05 April 2009

Palm Sunday

Today is Palm Sunday. I can remember when this day would begin a week of going to church twice a day with my Catholic school classmates. Even though school was closed on Good Friday, we were expected to be there not only for an afternoon mass, but for the Stations of the Cross.

If I recall correctly, as an altar boy I served in two or three Good Friday masses and Stations of the Cross. When I did the latter, I didn't really spend time on the altar. Rather, I would accompany the priest--as a caddy, really--as he moved about the perimeter of the church and stopped at one of thehe twelve bas-reliefs depicting scenes from the Passion of Christ. There was one for Jesus being sentenced to death, another for when he falls in the middle of trudging while carrying the cross on his shoulder and, of course, his death. I can't recall at this moment what the other scenes were, but I probably could remember them if I thought about them enough.

Really, as criminal justice stories go, they don't come much better than the Passion. I was reminded of that some years back when, not long after its release, I saw Jesus of Montreal. A pastor asked an avant-garde theatre director to stage a Passion Play for his parish. There was a woman who was overcome with emotion whenever she saw any Passion Play, including the new version. But others hated it; some saw it as sacreligious.

The director researches the story and comes to the conclusion that not only parts of the story, but what people had always assumed about Jesus as well as other personages in the story, were inaccurate. And, he calls upon actors and actresses with whom he'd worked to play the characters in the story. One of those actresses is working in porn films; he casts her as Mary Magdalene.

Once again, I digress. I know that I've really digressed because, well, I've forgotten what I digressed from. Or maybe there wasn't anything to digress from. Then I guess it's not a digression after all.

OK. So you didn't want to go from Jesus of Montreal to a cut-rate version of Tristram Shandy. I won't go there. Promise, promise.

I was thinking about all those people who go to church on this day to receive a palm frond. A few were walking along Broadway in Astoria as Dominick and I had lunch at a window table in Uncle George's (Great food, reasonable prices!) in the beautiful early-spring weather. His grandmother makes crosses from those palm fronds. My maternal grandmother used to do the same thing. I kept one for a long time, even though I had long since stopped believing--to the extent that I ever did--in the need or value of the Catholic church, or any other church.

Of course, the main reason why I kept that cross until it splintered and crumbled is that my grandmother made it. Even at my most rebellious, I would never denigrate the church in her presence. She wouldn't have told my mother or anyone else if I had; I refrained simply because she valued it. Even today, I can't offer a much better explanation. The odd thing is that I never felt as if I were holding back my feelings about the church; I saw the way my feelings differed from hers as a consequence of being who we were. Of course, I didn't know how complicated and complex that distinction could be.

Of all those people in their suits and dresses, and their kids in smaller versions thereof, I couldn't help but to wonder how many of them had, or are having, experiences-- in, or as a result of, the church-- that they will not be able to articulate until many years from now, if ever. I also realized that their inability to articulate their experience of the church is precisely what keeps them united in it. The kids don't know why they're going; the adults can't explain (other than to say, "it's where I was raised") why they keep on going back and bringing their kids with them.

After we ate at Uncle George's, Dominick and I were walking around. A few young people were shooting a video in front of a seemingly-abandoned Presbyterian church. Dominick, who isn't much more religious than I am, still thought it was disrespectful. I agreed with him. However, I asked two of the young people involved about their project. One of them pointed to another young man in a tacky suit who had been gesticulating wildly and said, "Doesn't he look like the kind of pastor that touches kids?" Dominick and I agreed that he did, although I don't know whether either of those young men involved in the video could've told anyone what a pastor who touches little kids "looks like."

I can. He seems taller and older than he actually is, and seems to carry more authority than he actually does. He is the sort of man whom parents tell their kids to respect and even revere, even if, after the mass, he excoriates his altar boy for not pouring enough wine into his chalice. And, of course, he gulps the contents of that chalice even more quickly and forcefully than your average frat boy at a keg party. That, after preaching the most pious sermon anybody had ever heard.

After berating the altar boy for not pouring more wine into his chalice, he insisted on standing by as the boy changed out of the black cassock and white surplice he wore on the altar. "Fix your pants!," he hissed as he grabbed at the boy's crotch. "Come with me," he rasped. The boy followed him into a storage room; he pulled the boy's hand to his crotch. Then he ordered the boy to open his pants; the boy complied even though he didn't understand. Then the priest pulled the boy's face toward his crotch.

I know about that priest because I was that altar boy. I didn't talk about the incident I described until decades later. That priest was probably dead by then; he almost certainly is now.

You might wonder why I'm not one of those former altar boys who sued their dioceses because their priests did similar things to what my parish's priest did to me. Well, for one thing, I know that those really big lawsuits and their settlements are exaggerated and overplayed by the media; they never report on how long it takes to settle and for the wronged party to receive compensation. Also, I didn't want to relive that ordeal publicly and that no amount of money (especially since I would receive only a small fraction of it) coud reverse the trauma I experienced, or give back to me those years when I simply lived with it.

And, no, being molested by that priest didn't make me a trans person, or even exacerbate any tendencies I may have already had.

But even if I'd been able to articulate it, I'm not sure that I would've ever talked about it with my grandmother, or with anyone else. At least, not until I did.

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