In Search of My Religious Identity By Gina Messina-Dysert

I try to avoid watching too much television – it feels like there are so many other things I should be focused on; but I was quite engrossed in the show Big Love during its run on HBO.  Its concluding season was by far my favorite because of its focus on women and faith.  In one of the final episodes the character Barbara Hendrickson struggled with whether or not to be baptized into a new church and it was a struggle I identified with greatly.  Although her faith had changed and she no longer felt connected to the doctrine of her previous church, moving on to a new community that fit her beliefs meant abandoning her family.

I was raised in a very traditional Italian/Sicilian Roman Catholic household, attended Catholic schools, and was married in the Catholic Church.  As a child, being Catholic offered me a sense of pride; however growing up I began to question the Church as I recognized the many ways it is abusive to women.  Becoming a graduate student of religion led me on a roller coaster journey that allowed me to further explore my religious identity.

Over the years I’ve been impassioned by the many feminist theo/alogians I’ve read and have attended services in multiples faith settings.  I’ve been to Islamic mosques, Buddhist temples, Hindu temples, synagogues, as well as a variety of different Christian churches.  I’ve explored the Goddess tradition and at times identified as agnostic.  However, I’ve always come back to the Catholic Church.

A few years ago, I found an Episcopalian church that I fell in love with.  The rituals were beautiful, the music was stunning, and the language was gender inclusive.  It was an LGBTQ friendly church and no person was excluded or judged.  It seemed to be exactly what I was searching for – I had finally found a religious community to claim as my own.  My husband and I decided to officially join the church and began to attend classes  to become members of the community.  We were two classes in when I realized that we were going to be baptized into the Episcopalian Church, and thus registered as Episcopalians.  I would no longer be Catholic.  Why this had not occurred to me sooner is beyond me, but that was my “Barbara Hendrickson” moment, and I ran from the church in an absolute panic and never returned.

As unhappy as I am with Catholicism, it also feels like home to me.  It is part of my identity, where my roots are and to leave the Church in some ways feels like leaving my family.   I am still unsure where I stand with my faith, but I do know that Catholicism is a very strong part of my heritage, and so as of recently, I have started to identify as a “Cultural Catholic.”  The term makes sense to me, at least at this moment.  I think it acknowledges my struggles with my faith while also recognizing that it is part of my identity.  While I continue to grapple with ultimate questions and my spiritual beliefs, Catholicism will remain a part of my cultural heritage.  While I do not agree with Vatican teaching and consider myself to be very progressive, I also feel at heart to be a Cultural Catholic, and I am not sure that will ever change.

Author: Gina Messina

Gina Messina, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College and Co-founder of Feminism and Religion. She writes for the Huffington Post and is the author or editor of five books including "Faithfully Feminist" and "Jesus in the White House: Make Humanity Great Again." Her research interests are theologically and ethically driven, involve a feminist and interdisciplinary approach, and are influenced by her activist roots and experience working with survivors of rape and domestic violence. Gina is a widely sought after speaker and has presented across the US at universities, organizations, conferences, and in the national news circuit including appearances on Tavis Smiley, MSNBC, NPR, and the TEDx stage. She has also spoken at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations to discuss matters impacting the lives women around the globe. She is active in movements to end violence against women and explores opportunities for spiritual healing for those who have encountered gender-based violence. Connect with Gina on Facebook, Twitter @GMessinaPhD, Instagram @GinaMessinaPhD, and her website

8 thoughts on “In Search of My Religious Identity By Gina Messina-Dysert”

  1. I can definitely relate, Gina. My family has always participated in Spanish-speaking Catholic church, in mostly Mexican-American communities. And even though I no longer participate and haven’t for a lot of years, whenever I do visit a Spanish-speaking mass, it feels like home (an experience I never have in Protestant churches, even though that’s the Christianity I now participate in! Ha). Growing up Catholic can have a way of staying in you.

    Gloria Anzaldua’s wrote a lot about her mixed-identities, her meztizaje consciousness. In “This Bridge Called my Back,” she writes about this saying, ““would you chop me up into little fragments and tag each piece with a label?” The point being that humans cannot be defined in exclusive terms – things are never that simple or clear cut. Our lived reality does not fit nicely into binary categories through which we can move from one identity to another and still be our full complicated messy selves! :)

    So I say, let’s keep it messy! It only makes us richer :)


  2. As with my sister Xochitl I completely feel your pain. My cultural Catholicism as an Irish-American remains with me now. My mother did an amazing job of raising her children with a sense of all Celtic spirituality has to offer. God was everywhere and in all. My Catholic school days were equally beautiful, with nuns (most, not all) so grace filled they made our Imago Dei spring to life. Only as I got older and experienced the gender binaries did my identity as a Catholic come into question.

