Friday, September 3, 2010
A Cradle Catholic's Priests
“Ack! Linda. Good to see you dear.”
“Ok, Mike, what in holy hell is going on?”
I had waited until last. All the blue-haired ladies had lined up in front of Mike’s station self-consciously patting their hair and arranging their rosaries just right. They all had crushes on Mike, a bespectacled, gouty man with a Boston accent, because, I suspect, he delivered to all those dirty-souled little biddies that squeaky clean feeling that forgiveness brings.
I tried to control my decibels and failed. The whole church heard me anyway when I entered the confessional to exercise my sacramental privilege of Catholic penance. All the little old ladies hissed and sighed at the sound of my voice.
Skipping the prerequisite formalities, I plowed right in. Loudly.
It was the first time I was back in the jump-seat for maybe 30 years. God knew my peccadilloes already because I had installed direct trunk line to heaven’s mailroom without the intercession of a priest.
I cop to my own sins directly.
And, I am innately suspicious, no actually conditioned to be paranoid, of voluntarily coughing up my failings to a black-frocked human being. It gives him what he needs: Power over my life. And in the olden days, I am sure that it did. That was then. This is now, however.
Mike is a different kind of priest though. And I needed answers.
That’s what I loved about Mike. He took one look at my face and knew what was on my mind. And over Harp beers we talked and talked…
He knew I was lapsing. No, my faith was losing me, and he still loved me.
We knew that Monsignor O’Looney was coming to class for “Report Card Day” because the nuns became all tiddly and excited dusting off shelves and spitting on their hands to smooth down cowlicks amongst the “young gentlemen.” The monsignor was their celebrity crush all-Catholic style.
We kids stood as he imperiously entered the room in full black cassocked Monsignor regalia. O’Looney would thoroughly embody his authority by sitting king-like in the front of the classroom, removing his bi-nodal Monsignor hat with the red pom-pom on top, and by going through up to twenty-five reports cards. Out loud. In front of everyone.
His Irish brogue was a buzzing drone as he called each of us up to stand by him in the front of the classroom while our grades were read off for the whole class to hear, including conduct. I made sure I had visited the bathroom before each of these events because I didn’t want any puddles forming under my knocking knees.
“Linda, Linda, Linda. Do ye t’ink you’ve been mindin’ Sister here properly?”
“Yes, Monsignor. I do t’ink I have.” Shining a big smart ass grin out to my friends, they stared at me with fear in their eyes.
“Well, according to this, you’ve been a bit of a problem child. A “D” in conduct is nothing’ t’be smilin’ about! You’re going to stop that infernal whispering and fidgeting now, aren’t you? I want to see improvement in your behavior young lady. Your grades include a C here in Math as well. You’ll be bringin’ that up too before next time…”
And I always heard the “or else” lingering in the background like so much incense smoke. And never a mention of the A’s and B’s I earned.
Somehow I don’t think this kind of thing would fly in schools now.
O’Looney was on the scene long before I was receiving his rough attention for my report cards. In fact, I was just an egg in my mom’s ovary.
When my parents were engaged, it was this very man who would not allow them to marry in the church unless my Lutheran mother signed a document promising not to raise the children in any other faith except the Catholic faith.
“Luther was a heretic, y’know?” he snarled at her during the interview.
“Pete, just put your hands in that incubator and bless my daughter. Please.”
Pete had peeled rubber to make it to the hospital the day my daughter was born. He was the new/ old priest at our parish and all the others were attending to weddings and funerals the day I called for help. Still not unpacked, he just got on his rental car horse and rode like the wind…
My daughter was born a little early but her heart and her lungs weren’t working on their own. We had to flick the soles of her feet and hope she would take a deep gasp and to coax her heart to beat and her lungs to expand.
When Pete arrived, she was lying on her stomach naked but for a tiny diaper and a pink visor attached to her eyes with velcro to protect them from the glaring bilirubin lights. She looked like a midget pink Power Ranger with bruised feet.
Pete’s hands were what I remember best. They were chubby and his gentle holy fingers sported a tuft of white hair on each knuckle. When he put his hands in through the incubator ports and placed them gently on Tori’s little body, the blessing just poured out of him like honey.
Tori wiggled and smiled.
Naturally, Pete became close friends with us in the English tradition of priests home visiting parishioners. His was always a knock on the door at dusk when he was winding up his neighborhood walk that day and wanted to undo all the good he had done with his exercise regime. After a scratchy kiss on the cheek, Pete would always make his signature demand.
