Priest Baiting

With all the cardinals returning to Rome to roost and preen their fine red plumage,  the bird watcher in me remembered something heretical I wrote Before Blogging, back in the day when I had to find real people to address.

Yes, it’s a real letter, and I really sent it.  You don’t lie about (or in) a letter to a priest.  The priest, when we finally met, bought me a beer, agreed with me (at least in theory), and explained that he was in sales rather than administration.

December 2009

Dear Father Zeleznik,

The “O’Brien” in my return address was just to get your attention – although they told my father in Ireland (much to his chagrin) that “O’Briens are a dime a dozen.”  He also refuses to consider the possibility that his spelling of the name might not be the one bearing the imprimatur of God himself (Celtic spellings typically feature Ys and As).  It is an admirable thing in this life, really, to be utterly confident in one’s convictions.  I have always admired my dad for the strength of his.

I’m Omer and Mary’s eldest, but have not technically been an O’Brien for over a quarter century.  In spirit, though, there is no escape.  When I married, I encouraged my husband to add an O-apostrophe to his German surname  –  a charming compromise, I thought, and certainly less clunky than some of the over-hyphenated hashes people cook up for themselves. 

I am the heathen child who went West for adventure and ended up staying there.  Every day, I miss living near my splendid family, but I’ve secretly admitted to myself that they’re a damn tough act to follow and that I probably needed some distance from the long shadows they cast.  I do admit that 1800 miles may have overdone it.

In lieu of gifts this year, my parents asked that I donate money to some worthy cause, preferably a food bank or some other direct-aid agency.  In their area you are a one-man direct-aid agency, so I’m enclosing a check to use as you see fit.

My parents speak of you often, with a degree of casual fond disrespect that is, in truth, more respectful than formal platitudes and forelock-tugging.  I’m therefore comfortable assuming the same tone. 

Is it O’Brien arrogance to believe that God forgives lapsed Catholics who, in their pride, won’t swallow the inherent hypocrisies of The Church?  After all, if the earth is only 6,000 years old and the Protestant God put dinosaurs and carbon-dating here as a test of faith (I live in the Bible belt, where literalism is a way of life), perhaps the Catholic God tests us, as well?

What I like about Catholicism is its sense of the sacred, of mysteries beyond our ken.  I like the long history, despite its very human warts, and its vast collection of learning and art, and the whole creaking edifice of the institution.  No slick snake-oil salesmen have the effrontery to start their own lucrative religions after going on benders and seeing God up close and personal.    

Those folks used to get crucified.  Now, they tend to make millions as televangelists. 

I like the music – I spent childhood Sundays up in the choir loft, and these days am in a symphonic chorus that specializes in the classical choral repertoire, the best of which is sacred (I don’t think God minds if Masses are sung on a secular stage).

I like the sense of community and of caring.

 I also like the sense that, while our sins may be forgiven, there’s still a record somewhere for which we’re accountable.  I’ve always found it patently unfair that chest-pounding Fundamentalists can steal their mother’s pensions and father children on their brother’s wives, then fall upon their knees before Jesus and, after a few histrionic sobs, be born again!  Purified!  Guiltless!  Free!  Moreover, this can be repeated as often as needed—that fifth mistress or eighth embezzlement or hundredth cruelty is no worse than the first.

What I don’t like about Catholicism is its medieval attitude toward women.  When I was a kid, the most reprobate boys in town would be chosen as altar boys, whereas I might be allowed to help clean the narthex or arrange a bouquet (access to those jobs was jealously guarded by territorial old women with mustaches).  Boys could become priests, whereas girls could only be nuns — who, if lucky, might one day be trusted to wash the friars’ holey underpants.

As I got older, the hypocrisy started to get to me.  I saw tired worn-out poverty-stricken women having their eighth child in as many years, and happy trim affluent ones who –miraculously! —had no more than two, courtesy of some judicious tithing and a priestly dispensation for the pill.   

I saw women trapped forever in abusive marriages, all because they mated unwisely at age 18 and could never be rescued or excused or (God forbid) forgiven.  Yet I saw men purchase annulments (cheaply, really, apart from the cost in integrity) for 26-year marriages to longsuffering women who’d financially supported them all those years, in order to marry chicklets with whom they’d been fooling around in church. 

(I should correct that bad grammar and clarify that I meant a church wedding, but I really enjoy how that sentence turned out.)    

I then decided that the male Church fears females, and throughout its long history has made them scapegoats to suppress and control them.  I decided that the zealots who wrote the books of the bible probably got burned by the popular pretty girls when they were pimply passionate adolescents, and to punish the whole sex made Woman the Font of All Evil.  Imagine the altered course of human existence, had those old farts but scored a couple of times!   

The next logical step was realizing that it’s sex the Church fears, sex of any sort. 

And, from there, it was a quick hop and skip to the fact that it’s the human condition itself that’s considered Dangerous.  The pain and death and suffering parts are OK, mind.  But pleasures? – of the mind, of the body, of the spirit?  Pleasures that cannot be controlled or doled out?  Man can pleasure himself at will – his own free will, not the Church’s will.  Only gods should be allowed such freedom.  Yet if we’re made in God’s image, surely we should indulge the divinity within us?

 Thanks for the ear, and for taking care of my donation.  And let me know when the Church starts allowing divorce, birth control, marriage for the clergy, and priesthood for women.  I promise I’ll return to the fold at once. 

Your black sheep,


4 thoughts on “Priest Baiting

  1. Mary Jane

    Ah Missy, here I am, one foot in one foot out. I am secretly hoping for all of your wishes to come true in our life time. If only. I go to Mass, I listen, I pray, and take what I need with me and leave the rest right beside the missal.

    • I knew I was in trouble long ago, when I’d make up sins to tell the priest in confession (“I lied 5 times [counting this], I was disrespectful to my mother once, and I was mean to my brother 9 times”.) I figured God knew about the real sins, and it wasn’t any of the priest’s business.

  2. Ben

    Well Missy, you write a great letter. Did the priest respond? At least you gave him plenty to ponder.

    • I’d heard many good things about him from my folks — he thought the world of them, and would crash their house for dinner occasionally to escape the rectory. He knew my dad could be somewhat — feisty? impossible? difficult? contrary? stubborn? opinionated? pointed? — so I figured I could be, too.

      I didn’t hear back from him personally for awhile. But he told my parents that I’d written him quite a letter, and said it in such a way that they immediately knew it was one of those “Missy” letters. They were rather alarmed. The priest wasn’t.

      He wrote a fairly non-committal note back, mentioning certain notable family resemblances and thanking me for the thoughtful questions and the humor. I finally met him that summer when I went home, and got a big hug and a couple belly laughs and an admission that he agreed with me about women in the Church. That’s when he said he was just a line salesman.

      He was a salesman who’d have gotten me back in a church pew, though.

      The diocese moved him away shortly thereafter. The new priest is no-one I’d ever write to. I’d probably have to pin a Kleenex to my hair before even casting my eyes down to say hello, like the ladies who forgot their hats at Mass when I was a kid. Now, really. Does God want to look down and see a tissue on my head? Is my hair so offensive? At least when my grey roots haven’t grown out?

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