    I married a Buddhist, raised my children in the ELCA (Lutheran) tradition but in those years I always felt the pull to go back “home.” But to what? The struggle remains, but it is as much my Church as it is those clerics (again, not all) who see me as ontologically inferior.

    I remain, but with a voice that I exercise when and where possible. For now, one of my multiple subjectivities self-identifies as Roman Catholic, and as Xochitl reminds me,can be complicated and messy, but richer for the struggle. Thanks Gina and Xochitl.


  3. Gina, as with Xochitl and Cynthie, this has also become an internal struggle. Part of the journey as a student of theology is a process of deconstruction and reconstruction. The problem with the reconstruction can be problematic in a “conservatively-focused” community. The language of the mass causes great problems for me. What I find even more difficult is a homily that is based on a skewed interpretation of the Bible or tradition. When this occurs Mass is not a spiritual experience, it is the opposite, I leave enraged. At this point in my life, to state what I believe as a reconstructed Catholic can cause problem with the mainstream community and believe it or not causes problems for me as a mother.

    Mystagogical reflection upon the readings help extract a relevance of the readings in the mass to my life; it is a redemptive tool that turns an experience of outrage to one of introspect and reflection; it is a tool that helps me to get more out of the Mass. Education and an investment in my faith belief has brought me to find redemptive and solid qualities in the Church as well. Prayer and meditation helps to commune with the divine in my life. Moreover I have a very low Christology and through that understanding; works on behalf of the poor and oppressed, a right to stand up against abuses and hypocrisy, even agendas within the human institutional church. Christ did this, and aren’t we called to be Christ in the world and follow in this example?

    The one thing that I have to remind myself over and over again; the church is not made on the backs of one person, it is the community. Moreover the institutional church is human and it is a church that adjusts and learns (granted not in rapid fashion). With Vatican Council II, the teachings that are rooted in that council are far from being implemented and I hope that in my lifetime I will see those come to fruition. In the meantime, I believe that you, Xochitl, Cynthie and myself share in this same community; a Eucharistic and life-giving community rooted in the teachings and ministry of Jesus Christ, hoping that one day all, regardless of gender, race, orientation, and social status, will have the opportunity to fully participate in the church and leadership. That we become the Church that represents more fully the humble Christ who did not discriminate, did not judge, and helped the sick, poor, and marginalized.


  4. My childhood and early adult memories of Christianity are not all warm and fuzzy. My family was Roman Catholic, Christian Scientist, and Protestant. I do have positive memories of Catholic mass with my grandmother, Christian Science programs on the radio, and Protetant hymns. However, my family never worshipped together except at family funerals. When I was a girl, my family moved to a new tract home community in Covina, California. We lived “on the wrong side of the (railroad) tracks” from Presbyterian church where we worshipped, and I was rejected by the other girls in the church because of class–their mothers even refused to let me join their Girl Scout troop. My father and the rest of the family stopped going to church during the civil rights movement. When I embraced liberal and radical politics some years later (at that time as part of my Christian faith), that drove a futher wedge into my relationship with my parents. I believe that I choose to worship as a Roman Catholic when I was at Yale as a graduate student because of class. I certainly did not come from the same class background as William Sloane Coffin, Jr. and the others who worshipped at Yale Memorial Church.


  5. Gina, thank you for these reflections. So much of what you write resonates with me as well. I was listening to Speaking of Faith on NPR a few years ago, and Rabbi Sandy Sasso was talking about the spirituality of parenting. During the interview she mentioned that she advised couples who wanted to raise their children with some sort of religious community to look back to their roots, look back to the faith traditions from which they came, and to try to find the beautiful and the liberating aspects of it to hold forth to their children. As someone who was really struggling with gender issues within Mormonism and trying to figure out how to navigate a future within it, the advice struck me as wise. I am Mormon. It has shaped my ways of being, and for many reasons I can’t leave it behind. Though I will spend the rest of my life raising up those liberating aspects within it, rejecting the parts which drag me down, and embracing the beauty and wisdom within other traditions.


Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: