I was raised a Catholic, one of a long line of Catholics, which is to say, we were not all that Catholic.
We went to church on Sundays and holy days of obligation. We did the sacraments — baptism, first communion, confirmation, confession. My older brother and sister went to Catholic school; but when we moved, the summer before my first-grade year, to a house with an excellent public grade school at one end of the block and a junior high at the other, my parents lost their commitment to Catholic education. (My siblings were released from uniform bondage at the same time.) When we misplaced something, my mother told us to say a prayer to St. Anthony. We lit candles in front of saints’ statues. My dad ran the church softball team.
What we didn’t do: Pray the rosary at home, put a holy water font by the door, display religious art in the house (although there were crucifixes in the bedrooms). When I had a headache, my mother didn’t say, “Offer it up.” My prayer life was pretty childish and never really progressed — I prayed to pass fourth grade and later, for world peace, with a 50 percent success rate. When my later teen years came along, I found it easy to skip church and then stop going altogether, although my mother attended Mass until she couldn’t drive herself anymore.
In our practice, I’d estimate we’re right in the middle of the Catholic continuum, at least for our time. We weren’t holly-lily scofflaws, but it’s fair to say we chose what we wanted in the cafeteria line and didn’t consider ourselves bad Catholics as a result. I was taught the Communion host becomes the actual body and blood of Christ in CCD class, but even as a second-grader, I understood it as a metaphor. I suppose this, by church teaching, makes me a Protestant, but all I have to say is: Please.
One reason I’m so fascinated with Amy’s blog commenters is, they’re the kind of Catholic I never knew growing up. They don’t practice birth control, they march for life, they think Nino Scalia is a great man and are very big on Opus Dei. I’m sure these folks were in my church — there were a few families with 10, 12, 13 kids — but they didn’t stand around afterward talking about it. Of course, there were no blogs then.
So the other day I drop by Rod Dreher’s blog, who converted to Catholicism and then left it for Eastern Orthodoxy, and has written approximately 8 million anguished words about it — he’s quite the hand-wringer. He’s writing about a criminally corrupt priest who died recently:
Samuel Greene was a con man. He was a TV pitchman who got religion and founded the Christ of the Hills monastery in rural central Texas. At some point, he affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), which cut him loose after the child abuse scandal happened in the late 1990s. But his trailer-park monastery was quite the spiritual hotspot for a while. When it became known in the early 1990s that there was a miraculous weeping icon of the Virgin Mary there, the monastery began to attract lots of pilgrims — many of them Catholics. I was one of those pilgrims. When I’d go visit a Catholic friend in Austin, we’d drive out to the monastery, and I’d wait in line with the faithful — most of them poor Hispanic Catholics, as I recall — to venerate the miraculous icon. The monks would hand out cotton balls with her sweet-smelling tears on them. The substance was said to be myrrh. Years later, I found one of the cotton balls — this was before the fraud was exposed — and noticed that it smelled acrid and chemical-like. But I didn’t want to accept that it was a fraud.
Needless to say, miraculous weeping icons were not part of my religious experience. I can’t imagine even my faithful mother falling for such bullshit. That even a convert like Dreher could stand in line to “venerate” such a thing seems simply ludicrous to me, makes me want to look at a point on the horizon until someone changes the subject to baseball or the stock market. I was never that kind of Catholic.
Gene Weingarten is the WashPost humor columnist, but every so often he writes a long piece for the paper’s Sunday magazine, frequently of a serious nature. Here’s one that’s nine years old, but I read only recently: Tears for Audrey, about Audrey Santo, a Massachusetts girl who fell into a backyard swimming pool as a toddler, was gravely brain-damaged, and lived the rest of her life without regaining consciousness. She died only recently, and in her short lifetime, became a fixture of religious veneration. People believed she was a “victim soul,” a person chosen by God to suffer for others. People believed she had the power to cure, to heal, and wrote letters asking for her help. In her lifetime, she was displayed to visitors, although — allow me to say “blessedly” — never for profit. Her home was filled with religious statuary, and much of it also wept miraculously. Oil.
Weingarten’s story is very long, but I urge you to read it, if this topic interests you. It’s very deft, very sensitive, and very telling. There’s not a hint of sneering or snarkiness at this bizarre subniche of Catholicism, but as you read it, one thing becomes entirely clear: Her mother was making the “miracles” happen:
In the back yard, the Rev. Mike McNamara is celebrating Mass. Linda Santo takes a consecrated wafer on a brass plate and disappears into the house with it. Every day she gives Communion to Audrey. (Audrey has a feeding tube; the wafer is the only solid food she receives by mouth.)
A few minutes later, Linda returns. There is a peculiar look on her face. She is holding the empty Communion plate gingerly, and replaces it on the altar.
Liquid sloshes out and onto the tablecloth.
“Sorreee,” she whispers to the priest.
After the ceremony, four priests crowd around the Communion plate. It is filled halfway with opalescent yellow oil, maybe three or four tablespoons of it, and on top of that is a large, floating bead of clear liquid. It smells of pure roses, eerily strong. It wafts up and out into the sweltering summer air.
Linda Santo meekly explains that the plate quickly welled up with this substance as she walked alone from Audrey’s bed to the back porch, a trip of some 30 feet.
The priests nod. It is a miracle, everyone agrees.
I mean, come on: Isn’t it obvious? Well, maybe that case. The story is several thousand words long, and lots of people are quoted saying these things are miracles, that this statue “hemorrhaged” oil when Linda Santo wasn’t around, that this happened, that that happened, and sorry, but whatever it takes to believe such things are possible without human intervention, I don’t have it. I’m doubting Thomasina, sorry, Jesus. (For what it’s worth, I also don’t believe in non-religious spiritualism — ghosts, spirits, auras. I figure if I can’t believe a saint can help me find my car keys, I also can’t believe the spirit of my dead grandmother guides my hand when I’m cooking dinner. I also acknowledge I don’t know everything, and am always prepared to be surprised, one of these days.)
Weingarten’s story does find a miracle, by the way. You have to read all the way to the end; it’s very artful. A few weeks back, in his weekly chat, he said he thought the way he ended the story was a mistake, but I think he just needs smarter readers.
I never know what to say when people speak of “miracles” like this, except to go into grad-student mode, and reflect that this is a very old church, that literacy arrived in the congregation fairly recently in the grand scheme of things, and that one way simple people keep their faith alive is by believing in Marian apparitions and the healing power of Lourdes water and mysterious weeping icons. When I’m feeling mean, I think Catholicism married Voodoo and had a baby daughter they called Santeria.
But ultimately I shrug. What can you do? Given a choice between Catholicism, any kind of Catholicism, and, oh, Tim Goeglein’s Bartlett’s Familiar Lutheranism, I know what I’d choose. (The one where I already know the words.)
OK, so as we skip to the bloggage, let’s make sure we preserve the reverent tone, OK?
Britney got some glasses, which explains why she was always forgetting her pants — she couldn’t see!
Headline o’ the day: Bill would ban texting while driving in Michigan. What is happening to freedom in this country? Next they’ll be making it illegal to stick your tongue into electrical sockets.
From my nighttime career farming health-care news, I have learned one thing: No matter how bad I feel, it could always be worse. Ebola is the one that features bleeding from the eyeballs, right? How do doctors distinguish it from PMS?
Sometimes you read a blog for the post, sometimes for the comments. Like here.
Time to go to work. If God doesn’t strike me dead!