Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Justice and Juxtaposition

            I can’t remember who told me my father was a freedom rider. This maybe apocryphal memory, something I’m never comfortable with. What I am sure of is that my father was a man of high ideals. He earned his undergraduate degree in Political Science, in the early 1960’s, at the College of The Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. This is a Jesuit Undergraduate liberal arts institution founded by a Catholic bishop who wanted Irish Catholic boys to receive the educations denied them at protestant leaning Ivy League institutions.  Years later, I accepted my degree from the very same college on the hill, but with less courage and more cynicism.
            The Jesuit educational tradition seeks to answer one question, “How then shall we live?” The simple, succinct, and, impossible answer is as “men and women for others.”  Add to it, the Jesuit motto, “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam,” and you have the recipe for a life of action. Then again, without the inclination towards this ethos, it’s unlikely that anyone would end up at Holy Cross in the first place. It’s easy to dismiss all of this in light of the horrors of the Spanish inquisition, European Imperialism in Latin America and a host of other ills, but we would be remiss to understate the power of those ideas.  Modern Jesuit theology is decidedly liberal, preferential to the poor, and justice-seeking.
            One Sunday per year in the Roman Catholic calendar is devoted to vocation. Vocation Sunday can be a dreadful guilt-inducing, pleading, and occasionally pathetic affair where Roman Catholics pray for  boys wiling to enter the priesthood.  I’ve always felt that this understanding of a call is at best narrow and limiting and at worst exclusionary and alienating. Vocation is not yielding.  It is the battle cry of the soul’s voice commanding us to use the totality of our gifts, to become who we are meant to be, and to speak out on behalf of those whose calls are silenced by institutions and history. It was to this vocation my father responded that Sunday many years ago.
            On vocation Sunday, 1984, I sat between my older sister and father, on an unforgiving black wooden pew inside the dimly lit Catholic Church of St. Charles Borromeo in Brooklyn Heights, NY. Inside my head, I played office, as only a five-year-old going on forty can. I colored the pages of the bulletin with Mommy’s black ballpoint pen, buzzed my secretary over an imaginary intercom, and checked my appointment book that doubled as a hymnal.
            Daddy tapped my shoulder. “Get up. We’re going.” He stood straight up in the middle of Fr. Michael’s homily. He looked at Mommy, “Do whatever you want.”
Aghast, I looked over at my silent mother until my father pulled my hand to stand me up. He pushed up the unoiled kneeler creating a deliberate loud creak and bang. Fr. Michael looked up from the lectern, coughed, and stared. Holding both our hands, Daddy walked my sister and me down the center aisle of the church, through the vestibule and out into Sydney Place’s warm Sunday air.  The entire walk home, he breathed loud, puffs of air through his nose.  With each puff out, his belt banged against his belly. His lean, long legs and fast, furious footsteps forced us into an outright run to keep up with him.  Once back at our house, he unlocked the front door, looked at both of our faces without smiling, and said, “Go play.”
            About thirty minutes later, after mass ended, my mother walked into the house, accompanied by a stooping, quivering, Fr. Michael. This was not to be missed. I sat half-way up the long staircase leading to the first landing, hidden by the shadows of the next flight of stairs. Whenever I wanted to eavesdrop, this was my place. My mother scurried into the kitchen and turned on the sink. Pans and plates banged, mostly for show. Our housekeeper, Anna, did the dishes.
Back in the front hallway, my father faced the door and Father Michael. The two tall towers stood about two yards apart, staring into awkwardness and the brown carpet runner rather than at each other. Father Michael took off his wire glasses, blew on the lenses, and rubbed them on his black shirt. The white of his collar was the only part of him not hidden by shadows.    
“Jack, is everything all right?” Fr. Michael had a calm voice and measured temper that I equated with tall people, including my father.        
            “Yes. Now, everything is.” He raised his eyebrows like did when he expected us to know we were being reprimanded without his saying a word. We always knew. Silence can be more powerful than a scream.
            “I saw you leave during my homily. You can imagine my concern when a member of my parish council walks out in the middle of mass. I take it the girls are not sick?”
            “No. The Church is.”
            “Come again?”
“Fr. Michael, I’ve been a member of this community for years now and I’ve never known you to fall for the bullshit, but to peddle it? I won’t have my girls sit and listen to it. Nor will I for that matter.”
“Mr. Lowe?”
“If the Church needs leaders, priests, and bishops as desperately as you claim it does, and I have two perfectly capable, beautiful and brilliant girls who can’t have that job simply because they are female, I do not entertain sympathy for the Church’s current lack of qualified candidates. You and I both know that the Church took issue with property rights in the middle ages and carries on a tradition of sexism to this day. Do not insult my intelligence by forcing me to listen to the importance of encouraging our sons to reach their potential. Moreover, under no circumstance will I allow my daughters to hear that they can’t have the important roles because they are girls. Besides, by the time they are old enough to decide, the Church may have woken up from its medieval hangover. If the Church wants a savior, it should wise up to the idea she may very well show up in female form. Thank you for coming to make sure we are all well. Good afternoon.”

Fr. Michael nodded, pivoted, turned the brass knob on the vestibule door, walked through it, closed it, and slipped out of our house with a happy spring I didn’t expect to see. Was he happy the meeting was over, or was he happy his friend reminded him why they were friends in the first place?

“Kate, I know you’re up there.” Daddy shouted. “Unless you come down here, I’m going to assume you understand. When we are a part of a group and the group is wrong, the worst thing we can do is sit and watch.  Being silent when you see something wrong may be worse than what you see in the first place.” I waited a full minute before slinking up the stairs to my sister and our Barbies.

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