I had a love affair in my head with old Papa Giovanni, the 23rd. I loved his homely face. Looked into it and imagined I was seeing a truly spiritual man. Followed his visit to the Regina Coeli prison in Rome with admiration, and had a dream once I was sitting on a patio next to a swimming pool in Castelgandolfo talking about whether it is necessary to be catholic to be saved.
I think I was in love with the man. I was twenty years old and really screwed up sexually and lost and clueless and very much drawn to the Catholic Church – although sufficiently grounded in Protestantism to ever quite make the jump. I have wondered long and hard how it is one can fall in love with a roly-poly old grandfather type, but that is a topic for another day.
I was in Rome in 1960 and ran into a priest at the American College who managed to get me a ticket to Easter Mass at the Vatican, and I somehow got in right up close, just to the left of the altar. In front of me were a gaggle of Irish nuns who swooned every time he looked our way. When he elevated the host in our direction, one of them actually fainted and fell off the bench she was standing on. I was grateful to have Giovanni back in full view.
That was before Vatican II, and I had no clue what was coming, both in my life and in the life of the Church. I would come out as gay and come to look upon the Church with ever more hostility, as homophobia in the world around me lessened and as the Church hardened its stand. I began to read Hans Küng and people like Gary Wills who were resisting orthodoxy and papal authoritarianism within the church, but insisting the church still merited their love and affection. And horror stories, like Michael Walsh’s book on Opus Dei, angry histories like Susan Zuccotti’s Under His Very Windows on the failure of the Vatican to do the right thing for the Jews, or the story of Edgardo Mortara, the little Jewish boy kidnapped by the same pope who launched Vatican I and declared himself infallible. And more sober accounts of crisis like Peter Steinfels’ A People Adrift.
My celebrity fascination didn’t stop with John XXIII. I was at a gay pride march once in San Francisco with a contingent from Santa Cruz. After the parade we all gathered around a table in a coffee shop, about thirty of us, heady from the experience of the parade, almost elated. For some reason the conversation got around to John Paul II, possibly because he had just been made pope.
Without thinking, I said, “What an interesting man!” I didn’t get past those four words. Somebody immediately jumped down my throat, and the rest jumped in after. I never in my life saw a crowd turn like that. The pope! Not even the antichrist could generate such venom.
It was groupthink of the first order. I wonder how many of these men, if I had been having coffee with them alone, might have gotten to the point of separating out the man who fought both nazism and communism, who was interested in theater in his youth, and who later would be raced to a hospital after being shot in Vatican Square by some nutball Turk. But I never got the chance, so great was the hostility, and I was never quite able to regain my standing in the group thereafter.
For me it’s kind of like the commentary about what a fine fellow this George W. Bush is. How much he makes you feel like one of the boys, teases you, makes you want to kick back and have a beer. And then he goes and puts a country through a paper shredder, opens it up to terrorism while claiming to be the world’s only true leader against terrorism, does a Mugabe-like job on the U.S. economy, the environment, human rights...
There is a difference, though, for me. I can’t stand the sight of Bush. Don’t like his looks. Don’t like his style. Don’t like anything about the man, but I fall in love with Angelo Roncalli (John the 23rd), develop an arm’s length respect for Woytila, and for the life of me, I can’t help looking at Ratzinger and seeing a kindly professor.
I am surrounded by friends who grew up in catholic schools and see their childhood indoctrination as pure poison. I live out every day wishing the ground that is eroding under the gaybashers would erode just a little faster. I know Catholics, Mormons, and Evangelicals all argue one should “love the sinner, hate the sin” and think that stance suffices to distance themselves from the bashers. But they’re wrong. They remain powerful enablers.
One does well to be cautious of those who see sin in you you know is not there, especially when they organize into an institution, which then gets control of the press, the schools, the minds of those who live by bumper sticker principles. Ideas regarding birth control, the role of women, homosexuality, are social constructions – cultural conceits which evolve over time. This man coming to town wants you to believe this is not the case.
The New York Times headline reads: “Hard-Liner With Soft Touch Reaches Out to U.S. Flock”
Has anybody noticed the world has changed, and the metaphor of the loving shepherd tending his sheep has given way to words like sheepish, herd mentality and like sheep to the slaughter? The metaphor doesn’t work well any more because the culture has changed. The dichotomy of the authoritarian father/shepherd and the innocent child/lamb is yielding, if oh so slowly, to greater individual responsibility for one’s own beliefs and actions. It’s a lonely place. But it’s an adult place.
Turn the tables.
Love the man. But don’t let the doctrine destroy your appreciation of the absurd, your embrace of the imaginative, your admiration for wisdom in diversity, or your love of life.