People are often startled to meet a Unitarian Universalist minister with a name like Patrick Thomas Aquinas O'Neill. As my name inescapably reveals, I come from a family that is very Irish and devoutly Catholic. Though my own religious journey has taken me on a different spiritual road than that of my immigrant parents, I remain proud of my family heritage and grateful for the deeply religious upbringing my family provided.
My education was typical of the American Catholic school system of the 1950s and 1960s. My elementary school teachers were the School Sisters of Notre Dame. I attended a Carmelite prep school for boys, and graduated from a Jesuit college. I was an altar boy until I was sixteen.
I attended college from 1965 to 1969 and came of age during that turbulent decade when America's social and religious values were so vehemently tested. As a sincere young Catholic, I struggled as
all my friends did during those years with the profound moral upheavals of our time. I found I could not in good conscience cooperate with my country's military activity in Southeast Asia. I was also eager to participate in the civil rights struggles being championed by Martin Luther King Jr.
I was proud of Catholic activists and social protesters like the Berrigan brothers and Dorothy Day, who were leaders on the picket lines of justice in the sixties. But in truth, I felt there was not enough institutional support for those brave Catholic radicals who were willing to speak out against the moral injustices in our society. Very few American bishops and virtually no American cardinals were walking on those protest lines. Why was that? I wondered.
I felt increasingly lonely and alienated as a young "radical" in my own church. It was ironic that my keen sense of moral outrage was a direct product of my Catholic religious education. Perhaps I was an idealist, but from my earliest lessons in catechism, I was taught to follow my conscience in matters of moral decision-making. Yet, when the most important moral decisions of my life came due ("should I declare myself a conscientious objector?") , I felt very alone.
Eventually, my discomfort with the church's teaching on matters such as birth control, abortion rights, equality for women, and hier archical authority in all questions of morals led me out of Catholicism. This was no easy step for one who was raised in the belief that the Catholic church was "the one true faith."
For some time after I left Catholicism, I despaired of ever finding another church where I could feel spiritually at home. I still considered myself a radical Christian, even though my theology was broadening to include non-Christian sources and ideas. I did not go on any grand theological search for the "perfect church" because I was frankly skeptical about the no tion of church itself, doubtful that there existed anywhere the kind of religious community that I needed.
Imagine my delight in discovering how wrong I was, that there was in fact a church that welcomed wandering souls like me!
It was a close friend of mine, one whose intelligence and values I very much respected, who first invited me to visit a Unitarian Universalist church one Sunday. 'This church is different," he told me. "I think you'll like it."
I cannot adequately express my initial joy in finding a religious community that honored my personal beliefs, my own moral intelligence, and my own religious odyssey. I had the experience that people so often describe when they first encounter a Unitarian Universalist congregation-!felt I had "come home" to a place I had never been before.
I believe we evolve as religious people. One's life is a continuum, one pathway leading on to another. Looking back now, I know that my differences with Catholic doctrine were truly irreconcilable.
I loved the church of my childhood, and I am eternally grateful for the sound moral education I received there. Whatever I now know of faith and hope and charity, of integrity and passion for justice and peace, of the value of prayer and aesthetic worship, I first learned from parents and teachers who were shaped by their Catholic faith. I eventually parted ways with their church in my young adulthood, and I was lucky to find in Unitarian Universalism a religious home that more comfortably and closely reflected my adult values.
A fair number of former Catholics are finding their way into Unitarian Universalist congregations these days. If you are among them, know that you will find here the company of those intimately familiar with your journey.