Is my church dying? I cannot be the only Catholic in America asking this question. It's unthinkable, in a way. For those of us who grew up in the techno-accelerated modern world, the church has long been a source of stability, permanence, transcendence. I remember the feelings of my childhood, when my local Catholic church was the only place I felt connected to something truly profound. I recall the first time I went, as an altar boy, into the sacristy where the priest vested himself. I felt as if I were entering the most sacred place on Earth. The smell of incense, the touch of candle wax, the overly starched cotton of my surplice as I knelt before the sacred mystery of the Eucharist: in the words of the poet Philip Larkin, "a serious house on serious earth" this was, a refuge and a beacon, a rebuke to the chatter and trivia and destabilizing noise of the world outside and beyond. And the knowledge that these rituals, these words, these miracles, had been going on for centuries and centuries, reaching back to small groups of confused followers in the aftermath of the Resurrection, only intensified the awe I felt and still feel. Where else do we experience simple injunctions to reverence any more? To obedience? To simple silence in the face of an ineffable God?
And yet, as a post-Vatican II Catholic, I also lived in a wide, diverse world. In this modernity of discussion and skepticism, of irreverence and sensuality, of technology and pop culture, I felt equally at home. Like many Catholics of my generation (I'm in my late 30s), I grew up not in a tightly knit urban Catholic enclave--most of my family emigrated to Britain from Ireland at the beginning of the last century--but in the booming suburbs of the 1960s and 1970s. My Irish grandmother was barely literate. Her grandson has an Ivy League Ph.D. But while my peers left the church or scorned its structures, I stayed. Even as I discovered that I was homosexual, I couldn't leave. I knew somewhere deep in my soul that God was real, that his church was essential, that the Gospels were true, that the sacraments were indispensable. I couldn't address a priest except as Father, leaving all my usual orneriness aside, when I saw the collar. Although the gulf grew between my life and the institutional church I still attended, it never occurred to me that I was no longer a Catholic. I was a sinner--that much I knew. But the church, I was taught, was for sinners, not saints. And for all its many faults, I still trusted the church, revered it. Even when it inflicted real pain, when it callously treated women as second-class Catholics, when it wounded good people in bad marriages, when it penetrated into the souls of young gay kids and made them hate themselves, I knew that it was a human institution on a divine mission. Human institutions fail. But, I reminded myself, they can also change.