1979. October. An innocent and divine excitement mingles with the vivid autumn colors. It was the most anticipated day of my short ten years. Pope John Paul II was here in Philadelphia, the city I was proud of as the birthplace of the greatest nation the world has ever known. Now, the greatest man, who is the closest to God, our holy father, was here as well. It feels good to dwell in the superlative. I am in the center of the peak of human accomplishments with the highest of gods, even if it’s only on television. And even if I was in a nearby suburb. I was close. For all intents and purposes, I was there.
I was an altar boy in a small Slovak Parish in Bridgeport, PA – Our Mother of Sorrows. Bridgeport was a working class steel town of ethnic pockets, and had a church for each of them.
Altar boy was the entry level job for a career in saving souls; and visiting us now was the highest level to ascend from here, the papacy. Through the sound of the OMS heavenly bells I imagined Pope John Paul II started out as one too, but I never knew for sure.
The universe and our world all seemed as god intended it, when the pontiff himself whizzed past the TV cameras filming his motorcade, as it traveled to the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. We all knew we were all watching: our priest, our nuns, parishioners, grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts, cousins and friends. They said 1.5 million were there in person, and the entirety of the rest of us, it seemed, were watching. What a sense of community I didn’t even realize I had. Everyone in the world, it seemed, was united. They were united in adoration of this one man, zooming past in white vestments flowing like I imagined Jesus’ robe might. He waved. He knew me. I knew him. I had experienced the pinnacle of human existence. And they kissed his ring, not figuratively, but literally.
1983. August. My maternal grandfather is blowing puffs of his Garcia Vega cigar into the serene parlor air in wafts that matched his thick white tousled hair. He was a Russian Orthodox priest, and they were allowed to marry. Yes, my grandfather was a priest. “You’re a Doubting Thomas, you say” he asked. “Yes, Dzedo.” We still used the Slovak word for grandfather, out of respect. “Well, you do know what Christ said after he revealed himself to Thomas, don’t you?” Dzedo Sisak seemed calm and unoffended by my new skepticism. “Not really sure.” I admitted. “He said “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”” Another puff of smoke made its serpentine journey toward the ceiling. “But I’m like Thomas, I need proof.” I felt like a little Socrates, some kind of budding genius. “Then what is faith?” he challenged me. “I’m not really sure.” He had set me up and calmly started … “When you get on a train, you are not in control, the conductor is in control. You have never met him. You do not know him. In fact you never see him. But you trust him. You have faith that he will deliver you safely. Yes?” I felt outwitted, and temporarily defeated, but the doubts weren’t completely extinguished.
1987. June. I had outgrown the service of altar boy, but it felt more like I left the altar for worldly pursuits. I was moving in conflict. The doubts were winning. I felt I let my parents down, my grandparents, the priest, and the nuns. But this yearning to be honest about what I thought and felt was unrelenting, and I felt I had to explore it. I didn’t feel at home or complete in the Catholic faith, or even with Jesus. I was wrestling with problems of approaching adulthood at 18, and acting out in immature ways to assert my worthiness. The heavenly bells hadn’t stopped, but they had lost their enchantment over me.
1992. October. At 23, thirteen years after the life altering papal visit, I was watching “Saturday Night Live.” I had been bitten by the music bug 12 years prior, so I always enjoyed the musical guests. It’s after midnight. Sinead O’Connor was the guest musician for this episode. I only knew her for one song. She was singing a different one I didn’t recognize at the time. As the song was coming to an end … something was awry. She started preparing for a change, emphasizing certain words and stirring as if to move into speaking. Then, she pulled out a picture of Pope John Paul II, held it up to the camera in a close up, and tore it up. “Fight the real enemy!” She said, so angrily. I don’t know that I had seen such rage. She blew out several white candles on a table next to her. I could almost smell the wax … but there were no bells.
I and millions of others were dumbfounded. Even though I had retired from the Roman Catholic faith, I still held the Pope in high esteem … even non-Catholics seemed offended. She’s just a musician! She’s an instigator. What’s wrong with her? She’s evil!
