The priest–let’s call him “Father John”–is the only priest I’ve ever met in my life whom I wouldn’t want to hit in the face with a brick. Only the most conservative Tridantine Mass Catholics hated him. He was generally adored by the community, and even the Irish nuns, who were considerably more conservative (and less educated) thought of him as some Ultimate Authority. Because isn’t that what a priest is…?
Father John was an Irish-American from back East…let’s say, Boston. He was a functioning alcoholic and a chain-smoker. Blue-eyed, stocky, tall, always red-faced, hair probably strawberry blond in his youth. He had three spaniel dogs he loved, and took them into our classes and hung photos of them on his office wall. It was well known (though never formally acknowledged) that he had a decades-long relationship with his housekeeper (he had a private residence, unlike the nuns). I walked in on them, whilst running errands, watching TV together or dining at the table together several times. Nothing wrong with that, in my opinion, then or now. People need love and he was a grown man with needs that must be met. I just hope he kept paying her for her cleaning services and didn’t take her for granted–and he was such a good guy, I’m sure he did, and more. Her kid from a previous relationship got into the school on a “scholarship.” I think that’s great. If he can’t marry her or publicly acknowledge her, at least he can support her and give her kid free education, right?
Father John was a total Vatican II guy and sympathetic to Liberation Theology. He read lots of books and TIME magazine before TIME became the lowbrow piece of shit that it is today. He was educated. Compared to the nuns he supervised, this man was a tenured prof at MIT.
He was the only priest in town who would give my mother confession and the Eucharist. Technically, it’s forbidden, because she is divorced, and also had unapproved marriages with non-Catholics. The Church was very, very hard on divorce when I was a young child (and before that). But if you can’t confess and get the Eucharist, you can’t get into heaven (let that sink in for a moment). If a priest doesn’t give it to you, you go to hell. Another reason why I hate these assholes.
Father John would take her confession and give her penance and say it was up to God to judge her when the time came.
Father John also fired (“transferred”) a priest who was arrested for aggressively protesting outside of a clinic that provided abortions. The Church was batshit-insane over the abortion issue when I was growing up. The priest was arrested, after several protests, for putting his hands on a woman walking in. He spent the night in jail. It was on the news. The Catholic zealots thought he was a hero. Father John gave him his walking papers at once and forbade the nuns to discuss abortion with us. Being a head priest of a parish, he was BIG AUTHORITY DAD, so the nuns did whatever he said.
I had my first Sacrament of Reconciliation (confession) with him when I was in 2nd grade. He could not have been more gentle. He had his white collar and black priest clothes on, and photos of the Pope and his spaniels all over the wall, and he was smoking, as always. He sat behind his desk, far away, and even though I was nervous, he didn’t terrorize me at all.
The nuns had trained us to do this Sacrament for months. I knew the words: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession. I accuse myself of the following sins.”
“Go on, when you are ready,” he said.
I confessed to saying swear words (not a sin unless you say the Lord’s name in vain), being mean to my little brother when we fought over a toy, and being angry and resentful at my mother. I also confessed that I “stole food” from my father’s pantry. He jealously guarded the food and I was not allowed to eat without his permission. It was Alberto Beef Jerky from a can.
“You took food from the pantry? Did you take it at night? Were you hungry?” He sat up straight, cigarette forgotten.
“I’m not allowed to steal food. It is the family food, and not mine,” I said.
He started smoking again. I think he was ruminating on it.
Then, it was time for the Act of Contrition.
I said, “Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee. I detest all my sins because of your just punishments, but most of all because they offend thee, my Lord, who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the occasions of sin.”
He blessed me and gave me ‘ABSOLUTION” for my petty child’s “sins.” So now I was pure again, and could take my first communion.
He gave me a candy bar before I left. He had a big bag, like the type you buy for Halloween, full of mixed candy. He told me to take one I liked.
I left feeling very happy. It was not as scary as I’d feared it to be.
Father John called someone (who, I do not know) about my father, and a shrink started visiting the school to see me. His name was Dr. Arthur (I don’t mind telling you his name, because it’s a common and and he HAS to be dead now–he was about a million years old when I knew him).
One of the only times a man’s stood up for me in my life. Even my mother didn’t do it.
Well, the smoking and boozing eventually started to take their toll. He had to have heart surgery, like a triple bypass. Then he kicked the proverbial bucket. Everyone was sad. Huge funeral.
His replacement was a complete piece of shit who plagued the parish–and my Mother–for 15 years. Check this out: he was a widower with grown children who joined the Clergy in late middle age. So, he had a family.
He would not give divorced people absolution. He said it was against the rules.
I don’t give a FUCK about the rules, but, if you’re a believer–like my mother–this is incredibly stigmatizing. And the hypocrisy! I guess GOD wants people to be alone and loveless all their lives. When my mother told me that he rejected her, I blew up: “Since when has the Church ever been a friend to women? We have no authority and they used to burn us. If you insist, check out another parish. Or, even better, the Unitarians”–the only church I could sit through without feeling my IQ drop 5 points every minute I was there.
He also treated the congregation like they were morons or little children. He did condescending shit like bring in a huge toy paper butterfly emerging from a cocoon to go up to heaven, and when he lectured about Noah and the Ark, he’d play storm music on a boombox. Nice sound effects, bro.
I know most people are not exactly geniuses (saying that as the chick who almost burned her apartment down), but common people–illiterate people–have understood the concept of an afterlife for several thousand years, at least. And Catholics don’t need a paper butterfly to grasp Resurrection. If you want to explain something really pointless and moronic to the “flock,” priest, try explaining the Trinity.
Anyway, I’m getting totally off point.
The point is: what happened when I was playing priest with My Little Pony.
Father John was sitting at his desk, huffing down his 100th Marlboro Lite cigarette of the day. This was before computers, so he had a shitload of paper files on his desk and a word processor (remember that blast from the past?).
“Tell him what you did!” the nun ordered, and shoved me forward.
“I pretended I was a priest with my horse dolls,” I said, looking at the floor.
“You may leave me to speak with this child alone, Sister Philip (she’s dead too, reader). I thank you for your concern,” he said.
He asked to see my toy ponies, so I took them out of my rucksack and handed them to him. He lined them up and pretended to make them run.
“You know, when I was a boy, I wanted to be a jockey. I grew too big and heavy, through. You have to be small to be a jockey.
Do you want to be a priest?”
“No. I was just pretending.”
“Women do a lot of good in the Church. It’s a bit like social work. There is work in the Church for all types of people. Not all nuns are like Sister Philip. She worked in the Magdalene Laundries. Do you know what that means?”
“No.” I was too young to know.
He picked up one of my My Little Ponies, a pink one, and said, “This is the cutest one. What’s her name?”
“Sparkle,” I said.
He bent over his desk and said, “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Please don’t tell my parents,” I said.
“What could I possibly tell them?” He gathered up my toys and handed them back to me. “If you are summoned to the vocation, you’re summoned. If she asks, tell Sister Philip that I taught you your lesson. That’s the truth. It’s not a lie.”
I put the Ponies back in my bag.
“Be careful of what you say out loud, my dear. The teachers here do not come from our culture. I didn’t become a priest to punish people. God decides that in the end; I try to help, but I can’t tell if anyone is true of heart. But do remember: there are two types of people in the world…the type that eat their humble pie, and the type who go to hell. When you sin–and we are all sinners–eat your pie. But you did nothing wrong here.”
Then he reached into his desk drawer and pulled out the candy bag, and offered me a treat.
What a good man.