|FATHER P. WAS AN OLDER Basilian who was easily mimicked in the locker
rooms. He talked with a thick, mucus-y voice that came from his habit of
saving up a generous mouthful of spit during the course of each class and,
just as the bell rang and the faster students were bolting for the door,
hocking a fat loogie into the hallway. He might once have been a vital,
earnest young priest, but those days had passed long ago, and he'd lapsed
into a sort of disconnected reverie that seemed to affect almost all of
the priests on the faculty.
He taught religious studies, among other things, and I had him one
year, grade eleven or twelve, I can't clearly recall anymore. Most of his
classes followed the usual model: there was no credit, therefore no coursework,
so each class might consist of a completely new topic sprung on us, a few
minutes of names and ideas written on the blackboard ("Saul/Paul" and "repentance"
and "teaching", for instance), followed by the distribution of a box of
"Good News" gospels, with their vernacularized text and groovy, minimal
line-drawing illustrations of the life of Christ, the saviour depicted,
like the apostles (and Pharisees and Pontius Pilate), as a faceless stick
figure in a robe (or a tunic or breastplate or headdress).
One day, however, he told us that we were going to the downstairs
chapel for our class, and that we should take our books. Fine, we thought,
already on routine 45-minute autopilot for catechism.
We entered the chapel and saw that Fr. P. had stacked the chairs
- carved teak or oak armchairs with rough, woven twine seats, if memory
serves, very Sixties penitential modern - by the walls of the chapel, and
had placed a single candle on the altar. Today, I might have muttered something
like "weird sort of tenebrae, huh?", but then I didn't really bat an eye.
Still on autopilot, you see. We probably stood around dumbly for a second
until Fr. P. told us to stow our books by the walls and find a place on
the floor, which we dutifully did, raising the odd eyebrow at each other,
then stretching out with an exaggerated show of relaxation. It didn't seem
like a bad deal, in any case; forty minutes of laying about, no obligation
to answer questions, no way of Fr. P. being able to monitor if we were
even awake. Maybe it might have seemed a bit irreverent for some of us
to contemplate napping on the chapel floor, but that was probably the full
extent of whatever trepidation we felt.
Fr. P. began by lighting the single, fat white candle on the altar
and turning out the chapel lights. Once again, perhaps a few raised eyebrows,
a suppressed giggle, but overal gratitude for the break in our day. Standing
by the altar, he started talking about ritual and sacraments and consecration,
and speculating on the ritual of the blessing, and asking us to take an
imaginative journey with him, before taking his place on the floor of the
riser surrounding the altar.
One of us, by this point, was making an elaborate show of napping,
perhaps making snoring noises, quietly, so as to be heard only by the handful
of students lying on the floor nearby. Suppressed giggles. I was probably
doing what I always did - letting my mind wander, the compulsive daydreaming
that had begun eroding my performance in class years earlier, when I first
needed some escape from the constant bullying back at Our Lady of Victory.
At St. Mike's, it had degenerated into habit, a refuge from the almost
constant discomfort and anxiety I felt between the ages of twelve and twenty.
When I finally focussed back on Fr. P., he was describing the body of a
naked young man, and had begun narrating the progress of oil - warm holy
oil - down his body.
"Down past his hair, over his forehead, and down to his lips..."
he said, in that thick, mucus-y voice.
Okay, yeah, pretty strange, I guess. I'm sure I turned my and raised
my eyebrows at the nearest body lying on the carpet - maybe Pete Nero,
or Dan Laypa. To be honest, though, I can't remember if either of them
were in that class. I was probably answered with a shrug. We didn't think
that priests were quite human at that age. Even with abundant evidence
to the contrary - the rages at our tardiness, indiscipline, and backtalk,
the creeping senility that sometimes prompted an older priest to begin
his catechism class by teaching a math lesson he hadn't taught in a decade,
the alcohol on the breath of Fr. M. when he'd wander back into rehearsals
for the school musicals after storming out, unable to believe that almost
no one had memorized their lines two weeks before opening night - they
still seemed somehow exempt from normal rules of humanity, a condition
somehow reinforced in our minds by the imponderable condition of celibacy.
"The oil, warmed by the warmth of your own body, is moving over your
I'm not sure at what point "his" turned into "your", but we were,
by this point, transformed into the young man in question, being consecrated
by Fr. P.'s vivid narrative. Fine enough, I thought. There had been classes
taught on the difference between agape and eros,
and while the distinction hadn't really defined itself too clearly in our
minds, we knew that there was some link between faith and sensuality being
made. Perhaps this was some attempt to explicate it for us.
"The oil has reached your waist, and you hips, has reached the halfway
point on its journey..."
There's a dark patch in my memory here, a missing piece of tape.
I don't remember if Fr. P. explicitly described the holy oil anointing
our genitals. Even if I didn't seem to grasp how out of the ordinary this
whole episode was, I'm sure I would have been embarassed by such an image,
and would have worked immediately to block it from my mind, drowning it
in a surge of mental white noise.
There were digressions, of course. It took the best part of the forty
minute class for Fr. P. to finish the journey of the oil from head to toe,
and in between describing its progress over body parts, he would go on
to use some bit of scripture, or discussion of church dogma, to underline
a connection between that particular piece of physical geography and some
facet of Catholic teaching. Of course - it's all quite legitimate, isn't
it? I mean, unconventional, yes, but a perfectly acceptable way of using
the contemporary language of human sensuality - the same, contemporary
proto-new age rhetoric of Leo Buscaglia, of knock-off Hinduism, of "the
holistic society" and rejection of the divide between body and mind - that
seemed to inform everything happening about an era trying to salvage meaning
from the wound-like turmoil of the Sixties.
