pray for politicians to close their eyes and ears – and their minds. We pray for them to work for peace in the world and to put policies into place that would reduce the gap between rich and poor.

At the end of the summer, I took part in a conference for recipients of the Canada Millennium Scholarship in Ottawa. One of the workshops I attended was called The Catholic Church: A Call for Internal Reform. I couldn’t resist it. It featured Father Raymond Gravel, a parish priest in Joliette, Que. In the program introduction to his workshop, he’s quoted saying, “To truly follow the teachings of the Gospel, the Church must become more open, more welcoming, more tolerant and more revolutionary.”

He is an open and outspoken – and cheerful – priest who preaches the Gospel of love and acceptance and inclusion. He was given the Fight Against Homophobia 2004 Award to highlight his exceptional contribution in the debate about gay marriage when he said that “the Vatican was wrong when it condemns such a marriage.” He has happily and publicly opposed the Church on other controversial subjects such as abortion, the ordination of women and marriage for priests.

He was sent a letter of reprimand by then-Cardinal Ratzinger entreating him to return to the fold and conform to conventional Catholic dogma but he’s still enthusiastically unconventional, by most Catholic standards today.

I listened to Father Gravel in a brightly-lighted room full of young people – all in their late teens and early twenties. They were engaged and listening intently. They had many questions both challenging Father Gravel and seeking further information. Many of them prefaced their questions by saying, “I was raised Catholic but I don’t consider myself Catholic any more.” There was excited chatter in the hallways as the young people left the workshop, still discussing everything they had heard.

The beautiful church where I heard the homily at the beginning of the summer was dim and still and cool – like the old churches in Europe. There were no young people there, no challenging questions, no chatter. There wasn’t much of anything.

When I look back, the symbolism couldn’t be clearer.

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