Entering the big tent

A new member finds a lot of space for her to find her place in the church.

Guest blog by Julia Smucker

On October 24, 2010, I had a strange and surprising line to speak: “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.”

It was a line that required quite a bit of unpacking before it would initiate my reception and confirmation into the Catholic Church, a public affirmation of what I had already become. I found that many things were contained within that “all”—including, surprisingly, an incredible amount of room. That space is where the living conversation known as tradition happens.

I was not saying, “Here is my brain, to be replaced by canon law.” Instead, I was saying, “Here is all of me. I choose to enter into this conversation.” Here is all of me: There is an element of self-surrender here too. I give myself to what I need. I confess how small I am.

I spoke my line with fear and trembling (the only way to say a thing like that, even with all the unpacking). A wise and humble servant leader whom I deeply admire crossed my forehead with chrism oil, saying, “Julia Hildegard, be sealed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit.”

I claim my chosen patron saint Hildegard of Bingen (whom I have heard praised in oversimplified ways for obedience or disobedience, depending on the speaker’s attitude toward matters of authority and rebellion) both as a model for being a woman in the church and as evidence that there is a definite and, yes, a precedented place in the church for women who boldly speak their minds.

I want to affirm, not invalidate, others whose ecclesial experience has included more pain and rejection than mine has. Their voices are needed in the church, and I sincerely hope they stay to critique it from within. I myself will not hesitate to do so when conscience demands as much. And yet their stories are not mine.

My twisted and meandering journey into the Catholic Church has had its share of stumbling blocks, to be sure. Along the way I have encountered some very staunch Catholics who speak reverently of their church and its leadership as if it could do no wrong, and some very disgruntled Catholics who speak angrily of their church and its leadership as if it could do no right, as well as (thankfully) people at various places between these two extremes.

My confirmation sponsor was surely right to call the Catholic Church “the ultimate big tent.” And if it has room for people near either of those poles to be inside of it together, then surely there must be room in there for me to navigate my way between staunch Catholics and disgruntled ones and commit myself to this motley crew in the middle of all that.

True, as the aforementioned servant leader who confirmed me once said, “Our institutional clunkiness can drive us batty at times.” And still I love this big clunky institution, far beyond any blind infatuation. I love it enough to endure lovers’ quarrels, to see faults and flaws and ugly parts and decide it’s worth it. I feel strangely honored to be a part of this two-millennia-and-still-going conversation—or, if you prefer, this two-millennia-running circus. 

Julia Smucker is an M.A. student at Saint John’s School of Theology in Collegeville, Minnesota.

As a supplement of the January 2011 special issue on women, U.S. Catholic is asking guest bloggers, “How do you keep the faith as a woman in the church?” To submit your answer (about 500 words), e-mail onlineeditor@uscatholic.org.

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.