Some Catholics

Advent Candles

By Moment Catcher / Flickr Creative Commons

Some Catholics are the priest on the south side of Chicago who went up to a crack house at midnight, knocked on the door and told the people inside to shut it down and leave his parish.

Some Catholics are the military couple who recently ushered their seven sons and daughters into the middle of a bright cafeteria of retired missionaries and cued them to sing for the old men.

Some Catholics are the spiritually obstructed man who was advised by a priest to stop wringing his hands in agitation while he prayed for his kids.

Some are the grad student who on a stroll through a sunny campus shared his frustration that the “Catholic right” usually wins debates in Rome over sexual morality. The “Catholic left” should be more organized and better equipped to fight for what it wants. It should not be passive and fearful, as malleable as a volleyball player’s scrunchie.

Some go to a Latin mass for the first time and watch as the priest at the altar stands with his back to them. With that simple turn they realize that the celebrant at this point in the liturgy is not addressing them. For the first time in their lives perhaps, they realize he is actually talking to God. He is praying.

Some lately have found out that the Archdiocese of New York is closing their church. Thirty one churches, in fact, are slated to be closed, because of a lack of resources, dwindling mass attendance and the financial burden of keeping these parishes up.

Some of these same Catholics have also noticed that St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue in the heart of Manhattan is currently being restored at a cost of $175 million.

Some Catholics are an austere Jesuit in Chicago who beneath a vaguely rooster-like shock of gray hair will tell you persuasively that the Inquisition did not kill as many people as everyone thinks it did; that the Crusades have been misunderstood; that more Catholics still go to mass than you would think judging by all the doomy reports out there.

When this priest taught his history classes he carried around a battered gray metal briefcase that looked like something you might store plutonium in. He smiled all the time, even as he made his unpopular claims, and who didn’t like him? Who?

Some Catholics who are nuns rent goats for the summer instead of gas-powered mowers to eat up the high weeds on their hillside overlooking the Hudson River.

Some Catholics are a woman who serves the outcast, desires gun control, has sex before marriage, plays a moody guitar and still thinks females shouldn’t be allowed to be ordained priests.

***

The young priest who yelled at the crack house is short and pudgy, red-haired and pale, Irish to the marrow. He is about as intimidating as a bar of soap. The people he addressed did not hastily implement his suggestions for their place of business. One might say the sensus fidei of the believers in crack houses did not “receive” these ecclesial instructions, thus making them invalid.

On the other hand, this hard teaching of the church set forth an ideal–stop destroying human beings–that the crack pushers with further prayer, instruction and discipline may one day be able to attain.

Hands in Prayer

By Marquette University / Flickr Creative Commons

The Maryknoll dining hall was silent, stunned even. Who are we that the children of our Lord in solemn harmony should come to us? Kitchen ladies and serving staff stopped in their tracks and watched. It felt as if they might have collapsed and died right then and there, wispy hairnets their only protection from the hard floor.

The year was 2014. Children singing hymns in the refectories of vanishing men still happens in 2014.

When the agitated father stopped wringing his hands he was almost immediately opened up. He felt more peaceful. He felt closer to God. A physical adjustment brought him nearer to the divine. A hitting coach adjusting your stance in the batter’s box. A weight shift here, a lift of the elbow there. Suddenly you’re spraying hits all over the diamond. Stop wringing your hands and God will come. Adjust your posture, and there is the felt Presence of the Almighty Lord.

It actually works like this. Evidently it really does.

The budding theologian on the sunny campus declared that the church, like it or not, is a political entity. Those who want women ordained and gay marriage affirmed need to fight for it. The church is both spiritual and material and it does matter who is in charge. It matters what statements are made in the press and who is mobilized and how power is used.

The priest at the Latin mass looking at no one visible is praising, thanking, blessing. He is not a performer, the newcomers realize, gazing at a crowd above the footlights. He is not a professor, a lecturer, a nightclub host gesturing from a stage. He is someone facing the same direction as the people in the pews. He is humbly talking to the unseen God. A figure as powerless before the Almighty as anyone else.

Some Catholics, the ones who go to mass this Advent season, will hear this reading: “Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God…”

***

Most Catholics don’t go around blatantly telling people about their friend Jesus. Most just live their lives and hope that non-believers somehow start to believe and thus one day come to a pleasant end. They hope that the air of Christianity wafts off their souls onto others like powdered sugar blown gently into the air.

Or they don’t really worry about it because the pressure is off because people can reach eternal salvation without being Christian. For this is what the church now teaches. Or may not teach, depending on how words are parsed and culpability is measured for hearers-yet-rejecters of the word.

Some Catholics are like Ms. Christina Mead who on her blog at lifeteen.com rehearses for her readers a question she hears a lot. Namely, “When is the Church going to come around and accept gay marriage?”

Responds Christina, “Well….never.”

Joan of Arc Chapel

Joseph Kranak / Flickr Creative Commons

In the middle of Marquette University on the nettled fringes of downtown Milwaukee there is a small stone chapel where in winter undergrad Catholics sit for mass on a heated stone floor. A tall woman with long brown hair, an other-worldly creature named Mickey from somewhere called grad school, plays a twelve-stringed guitar perfectly. She never misses a note.

At least it was this way in 1993.

Some Catholics are Stephen Dedalus, born of the mind and life of James Joyce, who tells about a memorable Jesuit prefect at Clongowes. Because Stephen did not do his reading which he couldn’t because his glasses were broken, the prefect smashed his palm with a pandybat. A pandybat being the flat-sided bat used for cricket.

Some Catholics are an entire classroom of 7th graders who, when one of them recently declared that the church should, like, stop being prejudiced against gay people, spontaneously started cheering.

Some Catholics are saddled with guilt for being saddled with guilt.

