Susan and I moved from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to Abbeville 10 years ago. We never looked back.
Abbeville was everything we hoped it would be, and more. It was peaceful, elegant and its citizens were gracious, generous and welcoming. They invited us, strangers, to every party in town. When a summer storm blew up our air conditioning unit in August, three different neighbors brought us window air conditioners. A far cry from our parched, cold, little New England town of Fairfield, Connecticut, where we lived our first 43 years. I lived in the same house there for 40 years and was never once invited into any of my neighbors’ homes. Connecticut Yankees were cynical, distrustful, obstreperous and as stubborn as a three-legged mule. But they worked hard, too, never quit, no matter how many boulders they had to dig up from their little patch of rocky earth to plant a few rows of corn. Lord, they were ingeniously perverse in a Yankee way. They took those dug up boulders and built stone walls to keep out their neighbors. They rarely smiled, as if it was painful, and rarely complained, too. But when they did complain they gnawed a grievance like a pit bull gnaws a bone, until they grind it into dust and swallow it all.
Susie and I like to think that after 10 years in South Carolina we have become more Abbevillian than Yankee these days. We can excuse people’s annoying behavior as graciously as any Southerner. “Oh, the poor child meant well, she was just trying to wash off the hot honey she poured on her scalded cat when she threw it down the well…. bless her heart.”
Every once in a great while, however, when something, or someone, really gets our dander up, we “go Yankee” to an extreme that shocks our more understanding and peace-loving neighbors. Actually, I’m referring to myself, not Susie. She’s become much more Abbevillian than I. I think that’s because she shares with our neighbors an English, Irish, Scotch ancestry, and an equitable nature everyone refers to as the gentility of a “Southern Lady.” They seem to forget, or maybe just overlook, the fact that “Miss Susie” has been married to me for 40 years. I share my ancestry with Michael Corleone.
We had almost everything we could ever want in our late 70s in Abbeville. Our work. Friends. Our old house on a hill three blocks from the square. Susie’s rose gardens. Our fenced back yard for our three dogs: Nicholas, The Lady Sashay and Precious, whom our real estate broker had named when he was a pup, “Oh, idn’t he PRE-shus!” We had Florence, too, an irascible Yankee parrot, named after my irascible Italian mother. And a feral cat, Miss Sophia, who was no longer feral now, a princess on her various thrones throughout the house. But something was missing. Our friends went to church every Sunday. We went to the gym.
We had been born Catholics, remained Catholics throughout our years, would die Catholics. But we hadn’t been to Mass in 25 years, for various and personal reasons as only lapsed Catholics can understand. For me it was a lifetime of sins that seemed unforgivable in an intractable church of black and white dogmas.
And what were those sins? They were not the exotic, hot house flowers of debauchery. They were just the garden variety, Ten Commandment sins of a normal man. Sex, anger, despair. But Ten Commandment sins were too simple for Catholics to understand (thou shalt not kill) for a church that prided itself on convoluted twists of logic. So the church demanded from Catholics an unquestioning belief in arcane dogmas only the church could fathom.
Mary’s Immaculate Conception was not enough. We had to believe she was a virgin for the rest of her life. What about Joseph, her husband? Barely a footnote in the church. Long suffering Joseph. Married to a virgin. With a son fathered by God. And NO sex!
And what about Purgatory? That sinners’ waiting room for Heaven, sort of a diminished Hell, like a hospital emergency room on St. Patty’s Day, but no devil or his evil minions with pitchforks. In Purgatory poor sinners were punished, too, but not by the scorching flames of Hell, hotter than the sun’s surface, melting flesh and blood-curdling cries. No, in Purgatory sinners were punished with just a lot of really, really warm, humidity on a cloudy day, perspiring in their flannel suits and dresses, sort of like spending a few hundred million years in Charleston in August, without central air. And then, after your few hundred million years of penance was up, voila!, you were purified and could finally enter Heaven. A breath of fresh air like a cool autumn day in Abbeville. Sunny, blue skies, the air a crisp 68.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The same temperature every day. Except at night. If there is a night in Heaven. For all Eternity. Which to some might seem like Hell, too.
OK, I exaggerate a bit. But still, who could invent such dogmas as Purgatory? More to the point. Who could believe such dogmas?
All of it was preached to us every Sunday by well-meaning but clueless priests at best, or, at worst, by venial priests of prodigious appetites for the sins they demanded we deny ourselves.
