The Pope and Me and What Might Have Been

The Pope is here today, just three miles from my home. As I write this, he is at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, with joyful throngs cheering him in the streets and the lucky few joining him inside.

My friend Sylvia has been texting me her updates on Francis sightings, jogging from one place on his route to another. Truly, it’s a great day, made holier by the gift of a cloudless sky and a fall breeze rustling the still-green leaves. Once upon a time, this day would have meant something different to me, as it does to Sylvia, and 70 million other American Catholics.

I am sad that it doesn’t. Some part of me wonders if I left a great party too soon. Other parts tell me otherwise.

As we watched a Pope and a President speak outside the White House, our new Brazilian au pair asked me if I was Catholic. Instinctively, I gave the same answer I have given for the past twenty years:

I was raised Catholic.

I say no more, but even a native Portugese speaker gets the meaning in those four words.

And was I ever raised Catholic. Not the version that my parents were, with angry nuns who never wanted to be schoolmarms rapping their wrists, measuring girls’ skirts and previewing Hell like it was one false move away.

No, I had an awesome Catholic upbringing, in a small parish nestled between Boston and Worcester. From my earliest memory, Sundays (and, occasionally, Saturday evenings, so long as it was after 5:00 so it “counted”) meant the five of us, my family, wedged in a pew at St. Luke’s.

Looking back, I realize that in many ways it was the being there that mattered, that my parents demanded that one hour of us, free of even the 1970’s and 80’s version of distractions. Even as we squirmed, elbowed, and got uncontrollable “Church laugh” triggering a mildly stern look from my mother, we were there. The rituals of Mass moved us through sits and stands, affirmations of faith that rolled off our tongues, and offerings of peace.

We went. We went even on summer vacation, my siblings and I making vocal and, if I may say, compelling entreaties as we were hauled out of a perfect late afternoon playing in Long Pond. My mother was the stalwart, my father likely on our side but too afraid of either Mom or those darned nuns of his memory threatening eternal consequences. Our Lady of Lourdes in Wellfleet was stifling hot, with tiny windows beneath the stained glass Stations of the Cross opened just enough so we could hear kids having what I imagined was the greatest time imaginable as an octogenarian priest mumbled into the chalice.

But St. Luke’s was different, and special – maybe too special as it turned out. We had Father Tom Sullivan, a gifted speaker and soulful thinker who made it his mission to be part of the larger community of a small town. He organized summer bus trips to Hampton Beach, which were open to any tween or teen in town who wanted to come. Busloads did, and we had a fabulous time. For the CYO’s annual fundraiser, called the Rock-A-Thon, half of Westborough Junior High – Catholic or not – filled the parish center with rocking chairs, junk food, boom boxes and sleeping bags, where we rocked for a solid 24 hours. When we were older, Father Tom took those of us who were interested into Boston to see wonderful foreign films, like Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. He saw no tension between open minds and faithful hearts.

It made him, and us, no less Catholic that he advocated inclusion and acceptance. I remember a full sermon dedicated to condemning anti-Semitism, which must have been prompted by some incident of which I was blissfully unaware. And one day, out of the blue, processing up the aisle wearing white vestments were. . . girls. Altar girls. It’s hardly radical now, but I remember the turning heads and whispers among everyone over 40 at the time. I’m pretty sure Father Tom didn’t wait for the Vatican, or for that matter the Worcester Archdiocese, to approve. By the third week, it was normal.

This was my Catholic Church, less chosen than it was simply given, handed down through generations of families very much like mine. This was where we mourned our grandparents, celebrated marriages, welcomed new babies. This was part of being Irish, even after a century of assimilation. In so many ways, the Church strengthened my family. That’s an awful lot to leave behind.

I never considered myself a “Cafeteria Catholic” until someone assigned the term to me and my kind when I was in college. I should have pointed out that the better analogy would be trying to order a la carte from a prix fixe menu with no substitutions. Like so many other American Catholics, I was comfortable turning a blind eye to Church positions that conflicted with my own core, and emerging, values and beliefs. I was certain I’d bested my challengers in dorm room debates on whether being Catholic could live alongside advocacy for reproductive rights and support for LGBT equality.

I was certain of all that, until I wasn’t.

In 1996, my friends Chris and Meg were married at the Catholic chapel at Brown University. I was honored that they asked me to read the Petitions, the part of Mass following Communion when individual prayers are offered with the congregation responding to each: “Lord, Hear our Prayer.” They handed me my script a few days before the wedding. I read it, re-read it, and asked them if they were really sure. They were sure. It was the Brown chapel, after all. They could get away with it.