Some Catholics at a parish in Omaha in the early 1980s were forbidden by their pastor from watching the television show Three’s Company. This was not because Three’s Company was an epically sad display of American comedy but because it depicted a man sharing an apartment with two women.

Some are the Catholics in a fading Italian neighborhood who once gathered at a Sunday mass to hear a young priest deliver to them, a congregation of old Italian women, an urgent homily about the immorality of birth control.

Some Catholics like to say things such as, “Even if you don’t believe in God, God believes in you.”

These Catholics don’t get invited to parties a lot.

***

Catholics during Advent will hear the reading again, “sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth…” And maybe in repetition the words will start to become more–at least more than mere letters crammed together into sounds.

Some Catholics understand that the money for St. Patrick’s Cathedral is not being taken from funds that otherwise would go to their shuttered churches. They understand that donors who pay for tuckpointing a cathedral down the street from Tiffany’s would not give their money for a church boiler in the Bronx anyway.

Others do not understand this, and do not desire to come within a thousand miles of understanding this.

The man from the Catholic left writes and speaks and gently fumes about ecclesial issues, and about violence, war, poverty and the endless buying of new furniture by supposedly austere Christians. He does all this in knit shirts of muted colors, khaki pants, unexciting shoes, an inoffensive haircut, a quiet searching voice. Sometimes he will wear a beige shirt with beige pants and vocally contemplate war and peace and justice and women and gays and then go and joyfully watch some damn football, and who doesn’t like him? Who?

Some of the things listed herein could be said about all Christians, a few about all people. One or two about only Vice President Joe Biden.

The assertion that “God believes in you” could be taken as fairly offensive. The non-believer didn’t ask “God” to believe in her. Can’t she be left alone? She just got the updated version of the computer program but did not ask to have the famous band put its new songs into it. Why are the soaring riffs of the spiritual rock group in my life? Why is the eternal love of the revered God there too, when I asked for neither?

Maybe you think I’m eventually going to wrap this up with a coda that all these Catholic people with all their ideas and judgments and opinions and angers and loves and courage and goats are nonetheless part of the body of Christ, or something cute and painfully obvious like that.

***

The going accusation is that Catholics trek through the world saddled with guilt for not being moral enough; for having sex before marriage; for using birth control; for having sex outside of wedlock but not using birth control and getting pregnant; for having sex out of wedlock and using birth control and having that not work and then having an abortion, a three-pronged pitchfork of guilt plunged into one’s Catholic soul.

But Catholics, in this day and age, are not supposed to feel so much guilt and shame anymore. So when they do something wrong, as if anything could be wrong, and they feel guilty, there is a chance they will compound their guilt by feeling guilty about it. They feel bad about feeling bad because they are supposed to feel good. But they don’t. And for at least a few moments there seems to be no hope, no refuge, no proper way to feel. No solace in the sunnier messages of “the world” nor the high-toned teachings of the church.

Christina Mead goes on to explain, “The Church’s teachings and beliefs can’t ‘evolve’ like some other people’s can. God created the Sacrament of Marriage the way it is (between one man and one woman) for a reason and it’s not up to us to change what God has established, and which we know through Scripture and the Traditions of the Church.”

Some Catholics as we speak are going to lifeteen.com and with barely-muted glee citing the words of Cardinal Newman and other impressively-titled figures as alternatives to Christina’s assertion that church teaching does not evolve.

The worst part for Stephen Dedalus was how the priest first reached out as if he was going to shake his hand. But this was not for handshaking. “And his whitegrey face and the nocoloured eyes behind the steelrimmed spectacles were cruel looking because he had steadied the hand first with his firm soft fingers and that was to hit it better and louder.”

Joan of Arc Tuesday Mass

By Marquette University / Flickr Creative Commons

Another mass and they will hear it again, “to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph of the house of David…” The reading will stay with them, a happy infection, a wood splinter they can’t get out and don’t want to.

***

“When the procreative side of sex is removed,” says Christina, “like it is in homosexual sex, it has become reduced to pleasure and the couple is only using each other.”

Christina anticipates a follow up question. “Is love merely use?” Emphatically she answers, “No! If a person with same-sex attraction acts upon their desire with a partner it’s not a true expression of love because it’s not caring for the other person’s soul.”

In her picture and bio on the lifeteen.com blog Christina has brown hair and a sea-green tank-top and flashes a bright if not overpowering smile. She is, or was, a lifeguard. She likes gluten-free brownies.

No matter how open-minded, contemporary, free-thinking and unprejudiced some Catholics are, if they had their choice they would still rather go to a Catholic mechanic, a Catholic barber, a hardware store run by the head usher at the 7am.

Some Catholics who in another age would have told their sordid intimacies to a broguish priest in a dark confession box now share them with flat-toned therapists in offices the color of creamy bisque.

On the heated floor of the stone chapel the district attorney of Milwaukee County sits cross-legged, near to college students who later that evening quite possibly will do naked beer slides at a bar called the ‘Lanche.

Although naked in this frigid Midwestern sense usually means their underthings will still be on.

Some Catholics, who hear and take in breath after breath after breath of the Annunciation story over the four weeks of Advent, maybe every Catholic listed above, ultimately will find its opening sentence, “Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary,” the sentence that kicked everything off, that in its rhythm, density and simplicity, its tumbling faultless use of prepositional phrases and the way it distantly gives birth to the helpless infant’s body of all these loves, angers, judgments, singing, unfairness, sin, courage, pandybats, salvation and goats, they will find it to be the most quietly devastating sentence in the history of sentences. One step beyond even the ending to Joyce’s The Dead. They could listen to those words every day, always, with the 12-string strumming, the heat rising, and maybe, in a painfully obvious way, snow falling outside, falling on the cracked stone walk, falling and covering every last thing.

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