This used to be my thinking place. It was a place of solitude and safety, where I could sit and reflect. The cacophony of noise and loudness, the whir of background whisperings and hummings within and without; it would fade in this place. There would be an echoing silence, broken only by an occasional door closing or distant, hollow sound of a cabinet opening and closing if someone was in the sacresty. I would sit, contemplating whatever it was that troubled me. Sometimes, the answers would come. Often times, it was simply a calming, peacefulness that descended over me, making it easier to work through whatever it was that was causing me worry. I would emerge, cleansed somehow, feeling as if I had taken a short, energy-giving nap; my inner voice strengthened and restored to the forefront, where it could speak over the chaos.
Some would say that this was God. The Holy Spirit was working its magic, giving me clarity. Think whatever you wish. Whatever your beliefs, go ahead and attribute this to them. It’s okay. In choosing not to believe, I am perfectly fine with others who do. I almost envy them, as sure as they are of an afterlife and that God is walking with them. I don’t believe in those things, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in something. I just don’t subscribe to the dog and pony show that is religion, and especially Christianity.
From those first, overwhelming moments as a young child, when I entered through the front doors, I was in love with the surroundings within the walls of my church. I have detailed, before, that the pageantry attracted me, and the ritual. Those things held me in their thrall. When I was young, there was a much more thriving Roman Catholic community here, and we had not only a rectory for the many priests in residence at our parish, but a convent filled with nuns. That was a part of the fabric that made up my childhood; the nuns ruled our catechism classes and taught us all the things we needed to know and the priests were like kings who occasionally deigned to walk amongst us, murmuring words of encouragement about our studies.
There was one priest who was in residence in the 70s, when I was still young and making my first holy communion and such. He was quiet, and spoke gently, and his sermons were always interesting and soothing. He didn’t smile a lot, but when he did, it was beatific. His hair was black and well-kept. He was handsome, reverent, and commanded a room without raising his voice at all. He dazzled me, a child who walked home to a fatherless apartment, and whenever he would say hello to me, I felt annointed. In those days, most of the priests were addressed by their last names, as befitting some sort of decorum. He was Father Lynch. I am sure he never knew that a quiet, naive little girl thought he was lovely. No, I am quite sure he never gave me a thought at all.
There was another priest, much younger, who came to our parish when I was a young teenager. This was at a time when the rules were shifting a bit and the clergy was trying to connect with its parishioners on whatever level it could; this predated RENEW, a program introduced where the Church beckoned those who had left the faith, or had allowed their faith to lapse, to come back into the fold, and recruited new Catholics, too. At that time, revenues were down, the faithful were straying, and new priests and nuns were becoming a scarce commodity. What better way to attract new blood than to “wash all the sins” away and start fresh?
This young priest was absolutely refreshing to our bored, ambivalent CCD class. He was cool, treated us like we felt we deserved, and really connected with us on a level we understood. He got us. Plus, he stayed for a whole class, giving us a break from the Sisters, who were both exhaustingly strident and bipolar, chattering away excitedly one moment, then barking and growling the next.
This priest was Father Chet, as he asked us to call him, and he was the last priest to ever hear my confession. He encouraged us to do it face-to-face, and while I was violently opposed to confession and didn’t believe in it, I lined up, like everyone else, to do this brave, new thing. I don’t remember what I confessed; probably something about swearing and lying to my mom; but he was encouraging and kind and it felt like talking to a friend. I left the room feeling upbeat; I still thought confession was bullshit, but if I ever had to do it, that would be the way I would prefer it – as long as it was Father Chet sitting across from me. I felt connected to him, even though we never had another one-on-one meeting again. He was there; then he was gone. The Church was always moving priests around, and this was a sad consequence.
