Tag Archives: Catholicism

‘The token of the word unheard, unspoken’: Ash Wednesday

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

–T.S. Eliot

The sacral attributes of incense mattered less than the aphrodisiacal. Friday afternoons in high school through junior year I reserved for the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, a brief service in which the unleavened flat toasty bread known to Catholics as a Communion wafer is the subject of prayers and veneration. Clothed in a red chasuble, the priest places the Blessed Sacrament in the transparent center of the monstrance, itself positioned on the altar facing the celebrants. My task as sacristan was to light the coals on which the priest would sprinkle the incense. Mom knew the days of the week by how I smelled: I returned to the house those afternoons stinking like a burning Christmas tree.

Convinced I could will myself to believe by steeping myself in ritual, I realized much later that this is precisely what distinguishes the Church from other Christian sects. To believe and to observe the sacraments amount to the same thing. If a Catholic is overcome by awe, credit the sheer weight of tradition and the enthusiasm with which its servants teach a tradition they are only too pleased to embody. My holy orders were to serve literature, a duty which, like the addled and dying servant in Gustave Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” who confuses her dead parrot with the coming of the Holy Spirit, I had confused with the worship of the Divine.

So moved was I at twelve by a children’s Bible account of the Taking of Enoch, read while waiting for a haircut, that I vowed to be taken too. The terse rhythms of the King James version were more chilling: Enoch “walked with God: and he was no more; for God took him.” My parents, decent if inconsistent Catholics, didn’t hide their confusion but okayed my going to Mass. A lot. To be taken meant I had to do the work. Later I became aware of the sexual undertones of the King James translation; the passivity of worship links Christianity and Islam, the latter meaning, of course, submission to Allah. For the moment, though, I understood this much: Catholicism required me as an object. The sensations produced by responding to the children’s Bible, flinching from the watery grainy texture of the ashes rubbed on my forehead, and the inhaling of incense a year later functioned as synesthetic pleasures. Whether the Church had this in mind I don’t know, and from my experience with priests their sensitivity towards the numinous dissipates when the robes are off and they’re stuck in US-1 traffic. The ritual gave me pleasure; my pleasure may have pleased God; and finding the profane in the sacred may have exceeded the fondest hopes of the St. Brendan’s clergy.

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still.

By eleventh grade I had abruptly and to the distress of our chaplain rather rudely renounced my Catholicism, never to return. Before the pandemic family functions brought me to churches a couple times a year, and I’d read the psalms and excerpts from the Old Testament and the Gospels in the seasonal missalette, still hypnotized by the rhythm of the sentences, their ability to form a union of parrot and spirit — the “function” of literature insofar as it needs one. The words survive the soundest blows. More than a decade after my Ash Wednesday epiphany, the body of St. Brendan’s pastor was found dead in a Bahamas hotel room months after two former altar boys accused him of sexual abuse.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.

Br. Eugene Trzecieski — RIP

“You all look like semi-educated cows chewing intellectual cuds,” the dome-headed sexagenarian remarked, not unkindly. We hovered over an Entenmann’s Danish ring that looked fresher ten days earlier when opened and not exposed to the faculty lounge’s also unfresh cigarette reek. Male students at a Catholic high school didn’t understand dishwashing or hygiene. We didn’t know what cuds were. Few fifteen-year-olds do. Br. Eugene didn’t explain; finding answers was our duty, our problem. The dozen sophomores and juniors crammed in that lounge had their own reasons for taking a six-week summer course on Greek literature: college board ambition, parental pressure, curiosity. After a tenth grade honors English course in which we crunched on the dialectical subtleties of Clive Cussler and Dean Koontz, understanding Aeschylus’ concept of justice in Prometheus Bound gnarled our brains at 8:30 a.m. Continue reading

Songs of faith and devotion

“I’m not religious, but I feel so moved,” Madonna once sang, and on Passion Weekend that’s how these holy days unfurl for this former Catholic. The following prayers, laments, and supplications move me beyond measure.

1. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – Khena Ghalat Ghalat To Chhupana Sahi Sahi
2. Al Green – Jesus is Waiting
3. Bob Dylan – Every Grain of Sand
4. Johnny Cash – Why Me Lord
5. Aretha Franklin – Mary Don’t You Weep
6. The Staple Sisters – I’ll Take You There
7. The Velvet Underground – Jesus
8. Roxy Music – Psalm
9. Brad Paisley and Dolly Parton – When I Get Where I’m Going
10. Depeche Mode – Personal Jesus
11. Carrie Underwood – Jesus, Take the Wheel
12. The Killers – All The Things That I’ve Done
13. Prince – The Cross
14. George Jones – Family Bible
15. Randy Travis – Three Wooden Crosses
16. Amy Grant – Lead Me On
17. The Doobie Brothers – Jesus Is Just Alright
18. ZZ Top – Jesus Just Left Chicago
19. Big Star – Jesus Christ
20. Madonna – Like a Prayer
21. George Michael – Jesus to a Child
22. Lupe Fiasco – Muhammad Walks
23. Stephanie Mills – I Have Learned to Respect the Power of Love
24. Merle Haggard – Jesus Take a Hold
25. Nas – God Love Us
26. Stevie Wonder – Have a Talk with God
27. Talk Talk – New Grass
28. John Cale – Hallelujah
29. Van Morrison – Give Me My Rapture
30. David Bowie – Word on a Wing

‘Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?’

The ritual abandoned but the romance still exerting a pull, Good Friday has a stillness that attracts me years after I abandoned faith. Gerard Manley Hopkins, never one to take things easy, let alone still-y, has a sonnet for the occasion.

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief-
Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old ánvil wínce and síng–
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
Ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

Is it appropriate to say, “Happy Good Friday!”?

Hitting the Church where it hurts


So what conservatives would call Social Issues have creeped into the Jesuit preparatory school that produced Fidel Castro, Manny Diaz, and Carlos Curbelo:

Richard Rodriguez’s heart thumped as he walked into his ten-year high school reunion at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School, the famed all-boys academy in western Dade that boasts graduates from Fidel Castro to Perez Hilton. But the Cuban-American with short-cropped black hair and a wide smile wasn’t worried about how his job or physique would stack up against those of his classmates. He was nervous about the reaction to his date: his partner, Cédric Mahé.

To his surprise, though, Rodriguez felt nothing but love and support from his old classmates at the famously conservative Catholic school. About 60 twenty-somethings sipped red wine and Bud Light, traded stories, and posed grinning around a table with their dates for a photo to run in the alumni association magazine.

Rodriguez’s real shock didn’t come until a couple months later, when the alumni magazine arrived. Cédric was gone, cropped completely out of the shot.

“After I complained, the principal told me, ‘This isn’t a policy, please pass along my apologies,’” Rodriguez says. “I was hoping they’d be a bit more accepting.”

He was wrong. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic ruling in June legalized gay marriage nationwide, several LGBT alumni — including Rodriguez, who wed Cédric this summer in France — sent notices to the alumni magazine about their nuptials. All were rejected, and last week, the school put its foot down: No gay marriages would be noted at Belen.

“The Catholic Church recognizes that marriage is between a man and a woman and because of the Catholic identity of the school, Belen cannot publish same-sex marriage announcements in any of its publications,” says Rev. Pedro Suarez, the school’s principal.

A couple months ago I paid for and received the alumni guide of my own boys Catholic high school, run by Marist Brothers — Belen’s largest South Florida competitor. It has photos of alumni with their spouses. No photos of men and their husbands, but I suspect it’s a matter of time before this argument happens. Of course it’s coming.

But announcement isn’t endorsement. Call the Church on it. Although I’m reluctant to criticize the approach of the Belen student, he’s seeking the correct redress in the wrong way. The edited photo is a means, not an end. The school will, rightly, argue that it follows Rome’s stances on matters of dogma and doctrine. That’s fair.

So organize alumni to stop donating to the Catholic Church. Stop the collection baskets. Desist from donating to their institution. When asked, explain yourself. If you had sex with your wife before marriage, or your wife got pregnant out of what we used to call wedlock, and the alumni board learned about it but still wined and dined you, your wife should be cut out of the photo. If private Catholic schools are going to get into the snit of deciding which sins are more socially acceptable, then we should relieve their headaches by refraining from sinning in front of them. Birth control and premarital sex are just as repugnant in the eyes of the Church. Admit that you’re all sinners.

Pope Francis: conscientious objection ‘is a right’


Pope Francis said things that would lead a reasonable man to conclude that he believes people like Kim Davis have a right to refuse discharging duties they consider immoral:

On the flight back to Rome, he was asked if he supported individuals, including government officials, who refuse to abide by some laws, such as issuing marriage licenses to gays.

“Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right,” Francis said.

Earlier this month a city official in the U.S. state of Kentucky, Kim Davis, went to jail because she refused to issue a marriage license to a gay couple following a Supreme Court decision to make homosexual marriage legal.

