"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Pope, Politics, and a Big Texas Wedding

Catholic priests can’t seem to stop reminding us of how sinful we are or how sinful we are likely to become. Seminary training must have courses especially designed to integrate Biblical injunction with public speaking; but priests are so transported by their sermons on the Fall of Man, his infallibly corrupt nature, and most of all his undisciplined nature that the Church must be always on the lookout for men who are already stiff with moral rectitude and anxious for a chance to hector others. It cannot simply be training which has molded this impressive phalanx of Vatican shills so perfectly.

Throughout my young years I was subjected to the harangues of Fathers Murphy, Mullins, and Brophy; and only in retrospect can I appreciate the wild-eyed Old Testament craziness  of their sermons. Father Murphy was the best.  Although he started his sermon slowly and respectfully, he soon caught fire.  His eyes rolled towards Heaven, sweat dripped from his fevered brow, and he flailed his arms wildly as he fought off demons and invited angels.  He grimaced as hellfire licked at his legs, his eyes widened as he caught sight of the Devil himself, and he yelled, “Out, Satan! Be gone!”.  His exorcism over, he turned back to the congregation, mopped his brow, and told us what awaited us in the next world.  Most of us would burn in eternal agony, while those who listened to God’s teaching and the wisdom of the Holy Mother Church and obeyed His laws, would be saved.

I went to a wedding a few years back where the father of the bride was an official representative to the Vatican, consigliere to the Ambassador, and a confident of the President.  He was for all intents and purposes a devout Catholic and took his mission to Rome seriously. Even if God were indeed on our side, assuring that the Pope was behind our evangelizing mission couldn’t hurt.  In fact during the Bush years the relationship with the Holy See was never better.  Both the President and the Pope wanted to rid the world of evil, preserve traditional Christian values, and bring spiritual enlightenment to everyone.

In honor of the Papal Nuncio, the wedding was celebrated with a High Mass which, I knew from my childhood, was a long, drawn-out affair with lots of chanting, incense, and ritual. No one ever deliberately chose to go to High Mass.  It was for those who overslept, had a bad night, or had a last minute crise de conscience and decided not to risk mortal sin. 

The ceremony was interminable, Catholics and non-Catholics squirmed and fidgeted in their pews, and sighed with relief when the Nuncio rose and walked to the podium. His sermon would at least be a break from the dulling monotony of the Mass.  The Nuncio was elegantly dressed in regal silk robes all white and gold, embroidered with the stylized Christian symbols of the Church and his high office. On his head was a Papal miter and in his hand a gold staff.

Faithful Catholics believe that the Pope is a direct spiritual descendant the Disciple Peter to whom Jesus said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church”. The Pope is God’s representative on earth in in matters of faith and morals speaks infallibly – that is he rules with Divine guidance.

Everyone in the Church hierarchy is a part of that unbroken chain.  Even the lowest parish priest, once ordained, speaks with spiritual authority.  So the presence of the Nuncio was an important event, and listening to his words from the pulpit would be a privilege and an honor.

“Let us pray”, he began, lowering his head. “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost”.  He slowly and deliberately crossed himself, reaching out with each gesture to God.  He paused for a moment, then began. “We are gathered here to celebrate the sacred marriage of….”. After brief preliminaries, he began in earnest.  The marriage of these two young people, he said, was not just a joyous occasion for them and their families, but a symbol of Christ’s generosity. He created Man and Woman to join and procreate, just as these two young Texans would.  Their marriage would be sealed in Heaven, a divine contract with God himself, never to be broken.

So far, a familiar and predictable preamble with the right invocations and references.  The Nuncio then turned the heat up a notch and became more secular and political. “The sacrament of marriage”, he intoned, “is under attack as the forces of moral turpitude and Satanic indifference abound in the world.  This young couple…” Here the Nuncio gestured broadly to John and Mary. “…represent the foundation of a moral society no differently than Peter when he founded God’s church.”

From there he went on to discuss the obligation of procreation. Having children, he said, was not only Nature’s law, it was God’s law which must be obeyed like all others. “Go forth and multiply”, said the Nuncio, “was not just a suggestion, but a command.”