And then there was the Vatican itself. An enterprise of Machiavellian ways, impenetrable secrets, labyrinthian finances and all manner of perfidy justified as necessary to protect “Holy Mother Church.” The Inquisition. Excommunication, if you’re lucky. Burning at the stake, if you’re not. Or maybe, just drawn, quartered and disemboweled on the rack…until, another voila!, and the poor disbeliever cries out, grinning, clear of eyes, “YES! I BELIEVE!”
Not even the Mafia was as perfidious in protecting its Criminal Empire. The Mafia didn’t hide pedophiles in its midst.
Our friends tried to get us to go to one of their Protestant churches on the Square. Dave invited me to go to his Main Street United Methodist Church. I said, “Dave, we’re Catholics.” Dave said, “Then why don’t you go to Sacred Heart across the street? I heard their priest was a good guy.”
So one morning, on the way to Ingles, without telling Susan, I went to Mass. I had never much liked Mass when I was young. I found its sameness boring. Its priests’ didactically monotonous homilies were convoluted, while at the same time predictable. They distorted the sixth commandment to be an admonition against all sex outside of marriage, rather than what it was: the sin of breaking a contractual marriage vow to God. I suspected the priests’ sermons were following the outline of a printout they got from the Vatican every week for that Sunday’s homily. The Mass was that tightly structured, from the Vatican on down. There was no softness in the church, no room for conscience, thought, questions. There were only its dogmas, as if its parishioners had still not evolved from ignorant peasants of the Dark Ages.
After that first Mass at Sacred Heart, I waited until the parishioners had left, then I approached the priest, alone at the altar. He was a small, round man with a goatee who introduced himself as “Father Bob.” I told him I hadn’t been to Mass in almost 25 years. He asked me, “Why now?” I told him one of my friends told me, “You were a good guy.” He said he thought of himself as just “a guy first, not a priest,” because he hadn’t become a priest until his 40s.
So I asked him about confession. “I haven’t been to confession in over 25 years,” I said.
“I can hear your confession right here,” he said. I said, “OK.” He said, “What are your sins?”
“Bob,” I said, “God knows my sins. Trust me, you’re never gonna know them.”
“OK. Are you sorry for your sins?” I said, “Of course.” So he blessed me, “Te Absolvo,” and my sins were gone.
Before I left Bob, I asked him why he’d been so easy on me. He said the church has lost so many Catholics around the world for years that it had to become more lenient about some things to get them back into the fold.
“It used to be you had to fast for 12 hours before you could receive communion,” he said. “Now…” he shrugged, “as long as you’re not eating when you walk through the door it’s OK.”
When I got home I told Susie what I’d done. She said, “That’s nice, dear. I’m happy for you.”
Then I had a disturbing thought. I blurted out, “Twenty-five years of sins gone like that. If only I’d known it would be so easy.”
She smiled sweetly. “Yes, dear. So many missed opportunities.” Then she said, “The next time you confess to your new best friend, don’t expect another free lunch. He’ll demand all the gruesome details. Bring a rosary.”
Settling in church – again
I have been going with Susie to Sacred Heart every Sunday for the past four years, missing Mass only a few times for illness. I take Communion every Sunday and pray for all my deceased relatives, my parents, my brother, my sister-in-law, my daughter-in-law and Susie’s parents. I always feel good when I leave Mass. In old age I had learned to appreciate the eternal simplicity of the Mass. That sameness was comforting now. It offered me, as if I were a cloistered monk, a few moments each week of silent contemplation of life’s grander mysteries beyond the mundane worries of daily life.
I always sat in the last row, a writer’s habit, so I couldn’t be seen, but I could see everyone. The parishioners were mostly older men and women, working class Northern and Southern whites, African and American blacks, Asians and Hispanics, and a few doctors from the Philippines. Before Mass I watched them come into church, greet each other, then sit in their usual seats. The austere African woman, as regal as a tribal queen. The Mexican family that ran our Maria’s Restaurant in town. A younger family, with their newest baby, who sat in the Crying Room behind glass. The old time Abbevillian city official, with his arm thrown affectionately over his wife’s shoulders. Our office manager, Big Jeff, a jovial white-haired man, with an array of pastel colored sports jackets, shirts and appropriate ties, the one with the stars and stripes for the Fourth of July. The shy and humble former teacher from Pennsylvania, who now taught disabled children in her retirement. She always sent me a card on my birthday.
My favorite was the white-haired woman who sat in front of me, saying her rosary before Mass. During Mass she always made a point of turning around to offer me the “Kiss of Peace,” which in catholicism was a shake of hands. She held my hand for a moment, then patted the top of it with her other hand as if my hand was the paw of a beloved pet. Or maybe the hand of a mischievous child. If my hands were cold in the winter, she rubbed them until they warmed. I never knew her name.