My mother, and father of course, upon hearing about it were outraged, as was the catholic population, and seemingly, the majority of the world. The Irish singer had believed there was widespread and systematic child molestation afoot in the church hierarchy I later found out. We couldn’t process it. She was the problem. Her career ended that night. The church, and Pope John Paul II had won. And I didn’t realize I was in the throes of a continuing series of disillusionment, not just with the pope, but with life.
2002. January. In the years after that shocking live incident, the rumors about unspeakable transgressions in the church began arriving like the first heavy drops of rain before the downpour. They were easy enough to chalk up as crying wolf at first. Then the patter increased in intensity and crescendoed in a torrent of reality.
The first major article appears in the Boston Globe which alleges widespread, systematic and ongoing child molestation and cover up in the Roman Catholic Church. Articles kept coming in all of the newspapers now. I remember combing through the photos of the priests … none from Our Mother of Sorrows. Had I dodged a bullet? My two brothers too?
But what about the Christmas Eve midnight masses? The 7 live Christmas trees with blue lights, the giant nativity scene? Infant Jesus, and the little drummer boy I adored? What about the smell of the incense, and the extinguished candles … that waxy smell that always came with the relief that we had completed our duty for the mass. Christmas carols sung at the top of our lungs, while the organist regaled us in a cocoon of harmony.
How could memories of the Stations of the Cross –
“We adore you oh Christ and we bless you. Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”
– be tainted?
How could the blessed Easter baskets, the sacraments – the baptisms, first holy communions, confessions and confirmations – have been tainted with the most vile and detestable evil and hypocrisy perpetrated upon the most innocent and trusting? The world was upside down. My doubts were solidified. At least for the institution, if not the existence of God, that god, a god that would be complicit in not just evil, but perhaps the most insidious and hypocritical evil fathomable. All of the people I ever knew in the church, and my family were good, and unscathed. Was I in some kind of denial? How could this have gone on amid the din of the heavenly bells?
And how could the closest men to god, to whom we confessed our sins, and held up as the models of holiness, who vaulted sermons from high pulpits about virtue and salvation, be the very evil, and maybe even worse, they warned us about?
Still, nothing had implicated the pope, and his place as the holiest, and one of the most powerful and admired human beings on the planet was intact, somehow.
2005. April. After a few years of a prolonged, sad decline in health, God’s second in command gave up the ghost. Four Kings, Five Queens, 70 Presidents and Prime Ministers, and 14 Religious Leaders attended the funeral mass of Pope John Paul II. 4 million mourners gathered around Vatican City and hundreds of millions more tuned in on television. 137 television networks in 81 countries on all five continents carried the event. Attendance and viewing records were set. A cacophony of bells rained upon us, but the sound was more clinical … more secular, though still nostalgic.
I was 36 now. Fully agnostic after an immersion into non-denominational Christianity, and a light exploration of Buddhism and Islam. I gained interesting insights, but nothing satisfied my moral vision of a world of truth and unity. I didn’t tune in to the funeral. The pressures of married and professional life were at center stage, and the philosophic processing of the ultimate meaning was silent but not dormant in the background.
2014. April. I’m 46 and my daughter Ava is 7. Pope John Paul II, after an extensive process and being credited with two miracles, is canonized to sainthood. It’s a four step process, the second, Determination, involves a prescribed “devil’s advocate” who is supposed to raise objections. He made it past this step and the others. Now, he is Saint John Paul II. The fastest beatification on record. In his tenure, he had canonized 111 others to sainthood himself, each of which averaged 2 miracles as well.
I am agnostic about saints and I haven’t personally experienced any miracles. So I wasn’t fazed by his canonization to sainthood. But I did hold reservations about what he might have known and was suspicious of the dichotomy of sainthood and supreme leadership while the worst institutional child abuse raged. It seemed inevitable though, sainthood, as he was still untouchable and adored across the globe. I was now experiencing a disillusionment from the political work I was doing as well; and my agnosticism was spreading into more areas of life as I wouldn’t give up this quest for truth, and wisdom.
