Lady Bird Makes Being Catholic OK Again

I loved Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. It’s a hilarious and heartbreaking coming of age film set in Sacramento about a girl named Lady Bird (it’s her given name, she says. In that, she gave it to herself). She has a complicated relationship with her mother, which I – and most people who have a mother – can relate to, but the main reason I responded to the movie was the uncomplicated relationship the film has with the Catholic Church.

In most films that have a priest or a nun or the church represented in any way, Catholicism is the devil. The priests are pedophiles, the nuns are ruler-wielding psychopaths and the church is seen as cold and oppressive. I know there are pervert priests and terrible nuns, but they are not all monsters and some of us have good memories of growing up Catholic.

I spent a lot of time at church growing up in Tucson. My family went every Sunday and I had catechism once a week plus youth group. That doesn’t mean I was or am religious. I went to church because I had to (and to look at cute boys) and I went to youth group because my friends were there.

It kept us out of trouble (or more trouble than we would have gotten into) and we had some amazing experiences. We had dances and parties and made new friends. We raised money to go on trips to Bisbee, Disneyland and Washington D.C. Most importantly, we had a place go where we felt safe and cared for.

In the movie, Lady Bird plays a prank on one of the nuns. The nun takes it in stride because the prank was hilarious and the nun had a sense of humor. Because nuns, like other humans, can have senses of humor. There’s a brief scene with a priest who has some kind of depression, which again, lots of people have.

I don’t know why when I think of the jovial priest from my teens, that I always think of this one afternoon when the youth group kids helped him move into his new parish house. A lot of what we moved were big jugs of wine. He was always nice and knew all of our names. The priest he replaced was very serious and had an Irish accent, which in Tucson for me was very exotic.

The woman who ran the youth group and planned all of our events and trips passed away last month. She was loud and opinionated and extremely kind. I read her obituary and was amazed by what an interesting life she had before she came to us.

My time there was all very lovely and sometimes strange. There was that one time when the catechism teachers, a married couple who seemed ancient, but were probably my age now, told my friends that they were going to hell because they talked too much in class. Or the time one of our catechism teachers, a single mom, talked about going out to bars – nothing too crazy, just not Sunday school talk.

She was not conventional, but accepted.

Lady Bird’s director, Greta Gerwig, was on Fresh Air recently talking about her relationship with Catholicism. She went to Catholic High School, but wasn’t Catholic. She said that her not belonging to the church allowed her to have affection for it because she wasn’t really part of it; it wasn’t hers so it couldn’t oppress her.

Being Catholic wasn’t oppressive for me either even though at home we were very Catholic. My grandmother had an altar in the upstairs hallway with statues of saints and a framed picture of a flowing-haired Jesus. My great aunt had a giant oil painting of a Virgin of Guadalupe in her bedroom at her house.

Going to church was a nice foundation for me that is still important today. I can pray even though I don’t agree with many of the rules of being Catholic (but I do love the progressive views of the Pope!). And, like in Lady Bird, it’s always there if I want to go back.