Saturday, April 02, 2005

I'm out of pope jokes

In 1981, I was a freshman in (Catholic) high school. On May 13, 1981, Mehmet Ali Agca tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II, who had become Pope only a few years before - the first non-Italian Pope in over 400 years.

We were herded into one of the classrooms with a television to watch news reports. Everyone was jumpy because of the assassination attempt on President Reagan only six weeks earlier. But Reagan had pulled through - surely the pope would.

By senior year I suppose the assassination attempt - which led to the introduction of the PopeMobile - was a less sensitive topic. After all, I came to school dressed as the Pope for Halloween.

I have had mixed feelings about Catholicism throughout my life. My maternal grandmother was a devout Irish Catholic, with a statue of the Virgin Mary in her Florida room. She made vestments for the local priests, and was a well-respected member of her parish. My mother respected the tradition, but was also practical: when we were living in New Jersey, my siblings and I all under age 5, my mother decided she didn't care for the booze-breathed priest at the Catholic church. Instead, she took us to the Episcopalian church - which, really, just serves Catholicism with one-third fewer calories.

I've always been moved by the ceremony involved - the incense, the candles, the statues, the glorious music. There seemed to be something there, some mystery at the center of it all. It's true that the saying of prayers by rote - prayers which all seemed to hammer home the worthlessness of the individual and the supremacy of the church - could be dismissed as the indoctrination of sheep. But still there is power in ritual.

I have known some truly admirable people in Catholic religious orders. Sister Gail, who was the teacher watching over us the day we freshmen learned that the Pope had been shot, was a young nun who had spent time in El Salvador. She was no-nonsense, and intended to shake us all out of our early-adolescent self-absorption and complacency. She wasn't well liked, but she had no time to spend on sweetness. She wanted us to think.

Father Craig Morrison was another. He was Brother Craig at the time he was teaching at my school, when he was only 24, if I remember correctly. He is now teaching at the Vatican - I believe he teaches Ancient Greek and Latin, or something equally challenging and arcane. At the time he was marooned in Arizona teaching high school juniors, he was assigned a class called "Christian Morality," a required course. He told us the first day that he was redefining the term - it was to be a course in critical thinking. He constantly exhorted us to avoid the "herd mentality." We talked about propaganda - how to see it, how to resist it (he used "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" as an example of seductive propaganda. Draw your own conclusions here.)

Sadly, many of the country-club babies in my class actively resisted his approach. One girl, Lisa, quite sharp, while debating Brother Craig as much as said that she preferred not to think critically, thank you. One can assume she is doing quite well today.

These were people I admired - there were many lay teachers as well who were tough, smart, and provocative; they did not see faith and critical thinking as mutually exclusive. They demanded that we engage with the world.

The student folk masses that I took part in - where we played guitar and flute and sang songs in James Taylor harmonies and ate our chewy whole-wheat communion bread - were opportunities to try and break out of the prayer-by-rote habit. I tried to think fully and deeply about what was being said, to really engage with the meaning of each prayer and each song. Those simple Masses were probably the most meaningful ones I ever took part in.

It was on this grass-roots level that I had no problem with Catholicism. But the farther up the ladder one went, the more removed from human practicality it all seemed to be. The Church's official positions on women, on homosexuality, on the use of condoms in the face of AIDS spreading across the globe - they are relics of another time. The defense always seems to be, well, the church can't go changing to suit the whims of the day. Perhaps not. But they can pull their heads out of their asses and look around at what good they are doing in the world - or not. The coverups of the abuse scandals merely confirmed every Catholic-conspiracy-theorists innermost fears. The unwillingness to throw open the doors and let the cleansing sunlight in - and to possibly admit that celibacy was a requirement most suited for another era - it was disappointing.

Whatever my disagreements with the Catholic Church - one has to admire John Paul II if only for his support of the workers in Poland. He gave hope to many, and traveled far in a body that ultimately and tragically gave out - he was described in his last days as "a soul pulling a body."

It will be interesting to see if the next Pope is from Latin America or perhaps Africa - a new pope for a new century. Maybe the Church will begin to move towards change - perhaps not as striking as Vatican II - but then again, who knows?

I said a prayer for the Pope. I am glad he's free of his body... no longer trapped. Now we wait for the puffs of white smoke, which will tell us that Condoleeza Rice has been elected Popess, in an election with no paper trail and no verifiable ballots.

Angela Bassett will play her in the movie.

There will also be a related series called "Pope Joan of Arcadia" in which a teenaged girl suddenly turns out to be, like, Pope, like in "The Princess Diaries" and she has to move to the Vatican and stuff? And she hates, hates, hates the hat. But the Cardinal, played by Hector Elizondo, makes her wear it anyway. "Will infighting at the Vatican keep Joan away from her prom?"

Okay, it's late. I'm wandering off-topic. But I'm sure the Pope has a sense of humor about things. Hope so, anyway. Because otherwise, I was screwed with the whole Halloween costume thing.


Blogger David said...

I think the power of ritual is not over the world but over the minds of the participants, which is probably both an important and meaningless distinction.

5:26 AM  
Blogger Frenzy Lohan said...

"Pope Joan of Arcadia" would be really, really good.

1:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're silly. But many of the things you reflected on were moving tributes to remarkably fine people.

10:13 PM  
Blogger Coffee Dog said...

You are right when you point out that Catholicism is a sham the further you travel up the ladder. I was listening to NPR yesterday and they spoke of that very fact, and many local parishes stand behind their people regardless, but tolerance of homosexuality, birth control, etc is lost higher up.

Your references to movies made me giggle. Didn't like the hats - ha!

Seeing all of these men gathered around the body in their little outfits & hats - it seems like something from a Robert Heinlein novel.

5:00 AM  
Blogger Knottyboy said...

I can't celebrate an 'icon' of catholicism that turned his back on so many. My only hope is that he comes back as a poor black lesbian on life support to drive home things he should have treated with more thought in this life.
After being tossed out on my ass by religion I have no use for men who say they speak for something that would never treat me as if I was trash.

9:01 PM  
Blogger Jason Rohrblogger said...

My inappropriate Pope material...Papal Starter Kit

1:00 PM  

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