And so, from up on the altar, after the standard petitions praying for those who had died, and the sick and needy, I read:

“We pray today for all couples who love. And we wait in joyful anticipation of the day your Church will welcome our gay brothers and sisters in the same union of your love as Christopher and Meghan share today. We pray to The Lord…”

Even with their heads bowed, I could see my newly wedded friends’ smiles. As for the rest of the congregation, it was a little like that day at St. Luke’s when the altar girls walked in. A few great aunts and uncles looked stricken. There were some shrugs and a good number of nodding heads. This was almost twenty years ago.

At the reception, I started talking with Meg’s aunt about what I had read. She was a liberal feminist, and yet a Catholic, who of course loved this small act of defiance. I told her I didn’t think I could do it anymore. I was tired of living a version of Catholic faith where being true to other things I believed felt like trying to get away with something. I couldn’t reconcile that I was welcomed and comfortable in that pew only by the happenstance of how God made me. I only had so many blind eyes. It was a great conversation and ended in tears. She made a powerful pitch I still remember all these years later: If we don’t stay, nothing will change. I disagreed, and in the end we reached this consensus: Some of us need to stay, and some of us need to go.

I went. In my memory, that was the moment I started saying, I was raised Catholic.

And yet, today is hard. It’s hard for the same reason that thousands like me who no longer practice the faith still don’t have a name for what it means to have left it, or if it’s fully possible to leave it. There wouldn’t be such terms as “Culturally Catholic,” or the dismissive “Recovering Catholic” if there was an easy way to answer my au pair’s question with a simple “no.”

But whether as a citizen or a Catholic, surely this papacy is to be celebrated, even for those of us wondering whether we should have held in there longer. There is an inescapable feeling that this is the Pope so many of us were waiting for, and it is an honor to host him. Let’s face it: he’s the Joe Biden of popes, almost impossible not to like. I love the Fiat, the simple white vestments, the hundreds of embraces amidst untold security threats.

If nothing else, may we never see another Prada Papacy. May this Pope’s example of humility echo across our overheated planet. May his recasting of climate change as a call to conscience move the recalcitrant toward action.

Like many others, though, I fear that Pope Francis is a Rorschach test for Cafeteria Catholics, whose desperation to hear and see what they want the Church to become risks clouding the reality of what it is and what those who control it will fight to have it remain. When that agenda is cast as “core doctrine,” the betting odds are not good that even a Church recommitted to raising people out of poverty will concede the life-saving power of self-determination over whether and how many children to create.

Even less certain is whether a man who famously said of a gay priest, “Who am I to judge?” might look into 1.3 billion faces and ask, “Who are you to judge?” Those 1.3 billion people trace their faith to a man born in poverty, who threatened the establishment, was persecuted for his beliefs and put to death by being nailed to a cross. It shouldn’t be a bridge too far to stop casting people into darkness in Christ’s name.

But for the first time I can remember, I have hope.

I still think about what Meg’s aunt said all those years ago, and I know I miss the sheer joy of belonging. I think of what substitute I have given my children for that one hour my parents insisted on, and I don’t have a good answer. I think of Father Tom and hope he wouldn’t be disappointed in me. From my place on the sidelines, I guess it’s a lot easier to assign hopes to this new Pope than it is to figure out where it all leaves me.

A few years ago, I took my parents to an Easter Sunday service at St. Columba’s Episcopal here in Washington. I assured them that it would be nearly indistinguishable from a Mass. As we waited outside for the earlier service to finish, for no reason I can think of I asked them who baptized me. Their faces fell for a second. Then, as only Dad can, he said, “Well, funny you should ask….”

Of course, it wasn’t funny at all that I was anointed with holy oil and welcomed into the faith by Bernard Lane, who turned out to be one of the most heinous pedophiles in the Boston sex abuse scandal. He was a parish priest in Littleton, where I was born, before he molested countless adolescent boys at Alpha Omega, a school for troubled kids who had already been in the juvenile system. When allegations arose, he was transferred to St. Peter’s in Lowell, then to St. Maria Goretti in Lynnfield; St. Charles in Waltham (where he was in charge of altar boys and catechism classes); St. Anthony’s in Cambridge; and Our Lady of Grace in Chelsea. Finally defrocked in 2005, he was never prosecuted and is said to live in New Hampshire.

As I absorbed this news, Mom put one arm around me, and Dad put his hands on my shoulders.

“Do you want a do-over?”

“No, thanks, I think I’m good.”

I can’t go back. But in that moment, and countless others, I have come to know that what matters is not that I was raised Catholic, but that I was raised by these two Catholics. Surely, the truest sign my life was graced by God were the hands on my shoulders that Easter morning. Leaders matter, and theirs was the moral leadership that never faltered, these two people who taught me that the only anathema is to deny the full dignity of anyone.

I didn’t stand along the street today, but I did call Mom.

She loves her new Pope.

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