For the first time in my cradle Catholic life, we had a priest, a real live priest friend with spiritual benefits, at every one of our family events.
As is the practice in the Catholic Church, no priest really remains long enough in parish to put down roots, it gets too emotional, and Pete was transferred to Georgia after a while. We made plans to visit him next time we headed north.
At Mass one Sunday, the new priest in a matter-of-fact tone, announced that Pete had died. It was a punch in the stomach. I gasped so loud the church went silent and all heads turned to me. I felt my knees buckle in grief. I had to leave.
“Have you said your morning prayers?”
“My whole day is a prayer Father.”
“But have you said your morning prayers? No? You know you’re driving the nails into His hands yourself! Kneel down here now and say them!”
“The bus will wait!”
Every morning Fr. Manning would stalk the bus stop interrogating us about our prayer life or obscure Baltimore Catechism questions. It was an art form to avoid him by arriving at just the right second to board the bus before he could sneak up and pin us down.
He scared us mostly with his graphic passion for the more violent aspects of crucifixion and martyrdom. He always told the stories of the saints who were made so by becoming lion food or for enduring the untimely ripping out of one or more body parts while still consciously professing the faith...
When I went on to high school, I didn’t see much more of him. I assumed his senility had advanced and he was being kept under a tighter rein much to the relief, I am sure, of the grade schoolers who had been tormented by him at the bus stop.
After I achieved a successful run as the lead in the school play, Father F-, a young progressive priest fresh from seminary, proposed that I do a new thing during the Mass at church.
He invited me to be the first girl ever to present the scripture readings at a full-on Mass. This was even before girls were thought of to be altar servers. This was going to break down some barriers…And I was thrilled.
For the first time in my life as a Catholic, I thought , “I can do this!”
It makes the whole Mass thing something in which I can really participate rather than passively sitting- standing-kneeling. No more hokey-pokey rigamarole through every dreary service…This was getting interesting.
So young Fr. F- and I rehearsed and rehearsed and studied and delved deeply into the theological interpretations of each piece until I felt like I knew exactly what I was sharing with the congregation perfectly.
And my father was so proud. Bonus!
The Sunday of my groundbreaking came and Fr. F- and my father proudly escorted me up to the church entrance. Suddenly, a figure in black blocked out the sun and my way in. Looking up, the butterflies in my stomach turned to vampire bats.
He was in full black cassock and hat, literally shaking in anger with a look of pure disgust on his face. Looking closely, he had not remembered his dentures that morning so his face was all sharpness and angles. He spit a little when he spoke.
“This girl will not enter this church until we get something straight. She will not be allowed at the pulpit if I have anything to do with it.”
Fr. F- tried to intercede. “Alright Michael, it's ok. Maybe she can do the readings in front of it.”
“Absolutely NOT!” His voice was booming. “She is PROHIBITED from even approaching the sacristy by church law! It would be an abomination.”
My father, now so conflicted between his pride in me and the authority of the priest confronting us, blurted the central question, “Why?”
“Don’t you know? What kind of Catholic are you? She is female. She bleeds.”
I was moved to write about these priests, both good and bad, so that I might discover some way of reconciling my profound sadness and, yes deep anger, with the Roman Catholic Church. I feel mortally wounded on a spiritual level by the Vatican’s recent misogynistic rulings. Although as a cradle Catholic with obvious past healed-over flesh wounds from which I have recovered, I cannot reconcile the obvious categorization by the Church of women as potential egregious violating wounds on the body of the faith any more.
To borrow from Someone who would’ve found all this so very wrong: It is finished.
“Here's what the Vatican's internal prosecutor, Msgr. Charles J. Scicluna, said from the news conference in Rome, when asked to explain why ordination of women was included alongside of rulings concerning sexual exploitation of children and the disabled by male… priests: ‘Sexual abuse and pornography are more grave dealings, they are an egregious violation of moral law. Attempted ordination of women is grave, but on another level; it is a wound that is an attempt against the Catholic faith on the sacramental orders.’
In a report from the AP, reporter Nicole Winfield explained that "The rules...list the attempted ordination of a woman as a ‘grave crime' to be handled according to the same set of procedures as sex abuse -- despite arguments that grouping the two in the same document would imply equating them.... Scicluna defended the inclusion of both sex abuse and ordination of women in the same document as a way of codifying two of the most serious canonical crimes against sacraments and morals that the congregation deals with. “
-From Psychology Today by Regina Barreca, Ph.D