Sunday Morning ~ Forgiveness
Apemba, lumo lili ku mutu. ~ He shows respect when the razor is already at his head.
~ Chewa proverb
March 10, 2019
Respect and forgiveness have been on my mind. Hearing story after story of abuse in the church, hidden, denied, bribed away is so disturbing. Figuring out how to take responsibility, pay the price, and be granted forgiveness? It’s on my mind. We always told our kids that when you make a mistake, you admit it, pay the price, and move on, and sometimes the price is high. I hadn’t forgiven my father for lots of things, strong in the belief that forgiveness needed to be asked for. He came as close as he was capable of in a letter I got in the mail the day he died. It wasn’t a plea for forgiveness, more of an admission he’d done some things wrong. It had been written in shaky handwriting two days prior and mailed the same day. It was in my mailbox when I got home from work, having left early after receiving the call that he’d ridden his bike to the library and dropped dead. I wonder if he knew.
It’s hard to make sense of all that is being revealed now. I don’t want it to be true, but I know it is. It’s like finding skeletons in the family closet, thinking you’d grown up normal. It’s creepy. We had a friend, Dave, who was ordained a priest shortly after I graduated from college. He was one of the priests who married us; I think we were his first wedding. He was a good friend, we skied together during his seminary years, a whole group of us who were Catholic and active. We sailed to the Boston Harbor Islands for weekend camping trips. We drank too much, flirted, laughed, and talked politics. It was the 70’s.
We were a big gang of friends. I got introduced to this diverse group when I was in nursing school. I met my friend Sheila on our first day of classes at Boston College. She was my connection to the group. Neither of us were eighteen years old yet, which was the drinking age at the time. We wanted to get into the Rathskeller, the on-campus bar that had an oldies night on Thursdays with great dancing and hilarity. We were underaged but somehow managed to get in; I think she used her sister’s ID. I forget that detail. I was only a few weeks away from being legal, so maybe they just let me in. That’s how things rolled back then. Some regulations were loose. The group of friends was large. There were Community Boating people who all came from families with eight or nine children, (six at the very least) so there were lots of them. There were Catholic youth group people, there were Boston College friends, all meeting up on various weeknights in various venues for dancing when the drinks were half price or the regatta had ended, often with the Robinson boys victorious. The seminarians were across the street from Boston College and they came to the Rathskeller on Thursdays, too. It was fun. We laughed a lot. We went to weekend parties in various parts of the city, sometimes we’d go to mass together. I recall that everyone was Catholic, though there may have been a few agnostics or others in the group. It didn’t seem an issue. Despite all the raucousness, there was an undercurrent of spirituality. There were weekend spiritual retreats, I can’t remember where, that were uplifting, meaningful, and enriching. We were college kids and good citizens. I learned a lot from those retreats. I made good friends from there, had a short term boyfriend, and still think of the ways some speakers inspired me. It definitely carved a channel into my path in life.
I remember when I became disillusioned. Cardinal Medeiros came to speak. It was a big deal, the ring and all. We all kissed it, though I suppose we could have refused. No razor to our heads or anything. He was an awe-inspiring creature, grew up poor in the Azores, and I always thought a very good and holy man. But during the question and answer period, someone asked him if there would ever be any female priests? Good question. Feminism was becoming mainstream, there was talk of equality and talents that women had to offer; talents which were being scorched by ovens in kitchens and chemical cleansers in bathrooms. I think I could have dealt with it if he had just said, “No. Not in our lifetime. Things change too slowly in the church.” or something like that. But in his thick Portuguese accent he said, “I love women. My mother was a woman. But there will never be a woman priest.” And that, incredulously, was the end of his answer! Again, I could accept the reality of the negative response. But that this highly educated man, who had risen to the highest rank next to pope, responded to a room full of college students in such a stupid infantile way? What the fuck? That was the last retreat I went to. And the last time I went to church for a year. Everything seemed ridiculous. I loved my friends who believed deeply and were considering making a life in the priesthood. I loved and respected them. But suddenly all the rules and rituals seemed tainted and cruel and a put-down to women. I was a sophomore in college. Perfect timing. There was a lot of establishment-rejecting going on then and I slid into it easily.
