Sunday, March 15, 2009

A "Bells and Smells" Kind of Guy



I think I’m done with St. Jerome’s. Oh sure, the music’s great – thanks entirely to Jay, the gay music director who, of course, can’t be gay at work.

And the church building itself would be something I’d miss if I were to throw it all in. Unlike so many Roman Catholic churches in this city, St. Jerome’s isn’t dark and, well, heavy.

That’s not to say it’s one of those hideous post-Vatican II churches – thank God! I might be gay and at odds with how the church says I should live my life, but I do love the old style look of St. Jerome’s – and the more “traditional” liturgies it offers. I’m definitely a “bells and smells” kind of guy when it comes to the type of Mass I want to attend. Of course, that puts me at odds with a lot of my Catholic gay friends. They’re mostly over at St. Anne’s, the city’s “liberal” Catholic church; although for how much longer is anyone’s guess. With the recent arrival of our new bishop there’s been ominous talk of changes, a “clamp-down,” even – or rather, especially at St. Anne’s.

So why am I contemplating leaving St. Jerome’s – a parish in which, by and large, I’ve felt, well, comfortable enough? Jack jokes that I stay only for the new young priest, Fr. O’Connor. Yet in truth, it’s Fr. O’Connor that I have issues with.

Let me explain: As a guy in his early thirties, I’m well aware of what the Catholic Church teaches about homosexuality and gay sex. And like every other gay Catholic man I know, I consider this teaching to be, well, quite frankly . . . odious. But it’s been an odiousness that’s been easy to ignore as, until quite recently, we haven’t had it rubbed in our faces here at St. Jerome’s. True, we’re no St. Anne’s – with a gay social group and all that – but St. Jerome’s definitely borders on what I’d call “gay-friendly.” Well, at least it was moving in that direction until the arrival – straight from seminary – of Fr. O’Connor. Oh, he’s friendly enough – affable, I guess you could say. And, yes, he’s undeniably good-looking; a “nice piece of eye candy,” as Jack says, and he obviously takes his priestly ministry very seriously. I’ve been told he’s very good with the house-bound members of the parish, and has established a regular and rigorous visiting schedule. Yet I have to say that his fixation on protecting “Mother Church” and the “traditional family” from all those “gay activists” who, he insists, are determined to destroy both, is starting to wear thin.

“Closeted gay men are our worst enemies,” Jack likes to say. Jack, I should note, is a total flamer, and can’t for the life of him understand why I have anything to do with the Catholic Church – actually, with any church. Jack’s also an activist for immigration reform. His boyfriend, Enrique, was deported four months ago in a series of raids across the state that made national news. St. Jerome’s, to its credit, held a prayer vigil and educational event in the aftermath of the raid that took place in our local area. Jack accompanied the speaker that St. Jerome’s brought in from the Immigration Reform Network. We got talking afterward over donuts and coffee, and ended up at one of the gay bars downtown. I’d be the first to admit it’s an unlikely friendship. Not that I’m totally unfamiliar with activism; I marched against the war in Iraq, and vigiled and rallied when a young transgender youth was beaten and left for dead just blocks from St. Jerome’s. But Jack’s something else. He’s what I’d call a hardcore activist – and is determined to be reunited one day with Enrique, which I find really sweet.

But back to Fr. O’Connor. If Jack had heard what this young (and, yes, perhaps closeted) priest had said this morning he would have been up and out of there in no time – though probably not before hurling a few choice words in the direction of the pulpit. He can get pretty fiery. I, on the other hand, do not. Although, looking back, I am kinda surprised I managed to sit through this morning’s homily. I could have discreetly left. But I didn’t.

It started with Fr. O’Connor talking about the hierarchy; about how, as Catholics, we need to be “in love with” the members of the hierarchy. Yes, those were his words! And why should we be “in love” with these guys? Because according to the fresh-faced Fr. O’Connor, they’re the direct descendants of the twelve apostles. He then instructed those before him – the vast majority of whom were old enough to be his parents or grandparents – on the meaning of the first Pentecost, of how the Holy Spirit came down on “those twelve men in that upper room” and gave them a sacred power that continues on today in the pope and bishops. Well, anyway, the gist of what he said was something along those lines.

What struck me then, and stays with now, was how infantile it all seemed. Look, I’m no theologian but even I know that “the twelve” weren’t the only ones in that upper room. I found myself resenting being forced fed such drivel, devoid of any genuine insight.

Yet I probably could have stomached today’s homily if all it had been was a pathetic attempt to have us all fall in love with our new bishop. But there was more. Fr. O’Connor somehow went from that upper room in ancient Jerusalem to how we must all join the fight today to protect the “sanctity of marriage” against the efforts of “militant gays” and “activist judges.” It wasn’t the first time that he had raised this topic but in the past he had merely touched upon it. Today, however, it was full-on.

