Is there any institution past or present which has inspired such a range of responses, from undying loyalty despite all its faults – the Crusades, the Inquisition, Mel Gibson, Indulgences (forgiveness for the sins you will commit in the future), on the one hand – to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence on the other.
The Church has lost its way. I know, I know. Some of you ill-willed Protestants think they never had the way. But give a little here.
When I say lost, I’m thinking of how you’re supposed to figure out how this Cardinal Law creep who for twenty years allows molester priests to skip town to molest again then gets kicked up to Rome to participate in John Paul II’s funeral. When my father refused to vote for John F. Kennedy because he “didn’t want America ruled from Rome” he guessed wrong. Catholic JFK was a president for all Americans, not just the catholic ones like himself, not just the white ones like himself, not just the rich ones like himself. And I wonder what my father would have said if he were alive to learn the Church was telling catholics to vote against the second rich, white, catholic from Boston with the initials JFK, and vote for George “What would Jesus do” Bush instead?
Hard to keep track of this religious comedy sometimes, it’s gotten so muddy.
Today, I just read the hierarchy have unleashed a mass demonstration against Spain’s plans to be the third country in Europe, after Holland and Belgium, to recognize gay marriages. Twenty senior bishops and apparently a cardinal here and there are taking to the streets to lead a “protest of the faithful” against Spain’s putting things right that should have been put right years ago. OK, Benedict, you’re so fond of scolding your liberation theology brethern for forgetting their duty lies in “prayer, not politics!” If you have any integrity, you’ll send these guys back to chapel as well.
I was in Rome for Easter in 1961 and ran into an American priest who got me tickets to see John XXIII say mass only a few feet away from me. It was a moment I’ll always treasure. Shouts like olé, Irish nuns swooning, waves of applause. Nobody does theatre like Mother Church. I almost came away catholic. Given the new ecumenical focus, there was less reason not to be than when I was growing up and my best catholic friend told me that he worried the only reason he masturbated was so he’d have something to tell father in confession.
That’s long gone now, those good old aggiornamento days of opening up the church and letting the sun shine in. Since John XXIII died the Church has fallen back into the hands of the rightists, and freethinkers are having a hell of a time of it. Hans Küng, one of Roman Catholicism’s most lucid theologians, is not permitted to teach at a catholic university. Tissa Balasuriya, Asia’s most prominent catholic theologian is on the edge of excommunication because he thinks there is something Europeans can learn from Asian religions; liberation theologists are expected to say they’re sorry for spending too much time trying to focus government attention on the poor. What a sad and ridiculous institution! All dressed up in silks and satins and nowhere to go but backwards.
Just when you’re about to lose heart, though, and give up on religious institutions entirely, along comes one that restores your faith in the power of the imagination to do good. I’m talking about the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
Unless you live in a place like San Francisco, Toronto, Sydney, Berlin, and (are you ready for this?) Montevideo, Uruguay, where the gay community is big and proud and loud, you may not be aware of the work of this religious order given not to piety, chastity and obedience, but to doing away with piety, chastity and obedience to the rotten status quo where the rich get richer and the poor get AIDS.
Call it blasphemy, if you like. I prefer counterculture.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Sisters, check out the Sydney, Australia site: http://www.zip.com.au/~mmqc/hitmil/opi-tccc.html It does as well as any to give you a flavor of their purpose in life: the “promulgation of universal joy,” the expiation of “stigmatic guilt” (shedding centuries of scapegoating of gay people), “habitual manifestation” (basically showing up when and where you least expect them) and, of course, “perpetual indulgence,” a fine catholic tradition, freeing members of “temporal punishment of sin.” The order, they tell us, is collective in its decision-making and anarchist in its practice. The members are diverse. “There are radical faeries, marxists, christians, atheists, haute couture, and gourmet members, and members that don't listen.”
The Mother House of the MOPI (Missionary Order of Perpetual Indulgence) is still in San Francisco, where it was founded in 1979. It is the home of, among others, Sister Bella De Ball, S.P.I., Sister Edith Myflesh S.P.I., Sister Hellen Weels S.P.I., and Sister Mary Mae Himm S.P.I. But since their founding in 1979, they’ve branched out: http://www.thesisters.org/world_orders.html Seattle has Sister Glo Euro N’Wei.
Manchester, England has Sister Anorak of the Cheap Day Return. In France, Soeur Raquelle Surprise of the Soeurs de la Perpétuelle Indulgence, last I heard, was attached to the Couvent de Paname, Paris, but there are several more at the Couvent d'Oc, the Couvent d'Ouil, the Couvent d'Alor and the Couvent des Aubépines. http://spi.paname.free.fr/PS_conclave.htm
Die Schwestern der Perpetuellen Indulgenz (Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne) has Sr. Daphne Maria Sanguina Mensis. The Convent of Dunn Eideann (Edinburgh) has Sister Athletica de la Bain, and there are sister houses in Aberdeen, Dundee and Glasgow as well. One of my favorite characters (this will make sense only if you know the Japanese “Hello Kitty” idiocy) in Edinburgh is Sister Hello Sissy. Check out her site at http://www.thesisters.org.uk/graphics/sisters/hello-sissy.JPG .
Most of the Sisters’ efforts are focused on AIDS education, in recognition of the fact that somebody has to right the wrongs of the Church. I mean really, girls, what can you say about an organization which bases its entire approach to the pandemic on the conviction that if you don’t know how to put on a condom you won’t want to play hide the salami with the girl next door?
Sometimes, as with the Hermanas de la Perpetua Indulgencia (Montevideo, Uruguay) they branch out. Opus Gay and all that. They played a part recently in getting a monument to diversity in their city. http://uruguay.indymedia.org/news/2005/02/31134.php
So go ahead and march in the streets of Madrid, you twenty bishops from hell. The toothpaste is out of the tube and there ain’t no putting it back in. Sister Bea Attitude, Sister Ann R. Key, Sister Dana Van Iquity, Sister Flatulina Grande, Sister Lolita Me Into Temptation, Sister Roxanne Roles, Sister Saki Tumi, Sister Buffy, Sister Jezebel, Sister Dixie Wrecked, and Sister Justina Nickatime are all going to give you a run for your money.
And maybe save a few of those lives you would put at risk in the process.
June 20, 2005