Davis’s case has taken on national significance in the 2016 presidential campaign, with one Republican contender, Mike Huckabee, holding rallies in favor of Davis, a Apostolic Christian, who has since joined the Republican party.

“I can’t have in mind all cases that can exist about conscientious objection but, yes, I can say that conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right,” he said, speaking in Italian.

The last quote is the mark of a politician covering his ass, another variant on “Who am I to judge?”

Papal bull

The kind of Catholic whose reading of the story of Enoch (the man so good that God “took him” into heaven, millennia before the dogma of the Assumption) at twelve instigated a round of penance so ruthless that it led to arranging pebbles in shoes, I was due for a fall. A high school reading of Emerson unearthed years of suppressed doubt; my desire to believe overmatched my faith. When the hellfire chapter in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man gave me the willies, I did like Christ commanded and shook the dust from my sandals. I haven’t looked back. So I’m creeped out by the adoration for Pope Francis.

Although I cite him from time to time, I’m not a fan of Matt Taibbi’s forced yuks. But those yuks turn to yucks confronted by what he correctly calls the left’s discovery of the politics of piety: “Watching progressives fawn over a pope is depressing and makes me want to go watch a Cheech and Chong movie.” Taibbi:

This version is a pope arriving in America with a gazillion-member entourage to reassure young professionals in New York how right they are about climate change and income inequality. He says a lot of very vague things about the wrongs of society that everyone is sure coincide with their own opinions. George Will is right when he says Francis speaks “in the intellectual tone of a fortune cookie,” saying things like, “People occasionally forgive, but nature never does.”

Meanwhile Francis chugs along as the head of one of the most socially regressive organizations on earth, doing nothing to take on the Church’s indefensible stances on things like birth control, gay rights, discrimination against women, celibacy and countless other issues. He claims the moral authority to reform global capitalism, but he’s somehow not ready to tell teenagers it’s OK to masturbate, which seems bizarre.

Or, as Suzy Khimm wrote in a less snarky piece, “The Democratic Party is comfortable accepting support from religious allies, especially from its African-American base, but only so long as their calls for action fit into a larger argument driven by humanism and pluralism.” When Francis announces that he is opening the Holy See’s files of clergy accused of pedophilia and transferred out of the jurisdiction of prosecutors, then I will know he’s serious about reform. Otherwise the soothing words encouraging inclusion are so much ink from a formidable squid.

Pope Francis: ‘Jesuitical’ in saying something that seems to push discussion’

The New Yorker publishes a progress report on Pope Francis’ efforts to put a smiley face on the Catholic Church’s legal and doctrinal problems. Like any smart politician, Francis gives the impression of change when his church hasn’t moved much at all. Alexander Stille:

Sometimes Francis sidesteps divisive issues by simply changing the subject, pointing out that the central missions of Christianity are love, charity, mercy, and caring for the poor. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” he said in the interview in Civiltà Cattolica. Even with the decision to hold a synod on the family, he was careful not to move without firm Church precedents: John Paul II held a synod on the family in 1980, but in a different spirit. “Most bishops spent an inordinate amount of time in their speeches quoting Pope John Paul II to himself,” Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and Vatican analyst, wrote recently. The one notable exception was the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop John R. Quinn, of San Francisco, who suggested opening a dialogue on possible exceptions to the contraception ban. “The negative reaction from the Vatican was fierce,” Reese went on. “Many felt that Quinn’s influence in the Church declined speedily after the synod.”

On Francis’ silken glove diplomacy:

“He is very Jesuitical in saying or doing something that seems to push discussion much further down the road than he actually intends to go,” Andrea Gagliarducci, a Catholic journalist and traditionalist who often writes pieces that are highly critical of Francis, said. “But that pushes everyone further down the road than they intended to go.”

For example, in the case of homosexual believers, even Cardinal Bertone agrees that the Church must do better in creating a welcoming and accepting atmosphere. He points out that Pope Benedict, as a cardinal in the eighties, made it clear that the Church opposed any efforts to denigrate homosexuals or discriminate against them. Bertone glides over the difference between Cardinal Ratzinger’s description of homosexuality as an “intrinsic moral evil” and Francis’s “Who am I to judge?” Even so, Bertone’s softening on the issue is evidence that Francis has changed the debate within the Church.

I like the phrase “It is the particular genius of Catholicism that it continues to change while insisting that it has never changed.” In an institution that clings to John Paul II like the GOP does to stills of Ronnie the Great, it will take more running to stand still.