"THE OIL HAS REACHED your feet. You have been annointed fully, like
Christ annointed his disciples when he washed their feet..."
A minute or two of summation and Fr. P. stands and turns on the chapel
lights just as the bell for period change rings. We struggle up from the
floor, yawning and stretching theatrically, retrieve our books from the
piles at the edge of the room, and head out the chapel door in the usual,
unruly knot. I may have turned to Dan Laypa - or maybe Robbie Vesz, I can't
remember - with an arched eyebrow and a dry chuckle. "What was that all
about?" A shrug, another dry chuckle. "That was like something from fuckin'
Star Trek, man." Off to lunch or the next class. Whatever. If was mostly
forgotten about by the end of the day.
In any case, not one of us complained. Years later, I had to grudgingly
admire Fr. P., who had managed to molest an entire class full of boys without
touching one of them; who had gambled that our own confusion about the
church and ourselves, the vast leeway it had over our lives at St. Mike's,
and the disarray of our anarchic sexual immaturity, would let us walk out
of the class without thinking the previous forty minutes at all unusual.
In any case, I don't remember anyone else ever talking about it, or any
change in Fr. P.'s life or career. Years later, I heard that he'd been
sent away to a retreat the Basilians maintained out west, a kind of "drying-out"
facility for priests with alcohol problems.
In any case, that forty-minute class resonated for years. In time,
I'd make light of it by telling the story in like-minded company, my tone
of voice incredulous and dramatic, as an illustration of the decay of the
church, as a bit of perverse comedy, as part of a diatribe against the
Seventies and its clammy, promiscuous culture. It contributed, I'm sure,
to an erosion of my childish faith in the church, to a brief rejection
of Catholicism that manifested itself as checking the "public school" box
and not the "separate school" box on my tax forms.
I CAN SYMPATHIZE WITH anyone who's appalled and dismayed by the scandal
of a pedophile being protected by a church bureacracy, seemingly more concerned
with maintaining its authority than protecting and nurturing its parishioners
and, especially, the children placed in its care. At the same time, I don't
think it's logical to link the scandal with the celibacy of priests, with
the church's stance on birth control or abortion, or the issue of female
clergy. These are issues that, while pressing and relevant, bear little
or no relation to the weakness or malign impulses of an all too sizable
minority of clergy.
On the other hand, I don't think that the church is wise to scapegoat
gay priests - of which there are quite a few - based on the assumption
that homosexual and pedophile mean the same thing.
A few years ago, a high school friend quietly came out of the closet.
On the phone one day with another friend from those days, he asked timidly
if the rumours were true. Yup, I said, our buddy J. is gay. Big news, huh?
"So that means he likes little boys, then?" my friend said, trying
nervously to make light of it all, I'm sure.
Oh no, I answered. Far from it. J. likes men. Big hairy men. Big,
muscley, mature men well beyond mere boyhood. Perish the thought. It has
nothing to do with boys.
There are gay priests. There are, additionally and sadly, gay priests
who break their vow of celibacy. This is to be regretted in the same way
that straight priests who break their vow must be regretted. It's a shame,
and an altogether significant indication that these are men who should
reconsider their vocation. But it isn't in the same league as priests who
abuse children or young people, if only because of the significant issue
of consent, and the violation of trust.
I can't help but think of Fr. Mychal Judge, the NYFD chaplain who
died on September 11th. The Fire Department is hardly a stronghold of tolerance
and relaxed masculinity, but this openly gay priest - celibate, but openly
gay - managed to become beloved within the department. The image of his
limp body being carried from the wreckage of the first tower collapse is
probably one of the major images of that day. But my own mind is dominated
by the footage of him, broadcast a few weeks ago in the "9/11" documentary
aired on CBS, as he prayed, to himself, for the thousands of souls then
in peril, in the lobby of the north tower, as the situation becomes more
apparently dire. Minutes from his own death. A chilling image, but a resolutely
hopeful, even noble, one.
It seems to me that a church that excluded someone like Mychal Judge
would be one intent on diminishing itself. I'm no great expert on catechism
or dogma or the vast practices of the church gathered over two thousand
years. But I like to think I know about human character, and our basically
hopeless but essential striving to become better people.
I HAVE BEEN, at various times in my life, bitter, vindictive, hurtful,
perverse, spiteful, mean, wrathful, cruel, vain, self-loathing, impatient,
petty, dishonest, deceitful, lacking in empathy, caution, reason, wisdom
and sense. As a Catholic, I'm irreverent, impatient, prideful, impious
and entirely unable to imagine myself integrated happily into the body
of the church. I would like to hope that the church can make room for someone
like me, much as I'd like to think it can accept the commitment of someone
like the late Fr. Judge, at the same time as it can police those who abuse
its mission and its trust.
Which is why I think the church will weather its current troubles.
There's a misconception as strong among those believers who've been troubled
by the failure of the church to police itself, as by those who look for
any excuse to attack the church, in the fond and ill-disguised hope that
it will just disappear; a belief that the church is somehow nothing more
than the sum of its parishioners, priests, monks, nuns, bishops, archbishops,
cardinals and Pope. If that were true, then it would probably have disappeared
long ago, probably about the time Rome fell, or in the insecurity that
confronted it during the rise of Islam.
The church is about more than that, a greater sum than its human
or material parts. I don't expect much from people. On the whole, I think
people are wretched, their motivations inevitably suspicious and their
reasoning impaired to some larger or greater degree. I'm not surprised
when people fail, decieve, or betray their trust. I expect it, and don't
imagine that change happens in anything but the most imperceptible increments.
I do believe, however, that our ideals, our visions, our hopes for a better
world, can take on a life of their own, and become something greater than
our limited capacities. I believe the church is one of these things. And
that, I suppose, is the pitiful measure of my idealism.