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the diary thing. 03.31.02 .father
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christEASTER SUNDAY. I've had four days off from work, at least half of them spent with K. It's been nice.

I FEEL LIKE I'M indulging a lot of my angst about the church lately. There's a lot of angst in the air about the church these days, in any case. The worst thing about choosing just this moment to talk about my relationship to the Catholic church is that it seems like opportunism; glib topicality that might do nothing to contribute a clear voice to the whole dialogue. The fact is that I've been thinking about writing these entries for awhile now - since my wife went back to the church a year ago, in fact.

It's taken me a year to put my thoughts in order, though I won't deny for a second that recent events have galvanized me. "Don't commit the sin of scandal," my wife tells me, when I try to describe what I've been writing here. (Scandal and gossip are, technically, venal sins; a month or two ago, the bishop of Halifax pronounced reading Frank magazine - a tawdry and mean-spirited media and politics magazine up here in Canada, the Great White North version of Britain's Private Eye - to be a sin. If Frank was half as funny as Private Eye in its heyday, I'd be just another recidivist sinner, I suppose, but as it is I was happy for the excuse to stop picking it up.) 

I'm just another former Catholic schoolboy with a story to tell. Don't get too excited - my story is more comic than tragic, and though I've been saving it for some future fiction, I though this would be a good time to revive an old memory, while it has something of a context.

AT WHAT POINT did the gay, pedophile priest replace the hypocritical old reverend father with the mistress/housekeeper and the odd bastard child tucked away with the nuns in some cruel orphanage? I suppose he's the latest incarnation of the lecherous monk of the middle ages, rogering young girls in the confessionals, gaining carnal knowledge of the lady of the manor by abusing her trust and slipping her a sleeping potion. I'm not disputing that, at certain times, in certain places, these venerable, anti-clerical cliches had some basis in truth. Certainly, the latest public incarnation of the "fallen priest" has been in existence for as long as I can remember, or at least as recently as twenty years ago, when I was a schoolboy at St. Mike's.

I don't know if things have changed, but despite the somewhat charged atmosphere of an all-boy's school, it was uncommon to speculate aloud about who you thought was "queer". (It was a dirty, pejorative word back then, a homophobe's word. "Gay" already sounded, well, gay.) I had a few friends then who were gay, though at the time I could only say for sure that one of them was. I wasn't, but a lot of people thought I was, which, ironically, is the quickest way to develop tolerance at that age. 

We all assumed that a few of the priests who lived at and ran the school were. There were some obvious cases, like Father Z., whose homeroom was downstairs by the lockers, and whose walls were covered with his snapshots of favorite students, mostly jocks, snapped in the changerooms by the gym. Floor to ceiling decoupage of shirtless boys, flexing their muscles and smiling for Father Z.'s camera. It seemed, well, a bit obvious.

Among my friends - misfits who suffered from "faggot" taunts now and again - Father Z. was a bit of a joke. We were frankly amazed that he could be so brazen, and when you tried to suggest to one of his favorites - a boy whose beefcake portrait was on the wall somewhere - that perhaps Father Z. was a bit light in the loafers, you'd get an altogether puzzling response:

"Shut up, faggot."

And so the subject was rarely broached, and Father Z. went on making his homeroom look like a physique magazine. The joke was just too rich, the absurdity too essential to the whole excruciating experience of being at St. Mike's. Obviously, we weren't the only ones who couldn't be bothered saying anything.

IN MY LAST COUPLE of years at the school, my buddy Pete got me a job working the phones in the priest's residence after school. I needed the money badly; I'd unexpectedly developed a social life, hanging out with a group of friends from stage crew and a complimentary clique of girls from Loretto Abbey. The girls, though, came from prosperous families and had a bit more money than we did, and so I was in dire need of cash, something my widowed mother, supporting us on a couple of pensions, couldn't provide. 

