I’ve been a Catholic my entire life. But the church’s dark past is making me lose faith

CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) [Toronto, Canada]

July 31, 2022

By Alyssa Aco

The Pope’s visit has done little to restore my trust in the church

This First Person column is written by Alyssa Aco, a Filipina who immigrated from the Philippines to Edmonton in 2008. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

WARNING: This column contains distressing details.

When the Pope came to visit Edmonton on his “penitential pilgrimage,” my colleagues were joyfully planning carpools to Commonwealth Stadium where he would hold a public mass for 60,000 people. A lifelong Catholic, I went to Ticketmaster to reserve seats, but my fingers hovered over the screen for a while before I finally exited the website.

Lately, I’ve been finding it hard to be Catholic.

I grew up in the Philippines, where Catholicism is not only a personal religion but permeated every institution, organization and household. 

Before anything else, I learned to say grace before meals, recite all the prayers, memorize the details of Jesus’s life and death. My crucifix hung around my neck, my rosary sat next to my pencil case. Schools in the Philippines have daily prayers, events are preceded with holy mass, catechism is on every curriculum. Christmas is celebrated for four months every year. Offices, buildings and stores are imbued with religious paraphernalia. 

For the majority of the Filipino population, being Catholic in the Philippines was something you are, not something you become. I performed every Christian duty the same way I breathed — automatically and instinctively. 

But if you dared raise a question or express a shred of doubt, mothers would hush you into silence and aunties would judge you and say that if you kept entertaining thoughts like that, you were headed straight for the perils of hell. Inquisitiveness and curiosity were banned, replaced by blind faith and unquestioning obedience.

Then I came to the University of Alberta in 2011 and was exposed to a diverse range of opinions. My curiosity was nurtured and encouraged by my friends and professors — completely different from my upbringing in the Philippines. 

My journey of discovery led me to the dark history of the Catholic church in Canada. I learned of the systemic and widespread sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and the historical genocide of Indigenous people in Canada.

As a committed and devout Catholic, I found myself making excuses for these crimes and misdemeanours, convincing myself that it was only natural for the church to be flawed because humanity was flawed, and that somehow made everything OK. But it became harder and harder to make excuses.

I am profoundly disillusioned with the Catholic church. And I can’t be the only one. 

Alyssa Aco celebrates her first communion as a child in the Philippines. (Submitted by Alyssa Aco)
Alyssa Aco celebrates her first communion as a child in the Philippines. (Submitted by Alyssa Aco)

I can’t be alone in my feelings of betrayal and hurt. How could the church that served as my guiding moral compass to goodness all these years be the same establishment that has caused so much agony and suffering to so many?

I could just forget about it, sweep it under the rug and keep attending mass like nothing happened. But that’s like saying what happened to those children doesn’t matter. That the trauma of their rapes and sexual assaults, the continuing effects of the residential school system, the pain and anguish experienced at the hands of people they believed were instruments of God … none of it ever really mattered.

These horrors are not my stories to tell. But continuing my membership in the Catholic church feels like a betrayal of everything I believe is right. 

It’s not easy to excommunicate myself when Catholicism is so deeply ingrained in every fibre of my being. 

If I’m not Catholic, who am I?

But how can I stay with the church after everything that has happened?

Someone, please, find me a good reason to want to be Catholic again. Give me a reason to stay. Because, despite everything, I still believe in God.

I still say grace before meals, I quietly pray “Our Father” every night before bed. I may not attend mass every Sunday, but I willingly go to church at Easter and Christmas. I beg for forgiveness and ask for strength from my God. I find peace in His teachings as I search within the pages of the Bible for answers to life’s deepest sorrows. 

But I cannot attend holy mass without breaking down in despair, without overwhelming disgust at the church, without anger in my heart. I cannot baptize my future children into the Catholic faith without resentment toward the church for how they’ve terrorized the thousands of children that came before. I cannot sincerely recite prayers I have known since childhood without thinking about how these very same words were used to purge entire Indigenous populations of their culture and identity. 

It pains me to think that no matter how many times we acknowledge the treaty lands we’re on, no matter how many times the Pope publicly apologizes, the wounds will be there forever and there’s nothing we can do to make them heal faster.

I found it difficult to feel excited during Pope Francis’s visit. Apologies without commitments to action are nothing more than words on a paper. I hoped to see the papal visit resulting in tangible projects that would uplift Indigenous communities. As I stand on the sidelines of this historic apology, I fail to see a net positive impact from this visit.

I cannot claim to understand how this visit affected Indigenous communities. But I can speak for how it affected me as a lifelong Catholic. 

The disappointment is still raw, the heartache is debilitating. I ached to see the long-awaited redemption of the Catholic church. I longed for a sign that the church is not too far gone, that there is hope the church can cleanse itself of its sinfulness, correct its past mistakes, do good for those they’ve wronged and — finally — welcome us all back with clean hands.

From the way I see things, those hands are nowhere near clean. 

I know Pope Francis means well. I hope the next time he comes to visit, I will want to go and see him. 

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.

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Alyssa Aco is a community pharmacist and a wannabe writer. She lives in Edmonton with her cat, Dobby (as in, from Harry Potter).