Thursday, July 17, 2008

In Which I Come Very Close to Kicking a Catholic Priest

On Thursday, we buried Papa and I came very close to kicking a priest. Kicking him hard in his big, fat head.

Some background:
In 1945, my Naunie and Papa were married at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Waterbury, CT (as of this year, it is a basilica). Naunie's parents were also married in this church. Both Naunie and Papa have been parishioners there for a long time and they renewed their vows there on their 60th anniversary in 2005. They have not attended regularly since they moved across the state in 2007 to be nearer to their children, but it is safe to say that they are longtime members of the Immaculate Conception community. All of this will become relevant later on in this story.

As I have written previously, Papa died on July 11th after suffering the aftermath of a catastrophic stroke for almost an entire year. He was miserable, and even I, nonbeliever that I am, can agree that he is "in a better place" because the torment he underwent was excruciating just to watch. His death, though tragic, was not unanticipated, especially since he started refusing nourishment in June. Our whole family is devastated, but we've had a while to get used to the idea.

On the weekend after Papa died, the funeral director encouraged my aunt to call the Immaculate Conception in order to make sure that the organist could play the songs my Naunie requested.

Enter Father Fat Head (FFH for the remainder of this post).

In their very first encounter, he turned the Inquisition loose on my poor aunt. "Are you even Catholic?" he asked her, "Haven't you ever been to a funeral?" What was he planning to say if either of her answers were "no"? She stammered two affirmative responses. He then proceeded to lecture her on how she was too grief-stricken to do any planning and that people in her "state" don't know what they want. As this story goes along, I think it will become clear that he meant "women" when he said "people."

At the wake, FFH gave an SNL-worthy lecture on the "10 Stages of Grief," which would have included five we'd never heard of before if he had ever gotten around to covering more than three. And btw, why does the family at the wake need your lecture on grief? Especially when it comes wrapped in bullshit "wisdom" about how the women always cry at these things? Can't you just say something comforting or nice about the deceased? Or pronounce his name correctly? Barring that, stick to the Hail Mary and everyone can walk away, if not happy, at least not insulted by FFH's condescending attitude. In a room full of very smart people, it was clear that a) he thought he was the smartest and b) he was not.

All of this is not too bad so far.

On the night before the funeral, Pete and I went out for drinks with some of my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Around midnight, I casually asked, "So, who's doing the readings tomorrow?" Apparently, I was, along with my equally surprised cousin, Seth. No problem. Our parents have been running around crazy this past week and they forgot to tell us. Not a big deal. We still have 10 hours in which to pick readings and rehearse them. Seth and I flipped a coin — I got Old Testament.

Back in my hotel room later that night, I was dismayed to find that either the Gideons had overlooked my room or a previous guest had already stolen the Bible. Again, not a big problem, as I have the power of the internet at my fingers. After a surprisingly lengthy search (there are not a lot of Old Testament passages on generosity/hospitality that do not involve tithing or hookers), I located what seemed to me an appropriate passage: Isaiah 58:3-10. I have no idea whether this is an appropriate passage for a funeral, but it is about how piety and self-flagellation are not enough — that God says we must be compassionate toward the poor and fight oppression if we hope to have God on our side. Whether or not it makes a good funeral reading, I thought it made a good reading for Papa, so I picked it.

Unfortunately, I didn't have a printer and didn't think to copy it out on paper, assuming (stupidly, it turns out), that I would be able to find a copy of the Bible somewhere between my hotel room and the lectern.

In the morning, we arrived at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception half an hour before the service. With Seth and two of my younger cousins who were in charge of bringing up the gifts, I set off to find the priest and ask if he had any special instructions. We found him, introduced ourselves (he shook Seth's hand but not any of the 3 girls'), and asked him what we should know beforehand. He mumbled something incoherent and waved a chubby hand, dismissing us. Ok, guess anything goes. Luckily, we were able to locate the gifts on our own and I gave my terrified younger cousins the helpful advice, "Well, I guess just grab something and bring it up front."

Meanwhile, we're scoping the place out for Bibles. None. I wasn't expecting to find any in the pews (I was a Catholic for 20 years), but I thought we'd be able to find one, you know, around somewhere. This kind of thinking got us nowhere, so Pete started frantically copying out the verses, which I had had the foresight to leave up on my laptop.