I took great pleasure in being in the midst of our parishioners, most of them, anyway. They, and the Mass, were the two reasons I loved going to that truly Catholic church.
I didn’t much enjoy some of the parishioners’ excessive participation in the Mass though. After a 25-year absence from Mass, I wasn’t used to their more public display of piety. Waving their two fingers in a V at each other during “The Kiss of Peace.” Parishioners holding the Bible high over their head, or carrying the chalices with the Eucharist and wine, as they led the priest in a solemn procession down the center aisle to begin the Mass.
But I could live with those displays of piety. They were a small price to pay for my personal solitude. Besides, that participation was a relief from the old church, long dominated by the Vatican down to the priests, which pretty much excluded parishioners from any participation in the Mass, other than as silent penitents. That mass was meant to be a constant reminder to parishioners of their diminished state as sinners compared to the sanctity of those priests on the altar, chanting in Latin in their gilded robes. But our little church was a hybrid. It had more in common with small, country, inclusive, Protestant churches in the South than it did with the big stone, Gothic cathedrals of my youth.
Then Bob got sick. He was also the pastor of Good Shepherd in McCormick, and had to drive back and forth daily between the two churches to say Mass, hear confessions, give the last rites. It had worn him out.
While Bob recuperated from his illness, we had a number of substitute priests for weeks before Bob finally returned to say Mass. He told us he was leaving Sacred Heart to become the pastor at a church in Edisto. He had family in the Lowcountry who could watch over him. After Mass that Sunday, I said to Bob, “Edisto? On the beach, eh? That’s tough duty.” He smiled. I added, “Thank God, free at last!” He said, “For you or me?” I said, “You.”
I was happy for him on one hand, and on the other I worried about who our new priest would be. Whoever it was, he would also be the pastor at Good Shepard, and would have to drive back and forth from McCormick to Abbeville as Bob had. The church always gets its money’s worth.
His name was David, also small and round, but in most other ways not much like Bob. David wasn’t a “guy’s guy,” folksy, charming, accessible like Bob, who could be irritating at times. David’s Masses were more minimalist than Bob’s. No flourishes, crisp and clear, his sermons well thought out, easy to understand, and enlightening.
David had a writer’s touch. He made you see the story he was telling as not a fantastical story of saints and a God, but the story of earth-bound human beings…. Jesus, standing under a hot sun at the water’s edge, telling Peter and his disciples to take their boats out to sea to catch fish. The tough fishermen looking at each other. Is this guy for real? They’d been out all night on the sea and hadn’t caught a minnow. They looked at Jesus, this small, wiry, dark Palestinian with muscular forearms. A carpenter! What did this guy know about fishing? They’d been fishing all their lives, as had their fathers and grandfathers going back centuries. Peter gave them a look, and said, “Do what He says.” So, muttering, they pushed their boats back into the water and went out to sea where they caught so many fish their boats almost sank.
David looked out at his parishioners and said, “Now that’s what’s called Faith.”
Then, suddenly, after three weeks, David was gone. One parishioner, a devout convert to Catholicism, as converts often are, told me that nobody liked David. “So parishioners sent letters of complaint to the bishop in Charleston,” he said, with a faint smile. “The bishop pulled him out of the parish this week.” I said, “But I liked him!” He said I was part of only 10% of the parish that did. Ninety percent didn’t? How did he know that? Did someone take a poll? I didn’t vote?
I could see why some might not have liked David. He was aloof, severe, where Bob was an accessible mensch. David ran a tight ship, no processionals to the altar, no parishioners fussing about on HIS altar. No folksy, personal asides about himself during the homily. Bob shared his humanity with his parishioners. Most of them liked that human touch. David made no attempt to form an emotional attachment with his parishioners during Mass. He just said the Mass and let us supply the emotion. Which was not to everyone’s taste.
David’s remove put the Mass in a clearer focus for me. It freed me to concentrate more intensely on the Mass itself without being distracted by the personal asides of a man, Bob, I already liked. Which was why I was so disheartened over David’s demise, the manner it was precipitated, that I emailed the bishop a long letter, much of which is in the story I have written here.
I wrote that I had been told that parishioners had bombarded the bishop with letters that were critical of David because they didn’t like him. “Nobody polled ME!” I wrote to the bishop. “I liked the guy! I liked the way he ran the Mass.
“Bottom line, I think those parishioners’ criticisms had more to do with their sense of their own self-importance because Bob, with his exhausting duties, pretty much let them run things at Sacred Heart, and David didn’t.”