Two or three evenings a week, I'd set myself up in the Fifties-vintage reception area of the priest's residence, at the boxy, built-in console desk between a wall of windows and a wall of rough, mortared stone, take the cover off the clunky switchboard and plug in the rotary dial phone. I was earning money, grateful for the time alone, the free meal upstairs in the kitchen, and bored clean out of my head. I could never manage to finish any homework there, and when reading the latest bit of extracurricular fiction became impossible, I'd wander into the vestry by the chapel, or sit between the huge pots of geraniums, cactus and spider plants in front of the windows, stare out at the lawn and feel sorry for myself. But I digress.

I learned which of the Basilians had drinking problems by the slurred voices calling the switchboard to connect me with another room, and I was frankly surprised at how, well, queeny some of the fathers sounded after hours. Never mind that I probably didn't know the word "queeny" at the time - I might have said "swishy", or "fey" perhaps, but not "camp"; that word would come with looming years of creeping sophistication. 

The Basilian residence wasn't a happy place, I knew that for sure. The order was aging, and we all knew for certain that religion - old fashioned, God in his place and man in church on his knees religion - was on its way out. Just look at Quebec, our older brothers and sisters would say, as they left behind their childhood faith for something more...accomodating to their lifestyles. These were the the dying minutes of the thunderous, listless (tuneless and arrythmic) funk that was the Seventies, and we all tended to think a bit apocalyptically back then. If God wasn't dead, he'd certainly retired, and wasn't opening his mail anymore.

It was a sullen time, and we expected the worst of our elders. Alienation was our birthright; you were actively encouraged to develop a weary, jaded view of the world before actually having much experience of it. We were all existentialists - we studied Camus in English class, after all - and our ersatz cynicism combined with the raging hormones that made coherent thought and speech difficult, draping the world in a layer of the perverse. Sex was all we thought about, but when it actually made an appearance outside of our fantasies, it was often unrecognizable, so little did it resemble our overburnished fantasy.

JUST BECAUSE I THINK William F. Buckley is a tedious blowhard doesn't mean I don't read him. Writing recently in his column for the National Review about the disgraced Bishop O'Connell of Tampa, he made a point that actually resonated with my memories of the Seventies, and the church, punch-drunk and grasping for its bearings in the years after Vatican II:
 

"Bishop O'Connell, in his abject statement of apology, reported that he had actually only 'touched' Dixon; that he was really engaged only in experimental therapy; that back in those days, Catholic theology was to some extent influenced by the teachings of Masters and Johnson."

I would have been pretty vague about who Masters and Johnson were, but I did know they were the punchline for jokes in Penthouse and Playboy, where they'd replaced references to a fellow named Kinsey a decade before, and were being replaced by a woman named Sheri Hite. These were the last days before AIDS, and sex was still thick on the ground, albeit a sullen, witless, mechanical kind of sex that had migrated from porn to real life when the sexual revolution had stamped its papers and given it a visa. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that clinical "sexology" had found its way into church practice. I had, on one occasion, some fleeting but uncomfortable experience with it.

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"To be of no church is dangerous. Religion, of which the rewards are distant, and which is animated only by Faith and Hope, will glide by degrees out of the mind, unless it be invigorated and reimpressed by external ordinances, by stated calls to worship, and the salutary influence of example."

- Samuel Johnson
Life of Milton
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A long walk down memory lane. The strangest thing that happened to me in Catholic school. A last chance to clear my mind about the church for a while.
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john scalzi
james lileks
alan zweig
weisblogg
mike reed
lucy huntzinger
justinalia
warlog: ww3
blowback
little green footballs
ken layne
uss clueless
muslimpundit
andrew sullivan
sgt. stryker
arts & letters
steve bell
relapsed catholic

Here's a sad record of the paranoid fantasies that fuel too much of "leftist" political "thought". Apparently, the earthquake in Afghanistan was really the aftershock from an American nuke attack. No, really.
 
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 chest..."

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.

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CONSUME

Lawrence Marable Quartet with James Clay, Tenorman buy it


Jonathan Glazer, dir., Sexy Beast buy it
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