Too soon, FFH started up the service and called me and "Steve" to the front to read. There's no one named Steve in our family, but we assumed he meant Seth and went with that. Out of time, I grabbed my laptop and decided to just read off the screen. I even planned to tilt it so that the Obama and Out Campaign stickers were less visible.

"Steve" went up to the lectern, gently introduced himself by his actual name, and gave a short introduction as to why he though his reading was relevant to Papa. He mentioned that it was "from Corinthians," but gave no further details. I should add here that he was reading from a page he had "borrowed" from his Gideon Bible. No problems, everything's going fine.

Since FFH called us up together, I took the podium when Seth finished, which was apparently not the right thing to do. The organist started playing (and singing) just as I was starting to speak, so I shut up and waited for him to finish too. I was not prepared for him to start singing. Imagine an old, old man with a gravelly voice and a range of half an octave singing "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," with just a little swing to it and you will see why I had to bite my lip to keep a straight face.

When I was sure he was done, I started my little intro, which I reproduce here word-for-word:
"My Papa was always known for his generosity, hospitality, and compassion. In honor of those values, I have chosen to read this passage from the Book of Isaiah."

And I started to read.

I had gotten to the middle of verse 4 when I realized that FFH was standing right behind my left shoulder. I tried to ignore him and kept reading. Then, he tapped me on the shoulder with his gross, meaty finger, so I turned around and looked him square in his mismatched eyes. "What verse are you reading?" He asked me. I said, "It's Isaiah, chapter 58, verses 3-10." "Well," he said, "you have to announce that."


Sure, no problem, but maybe you could have told me that BEFORE the mass? Perhaps when I came to ask you if you had any special instructions and you declined to shake my hand or speak to me directly? Also, he looked a little disappointed that I knew the citation, though, honestly, if I had made it up, I don't think he would have known.

If I had been thinking clearly, this is where the kicking would have started.

Ok, so I turned back to the microphone and started again, this time saying the whole citation (so that people can follow along?) and beginning with verse 3 again.

Problem: my flow and concentration were both broken. Also, my Papa was dead and FFH had just touched me with the hand he had refused to extend to me in respect not 15 minutes earlier and did I mention that my Papa was dead and in a box about 3 feet away?

I got through verse 5 ok, but all through verse 6, I could feel my face collapsing and all of the control going out of my cheeks. On the last part of verse 7, I broke down and started bawling. Not sobbing decorously, mind you. No picturesque single tear for me. I mean flat out weeping, complete with gulping, violent exhaling, and sniffling, which sounds great when it's magnified through a microphone in a marble basilica. I had to turn away to catch my breath and when I tried to start again, about two words came out in this awful shrieking sob that was so loud I startled myself and just gave up and howled. I cried unrestrainedly for a minute or two, up on the altar, in front of everyone, and then got it together enough to rush through verses 8 and 10 (skipped 9 — no way I could have lasted longer) and then ran off down the steps.

My mom met me at the bottom and we held each other, crying (I'm sure quite loudly) while FFH got up behind us and kept right on with his chanting. I stumbled back to a pew after a while and missed a good chunk of the next part of the service as I tried to collect myself. The organist's incomparable rendition of "Amazing Grace" cheered me up a little, and I was able to pass off my laughter as more crying.

I got it together just in time for the homily, and what a homily it was. Turns out, FFH likes to speak in bumper sticker phrases. He led off by comparing life on earth to a sign he saw on the highway that said, "temporary inconvenience for permanent improvement," and saying that life and deeds on earth doesn't matter — it's only faith and heaven that matter. At this point, I started to doubt that the dude was Catholic, because I definitely remember some CCD lectures on salvation through faith and good works, not just faith. Pete also made the excellent point that this line of thought really belittles the dead person's life by saying it didn't matter anyway. From there, FFH went on to how young people today are so irresponsible and earth-focused, blaming this somehow on the "fact" that it is "against the law to utter the word GOD in a public school." Because it's illegal to pray in schools, we now have metal detectors in every school, which somehow relates to my Papa, though I couldn't tell you how. Next we learned that if we don't teach young people to pray, we will have more 9/11s. And that, "If you are too busy to pray, you are too busy in every way."

Can you heckle a priest? Pete wanted to know.

