I want to tell you to calm down.
However, as a chronic hypochondriac who is easily startled by small animals and loud noises, I know that “calm down,” is the last thing you should say to someone who is freaking the eff out.
Instead, I will tell you a story.
I grew up in a very poor urban neighborhood in Brooklyn. In the 1980s, it was called “the ghetto.” I’m pretty sure that today there is some touchy feely name for it. My mother couldn’t afford to send me to Catholic school, so I went to public school during the week and got my Catholic training at CCD on Sundays before church. My mother also taught CCD at our parish to the older kids preparing for confirmation. These classes met after church. So, all told, I would spend about four hours every morning at church. An hour in my CCD class, an hour and a half in mass and another couple of hours waiting for my mom to finish teaching. The latter hours would be spent sitting with Sister Frances in the rectory listening to the Mets game on the radio. (She grew up as a die-hard Brooklyn Dodgers fan and taught me to spit at any mention of the L.A. Dodgers (ptui) and several ways to curse the name of Walter O’Malley.) But against the backdrop of the Amazins on the radio and packing away the supplies from the morning CCD classes, Sister Frances also instilled a love of scripture and the Church itself. I loved learning bible stories and I memorized prayers the way other children memorized pop songs. It was Sister Frances who fielded all my early questions reconciling my secular world education with my religious beliefs.
So despite my public school curricula chock full of sex education and evolution, I was still extremely active in my faith. I was the youngest CCD teacher at Holy Cross and served as a lector during mass all through high school. When I was a teenager, I was chosen to represent my East Flatbush parish at Catholic World Youth day in Poland. I think we were in Poland for eight days. Toward the end of our trip, a few of the other kids managed to get ahold of the communion wine.
Appalled at the sight of my fellow Catholic youth taking swigs from the decanter, I firmly declined.
“That’s stealing. What you guys are doing is completely wrong,” I said in a language I can now safely identify as “uncool square.”
The kid who had extended the decanter to me, shrugged and pulled the bottle up to his own lips and drank.
“Yeah, but Jesus will forgive me.”
Touche, tall rebel kid with that teenage mustache all the boys “grow” as soon as they “can,” touche.
The next night, still buzzing from hearing Pope John Paul II speak and meeting thousands of other Catholic young people from all over the world, we all stayed up engaged in the much more appropriate activity of talking about our favorite bible stories and our first confessions — turns out I wasn’t the only smartass to make-up a sin and then say “Lied during my first confession.”
When I graduated from high school, I went out to one of those elite Ivy League universities. I went to church every Sunday for about a week during Freshman year. Yeah. But mostly I went to church on Easter Sunday until I moved back to New York.
I started to study law in Harlem and joined a tiny on-campus parish. I loved going to mass there. I very quickly knew everyone and was surprised at how comforting I found the familiarity of the liturgy. Between managing my first apartment, working nights to pay bills and attending first year law classes, being someplace where I knew all the words and could predict with absolute certainty what would happen next, just about saved my sanity.
That spring, I volunteered in New Orleans to work on the death penalty appeal of a teenager on Louisiana’s death row. I ended up going to mass in New Orleans with a few of the other Catholic law students on the trip. AND IT WAS EXACTLY THE SAME! It was my first mass in a different state and I just couldn’t believe it! A thousand miles from home and mass was the same!
A couple of years later, I was in Jamaica, waiting out the impending Y2K worldwide meltdown on a beach and I went to the local Catholic church in Negril on Christmas Day. There were about twenty people attending and when the priest asked if I would do the readings, I said sure. I read the Greatest Story ever told on the altar wearing shorts and flip-flops. It was magic!
Last year, after hearing the sad news that one of my friends had taken his own life, I found myself seeking answers in a small chapel in a Boston suburb. I was surprised that I didn’t feel that usual sanctuary. The homily didn’t seem relevant. The readings were unhelpful and the endless announcements at the end were just annoying. I didn’t return to church for six months. It was a long, lonely winter. And I wish I wasn’t about to undermine all of my credibility in the next sentence, but…
And then one afternoon, I was watching an Anthony Hopkins movie about demonic possession. Yeah, I know. But you have to understand strange things had been happening to me the WHOLE weekend! I was half-convinced I was a witch. (I’m not a witch, I’m you. ™) The movie convinced the other half of me that I might be possessed. Just to be sure, the next morning, I was at the 11:45 mass. As it so happens, this was a confirmation mass. Twenty-five shiny teenagers in their Sunday best, surrounded by beaming family members as they, as adult members of the church, confirmed the vows made on their behalf at their infant baptisms.