2017. February. Our Mother of Sorrows Parish is demolished. When I drove out to see the ruins, the tower of bells was still standing, silent. I would have given anything to hear them one more time. The heavenly ambience might have disintegrated, or it might have transferred into memories and lessons to Ava … I wasn’t sure. Maybe the physical manifestations are only vessels to carry us in the river of consciousness to some higher wisdom. Maybe everything does really connect and everything matters. That day in October 1979, and every moment since time began. And every moment yet to come.
2020. November. A Vatican internal investigation states the Pope John Paull II, now Saint Pope John Paul II, ignored and/or obfuscated numerous reports of child molestation and other abuses in the church. In particular, he turned a blind eye for Theodore E. McCarrick, who he had promoted over the period of the abuse, to the rank of Cardinal. Pope Benedictus and Pope Francis are largely exonerated because they had been “trusting the reports they had received from Pope John Paul II.”
2020. December. The body of the first Polish pope and now Saint John Paul II lies at the foot of the high altar in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. They had to exhume another saint, and former pope, Innocent XI, to make room for the more recent saint, an unprecedented move.
Through ten year old eyes, I only saw perfection, and certainty. My only philosophic ability was obedience and adoration of what my elders adored. I see the good in this … and the bad. I have gratitude and regret.
Through fourteen year old eyes, I no longer saw perfection, and certainty, but I saw something close. I was beginning my quest for truth. My philosophic ability was in its infancy. I see good in the noble intent, and bad in the abandoning of the faith that bound me to my self-sacrificing father, and the loving people who, despite all that happened, never did anything to harm or abuse me. I harbor no resentment for the slaps, taps or ridicule; it feels like love.
Through 18 year old eyes I was arrogant. I knew better than anyone else. I had bigger bolder plans than the church. I see some good in this stage of my development and mostly bad … feeling more than knowing is mostly bad.
Through 23 year old eyes, I saw loyalty, without admiration. Like a pecking order of who is allowed to criticize whom. I saw a villain attacking someone and something sentimental to me even if not central in my life. But underneath it was more confusion … the truth was stirring like barely detectable seismic activity.
Through 33 year old eyes, I saw grotesque things I wanted to deny … but that confirmed some of my doubts. I saw relief and felt gratitude of being spared, and again towards the many good in the church who did not participate in the evil. I saw a dichotomy of good and bad and I was spared the bad, but I had to live with it, and explain it. I saw the need for “philosophic technology” that could advance us past the darkest side of human nature that claims victims by chance, like a reverse lottery.
Through 36 year old eyes, as they laid Pope John Paul II to rest, I saw the world seeing perfection as if they were all 10 years old. I didn’t see perfection. I saw a plausible villain … a plausible hero … and plausible peer … I saw complexity … I saw immense power … enormous adoration.
Through 46 year old eyes, I saw broad spiritual, political, economic and psychological components converging in an active uncertainty for which I was developing a comfort level. It’s ok to not be sure. As long as I am sincere in my search for truth, god will be okay with that and me, perhaps.
My 51 year old eyes need a bit of help to see clearly as my mind’s eye seems sharper than ever. I see Jesus’ teaching, blended with the Buddah, blended with Mohammed, and Yaweh … the native American traditions, Hinduism, and many others that believe nature and love and omnipotence are our collective hero we are both saved by and are to emulate.
And I see Saint John Paul II, a flawed teacher of my flawed teachers teaching a flawed me. But since I learned with his help, to heed the example of Jesus and hate the sin, and love the sinner, I am at peace. Not in exonerating him, but in inheriting the mantle of improving upon him. Yes, I, we, must be better than anyone who came before us, whether they were a pope, saint, or ordinary man. Whether they were confirmed to be a good person or bad … whether we don’t know … regardless, it is incumbent upon us.
Through the process of disillusionment and with the help of friends we are designing a philosophic system that culls the good, and jettisons the bad and builds a more advanced philosophic technology, with the help of all the sinners, saints and popes that have sought their spiritual fortunes for better or for worse before us. And the memory of the heavenly bells lives on … and I am grateful.