All that was pretty awful, but when he got into the whole, "If Pat were here today, he would say . . ." bullshit, I was 100% done. My Papa never would have said any of those things. He never would have told us to set our minds on heaven instead of doing good on earth, and he never, ever would have said anything so trite as, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life." What makes a pompous jackass think that when he is addressing a room full of people who know Papa very well that he can get away with the bullshit platitudes? If you don't know the deceased (and did not bother to talk to any of his family members to find out) and did not get to know him over the 85 years that he attended your church, at least keep your remarks general, ok? Because everyone in the room knows that you are talking out of your ass and it doesn't make you look good. You may have the incense and many things made out of gold, but you don't know what the hell you're saying and you're not fooling anyone.

Next up, communion. My poor little cousins grabbed those gifts and brought them up as best they could, handed them over, and beat a hasty retreat. They were halfway back to their seats when FFH called them back, told them they'd done it all wrong and gave them a quick lecture on the right way to deliver the frackin' crackers. I have no problem with doing it the right way, but, again, couldn't this have been covered BEFORE the mass?

My aunt managed to get through the eulogy (she cried much more modestly than I did), we listened to the organist mangle "The Star Spangled Banner," and we all got the hell out of there.

The graveside service was awful, but at least it was short. There was an honor guard complete with salute and taps, and everyone cried a lot, but at least I wasn't up on a podium in front  leading the ceremonies. I tried to comfort my brother by offering to get him a microphone to cry into so that we could be even. After we placed our flowers, my uncle took the priest aside and told him that he was not welcome at the repast and that his shepherding skills could use some work.

Maybe all that doesn't sound so bad when I put it out there in bald prose, but trust me, it made a bad day a whole lot worse. The only silver lining here is that Papa would have been disappointed if we had come out of the funeral with no stories to tell, and all of this will enliven our holiday get-togethers when it isn't quite so raw. For now, I'd like to just forget the funeral and remember how we all went out for pizza after the wake and told stories about Papa and remembered how much we loved him without anybody telling us we were doing it wrong.

On the drive home, as I reflected on the day, I decided that it is completely absurd that my wonderful, strong, loving family turned over our grief into the hands of this ignorant jackass. What did he add to the service that made it more meaningful? I understand that the church part of this was important for my Naunie and great aunts to feel that they had done right by Papa, but seriously, did it make anyone feel better? Maybe it did — maybe they found some comfort in FFH's message even if the messenger was peerlessly foul. Since the religious rituals were not meaningful to me, the whole thing took a turn for the grotesque. We would never allow FFH to take over our classrooms or our kitchens or our birthday parties — why did we let him take charge and belittle us when we were most vulnerable?

If I were not already an apostate, I think that this experience would have driven me from the church (not necessarily from God, but from Catholicism). I wonder what FFH thinks his job is. Is it to be rude and picky about minutiae or is it to comfort grieving families and celebrate someone who lived the kind of life to which we should all aspire? FFH never said a kind word to any of us throughout this whole thing. He never listened to any of us, even when we were trying to make sure we met his expectations. He didn't smile or nod sympathetically or ask us to tell him about Papa. He treated the whole funeral as if it were something we were trying to usurp and disgrace, and never made an effort to act like a compassionate human being, let alone a spiritual adviser. I guess the Catholic church has to take what it can get as far as priests go and if you're not a known child rapist, you get special bonus points.

There's more I could say, but it's been tough to relive even this much, so I'll end with this:
Father Fat Head, you know who you are. You may think that you acted appropriately today, but I would like to disabuse you of that notion. The next time you all get together and have a meeting about how the people are abandoning your churches in record numbers, maybe you should keep your arrogant, over-large, inconsiderate head bowed and reflect on how you have contributed to the problem by treating a very large family of nice Italian Catholics* like crap on the day they buried the person who meant more to them all than anyone else.

*As far as I know I'm the only one to go 100% over to the dark side (so far), though a few have become Episcopalians.


Tandava said...

Interesting how "deeds on earth don't matter," except for things like properly announcing the bible verse you're reading, etc. Good for your uncle for sending FFH away after the service. FFH may still remain oblivious about how horrid he is, but it's good to at least give him the chance to realize it. My condolences about your Papa.

Ingomar said...

My condolences on your father's death!