I ended my letter to the bishop with this paragraph: “I immensely disagree with your decision to remove David at the parishioners’ request because he wasn’t ‘likable.’ (The church has had more profound reasons to remove pedophile priests for years and the church didn’t.) I’m sure it hurt this guy’s feelings and that’s a sin. He didn’t deserve this….I think (hope) you’re just as annoyed with those parishioners as I am. Why else would you send to today’s Mass a young, substitute Asian priest…. who can barely speak English? I am assuming, maybe projecting, that our new pastor due next Sunday, who is from India, will be more of the same. If I’m right than I can glimpse in your machinations (a word often associated with the Vatican) an old Chinese proverb. ‘Beware of what you ask for. You might get it.’”
I emailed my letter to the bishop, much of it written, I am ashamed to say, in anger, off the top of my head. Then I sent a copy to Sacred Heart’s new office manager, who had replaced Jeff. I asked him to run my letter in the parish bulletin.
Two days later, I got an email from Robert E. Guglielmone, bishop of Charleston. He wrote, “Thank you for your email. Father (David) is dealing with some serious problems and he is on medical leave. He was not “removed” because of parishioners(') complaints. Please keep him in your prayers.”
The new office manager wouldn’t run my letter to the bishop in our bulletin because, he wrote, it was an “editorial.” I complained. He wrote back that he wouldn’t run my letter because it was only “your opinion.” I complained again. He replied that he wouldn’t run my letter unless “I’m directed to do so by the bishop.”
Over three days in early April the office manager and I sparred back and forth with dueling emails, his calm and removed, mine increasingly more angry, my lifelong failing, as I repeatedly requested from him an explanation as to why David had been removed. He replied, “Decisions affecting a parish are made at the highest level….I don’t have the answers you’re looking for.”
Finally, after more angry prodding from me, the OM replied, “I wanted to point out some things I don’t think you are aware of.” Which was what I had been asking him for from the beginning.
“Yes, a number of parishioners from McCormick and Abbeville complained to the Diocese,” he wrote. “Their complaints were not about his sermons or likability, but of changes he was making to Mass schedules and his Eucharistic decisions in regards to the Sacraments.” He went on to write that David claimed he was “physically unable” to make the weekly drives back and forth from McCormick to Abbeville. After the bishop understood David’s “medical needs” and “not because of any parish complaints,” the bishop “quickly acted to correct the situation.”
I asked him how the bishop knew of David’s “medical condition”, if not through those letters of complaint. “What is this mysterious ‘medical condition?’” I wrote. “Why didn’t someone get up during Mass and explain it to us? Bob’s illness was explained to us ad infinitum during Mass when he was sick. And if David was really sick, how cruel was it for parishioners to send critical letters about him to the bishop? If parishioners had complaints about David, we all should have been informed by email or in an organized meeting” before some parishioners took it upon themselves to send letters to the bishop that would profoundly affect all the members of the church.
“As for David’s changing ‘Eucharistic decisions in regards to the Sacraments,’” I wrote, “that’s his prerogative, not the parishioners’. He runs the Mass, not us.”
The OM replied again, “I will not put any of your opinionated writings in our bulletin…. As far as I’m concerned the matter is closed.”
I emailed him back, “When I first emailed you you told me nothing. Then by dribs and drabs at my insistence you told me a little bit more with each of your responses. Finally you revealed all you should have in your first response. I know this is the way the Vatican works, but Sacred Heart, too?”
The OM no longer replied to my emails. I don’t really blame him. I was haranguing the messenger. It wasn’t his fault, nor the fault of the parishioners running the church. They simply ran it the only way they knew how. The way the church had run its parishes for centuries.
A friend calls
Peter called from Miami the other day to tell me he’d adopted another three-legged dog. Peter is my lawyer and has been my dearest friend, besides Susan, for almost 30 years. He’s an animal lover like us, a lapsed Catholic like us and an amateur biblical scholar. His main interest is in the gnostic gospels. James was the brother of Jesus. Jesus also had a sister. Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had children. Stuff like that, which, true or not, The Vatican considered heresy and suppressed for centuries. So I told Peter about my contretemps with Sacred Heart and the bishop of Charleston. “You’re my theological guru, Peter,” I said. “What’s that all about?”
Peter said, “It’s the church.”
“I know. But I thought my little country church was different.”
“Why should it be?”
“Because I wanted it to be. And now that it isn’t, it really makes me angry.”
“If I was you, I’d watch my step.” Then he said, kidding on the sly, “Or else the bishop might excommunicate you from the church.”
“Peter,” I said. “I excommunicated myself years ago…. And then Bob welcomed me back, like I’d never even been gone.”
“But now he’s gone.”
And so was David. Only the church remained.