This post is a slightly modified version of an essay I submit for my theology course; the name of my late priest has been censored for his privacy and for mine. If you recognize the man in the photograph or the church, and/or if you know who my parents are, and/or if you know where I am attending school, I’m imploring you NOT to make any contact that would identify myself or the content of this post.
Over the course of the terminal weeks of January and the start of February, my parents have sent me at least a dozen shipments of large boxes containing clothes, objects, memorabilia, photo books, actual books, trinkets and clippings. In one of these boxes was a tabletop font (a small, crude ceramic angel holding a baby Christ enveloped around a manger) and an envelope containing a taped together newspaper obituary, a photograph and a note written on an index card.
On the same day this box arrived, my mom mentioned off-handedly in texts that she won’t be sending too many more of these boxes because she needs to save money to purchase a supplemental insurance plan that will (hopefully) cover surgery and/or treatment for her leg, which is the first I’ve heard of any physical ailment impacting my mother with enough severity to provoke her out of her doctor-phobic bubble.
My parents and I have a tenuous, limited and plain speech relationship. As far as islanders go, who are already dissociated from the pace of the rest of the continental world, my parents are one step further removed in their isolation. They’re very secretive, distrusting and to-themselves, and to be fair, I haven’t felt able or comfortable to be so open as I wish I could be with them in the past 10 years since I’ve moved. I’m an outsider in all senses.
These variables and conditions have been all I’ve had to gauge the state of the home I grew up in (a renovated trailer, not unkempt, but sullen—all of the windows were and still are barricaded, and the use of electricity is limited to local appliances, lamps and such. The Great Irony is that I’m switching lanes to go into death care, which I’ve told my parents about (they’ve been very supportive, in their own way), but I have no idea how to broach them on whether they’re downsizing to prepare to die, whether they’re passing these relics on as mementos to me to hold onto as keepsakes.
The obituary was dated October of last year, and it was in memorium of our parish priest from my adolescence. It was from my parents’ local paper, but Father – had actually died in a suburb about ~40 minutes away from where my partner and I lived at the time. Father – was apparently very prolific and active in the Catholic community of the region for the past ~15 years, since retiring from our parish, and I had no idea. I moved to the area, 6 hours away from my hometown, from my home parish, from my family, 10 years ago.
The handwritten note my mom had written said “I didn’t tell you about this when it happened because you were going through your own medical crisis. Father – gave this to you, remember?” (The ‘this’ in question is referring to the font.) “I think this picture is your confirmation. Not sure. Loves!”
I wasn’t angry that my parents didn’t tell me Father – had died when he did, but I was brutally disappointed that I didn’t know that I had developed my entire young adult life that near to him without even knowing it.
The photograph is almost definitely from my confirmation. I say ‘almost’ definitely, because it could also have been my communion, or even my baptism. All three happened almost in sequence at almost the same time. When I was about 10, my parents made the collective decision to convert to Catholicism and renew (or legitimize) their marriage in the eyes of the Church.
On my part, I was left with my precocious affinity for the arts to thrive in the choir, and I was dropped off on Wednesdays for age-appropriate CCD classes, which ultimately I only remember as snippets of other brutal pre-teen cradle Catholics (because what else are pre-teens but ruthless?) viciously roasting our instructor, a young seminarian, for pursuing the priesthood in spite of being young and conventionally attractive (we naturally associated priests with old age and never imagined that priests were ever young, let alone attractive).
However, on Friday nights, there was the ‘adult’ catechism course for late-in-life converts, which my parents brought me along to due to their unwillingness to trust me under the charge of anyone outside of our small family unit. At the time, I was ambivalent, but enthused; in retrospect, I couldn’t be more grateful, since these adult-oriented sessions were far more interesting than the CCD classes. One, they were Socratic discussions over coffee and cake led by Father – himself; two, they touched on the metaphysical mysteries and challenges of faith that pushed into the murky territory of adult reasoning: doubt, fear, resistance.
One meeting that I can recall as clearly as it happened last Friday night was a talk on the anointing of the sick, and the narrative of a man who during the applications of his last rites envisioned himself suspended from his corporeal form, first in the hospice room, then in Paradise, then somewhere else, then back in his own body. After the sacrament, he recovered with a renewed vivacity and lived some several years before dying suddenly and peacefully.
More to the point, although I was a quiet stowaway to the adult catechism, I was also a passive participant. It was understood that my parents’ coming to faith was contingent on my own ability to be initiated into the Church, and such in reverse. Father – didn’t uphold this as a ‘terms and conditions’ clause so much as he embraced our peculiar little family, our own little trinity, as an inseparable unit. My baptism, communion and confirmation were as critical as their matrimony was to our living Catholic identity.
I don’t remember the event of my confirmation, but the photograph I have speaks volumes. I’m standing between a porcelain doll girl in a white dress and a deflated looking boy in a black suit and tie. Father – is behind all of us, but directly above me. In the picture I’m smiling, almost open mouthed, my hands folded with an earnestness to them just a bit above waist level. My hair is pulled back, and I’m wearing a tichel, a traditional Jewish garment to satisfy the terms of tzniut, which here has been functionally converted into a mantilla. I’m wearing a white frock, black leggings and elevated shoes. We’re standing askew from the altar so that a marble icon of Mary gazes out at these children.
After my confirmation, and after my parents’ marriage ceremony, we attended mass very regularly as devoted Catholics, participated in holy days and parish functions and even traveled as a family to the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea for Jubilee. Father – and the Church was a prominent part of our family life. But everything changed after he retired, after he left, and after a new priest took his place—not just the organization of the mass, not just the arrangement of the hymns, not just the agenda of the parish activities, not just the boorish and callous address of the new priest (who felt more like a tourist than a native, an attitude that meant everything in terms of intent in our islander community).
Our family changed.
We stopped attending mass. This wasn’t seen as a detriment to me because I had been enrolled in a Catholic private school. But our family connectivity diminished severely and never, ever recovered. I left the family home for the town that my parents knew Fr – had relocated to, and they never told me that he was there. What if they had? Would my spiritual life have been rejuvenated? Would I have been able to have been part of a community away from home? Would I have had a lifeline to integrate my parents back into my life (and such in reverse)? There’s no real point in entertaining these questions too deeply in terms of “would have,” “could have” or “should have,” but in the context of the role the Church played in our lives, there are some conclusions that can be reasonably drawn.
The vocation of the priest, per the 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei, is the continuation of the living Christ’s ambition to invite humans, who long have been dissociated from G-d and distanced from one another within their communities, back into communion with G-d and with one another. Father – was as near to being the perfect priest as humanly possible. (His obituary reiterates this, which gives me a confidence beyond my own childhood bias.) The sacraments, the seminal obligatory acts of fellowship, are the milestones in faith narratives that define us as the recognizable fraternity of initiated children to one another as much as they identify our devotion to building a more formative and mature relationship with G-d.
I feel that my parents had tried to use Catholicism as a last-ditch resort to rejuvenate their struggling marriage and to embolden our family unit. Looking at the snapshot of my confirmation (our confirmation), this illustrates a time when I not only was visibly eager to approach this new covenant with G-d (one I had already celebrated in my early life via the means of seders and other celebrations), but a time when I was the closest to my family that I had ever been and potentially will ever have been. Having this photograph now under the context means more to me than perhaps the actual event did at the time, which I’m guessing is just the greatest reveal of the mysteries of the living G-d.