I am tickled by the thousands of breathless reporters covering the Papal goodbye. Which demographic they are chasing: reverend Catholics, or those repulsed by the Ultimate Mens’ Club? I doubt if their reporting will be a ratings bonanza. Catholics are not coagulated into a massive autonomous power base. Most of us have cobbled together the “I won’ts” and “I wills” that we live by, and the Vatican is more of a tourist destination than the source of all wisdom. The media and the Cardinals may not have received the memo.
The conflicted nature of my relationship with the Catholic Church has been documented here. Every Catholic who traveled through 12 years of parochial education has the same tales to tell: a little bit of heaven, and the occasional dose of hell.
As a child, the priests were royalty. The nuns were deferential in those days, and we were too. Father Charles Coughlin was the Pastor of my church, Shrine of the Little Flower. He was a “radio priest.” Shrine was built of stone from listeners’ donations after his first chapel was burned down, allegedly by the Ku Klux Klan. He was exiled from the airwaves after a career that made him the Alex Jones of his day. He was an isolationist, even after Pearl Harbor, which garnered him a reputation as a Nazi sympathiser. That is a bad rap for a priest. Eventually he was given a choice: preach about faith or leave the church and blab to your heart’s content. He stayed a priest.
But he was an angry fellow, and his pastoral position allowed him to harass from the pulpit. God save you, adult or child, if you whispered in the pews. He would demand that you share with the congregation whatever you were saying. If a worshiper arrived late or left early he would stop mid prayer to verbally abuse them. It did not seem like a sanctuary- more like a boxing ring.
He was in good crabby company. At 7, I made my first confession. I confided my penance to my pew mate, and was instantly dragged out by the supervising nun and thrown back in line for a re-do. After all, talking in church had sullied my clean soul. I would be unfit for my First Holy Communion. Two days later, the communicant after me, Linda Light (alphabetical order, always) vomited her transubstantiated Jesus immediately after receiving her first Communion. She was shoved aside in her moment of shame, and a horde of priests descended to consecrate the spot Jesus had touched. It was a stern Church.
These sacraments provided an inauspicious start to a life of devotion. Every school morning, we attended 11:00Mass. If need be, funerals were scheduled for that time; we became unofficial mourners. We prayed, went back to our classrooms and pledged fidelity to God. We were cross examined by the Sisters of Charity: Would we be martyrs if Communists ever came into our school and desecrated the ubiquitous pictures and crosses featuring Jesus.? Of course we would. We collected mission money and adopted “Pagan Babies” for $5.00. We gave them Christian names on Holy Childhood Birth Certificates. We were not feeding anyone, mind you- just baptizing them.
By high school, we had learned to slip into church on Sunday and grab a bulletin, then go to The Egg and I for breakfast. We avoided the haranguing. The religious emphasis shifted from Communism: sex was the new fixation. Boys were evil, girls were going to hell for tempting or succumbing. An unfortunately named “Fighting 69th” was created by Father Florence to combat sins of the flesh. Committing adultery and coveting the neighbor’s wife seemed pretty abstract to most of us, but there appeared to be a supposition that carnal desires were the road we would ride to hell.
When fresh air infused the Church during the Second Vatican II ecumenical years, I was “all in.” Folk Masses? Sure. English responses? About time! Non Catholics didn’t automatically go to hell? What a relief. Pope John XXIII was a force for change and assimilation into the modern world. Older Catholics screamed and kicked, but my generation celebrated the ventilation of a stuffy, paternalistic institution. We loved us some John Paul.
Pope Benedict is no John Paul.
In the intervening years, the Catholic Church has struggled. Faith has mingled with scandal. In this informational age, the curtains cannot stay closed. The secret lives of abusing priests, the financial corruption within the church in Rome, and ongoing collusion among hierarchy have been bitter burdens, in Rome and all through the Catholic world. There are thousands of good priests, stained by association. There is a need for a new leader, a uniter and a shepherd.
Pope Benedict has a rigid view of Catholicism. In our diocese, the God-like kindness of Cardinal Bernadin was succeeded by Cardinal George. He clearly had orders to reaffirm the notion that rules were inviolable. If you were Catholic, there is no customization. The Church is a top-down organization. Male. No women on the altar. No cafeteria plan; you were in or out.
I can take a hint.
Yet…the hardest moments of my life have been made easier with the guidance of a priest. The last day I spent with my Dad started at Mass with Father Tony in Pompano Beach. An amazing Nun held our hearts when Dad died, and created a poem about his perfect golf game in Heaven. What a comfort that imagery has been. Father Terry is a lifeline to the Catholic world here in Chicago. I have called upon God to bless my children, their children, my marriage and my life. I am grateful. But I am adrift.
Catholicism is a tattoo-it brands us. When we realize we are unwanted, or not aligned with Catholic precepts, we exist in a vacuum. We need to crochet a new notion of Faith. I’m working on it everyday. The Congregational Church is non-dogmatic, and calls upon us to be God’s hands in the world. I can get behind that notion. Still, it is a hard transition for a woman whose formative years were imbued with Catholicism, with all its terror and glory. I wonder if Linda Light has fallen away like so many of us.
That is why I have no connection to Pope Benedict’s disappearing act. He banished me. I’m ok with it. Of course, I don’t have a castle as my fallback position like he does. But I have a family, health, dogs, friends…God has provided. My life just may be richer than his, with fewer worries. I strongly urge the Pope Emeritus to integrate some pets into his days. They won’t kiss your ring, but they will slobber on your hand if you hold a piece of cheese. It’ll fill the power gap.
In the meantime, I’ll change the channel rather than suffer through the long goodbye. I’ve said mine.
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