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Unconventional Faith 

Nancy Mairs writes about being a practicing Catholic on the outside of the hierarchy looking in

In September, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles pondered how to pay the $660 million it owes people sexually molested by hundreds of its priests.

Somebody had the bright idea to evict three elderly nuns from their convent in Santa Barbara and sell it, according to The Washington Post. Never mind that none of the sisters has been accused of molesting a child. Or that for years, they shared the poverty of their neighbors, ministering to undocumented immigrants. Or that one of them is a diabetic who uses a walker.

As of Dec. 31, just after Christmas, these three servants of the Lord will be scrounging for a new place. Their modest convent is expected to glean about $700,000 for the diocese. The (male) bishop of Santa Barbara, meanwhile, will remain in his palm-tree-lined home. Its estimated worth: $2 million.

It was yet another example of clueless--and comfortable--Church fathers sinning against those whom Jesus might have called "the least" of his sisters.

Acts like this upset people like Nancy Mairs. In her eighth book, a series of 10 essays called A Dynamic God: Living an Unconventional Catholic Faith, the longtime Tucsonan puzzles over the contradictions of belonging to a church whose policies she often abhors.

Raised the plainest of Protestants in a New England Congregationalist church, Mairs converted to Catholicism during what she aptly calls the church's "Prague Spring." It was just after Vatican II. Pope John XXIII had famously thrown open the church's windows, bringing in fresh air and a sense of new possibility.

Closer to home, in Tucson, Mairs was inspired by the dogged social activism of the nuns (nuns again!) she taught with at Salpointe Catholic High School.

"They used to spend their summers working with the farm workers in California," she writes.

Mairs became an enthusiastic congregant at the UA's Newman Center, where women served as Mass lectors, homilists and Eucharistic ministers--though never as celebrants. In the essay cleverly titled "Left at the Altar," Mairs recounts how she became disillusioned as the Prague Spring chilled into winter. The barriers between laity and clergy hardened, and Pope John Paul II emphatically rejected the possibility of women becoming priests.

"Those of us who thrived on the creative energy that followed Vatican II have not left the Church," she writes, "rather, the Church has left us."

She herself wasn't going anywhere. Against all odds, this product of Puritan New England had become enchanted with the church's rituals, with its myths, even with its saints. Living in the Southwest, she became a devotee of the Virgin of Guadalupe, that colorful patroness of the brown-skinned and downtrodden, and saw a call to social action.

The Blessed Mother, she believes, is one thing the Catholics got right. The Protestant pantheon is a stuffy men's club, male from God the Father on down to the minister, invariably a man in Mairs' youth. But Mary, in her femaleness, has long offered Catholic women a "sense of identity with the divine."

It's not exactly an interpretation church fathers would approve, and Mairs readily calls herself an "alternative Catholic." Moreover, she suspects the all-male priesthood is essentially corrupt, leading to "self-importance and a sense of immunity from the claims of the mundane world." (Santa Barbara bishop: Take note.)

Mairs worships in a renegade Catholic community whose members break bread in one another's homes. And she loves what she considers the essential insights of Catholicism. If traditional Christians believe that a young virgin miraculously bore a child who was half-God, half-man, Mairs extracts from the tale its larger truth: God is present in every child born, and all children are "signs that God is within us."

She practices the corporal works of mercy as best she can, given her advanced multiple sclerosis. She finds God within the prisoner on death row whom she and her husband, George, visit; within a MS-disabled resident in a nursing home; within the homeless at the Casa Maria Soup Kitchen. On Tucson Friday afternoons, she sits in her wheelchair as a member of the Women in Black, witnessing for peace.

Mairs can be forgiven her momentary lapses into the sin of pride. ("In this book, I function rather like ... John the Baptist," she writes in the first essay.) Her book is an eloquent and witty account of a spiritual quest to find the holy within and without. It suggests a way back to the sacred for Catholics of all varieties--ex, cradle, converted and corrupt.

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