Sing of Jesus: An Atheist’s Guide to Working for the Catholic Church

“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.”

With these words, the faithful prepare to receive the body and the blood of Christ, which they believe will…do something, I’m not sure what. Despite my ten-plus years working as a cantor (or song leader, as it’s sometimes called) in the Catholic Church, I’m still not entirely clear on what this is supposed to symbolize, much less what practical purpose it serves. What I do know is what it means for me—time to announce the communion hymn. “Take and Eat.” “I Am the Bread of Life.” “Gift of Finest Wheat.” Music familiar to anyone who has attended mass in the Catholic Church with any regularity in the last fifty years. I like communion hymns. They’re the slower and more reflective songs, the ballads that allow me to show off not just my vocal skill, but also my ability to convey the sentiment of a piece. As a graduate of one of this country’s most highly regarded musical theater programs, that’s important to me. There have been many stories told and published of people who grew up in religious households, went to parochial schools, and ultimately pursued faith-based careers only to find one day that they no longer believed—perhaps never truly believed—in what they preached. The emotional, social, and even financial fallout from that revelation can be devastating for some, and it’s important that their stories are told since they serve as heightened examples of what so many ordinary people go through when they decide to leave the faith in which they’ve been raised. This is not, however, my story. There was no thunderbolt moment for me, no sleepless night of deep reflection, no journey along a secular road to Damascus. I’ve pretty much been an atheist the whole time I’ve worked for the church. And for the most part, I’ve been okay with it. Which is not to say that working for the Catholic Church comes without challenges. Like so many others who do not believe, I often feel that I must hide this part of myself, not for fear of being socially stigmatized, but for fear of jeopardizing my livelihood. This poses a bit of a moral dilemma for me since I do agree with the notion that in order to advance the principles of rationalism and critical thinking, atheists like myself should “come out of the closet.” But I also enjoy the steady income. So, like the red state atheist at a Sunday barbecue, I keep my true thoughts and feelings to myself. Of course, knowing that I’m protecting my actual job and not just my standing in the community makes it much easier for me to justify not coming forward as an atheist. I’m not a coward, I tell myself. I’m just a guy trying to keep a roof over his head. And as far as my decision to work for the Catholic Church in the first place, that’s easy to justify as well. After all, Mozart and Beethoven worked for the church. Does anyone really believe that they did it for the glory of god? Of course not. They did it because it was a job. It paid. Trying to make a living as a musician or singer is no easier in this day and age than it was then, and the church, whatever else you want to say about it, pays its music people. So if a church gig was good enough for the greatest artists in music history, then who am I to turn up my nose at it? Jesus may not save, but his checks do clear. The particular church where I work also helps me justify the job. I live in a fairly liberal, Northeastern city, and my parish reflects this. From the clergy to the congregation, their feelings on social issues such as gay rights, gender equality, and contraception are more closely aligned with my own, which is to say, at odds with the official positions of the Catholic Church. In fact, our pastor was quick to hire an openly gay priest when the Archdiocese removed him from his position at a Catholic school for supporting a gay rights group. But that doesn’t change what the official positions of the Catholic Church really are. Which means that when a visiting priest comes in and devotes his entire homily to decrying the evils of gay marriage (which has happened) or condemning the act of abortion (ditto), there’s not much that a freethinking person like myself can do. There’s no nice lady in the HR department who will hear me out and take up the issue with the offending party. In fact, there’s no HR department at all, and since my beliefs are contrary to the organization’s, the offending party is me. Ultimately, a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy has evolved. I keep out of discussions that go beyond the scope of what I’ve been hired to do, and the clergy, staff, fellow music ministers, and even parishioners don’t bother to call me out on the fact that they have never, in over a decade, witnessed me taking communion or engaging in any aspect of ministry other than singing the songs I’m paid to sing. I even get a pass on my personal life since my wife is Jewish (non-practicing), a fact that quickly shuts down any questions of why I chose not to have my son baptized at the church or attend the local Catholic school. I hope that one day I can find a music job that is as stable and consistent as the one I have at the church and finally leave all this god business behind. But until then, I keep that part of my life separate and focus instead on my family and friends, with whom I can be the out and proud atheist that I truly am. And as far as performing my job goes, I just try not to think about the actual words I’m singing, but rather concentrate on the music itself, most of which, thankfully, is quite lovely.