PART TWO OF
THE JOURNAL OF JAMES CURTIS
BY MICHAEL J. BAYLY
THE JOURNAL OF JAMES CURTIS
BY MICHAEL J. BAYLY
(For Part One, click here)
It’s been three weeks since last I wrote in these pages – though that’s not to say I’ve completely ignored this journal. For the last several pages there are little sketches depicting the tell-tale signs of spring’s emergence, observed during my early morning walks. And there are sketches, too, of various aspects and objects from the interior of St. Jerome’s – all from memory, of course, as I haven’t returned there since that Sunday when last I wrote. Actually, that’s not true. I did go there last Wednesday. I was out on assignment for the paper – interviewing for a piece about the impact of the economic downturn on small businesses. And since I was in the neighborhood of the church I decided to see how it felt to be back there. It was really that simple. Of course my biggest fear was of running into Fr. O’Connor, but since I knew that Wednesdays were his days for hospital visitations, I figured that this wouldn’t be likely.
It’s become standard practice now for the doors of St. Jerome’s to be unlocked for about thirty minutes either side of the noon hour. It was 1:05 when I pulled into the parking lot. As I entered the sanctuary an elderly woman whom I recognized from Sundays was shuffling toward the main exit. Though we acknowledged one another with a smile and nod, I sensed no indication of recognition on her part as we passed. Good, I thought, as the heavy door closed behind her, it looks as if I’ll be alone. I was grateful for this.
After lighting a candle, I sat at a pew in front of the statue of the Sacred Heart. For as long as I can remember I’ve always been drawn to this image, this understanding of Christ. A picture of the Sacred Heart – one that, more often than not, hung rather crookedly on a bedroom wall in my grandmother’s house – is one of my earliest recollections. I also recall being yelled at once by my father after climbing precariously onto a wobbly chair to straighten this favorite picture of mine. You see, a railway line ran behind grandma’s house, and pictures and crockery and knick-knacks were forever rattling and losing their bearings on surfaces – whether horizontal or vertical.
In high school I did a project on Sr. Margaret Mary Alacoque, much to the amusement of my classmates, who opted to focus on rappers and baseball players. After a while I learned to keep my interest in religious subjects and themes locked away somewhere deep within. Curiously enough, it was at that same time that I began hiding away – in that same inner closet – my growing realization that I was attracted to boys. It was definitely an oddly stocked closet – holy relics, virgins and saints, and what seemed (and felt) like a strange, relentlessly growing plant-like thing – the “fruit” of which my own body would manifest, swollen and throbbing, each morning and invariably throughout the day, often at the most inappropriate times. At night, the tendrils of this closeted “plant” would often escape and writhe their way, snake-like, into my dreams, conjuring images of naked male bodies. And in the morning I’d wake, exhilarated and guilty, my body sticky with the strange nectar of this living thing deep within me.
I had a picture of Jesus and his fiery heart next to my bed, and to Him I’d turn – confused and questioning. Yet His beautiful countenance displayed not a trace of shame, fear, or condemnation. Rather, what I discerned in time was a shared awareness with Him of the sacredness of the gift that I was discovering, and an invitation from Him to always hold and share this gift lovingly and wisely. It was love, in short, that I saw in His eyes, and which challenged me - and continues to challenge me. And so, looking back, I see now that it was at the age of fourteen that I made the conscious decision, as frightened and confused as I was, to always focus and respond to that unflinching gaze of love.
Years later at college I did clandestine study of that mysterious plant-like thing that I now knew had always been an organic, natural part of me. It was no longer a thing, I discovered, but an orientation – a sexual orientation. And I no longer feared my body’s manifestation of this orientation’s longings, but allowed myself to touch and explore it. I also remember conducting further research into the Sacred Heart – for, as strange as it may sound, my growing awareness and acceptance of my sexuality was bringing me closer to God. In one book I discovered that the Sacred Heart of Jesus was a “mystical symbol of divine love.”
I like that description; I’ve held onto it and treasured it for years. And as I pondered it yet again today, sitting alone in the church of St. Jerome, I smiled and gazed upon the soft yet manly contours of the statue before me. At Jesus’ sacred feet, my candle flickered with numerous others. Together they created a warm golden cloud of light upon which my loving Savior hovered.
Later that night I shared with Jack how much I miss St. Jerome’s. He said I was mad . . . crazy. I just miss the atmosphere of the place, he insisted. I should do what the Hispanics do, he said. I should build myself an altar in my home, a shrine – a shrine to the Sacred Heart, if I must. I laughed, almost spilling my wine. And he laughed too when I told him that I already had one.
And then today I met Jay in the supermarket. He asked me how I was doing and inquired if I had left St. Jerome’s for good. My hesitancy in providing a definite answer, one way or the other, elicited from him an empathetic look, though one tinged with a certain weariness. It made me think of old Joe.
“Look, James,” said Jay, “times are tough in the Church right now. There’s no denying it. I wouldn’t blame you if you decided to leave. I’m thinking of it myself.”
This truly surprised me. Jay saw that it did and smiled.
“Come on, now,” he said, “you must know that it’s been ten times harder for me at St. Jerome’s than it has been for any of you other guys. I have to work there, meet on a regular basis with Fr. O’Connor, stay quiet about Andy. Do you know how hard that is?”