I sat in my pew, steadily becoming more uncomfortable. Is he talking about me?, I found myself wondering. Those destroyers of all that is good about family and society, does he consider me to be one of them?

I felt a bead of sweat trickle down my back, and suddenly found myself thinking of Carlos. No, not just thinking of him, but for a moment, I swear, actually seeing Carlos – naked and in my arms, sweat on the nape of his neck . . . his beautiful neck. But I couldn’t think of Carlos, not here . . . not anywhere. No, I won’t think of him.

I forced myself to refocus on Fr. O’Connor and his fervent call to arms. He was clearly on a roll and I realized that I was consumed by a need to look around and see how my fellow parishioners were taking it all in. Most of them, after all, know that I’m gay. Unlike poor Jay, I’ve got nothing to loose by being out at St. Jerome’s. Some looked impatient, a few even bored. Those who caught my eye looked embarrassed and uncomfortable – almost apologetic. Yet I noticed how several people were nodding their heads in silent agreement as they listened to the animated young priest before them.

I turned back to the pulpit. In time Fr. O’Connor concluded what had started out as a homily but ended in a pep talk. For the briefest of moments our eyes met, and I was shocked by the surge of anger that I felt within me. And then came remorse. James, he’s a priest!, I heard myself say. A man of God! You shouldn’t be feeling such anger towards him.

Yet within minutes a cool voice of what I guess I’d call reason, asserted itself. He’s an ignoramus, and it’s not at him personally that you’re angry but at what he just said.

And with what he represents? That question banished the calm voice of reason and I once again found myself feeling sweatily guilty and unsure.

And still that residue of anger lingered - Anger at what he had said, and anger about making me feel angry! For now I was obviously incapable of receiving Jesus in the Eucharist. How could I welcome Jesus into a heart filled with such anger and resentment? And so when the time came for Communion, I stayed in my seat, eyes downcast.

As I made my way out of the church at the end of Mass, a number of people approached me. Some I knew well, others I’d say only remotely. I could tell by their sad little smiles (even a few pats on the arm) that they felt bad about what I had to endure. But what about what they had to endure? Didn’t Fr. O’Connor’s diatribe against people like me and Jay - their fellow parishioners – disturb them? Did they really believe what he had said about gay people?

I was feeling embarrassed and confused, and a voice inside was firmly saying to that angry and questioning part of myself to be quiet. One thing was certain: I could not bring myself to approach the handsome smiling face of Fr. O’Connor. Yet there he was at the rear door of the church, shaking hands and bidding farewell to the departing members of his flock.

I nodded a hasty goodbye to old Mrs. Olson who was approaching me with that same sad, apologetic smile – that same feeble smile – that I was seeing on faces all around me. I turned, no doubt abruptly in the eyes of the poor old dear, and exited out the side door. I felt sick and realized it was that smile, the smile of people determined to not let this particular issue, or what I was possibly thinking and feeling, disrupt the safe and comfortable parish life of St. Jerome’s. If that smile could speak it would say: Sure, we feel bad, but you really can’t expect us to . . .

To what? What was it I was expecting – wanting – them to do? I knew the answer, despite doing my best to avoid it, and again I was consumed by a surge of anger, followed almost at once by a debilitating sense of guilt – guilt for expecting my fellow parishioners to do something that I wasn’t prepared to do: speak out.

I made my way to my car and, looking up, noticed that Joe was walking ahead of me. Joe has been attending St Jerome’s for decades. Unlike me, who moved here from Memphis just over three years ago, Joe was born in this city and grew up here. He’s gay but of that generation that doesn’t feel it necessary to broadcast it. “Internalized homophobia,” Jack would say. Yet I wasn’t prepared to be that harsh and judgmental. I liked Joe. He worked hard on a number of parish committees and honestly felt that his sexuality wasn’t anybody’s business but his. Did he have a partner? I had no idea. But we had come out to one another after the parish retreat two years ago – in this very same parking lot. I had no idea who else did or didn’t know that Joe was gay. And for the first time it occurred to me that this was actually something that was rather sad.

At the sound of my voice calling his name, Joe turned around, and I was struck by how old and tired he looked. He looked burdened – old, tired, and burdened. I was taken aback. I’ve never had that impression of him before – despite the fact that he must be at least 75.

“Joe, I . . . I . . .” I was stammering like a fool. In truth, I was at a loss for words. I wanted to share with him how I felt, to off-load some of my anger, guilt, and confusion. But I couldn’t. I realized I couldn’t burden Joe any further.

“I find it helps to look at the windows,” he said.

My uncomprehending look brought the faintest of smiles to his face.

“We’ve had priests like this young gun before,” he said. “They come and they go. And when they start on all that political stuff I just find a beautiful part of one of the windows and I look at it until they’ve finished.”

“But Joe, didn’t what he say make you angry?”

“I’m not there for him – for any of his kind. They come and they go.”

