This is who we are

It was the Saturday before Pentecost. The evening vigil Mass had just let out, and I hung around the back of church. Sellers of fair-trade Latin American goods, mostly crosses and woven religious art, had set up tables. I scanned prices and listened to people talking around me.

One parishioner, conversing with a table staffer, related: “So then she said, all you people are cannibals.” My ears pricked up.

Apparently, the parishioner had been traveling in Latin America when he encountered a Protestant fundamentalist, whether convert or missionary I wasn’t sure. A heated discussion ensued. “Cannibalism” was the fundamentalist’s term for the Catholic Eucharist.

I smiled. My family and I had been here before.

My mom grew up on a street where one side was a solid Polish enclave. That was her side. The other side, and the rest of the neighborhood, consisted of what my grandparents somewhat dismissively called the Americanski, the Americans.

In Mom’s retelling, the Americanski kids simply did not get the Polski kids. The Americanski asked her why she wasn’t Christian. She asked why they thought that. Well, the Americanski responded, you Catholics don’t pray to God: you pray to statues. Mom had that argument enough times to still be smarting over it decades later.

I had that argument once, too. Almost. I was on a field trip in eighth grade. Two kids in the next school bus seat abruptly turned around and confronted me. “Are you Catholic,” one of them loudly demanded to know, “or are you Christian?”

I punted. “Catholics are Christian.”

One kid turned to the other: “See, didn’t I tell you?” They began arguing about whether it could be true. Happily ignored, I stared out the window.

More recently, just a few months ago, I noticed that whenever I got on or off my train in the Chicago Loop, there were typically several people outside the station, promoting a rack of free books and chatting with commuters. The tracts were entitled “What Does the Bible Really Teach?” I waited until one time when nobody was around before snatching my copy.

According to the tract, one of the important things the Bible really taught was the signs of the End Times. There were drawings of specific trials and tribulations we would endure in the last days. I recall: one showed a man shouting at his wife. One showed a soldier at war. And one showed a smug-looking pope standing on a balcony.

I threw the book in the trash.

To my Protestant relatives and friends: I very much understand that in the year 2013, such encounters are outliers, brushes with the fringe. Also, I am actually thankful for experiences of religious friction. You learn who you really are. You speak your own name. Once you start doing that, nobody takes it away.

Nobody takes it away. Even when, in a somewhat eye-popping about-face, the main people telling me who I am not are overwhelmingly Catholics themselves.

When I read online articles about Catholic issues, I regularly find people in the comment sections hissing that we progressives should just go become Episcopalians, a word spat out as though it were an obvious corollary of gambling, drinking, and debauchery. We are ordered to leave the holy, easily-irritated remnant in peace.

Some bishops openly agree, though their phrasing is more subdued. Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, recently joined LGBT advocate Sr. Jeannine Gramick, SL, in Phoenix to speak about gay marriage. According to an NCR article by Michael Clancy, Paprocki darn near personally suggested to a young woman that if she disagreed with him, it was time to go:

One of the youngest people in the room said she was a devout Catholic, but when her aunt and sister told her they were gay, she was put on the spot. She asked Paprocki if she could remain a good Catholic and still support her family members in their desires to form lifelong relationships.

“It is a struggle to be a good Catholic while supporting gay marriage,” the bishop said. “It strains your relationship with the church.”

He said those who oppose the church on the issue should become Protestants. “They do a lot of good things too,” he said.

But such noises, while initially jarring, soon sound about as sensible to me as “cannibalism” did. I’ve already been there, heard all that. So have we all. We’re grown-ups now, and the commands and definitions offered by the fundamentalist fringe, whether street-corner preachers or Catholic bishops, don’t faze us anymore. We know in our bones that, as Pope Benedict XV (r. 1914-22) put it, Christian is our first name and Catholic our surname. This is who we are. We claim it. We’re not leaving.

Grandma’s bread, and other horrors

Sometimes, when I think about my childhood, I realize it’s a wonder that I’m religious at all. For instance.

