Growth from Catholic Roots by Patrick O'Neil



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.

Patrick O'Neil