“But what they say . . . it’s all lies. It’s not the truth about . . . about us.”

There was an awkward silence. Joe shrugged his hunched shoulders and turned to leave. And I suddenly realized how obsequiously Joe had always lived among the good folks of St. Jerome’s.

“I felt like walking out,” I said. “Walking out and never coming back.”

To my surprise I felt the sting of tears.

This time it was Joe who gave me a look of incomprehension.

“But the windows, Jamie! Wouldn’t you miss the beautiful windows?”

NEXT: Part 2: A Quiet Visit and an Exhausting Conversation

Image: “Self-Portrait with Hand on Heart” by Keelan McMorrow.


Tc said...

Dear God, Michael, that was beautiful. Painful to read, and it hits way too close to home, but beautiful. Thank you.

kevin57 said...

Thank God the Church decided long ago to separate a sacrament's validity from the minister's worthiness. "Looking out the beautiful windows" has had to be used in every age, including during the "good ol' days" when pastors were often gruff, power-driven, frustrated and frustrating men.

colkoch said...

This was great Michael and really hard for me to read, especially the part about staring at the windows. I used that technique so much I made my favorite window my avatar.

It depicts St. Helena finding the True Cross. I wondered, will the Church ever find the True Cross or will they keep substituting a fake one.

Terry Nelson said...

McMorrow's art is awesome. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Micheal, this work of fiction is so beautiul and at the same time so eerily reminiscient of my own personal experiences at my Cathedral parish.

I joined RCIA and entered the Church in this parish because despite the imposting externals of its facade the people at the Cathedral seemed genuine and truly Christ loving. Also, as the subject of your story is, I'm an unashamed "smells and bells" Catholic and am far more comfortable at a solemn celebration of the Holy Mass, completely with incense and a full choir, rather than a contemporary, folksy rendition...

The figure of Fr. O'Connor seems so identical to one of the priests at my parish its almost frightening. When my mother and I chose to enter the Church through RCIA we were taken under the wing of a young, orthodox, and extremely good looking priest (of Italian descent) who seemed to have at the center of his life Jesus Christ and the efficient management of his Church at this local parish. In time I truly came to look up to this noble priest and his title of "Father" really did translate to me in a profound way, as my mother is a single parent and I never really had had a father figure to look up to.

Even during tough times he always made his presence and concern felt. When I was going through my coming out stage it was to him that I turned to first for guidance and direction. I'll always treasure that meeting we had. Even though he echoed official Church teaching, his words to me were "Althogh you have this cross to carry that doesn't mean you can't live a holy life...", he conveyed to me that he sincerely understood what I was going through and that he viewed me no differently than he had before.

But now, being in the position I am now this priests often provokes profound feelings of empathy and sadness on his behalf. Not only is he insanely good looking, but some effeminate manerisms of his personality have led me to think that there could be a very good chance that he is actually a closeted homosexual. Knowing him and understanding that he is the epitome of the "JP2 Generation" and orthodox to his core I know that if he is he has forsaken this fact for what he believes is the will of God manifest in the teaching of the Church... I think it's a sad reality that individuals who are in the closet turn out to be those are the most vehement gay bashers. To this point my priest hasn't proved this point...but I do know that he would go out of his way to tow the official Church doctrine even if his own personal and emotional feelings might prompt him from doing otherwise...

Currently this leaves me in an awkward poisition. I'm not really active within my parish right now but I'm hoping to get invovled soon. Perhaps being a lector or Eucharistic Minister. For all I know, my priest thinks that I'm doing the best I can to live as a celibate homosexual. But at some point, I know my sexuality might possibly come to the forefront... Do I have to hide it in order to be a viable, contributing memeber of the parish? Even though he's very friendly towards me right now if in the future he got wind of my new outlook on life and my changed "lifestyle" I could see him having no qualms whatsoever with asking me to cease all activities within the parish...

Things like this just worry me because I know what's happened to Scott Pomfret and so many others when the intracacies of their sexual lives were discovered... And it's horrible, and shows how much reform the Church needs, that I should be afraid of something like this... Because of who I am...

Nevertheless, thanks Michael for a beautiful and very meaningful narrative!

Davis said...

Thom sent me over here and I, too, am saddened by your experience. I was about to say "Joe" was right, look at the windows, but then I might say that. Then I read again the deeply felt hurt that should not come from those who are meant to dispense the love of God.

God's blessings on you.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks everyone for your positive feedback.

Phillip, I appreciate your sharing of your experiences and the awkward situation you find yourself in.

You ask: "Do I have to hide [my sexuality] in order to be a viable, contributing member of the parish?

Sadly, I think that's what it's coming to in the vast majority of Roman Catholic parishes - including, perhaps, yours.

However, from what I've gathered from your thoughtful and honest comments on this blog, I believe you will discern the right course of action if and when you have to choose between your integrity and your parish.