The evolution of Pope Francis

Well, extraordinary move:

Pope Francis will make it easier for women to be forgiven for abortion during a jubilee “year of mercy” starting Dec. 8.

In a letter issued by the Vatican on Tuesday, the pope said he would grant all Catholic priests temporary authority to “absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.”

Under church law, anyone who willingly participates in an abortion—including the pregnant woman, the abortionist and anyone who assists in the process—incurs automatic excommunication, which normally can only be lifted by the local bishop.

Under Pope Francis’ concession, any priest will be able to exercise this power during the year of mercy, which ends Nov. 20, 2016.

In the same letter, the pope expressed compassion for “women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision.”

In the past I haven’t fallen over myself praising Francis – figured the College of Cardinals selected him as an acknowledgment of a PR problem. But deviation from abortion (“anti-life”) orthodoxy? I can’t imagine a geezer in red taking this well. I’m willing to overlook the language of sin, which in the sentence above reminds me of Gerald Ford’s justifying his pardon of Nixon by thinking the acceptance of a pardon means acknowledgment of illegality.

Jesus’ followers ‘much brighter than the Catholic Church’

I renounced my Catholicism long before I read the bit about the preacher horrifying Stephen Dedalus with descriptions of hell in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and I’m wary of extending credit to the patriarchs of moribund institutions even if Catholics still treasure the mystery of the sacraments; but so long as Pope Francis keeps appointing bishops as or more accommodating to the tribulations of their parishioners the Church’s sell by date can get extended. Garry Wills, interviewed by Michael Schulson, argues that this pope’s determination in speaking to members of other faiths without regarding these people as potential converts is one of his most laudable achievements:

Q: As you point out in the book, Francis was friends with the late Clelia Luro, an Argentinian woman who challenged priestly celibacy and led masses alongside her husband, a former bishop. How much do you think the Pope is dividing his public persona from his private thoughts on this issue?

A: Well, I think we all do that to some extent. We all have a position that makes certain demands on us that we don’t recognize as ruling all of our life. But he is ecumenical in all kinds of ways. He realizes that the followers of Jesus are much brighter than the Catholic church. He will show that in all kinds of ways. It goes against the tradition that salvation is only in the Catholic Church, there’s only one true church, etc. But the actions that he’s performing, when he washes the feet of Muslim women and he does all these things — Catholics don’t exist only to be nice to Catholics. He’s proving that beautifully.

Q: Is it realistic to have a universal church — in other words, to have an institution that’s this gigantic, but still trying to be centralized?

A: The universal church should be all believers in Jesus. In the Gospel of Luke, when the first disciples go out on their own and they come back, Jesus says, Well, how did you do? John says, Terrifically, we were casting out devils and people were listening to the good news, and then we came across someone who was casting out devils in your name. But he wasn’t one of us, so we told him to stop. Jesus said, Why did you do that? If he did it in my name, he’s not against me.

Shrewd observation, that line about Francis’ realizing that the followers of Jesus are brighter than the Church. I’ll need to show Francis charity after Gerald Posner’s revelations about Paul Marcinkus the archbishop who ran the Vatican Bank as if it were a lobbying arm for the Reagan administration:

In one of his biggest scoops, ­Posner ­reveals that while Marcinkus was ­running his shell game at the Vatican Bank, he also served as a spy for the State Department, providing the American ­government with “personal details” about John Paul II, and even encouraging the pope “at the behest of embassy officials . . . to publicly endorse American positions on a broad range of political issues, ­including: the war on drugs; the ­guerrilla fighting in El Salvador; bigger defense budgets; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and even Reagan’s ambitious ­missile defense shield.”

And that’s before revelations about gay sex parties in the Curia. Like the good old days of John XII.

‘The coins had to be prised from their clenched fists’

As Pope Innocent VIII tried to die, sycophants performed the obligatory acts of Christian charity:

He slept almost continuously…He grew grossly fat and increasingly inert, being able, toward the end of his life, to take for nourishment no more than a few drops of milk from the breast of a young woman. When he seemed to be dying, an attempt to save his life was made by sacrificing the lives of three healthy young men to provide a blood transfusion. (Ironically, this attempt was made by a Jewish doctor.) The young men supplying the blood were paid one ducat each. They perished in the process and, with the onset of rigor mortis, the coins had to be prised from their clenched fists.

The year: 1492. From John Julius Norwich’s Absolute Monarchs, a book of immense entertainment value.