On heels of procreation came abortion, sodomy, adultery, and even sinful thoughts. This last reference was somewhat as a surprise, coming as it did from the lips of a Papal Nuncio. Catholics are used to hearing it in the confessional.  “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned”, I would nervously begin glancing at the shadowy figure on the other side of the wooden screen.  “I disobeyed my father and took the name of Our Lord in Vain”.

This was never enough for Father Brophy who knew that the little blighters in his parish were far more sinful than they ever admitted. “Have you had any impure thoughts?”, he prompted.  All of us demurred and declined with a “No, Father”, but just the mention of impurity set our minds to racing with images of breasts, softness, kisses, and nakedness. We were caught in a spiritual Catch-22. We may not have had any dirty thoughts that week – or at least not many – but as soon as the priest suggested them, a Technicolor movie of hot sexual images started right up.

The Papal Nuncio somehow found a way to introduce the idea of impurity in his sermon – something about the licentiousness of thought leading to adultery.  Men thought about being unfaithful before they strayed from their wives, and therefore ‘compounded’ the mortal sin with a venial one; and although a mortal sin alone condemned you for all eternity, this idea of compounding was new.

Next to me in the pew was Saul Isaacson, a good friend who knew the family of the groom. He sat quietly during the preliminaries of the Mass, preferring not to rise, kneel, and sit with the rest of the congregation.  He listened attentively to the Papal Nuncio as he began his sermon, but as soon as he started in on his crypto-political messages, Saul shook his head, picked up a hymnal and turned a few pages.  “Don’t worry”, I whispered. “It’s always like this.”

The wedding reception was a blissful reprieve from the sanctimony and haranguing of the Papal Nuncio.  The consigliere had many friends and had invited them all.  I tried not to look at this as a ‘Republican’ wedding; but it was.  Robust, hale-fellow-well-met, ruddy men; and tightly coiffed, bejeweled, and perfumed women could only be Republicans.  To be honest, the wedding was a relief from the shabby, ‘progressive’ non-profit world which paid my bills. 

Over canapés and white wine I had a chance to chat with one of the Papal Nuncio’s advance team, an American priest who worked as an administrative assistant at the Vatican Embassy in Washington.  I had never spoken to a priest other than through a confessional grate, so I assumed that because he was not just an ordinary Joe but one of the very few chosen and ordained to be a Son of Christ, he would want to talk about God or Jesus; but when we sat down on the patio, he told me about his golf match at Preston Trail, one of America’s finest courses.

“The Fifth Hole’s a bitch”, he said, smiling. “Better to hit a three wood off the tee or you’ll be sorry”.  He went back for more and came back with a palette of shrimp, pate, cheese, and pizza canapés. “Snacks are good”, he said with his mouth full, “but where’s the main course?”.  So priests are schlubs like the rest of us, I thought.  Golf, good wine, a little ass on the side, and the usual bullshit at the office.

One only needs to read Shakespeare’s King John or Henry VIII or Tudor history to understand the political influence of the Pope in early English history, and how the political alliances between the Holy See and Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and France complicated international affairs. The Pope, although without military divisions as Stalin famously remarked, had power which derived from wealth and the fear of excommunication.

The Vatican has always allied itself closely with conservative American administrations, especially like those of George W. Bush who most closely reflected its Christian values;, and now, seeing its influence and credibility wane in the United States in the wake of the buggery scandals, is allying itself with Protestant fundamentalists in the fight against abortion, gay marriage, and the erosion of family values.

I shouldn’t demand any more from priests than anyone else; and perhaps I am more religious than I admit because I expect a man of God to be above secular food fights.

There is an excellent movie called Into Great Silence which chronicles the life of monks in a strict, ascetic monastery. 

Their entire life is prayer and devotion, and the movie silently shows their simple reverence. They pray anonymously.  Except for the tradesmen who bring provisions and the residents of the village below, no one knows of these monks or cares; but if there is a God, then these monks are his true servants, not the Papal Nuncio, his lackeys, or Father Brophy. 

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