I want my Catholic back
I miss the good old days when Catholic priests were scary for traditional reasons (the Latin, the costumes, the stern looks). I remember growing up in the ’60s, envying altar boys. I would daydream during mass about being a boy, wearing my mini-me robe and getting a kind smile from Father Cooke, signaling to God the Father I was heaven material. (Of course knowing what we know today, some of those smiles were sinister, but let’s assume my parish priest was NOT a pedophile.)
I desperately wanted to land in heaven because my father was there. I was 3 when Dad died. He was only 27. I barely remembered him and made heaven my final destination so we could be together again. The nuns taught us that living a good and pure life would open the gates of heaven, but even then I knew I would need a safety net. Perhaps a letter from my priest.
Nobody was divorced back then and so all my friends had their dads with them. It gave me some comfort to think I would eventually have mine again too. I’d just have to die. Eventually. In due time. Although the grown-ups hinted I might someday get a new dad, I was not interested. I wanted to know mine. But every time I brought him up, I got “shushed.”
People commonly place those who die young into sainthood, and my father was no exception. Growing up, all I heard was how good and kind and perfect he was. I equated him to Jesus. Dad’s senior picture hung on my mother’s bedroom wall right next to Jesus.
Black & white dad was 18, with my chubby cheeks and a sweet smile. He had no idea he would get married, have four kids, come down with leukemia and die – all within the next nine years.
Jesus didn’t have as big a smile and, oddly, his portrait was in color. I think he had all kinds of clues he was going to die. Like that giant, glowing red heart on the OUTSIDE of his blue robe!
Jesus lived in heaven and I was pretty sure my dad lived there too. But just in case he landed in purgatory, the nuns suggested I pray for his soul every night, as that was his only way out. I took them literally and thought it was all up to me, so I would speed pray the “Our Father, Hail Mary, Act of Contrition” … eight Catholic prayers in all, to free my father and get him to heaven. To this day, I can recite them all in about a minute flat, an incoherent blurb that sounds like the guy reading the small print at the end of car commercials. Grandma was certain Saint Dad was in heaven, but I feared the nuns might know something she missed, so I kept the nightly vigil well into adulthood.
When I was 10, I gave up the altar boy fantasy for the nun-hood. I figured all nuns go to heaven, no questions asked. I went through a period with a dish towel on my head and took a vow of silence. There were no black dish towels in the ’60s and so everybody thought I was practicing to be a bride. Nobody understood me.
Jesus was all good. According to legend my father was too. Jesus loved everybody. Dad too!
At one point, I got them so blurred that I thought my father was perched on the cross behind the plastic Jesus on the altar at Holy Maternity of Mary Catholic Church. Daddy wasn’t dead, just hiding there during Sunday mass. I thought a couple times I saw his eyes peeking at me from behind the Jesus face.
As I got a little older, I realized how silly that was. So I moved Dad to the church alcove. The priest and those heaven-bound altar boys would come and go from a small room to the right of the altar. I thought my father lived there and would one day come out after mass ended. I’d stay and stare as long as Mom would let me. Maybe one day the priest would pull back the curtain … “Here’s Johnny!”
Mystery and wonder morphed into boredom and hopelessness once the hocus pocus Latin was translated and I got a grip on the fact my dad wasn’t coming back. I stopped going to mass at 18, right around the time I accepted my stepfather (a wonderful and loving man) into our family.
I went to college, started my own life and stopped thinking about religion. You can’t be an ex-Catholic due to that binding baptismal thing, but I was much more EX than Catholic.
Until last week.
I was on a bustling, 11-day “Go Ahead Tour” to London, Paris and Rome. Catholicism was everywhere in a grand way. In London – the majestic St. Paul’s Cathedral and the story of Henry VIII who couldn’t get a Pope-sanctioned divorce and made the entire country convert. In Montmarte, France — the Sacré Cœur Basilica was within walking distance from our hotel. And Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was breathtaking. I found myself dipping my fingers in holy water and lighting candles for those I care about.
And then there was the Vatican.
We were there on a Saturday as they prepared for Pope Francis to beatify two Italian women and canonize 800 “Martyrs of Otranto.” The place was all aflutter with nuns and priests practicing their steps. I’ve watched St. Peter’s Basilica on TV for years and to see it come to life gave me goose bumps. To stand under the pope’s balcony and look out at St. Peter’s Square was epic. After all, my standard retort to any obvious question is “Does the Pope have a balcony?” And there I was, looking up at it.
I am hopeful about Pope Francis. He ditched the red shoes and pointy hat. He washed the feet of prisoners – even a lady prisoner. He kicked out the Pope-mobile’s bullet-proof glass, and kisses babies. He wants the Catholic church to return to its focus on the poor. And although he hasn’t yet addressed it, I have faith he might do more to right the wrongs for all those victims of abuse the church covered up all these years.
Maybe it was the magic of the historic churches or the way the tour guides’ stories sounded like fairytales or the down-to-earth manner of the new Pope, but I surprisingly found myself proud to be Catholic.
I did not get a chance to sit on Papa Frank’s knee and tell him what I want — a real heaven with my dad there waiting for me when I arrive.