These two priests are amongst the small, handful of positive memories and effects the Church had upon me as a youth. I would find the courage, when I was 15, to reject the rules foisted upon me; the beliefs I “had” to have in order to be confirmed. I walked home the evening the Monsignor bombasted us with the rules and chastised us if we questioned why we could not have personal choice in things such as abortion, birth control, sex, service to the Church, and so on. I was livid, quietly fuming. My mom and grandmother had instilled, within me, the belief that a woman didn’t need a man and I was aggravated that this guy was telling me how I had to feel in order to have some Bishop place his hand on me. Fuck that, I thought, and entered the apartment, loudly announcing that I was done and I wasn’t going back. My mother’s response was disappointment, but she had also given up trying to force me into things because all it did was cause a fight. She was much more into doing her own thing in those days, which included men and bars. She needed my complacency to assure her a sitter for The Male Sibling Unit. In any event, I would continue to attend Mass and I would lead responses and do solos with the choir, but that was me, doing me; what I liked about attending. I didn’t have to believe in anything but myself in order to sing.
The Grand Jury Report about the widespread corruption and abuse of children by priests in Pennsylvania was published this week. The numbers are staggering; the heartbreak has one, single voice and it speaks to all. Those of us who were abused by authority figures in our youth understand the searing pain, anguish, and shame these victims have felt; we join our heartbeats to theirs to form a deafening sound. Their courage is unquestionable and our outrage is like a forest fire in a drought-plagued landscape. The horrors are legion: pornography rings, marking victims with gold crosses to easily identify desensitized youth susceptible to more attacks, pregnancies, sadomasochistic acts, lying, payoffs; pressure to silence victims, whistleblowers, and families.
This is not “God”. This is not “Satan”. This is “Man”.
This is corruption and blackmail, a rich, powerful entity cloaking itself in privilege and religious piety, deigning to judge others when it was perpetrating horror and hell upon innocent victims and then using that power to beat down anyone who spoke up. It is evil; pure in form, the most blatant, transparent evil ever to walk this earth. It is men in power, surrounding themselves with riches, wielding it in the most cruel of ways. It is inherently human.
Those two priests, Father Lynch and Father Chet, who were positives in my otherwise unremarkable, Catholic childhood? You guessed right if you suspected that their names are on the list of priests who committed abuse in our Diocese. What little faith in the things and people I believed were good back then have been reduced by two. Many names, I recognized; many were not a surprise, because there has been a lot of talk since 2002, when this blew wide-open in the United States. There was one highly-publicized case that occurred in this decade, and that priest was found guilty in a court of law and later laicized by the Church. He still lives here, walks proudly, almost arrogantly, amongst us, and still has his supporters. I even knew some victims of priests going all the way back to high school; I dated a young man whose family had been paid off. That priest is not on the list, which is troubling, because if he isn’t, others aren’t, and that means there are so many more victims out there, afraid to come forward. I urge them to read this report and, if they don’t see “their” priest, to speak up. I don’t care if said priest is living or dead; it all matters. You matter. Your pain, shame, and suffering matters. The only way to free ourselves of the chains is to speak our attackers’ names and expose them. I have to believe that if I am wrong, and God exists, that is what He would want. Therein lies the rub for me, also; what merciful God would allow this kind of pain to be inflicted in His name? But that’s perhaps another subject, for another time.
I’m going to have to find another sanctuary for my thinking. My quiet place has ceased to exist for me. Some might say, “Well, you’re an Atheist anyway. To you, it’s just a pleasant, calming atmosphere where you go to escape the chaos of life. It doesn’t mean anything to you spiritually.”
It does, though. I can never seek out peace, solitude, and contentment in a place where evil has held court. I would not hear the silence I crave echoing through the vast, fragrant space. I would hear the cries of the victims, their voices blending together in one, painful, wailing wave of numbing terror. There is no peace in such a place of blasphemous, malignant atrocities committed against the very weakest, youngest, most innocent of victims. It would be heretically wrong to ever try and find solace in such a place.
Burn it all down. Erase it from the world. Better yet, liquidate it, all of the riches and ill-gotten gains of the behemoth Church, a true monster on this earth, and do some true good in eradicating this world of pain, blight, and suffering. Those clergy left standing should demand a complete overhaul of the “system” and, if the Church is adamant about “a vow of poverty” and celibacy, then damn-well adhere to it. I don’t care how it’s accomplished, but it’s pretty simple: figure it out. That would be a small start.
For me, though? Nothing will ever be enough. Humankind keeps proving me wrong. At least it’s consistent.