by John Samuel Joseph Tieman
First, a confession. I am, after all, Catholic. I watch EWTN, the Catholic TV station.
In any case, I was flipping through the channels, and came across a Mass on EWTN. It was being said by a Passionist. I have a fondness for Passionists, for their combination of the contemplative and the active. The guy was a university administrator at some university out East someplace, and this was his retirement Mass. So, yea, OK, I’ll give it a look.
At the end of the Mass, he gave his retirement speech. He planned to spend his remaining years in his cell, and in his lab, contemplating eschatology, and experimenting in molecular biology. I was touched.
Then, to show his love for his colleagues, his students, for the viewers at home, he said he had brought with him a relic of the founder of the Passionists, St. Paul of the Cross.
He blessed us with The Holy Bone. I was down on my knees in front of my TiVo.
We’re a Church that takes the remains of those we love, puts them in the chipper, and turns them into relics. And that’s why I’m Catholic. A molecular biologist, in flowing white robes, blessing me with The Holy Bone. There are no Holy Bones in a Unitarian chapel. There’s one in every Catholic altar.
To be a Catholic is, by definition, to be comfortable with both paradox and mystery. It’s everywhere in The Church. Go to Mass. Contemplate the Summa Theologica while you hear, at the Consecration, “Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body … Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood …”. It’s primitive. And profound.
I went to Catholic grade school, high school, and got my Ph. D. from a Jesuit university. You don’t get any more Catholic. My Confirmation name is Joseph. I’ve never aspired to be a good Catholic. But, as a character on Nurse Jackie said, “You can leave the Church, but the Church never leaves you.” What a Jewish friend said of being a Jew, I can say of being a Catholic, “I wasn’t born to a faith – I was born to a fate.”
I belong to a Jesuit parish. There was once an exorcism in my parish. Just one. But this is the very exorcism upon which William Peter Blatty based The Exorcist. Ask my fellow parishioners publicly about the exorcism, and the answer will be quite rational, even a bit dismissive. Privately, I’ve heard of angels. One Jesuit, a novice when he participated in the exorcism, said he saw more evil as a chaplain in Vietnam than he ever saw in that room with that boy. He also swore that the bed rose off the floor. As for me, I think that sad little boy was mentally ill. And I think the bed rose off the floor. I remain agnostic about the angels.
I belong to a very annoying Church. This is The Church that gave us priests who abused children. This is The Church that goes berserk over birth control. But this is is also The Church that gave us Oscar Romero, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Pierre Teilhard De Chardin.
We have a proud list of folks who have found a home in The Church. Among the converts to Catholicism are Thomas Merton, Edith Stein and John Henry Newman. Let’s not forget Oscar Wilde, who said, “I could believe in anything, provided it is incredible. That’s why I intend to die a Catholic, though I never could live as one.”
We take a perverse pride in creative bad Catholics, Federico Fellini, Francois Villon, Guillaume Apollinaire, Pablo Picasso, Federico Garcia Lorca. And let’s not forget Madonna.
On the other hand, we can’t forget John Wayne Gacy and Alexander VI. If you sit where Adolf Hitler sat in his church choir, straight across from him was a statue of an abbot. It is adorned with what was, at that time, a common version of the cross. The swastika.
I was never abused by a priest. Nor was I ever beaten senseless by a nun. I wonder if I missed something. On the other hand, I did go to Confession with Walter Ong. And, yes, to me he was always Father Ong. Instead of three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys, for the penance he’d give a reading list. And don’t think he couldn’t bless you with The Holy Bone.
Mystery. Paradox. The theology of Thomas Aquinas. The music of Franz Liszt. The poetry of Juana Ines De La Cruz. I once saw a peasant, who crawled all the way from Cuernavaca to Mexico City on her knees, this to pray to Our Lady Of Guadalupe. And this is what I love about Catholicism. The saint and the sinner. That side altar, at the Carmelite monastery, dedicated to a poet, John Of The Cross, and, in the pew, a holy card with a “Prayer Never Known To Fail”. The gothic cathedral, and the hospital chapel. The fact that the Mass, said by the Pontiff in Rome, Italy, is the exact same Mass said by the parish priest in Rome, Georgia. I like to picture Gabriel Marcel praying his rosary. I like the rosary.
I love Thomas More. But my favorite saint is Brother Andre, who worked for forty years at odd-jobs in a little school in Montreal. Brother Andre is buried in a simple tomb, one inscribed with only “Pauper, Servus Et Humilis”. “Poor and humble servant.” That simple tomb is in the largest basilica in the western hemisphere, the Oratory Of St. Joseph.
And that’s why I’m Catholic. That and The Holy Bone.
This summer, my wife and I will spend a few weeks in Europe. She’s a psychoanalyst. So, first, we’ll go to Vienna, where she’ll worship at the First Church Of Freud. Then we’ll go to Prague. She’ll attend the meetings of the International Psychoanalytic Association. I’m going to see the Infant Of Prague.