Jay and Andy are the cutest couple you could ever meet. And they’re absolutely crazy for one another – and have been for something like ten years. For a while, Andy and I would workout at the same time at the Y. He was forever talking about Jay and what they were up to for the weekend and what they had gotten up to the previous weekend. I know Jay would have been just as excited and willing to share all of this with the staff at St. Jerome’s. But he couldn’t.
“James, I can’t tell you how much I love Andy. He’s the world to me. He’s my life. You know that. And yet I have to go into work – day in, day out – and never mention him, let alone talk about us. It’s like I’m half a person there – less than half. That wears you down after a while, believe me.”
“But where would you go?” I heard myself asking.
“Oh, don’t you worry about me. I’m ready to head over to Our Savior’s – to work and to pray. The place is booming and my friend, Tracy . . .”
Jay paused, lowered his voice, and leaned in close. “My friend Tracy is willing to put in a good word for me for the position that’s about to open up for director of music.”
I returned Jay’s smile. “Good for you, Jay! I’m really happy for you. But . . .”
“Jay looked at me quizzically. “But?”
“Well, Our Savior’s Lutheran. That’s not an issue for you?”
Jay stiffened a little and became quite serious. “Once, yes. But not anymore.”
He looked quite grim yet I was curious, really curious, and I sensed that Jay knew it. He pushed his shopping cart further to the side of the aisle and gestured for me to do likewise. It was a strange place to hold such a serious and important discussion, I admit. Yet there we were in front of the huge glass refrigerator doors behind which cartons of fish sticks and bags of frozen fries were neatly stacked and piled. Hey, Jesus ate fish!, I found myself absurdly thinking.
“Look, James, my minor in college was Church history. I know where we’ve come from and, unfortunately, I can see where we’re heading.”
“You mean the new bishop?” I inquired rather pathetically.
“He’s part of the problem, yes. But it’s much bigger than that. This pope has a very clear idea of what it means to be Catholic – and it’s all based on his childhood in Bavaria, long before Vatican II.”
My mind was racing. Stay with him, James. Stay with him, I kept telling myself. You know this stuff. Just stay with him.
“Okay,” I managed to say.
“He associates the years after Vatican II with the student uprisings that took place throughout Europe in ’68 and which he witnessed – and, from all I’ve read, was quite shaken by.”
Yes, yes . . . I know all about 1968. Well . . . I’ve seen “The Dreamers” - and that beautiful Daniel Day Lewis in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Oh, no, wait! That was the Prague Spring!
“He sees much of the changes in the Church after Vatican II as signs of the Protestantization of Catholic thinking and practice. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he did all he could to stop the rot, to restore the Church to the one of his childhood. And now as Benedict XVI he’s a total restorationalist. A restorationalist, James. That’s what excites and motivates him – efforts to restore the Church to the pre-Conciliar period.
“Yes . . . yes of course,” I said. But I wasn’t fooling Jay. He leaned back and moved to one side before leaning forward again. As he resumed his explanation I realized that in more ways than one he was coming at me from a different angle, determined that I “get it.”
“He wants boundaries, James . . . those powerful boundaries, for instance, that set the Catholic Church apart from all those other denominations before Vatican II. That’s why there’s the push to restore the Tridentine Latin Mass. . .”
O-oh, careful James! Don’t give yourself away. After all, I’ve always liked Latin Masses – the few I’ve experienced, that is. But I’m not sure if I’d want every Mass to be in Latin. Couldn’t we have options?
“And he can’t tolerate diversity . . .”
Goodness! Jay’s reading my mind!
“. . . it’s all about rigid conformity. That’s how he understands unity. It’s very sad . . . a travesty, a betrayal. Look at his lenient attitude to those bishops of the Society of St. Pius X . . .”
But by now Jay must have seen I was flagging. He stopped, smiled, and said: “Anyway, you’re a media guy. You don’t need me to tell you all of this.”
Actually, I did need Jay – maybe not to explain every one of these individual pieces but to put them together for me as he just had. For this I was genuinely thankful, and I tried my best to convey my appreciation.
Before we parted Jay suggested I check out either St. Anne’s or the local chapter of Dignity. The former didn’t really appeal to me, and I told him why: too big and too “contemporary.” Jay just laughed.
“Well,” he said, “I haven’t been to Dignity for quite some time, but they were bringing in some local priests to say Mass. And they were more on the traditional side. They meet now over at Southside United Methodist . . . on Sunday evenings. You should check it out.”
And so ended my rather exhausting meeting with Jay today in the frozen food section of our local supermarket. I must admit I’m unsure about the whole Dignity thing. Somehow I can’t imagine it being a very big group – what with St. Anne’s being so popular and all. Still, Jay did say that Mass at Dignity was more “traditional,” and if what he says about the Pope’s push to stamp out diversity is true, then who knows how much longer a place like St. Anne’s will be allowed to do the things that it does - including accepting people like us. Perhaps this Sunday I’ll check Dignity out.
See also the previous installment of The Journal of James Curtis:
• Part One: A “Bells and Smells” Kind of Guy
Image: Joseph Fanelli.