I attended daily mass at 7 a.m. like it was on my class schedule at Florida State University.
The Catholic Church was at the top of the hill across the street from campus, so it might as well have been a class. One of those mornings, I woke to find my freshman suitemate sitting in our common room, drinking straight from a bottle of Jack Daniels. Her shoulders slurred along with her words: “Well, I have a biology exam at 8, so I might as well just stay up for it.”
I walked out the door, laughing with her, not really explaining why I was up at that hour. The sun was rising behind the church, as if it were inviting me toward the enlightenment I believed waited inside.
My experience growing up Catholic was a joyful, safe and loving one. I realize this is not the experience of many Catholics in the United States, but it truly was mine. My Irish Catholic family has upheld the practice of this faith over generations.
The women in my family are forces, leading by example in love, generosity, forgiveness and understanding. They live out their Catholic faith side by side with their husbands, brothers, fathers and sons. My two grandmothers, both widowed by the age of 65, have spent most of my lifetime living independently and actively in their church communities. They are women filled with great faith and a humble but noticeable strength. I treasure watching these women lead and love their families.
Early in my first semester of college, I felt lost and lonely, so when I met a group of nice people, trying to get closer to the God I believed in, it seemed like a no-brainer to join the Catholic Student Union. My phone rang with an invitation from a sophomore girl who I had met at a CSU event. A bunch of them were going to Panera after Mass that evening, and did I want to come? I was thrilled. We wore sundresses that suited the Tallahassee evening, and we had coffee and cookies. As the group of us sat at two tables pushed together, the discussion went to heavy spiritual talk. They seemed at ease in a way I was not yet, and I liked the deep conversation.
CSU was led by a religious order called The Brotherhood of Hope, men ordained as “Brothers” after about half of the training and schooling required to become a Catholic priest. At the CSU, though, they functioned in a similar leadership role. These men took vows of chastity, poverty and obedience while devoting their lives to encouraging college students to encounter Jesus.
They wore a uniform of gray shirts and slacks, embellished only by the large crucifixes hanging from their necks. They hosted retreats and weekly spirit nights. A large focus of their ministry was recruiting college-aged men. All of my male friends in this community spent a lengthy period discerning whether they were called to become priests. The female counterparts to the Brothers were interns, usually 22 or 23 years old, just out of school themselves.
The Brothers hosted men’s events when they went fishing, or to the shooting range. The female interns were naturally in charge of the women’s CSU events, the only one of which I can remember was called “Knit Wits” which is where the women got together and knitted. I didn’t go. I did, however, go with other women often to the CSU men’s intramural flag football games to cheer them on.
At the end of my freshman year, I was invited to be in a secret Bible study group called “FAT,” which stood for “Faithful, Available, Teachable.” I was honored to be invited. We were required to memorize a Bible verse each week about evangelization. We were encouraged to do “dorm visits” to invite students to church and CSU events.
I went on one dorm visit. The intern had a list of everyone in the building who checked the “Catholic” box on their college application. She outlined some ways to start the conversation, suggesting we ask the question, “How is your spiritual life?”
We knocked on doors and were greeted by unsuspecting freshmen on the other side. The girls from the list were mostly weirded out by this abrupt door-to-door Catholic campaign, and I felt like I was watching a version of myself open the door. This moment called into question the friendships from my freshman year, especially that time I got coffee at Panera. Was I once on a list?
I realized if they were smart enough to get into college, they would be smart enough to find the church if they wanted to go to Mass. Why weren’t we letting people have their own college experience?
I began to realize how robbed I felt of my own.
I stood there, smiling, but behind the smile, I wanted to jump out of my skin and run away. I made up an excuse to leave early.
It became increasingly difficult to reconcile the community I thought I was joining with the cult-like group I had actually experienced in the last two years. In its focus on recruiting priests, CSU put men first, leaving women as an afterthought. This culture gave the young men of CSU permission to tell women how to act. They led discussions on why women couldn’t be priests, throwing around the term “indelible mark,” explaining that a priest had to have a man’s body to fully embody Jesus during a certain part of the Mass.
The guys I once thought were cute were now spouting rhetoric at me about how women should be “receivers.” They invited me to pray the rosary outside of abortion clinics with them and lectured me on natural family planning. I started to see CSU as a fraternity, and women were just invited to the parties.
It was a slow process of growing opposition inside of me. I dreaded getting up to go to meetings. I no longer connected with the women leading it. I didn’t like that I had to keep it a secret from people who weren’t invited to be part of it.
I felt like it took the “love” factor out of what being Catholic meant to me. I was afraid it would be a sin to quit, but I started skipping the Spirit Night meetings on Wednesdays, and instead took my beloved guitar a mile away to a dingy dive bar with an open mic night to play songs I had been writing.
One night, I ran into another female musician I had met at CSU. We looked at each other, we looked at our watches, we realized both of us had bailed on that night’s Spirit Night meeting. We shared our experiences over a beer, and it felt so good to allow myself to speak honestly about my frustrations with CSU.
At the end of my junior year, despite my internal conflict, I found myself more committed than ever. The more distant I felt, the more I was called on, over and over again, to lead spiritual events. I was the Spiritual co-chair, leading Bible studies and assisting with retreat planning. I was also singing in the praise band and church choir. Finally, after a Spirit Night, I asked the Brothers for a moment to speak with them, intending to quit everything. I can still see their four gray shirts sitting across the bench, looking at me, almost like they were daring me to challenge their authority.
I didn’t feel welcome to share my opinion. I didn’t tell them how I felt about their teachings and instead just mumbled on about focusing on school. It was easier to just get out. I finished college, moved to New York City, started a career in music, and found a new group of friends, new places to hangout and a new home.
I never got to tell them that they failed me and many other women who trusted them and looked up to them. I stopped going to church and for years, I couldn’t even go to church at home with my family because it was painful to even hear the songs that reminded me of that time.
But perhaps most importantly, I found my voice and the courage to stand up to the expectations CSU had placed on me. I was able to burn the proverbial rule book of the rules that are often imposed on women. I even went on to write a song about this called “Burn the Book” that I hope encourages other women to speak up.
Do I still identify as Catholic? Yes. It’s no different than saying I am of Irish descent, or I was born into a family of Midwesterners.
Do I agree with all the stances of the Catholic Church? No. I am proudly what my college friends would refer to as a “Cafeteria Catholic.”
There are parts about the Catholic traditions that I think are beautiful, and there are stances the Church takes that I wholeheartedly disagree with.
I love to believe there is a God in charge of all this. I also believe that God made men and women to complement each other and balance each other, and that one gender identity is not greater than the other. I also think it is foolish to declare any one faith has all the answers.