Boston College is a Jesuit school where philosophy and theology were required core subjects. My philosophy professor was a bisexual Jewish guy from New York; he kicked the shit out of my dogmatic regurgitated beliefs my freshman year. Harsh. My theology professor was a young, hip Jesuit who wore black turtlenecks and corduroy pants. Really cool. We read the play Equis and discussed it. We explored the values of different social groups. I told him I was giving up religion. I couldn’t deal with a cardinal who was so stupid. I couldn’t kiss the ring of someone who didn’t believe I was equal. This Jesuit said, “I’ve been there and I understand. You need to do this. Go for it.” and in that moment it was like someone released a grip around my throat. I’d grown up with a father that demanded I fall in line with his beliefs or he’d “pull the rug out under my feet so fast I wouldn’t know what hit me.” (A favorite line of his.) I had to comply, after all, he was paying for college. And there I sat with a man who listened with compassion as I rejected all his life represented, and he didn’t reject me. I walked away a little confused by that. I wasn’t accustomed to men supporting me. This was new.
I took a course on ethics my senior year, taught by a PhD nun, who’d published several books. In one of our conferences I asked her about her faith and how she managed in an institution who didn’t value her as a woman. She was curled up on a sofa in her office, elbow resting on the back and ankles pulled under her. Short hair. Plaid skirt and tights. I forget her name, though I can see her clearly, sitting comfortably and smiling at me. She was a tough teacher. I got a C in the course and never worked so hard for it. Well, maybe for the C in organic chemistry, but not for an elective. She talked about the calling. She talked about how much easier it was after vatican two. She talked about the freedom to go swimming now! But she told me she had no regrets. She knows there are changes that need to be made and she’s excited to be part of it.
Over that year I sat with my atheism and didn’t like it. There was an emptiness I didn’t want to live with forever. I had friends, boyfriends, sports, travel, all that makes a life rich and privileged. But I missed my faith. I found myself gravitating back to mass, which were plentiful at BC, let me tell you. I could go any day of the week, morning, noon, or night. I felt good there. I felt like going back was more like reuniting with friends than being on a forced march. I’m grateful for the open arms that are always there for me and do feel like progress is happening, though slow and sometimes painful. When is forgiveness deserved? Is it deserved only when asked for? When the knife is at the head? I hear lots of different opinions on this.
Our friend Dave started disappearing from our social scene. We’d call when we were going out, or having a party, but he’d never return our calls. By this time he was a priest in some part of Boston, I forget where. He’d moved a couple of times, as they all do early on, and for a while we weren’t sure which parish he was in. That was strange, we thought. He married many of the couples in that group and buried many of the parents. At one wedding he was at after not seeing him for months, we were milling around and someone said to him, “Hey stranger, long time no talk to you!” He said, “Yeah, well, my phone rings too, you know.” We looked at each other awkwardly. Many of us had called him several times and he’d never returned our calls. We sat at our assigned table in the reception hall and discussed it. What was he talking about? Do you think he hasn’t been given our messages? Does he look unhealthy? He looks like he’s lost weight.
The last time I saw him was a couple of years later when he baptized my godson. He died shortly afterward, probably of AIDS but that is speculation on my part. He was wasted and short of breath and needed help to stand. I realize now he was being kept away from us, maybe under the assumption that this raucous group of friends had led him astray. It’s my belief he was hidden away because he was dying of AIDS, not because he was a sex offender. I pray that is the case, and then think, what has it come to that that is my prayer? I wonder who was with him as he died. What a closeted, unhealthy, confusing time it was, not just for the clergy, but for other of our friends as well. Instead of coming out to us, they just slowly drifted away. We didn’t see them again. It was a big loss.
Social norms were different. There was common behavior that would never pass for socially acceptable behavior today. I grew up in an era where misogyny, homophobia, power imbalance, and sexual harassment was the norm. Mad Men is spot on. It wasn’t right, but I accepted it as something that would never change. And though it still exists, we’re shining a light on it now in a different way and I wonder what that will mean on the stage we’re currently playing on.