I was about four years old. It was a springtime Sunday. Dad and I had been outside, but a thunderstorm threatened, so we came back in. And in the living room, while the sky turned dark as night, Dad told me about how Jesus was killed by the bad men.

We didn’t go to church in those days except for Christmas and Easter, but Dad still tried teaching the basics. He’d already explained how I actually had two fathers, both him and another in heaven. I’m sure I had no idea what he meant. Even so, Dad thought it was time to move on to the next part: Jesus. And the bad men.

I assume the Cross was part of the narrative. Yet somehow I gleaned the impression that, like in the ’80’s crime dramas we watched, Jesus had been overtaken in a city alley by leather-jacketed enforcers bearing knives. My eyes got wider; the leaden sky grew more ominous. Finally I made Dad stop so I could take a bathroom break.

As I toddled down the hallway, lightning exploded right behind the house. I screamed and ran back to Dad. Such was my first conscious introduction to Christianity: Jesus, murder, and thunderbolts of biblical smiting.

Then there was the Easter Vigil when I was traumatized by blood-spattered artwork. I think it was actually the same year, the same month. We arrived and took our pew. Curious, I pulled a book from the rack. I immediately started wailing.

It was a Holy Week-themed missal. The cover image was a pale, stylized hand, affixed to a wooden beam by a spike. Fountains of blood gushed out of it. Red. Lurid red.

I squeezed my eyes shut for the rest of the three-hour Mass. Later, I distinctly recall laying in bed at night, dreaming that my parents said it was okay not to go to that church anymore.

By First Communion time, I was less allergic to Catholic imagery. Crucifixes were almost cool. But then it came to pass: besides regular CCD, we had special sacramental prep sessions. In one, we watched a film entitled “Grandma’s Bread.”

It opened with a child sitting in the kitchen with his elderly Italian grandmother. She was making bread dough. She told the boy all about her special family recipe, how it was prized by relatives in the black-and-white photos she pulled from a wallet.

The scene was familiar, reassuring. My mom’s parents were immigrants, Polish and Russian. My grandma didn’t bake, but she famously kept her house stocked with store-bought Gonnella bread and chleb mazowiecki, from which she sawed great hunks with a butcher knife.

These people felt just like my family. So I was terribly stricken when out of nowhere, as Grandma brought the finished bread out of the oven, her legs started shaking. She heaved herself onto a chair, putting her head in her hands. She cried, “Get your mother! I need her!”

The film abruptly cut to a shot of paramedics wheeling Grandma away, frantically fitting her with an oxygen mask. Then the boy sat stunned in a living room as his parents laid their hands on his shoulders. I held my breath as they intoned: “Grandma is with Jesus now.”

My stomach swerved over a cliff. Perhaps tomorrow my real-life grandma would fling a loaf of rye down on the kitchen table and shout: “Justin! I’m dying! Get your mother!” (As it happened, she lived another seventeen years.)

The point of the movie, the reason CCD kids were obliged to watch it, was still to come: before Grandma randomly died, she had promised to bake her bread for the boy’s First Communion celebration. So he and his mom figured out how to do it themselves, and “Grandma’s Bread” ended with luncheon guests adoring a fresh loaf while the father proclaimed: “We are family!” Like Jesus, Grandma was unseen, yet still present and gathering her people via baked goods. But I remained deeply disturbed. Why kill Grandma? Why?

I could tell more tales of the borderline Catholic macabre, though after First Communion such tales would be increasingly self-inflicted. Long story short: my faith life did not have an auspicious beginning. That I emerged from it a would-be theologian is a surprise.

“In the beginning was the Word,” writes the author of John’s Gospel. Christianity is a story, one we tell each other and our children. It contains sharp edges and volatile imagery. It requires skillful handling. Told well, the story brings us life. Told badly, it oppresses and repels us, especially when we are vulnerable and young. We who tell the story need to do so with great care.