Magic, no, better…faith!
The homily was a wonderful story about how important confirmation was because everyday for the rest of their lives, so many things would serve to pull them away from their faith. And one by one, each of those youngsters made their way to the altar and, with their sponsors, rejected Satan and recited the belief in Jesus.
Mass the following week was about Pentecost and the week after that, the Father’s Day mass was about the holy Trinity. I haven’t missed mass in five weeks.
But the face and sound of Catholics beaming into my home from my television during these last few weeks were not the comforting, welcoming faithful voices I hear in church on Sundays. This was an angry, terrified Catholic church. I heard callers screaming that “they want to get rid of the church. They‘re closing down churches and now they want to take away our sacraments.” The caller never did clarify who the “they” were. Then, Archbishop Dolan said marriage equality would be “terribly detrimental” to the Church. I learned that the church’s lawyers were going to battle against marriage equality. My friends mocked me because Catholic churches were banning the use of rainbows.
Damn you, Canadia!
I started to become angry. My Catholic church isn’t about fear and exclusion and lawyer armies! When victory for your side means “haw-haw no marriage for them!” You’ve strayed a ways from the catholic and Catholic way.
The Sunday after the marriage equality bill was signed into law, a despondent Archbishop had this to say:
“This is about prayer,” he said inside the cathedral. “I sort of needed a good dose of the Lord’s grace and mercy because I’ve been down a little lately as you can imagine.”
Archbishop Dolan said he was disheartened that the same-sex marriage bill was passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
“I would have to say I was sad because it’s not good for the common good,” the archbishop said. “I think society and culture is at its peril.”
And I felt so sorry for him. Every week he gets to perform a miracle on the altar of one of the finest cathedrals in the world and he’s bummed out because two chicks can marry each in New York? How is he not celebrating the hundreds of thousands of children still being confirmed in the church despite all the sex, drugs and rock n roll in the streets? Is he seriously scared a marriage certificate bearing the names Adam and Steve “endangers” the Church? The Church built on Peter, who was so badass that when the Romans came to crucify him was all “okay, but can you crucify me upside down because I’m not worthy enough to die the way Christ did?” Does the Archbishop think Governor Cuomo’s pen is mightier than the church that inspired St. Stephen to continue reciting scripture even as he was stoned to death?
That feeling of loss the New York bishops are feeling is basically the manifestation of the principle of political philosophy that separation of church and state is important for each to thrive. New York should not be governed by Catholic doctrine; the head of New York’s Catholic community should not be drafting legislation for state governance. And even if you disagree with that principle, why wouldn’t you start with Catholic driven legislation to require food for the hungry or jail for adulterers or mandatory baptism for all babies? Those seem to hit more universal tenets of the Catholic faith than this blind “defense” of the sacrament of marriage — incidentally, a sacrament none of these activist bishops have ever participated in.
The church is made stronger when its clergy, its congregations, its army of lawyers are focused on strengthening the church. Make sure it’s safe for kids to hang out in rectories with nuns and priests. Make sure you’re spending money keeping Catholic schools open, not making settlements to abuse victims. Instead of giving “sky-is-falling” interviews, the church leaders should be getting to know their congregations, answering questions, providing comfort. Fear, anger, and hate have no place in the Catholic church; the church should a refuge from those things. We reject them.
The Catholic church has provided a framework for most of my life and I’m sure the same can be said for many of the Catholics currently freaking the eff out. But the truth is, the church is you. It’s me. It’s our faith that will keep it strong and serve as an example for the future generations of Catholics. Attacking “society,” and using scare tactics to frighten people about the coming of fire and brimstone, stands in stark opposition to the church’s teaching that God is love. Live and let live; render unto Caesar and all that jazz.
It wasn’t sodomy that brought the Roman empire to its knees, it was Christianity!
There is nothing for us to be afraid of! We are Catholics! We get crucified upside down, son! We say the same mass in Brooklyn and New Orleans and Jamaica! Nothing the state of New York does diminishes the Catholic church in any way. Being part of the Catholic church, despite the fact that most of my classmates were “agnostics” or thought black people should be Baptists made me used to being a lone voice; it gave me the courage to tell my fellow trip participants that wine stealing is wrong. Being Catholic gave rebel teen the faith to know that if he did, and he asked for it, Jesus would forgive him. How awesome are we? Pretty darn.
So, I’m not going to tell you to calm down. But I will repeat what we hear every Sunday “Peace be with you.”
Let the states run their governments the way their elected leaders and their voters see fit; let the church provide a place where young kids can learn to love God and hate the LA Dodgers.