Cardinal Martini discussed several issues now facing the Church, but the words that burned into my mind were these: “A woman is abandoned by her husband and finds a new companion to look after her and her children. A second love succeeds. If this family is discriminated against, not just the mother will be cut off but also her children. In this way, the church loses the future generation.”
I felt the Cardinal was looking directly into my past. My mother was not abandoned but lost her husband and the father of her two sons when my dad died when I was six years old and my brother 11. About five years later, my mother met and married a newcomer to our hometown of Rosedale. The only problem was that he was a divorced man.
The local priest took exception to their marriage and declared my mother to be “living in sin.” He forbad her to receive the sacraments of the church or even to serve on the altar society, a group of ladies who laundered the altar linens and maintained the instruments of Mass, a duty my mother loved and carried out with reverential awe. My mother knew but never complained that at least one other lady in the church had married a divorced man years before the priest had arrived in Rosedale and that she was still permitted all the privileges of the Church -- as she should have been for she was a good lady also.
My mother was deeply hurt but withstood the discrimination quietly, as was her manner, and remained a faithful Catholic for several months. Until her dying day, she said one of the proudest moments of her life was when her youngest son became old enough to join his altar boy brother in serving Mass together for the first time. Eventually, Mama had enough of the harassment and joined my church-going stepfather by becoming as devout a Baptist as she had been a Catholic.
I remained a Catholic and an altar boy for a year or so, or at least until the priest learned that I was a regular each Sunday night at the local Presbyterian Church where an interdenominational young people’s meeting was led by a lady who enriched the lives of many teens in our town, Mrs. Edith Simpson. I was told by the priest that I could no longer attend, but disobeyed him to the point that he said I had to choose between the Church and the young people’s group.
I remember vividly the day the priest presented his ultimatum as we were disrobing after Mass one Sunday. I remember because it was the first time I stood up to an adult, much less a priest. I hesitated for a moment as I finished hanging my cassock in the closet before all the pent-up emotions burst out uncontrollably, “Well, if my mother is not good enough to be a part of this church in your opinion, then I’m certainly not.”
I began attending churches of other faiths in my hometown with young friends as I searched for a new home and eventually became an Episcopalian as an adult. By the way, that “sinful” marriage my mother entered into turned out to be a 25-year love story and my brother and I gained the best stepdad a person could wish for until his death on Christmas Day, 1975.
I acknowledge that the priest’s condemnation may have been extreme, but it happened to my mother, and similar occurrences may have happened to others, judging by Cardinal Martini’s words. I sincerely apologize if I have offended anyone in any way in recounting this story. That was not my intention, but the Cardinal’s remark opened old wounds and allowed me to finally purge my soul of resentment that had been festering far too long. My mother was a saint, not a sinner, regardless of what anyone this side of God may have thought or said.
Confession is good for the soul. So is forgiveness, and I’m working on that.