I understand well your feelings, I have experienced somewhat similar situations in the past.

One thing I would like to strongly recommend to you, though, is the following: forget about FFH, the church and all that. But keep reading your Bible! It opened my eyes!

I have been to burials of believing Christians, too, and there were - well, I would almost say happy songs there! I was quite astonished when I first saw this- sure, there were tears and condolences as well, but I have seen widows, daughters, friends giving testimony of their and the deceased's faith and singing quite happy songs, with guitars on the burial ground and all that! And not onw "Father" around!

The reason for this is, as I could find out myself quite a number of years ago already, that they actually KNOW where the deceased is now. It is not the sort of "he must be in a better place of some sort now", as many of us may think (or wish to think). No, they KNOW, and by now I KNOW myself as well. And I hope that you will KNOW yourself soon, too.

This is not about a sect or something - just keep reading your Bible, PLEASE! I recommend to start somewhere with the gospel of John, for example, and then go on to Acts and Romans.... and you will not want to stop, anyway! Try to get the whole church thing out of your mind, read GOD's WORD, and ask God before to lead you to understanding what you read.

I am sure you will find peace in your heart and comfort even over the tragic loss of your beloved Dad. God bless you!

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Thanks, Graham and Ingomar, for your condolences.

As for the Bible, Ingomar, I appreciate your good intentions, but I am an atheist. I was a believing Catholic for many years, but a combination of my training as an historian and finally getting around to reading and reading about the Bible (not something I did much of as a Catholic) put me off of religion for good.

I still think that the Bible is an amazing document and that we are lucky to have so much information on the beliefs of an ancient and influential people. I just don't believe that there is a God or that the Bible is anything other than the work of people. That doesn't mean there isn't good stuff in there. For example, I try to take the Golden Rule to heart, though there's nothing specifically Christian about it.

I appreciate the good intent behind your suggestion and have one of my own: try out Bart Ehrman's books, particularly Misquoting Jesus and Lost Christianities for a fascinating look at how the ancient texts and beliefs of Christianity changed and were reinterpreted during the early (and not so early) years of the church.

Ingomar said...

Dear Caitlin

Yes, I know wht you mean. I have been through this myself. Being raised Catholic, one just HAS to open one's eyes once! I am today a deeply unreligious person. There is not even a Christmas tree in our house, if you know what I mean.

But I got to know Jesus, and today I KNOW not only that there IS a God, but that I am His child and that I have eternal live in Him!

I do not care a lot about who changed what and when, I just know that this IS Gods word, form experience. Everything it said about myself was true until now.

I wanted to give you some comfort, not more stress at this difficult time. But please think about what you said - you spoke about "a better place" that your Dad is now. How can you know? I mean, are you sure? And if you think there is "a better place", there obviousely is something transcendent of our material world. So that is the problem with God?

BTW, you do no tneed to believe in Him to read His book!

Love, peace and grace be upon you!
(right now in beautiful Vienna, Austria)

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

Thanks again, Ingomar.

I'm not really sure what you mean by "unreligious" — you seem to mean that you do not go in for organized ritual, but you clearly have a strongly theistic worldview.

Your vague pronouncements and use of capital letters remind me of some of the things that initially fueled my skepticism: specifically, the inability of my CCD teachers to actually explain anything without resorting to the mystical and their unwillingness to consider evidence that did not support their beliefs. As I studied and questioned further, I gradually accepted that my new understanding of the world did not include the supernatural.

You may not care about who changed what and when, but I am an historian and I do.

When I said that I could agree with my religious relatives about "a better place," I only meant that Papa is no longer suffering physical and mental torment. For nearly a year, he was confined to bed, immobile, unable to speak, and in tremendous pain. The end of that pain is better than its continuance, especially when there was no hope that he would recover.
I don't believe in any supernatural worlds, either immanent or transcendent.

CL said...

My sympathies to you and yours.

FFH is one more reason (in a very *long* list) of why I am no longer a Catholic or a Xtain.

Best wishes to you.

Anonymous said...

What an utter desecration of a ritual that is supposed to be a comfort to your family.

I was heartened to read about your pizza celebration though. The after service gathering was the best part of our circumstances as well. I was surprised that we laughed as often as we cried.

I hope all of those good memories of Papa bring you great comfort as you and your family work on healing from your loss.