I received the sacrament of confirmation when I was thirteen years old, like every other Catholic boy I knew. I remember two things about the preparation for this event: First, I chose “Vincent” as my confirmation name, not for anything related to the life of St. Vincent de Paul, my namesake, but because I liked the alliteration with my last name: Daniel Vincent Vollaro. It sounded cool, and I went with it despite the skepticism of nearly every adult involved in the process, including my parents. Second, there was an intimidating list of questions we were supposed to memorize in anticipation of the Monsignor possibly quizzing us during the ceremony. We drilled these questions extensively as we prepared for the big day. I hated exams. I did not test well. I was not looking forward to possibly bombing in front of the entire congregation.
To make matters worse, many of the questions were about the most opaque and maddening of the three persons in the Blessed Trinity—the Holy Spirit. How do you even wrap your mind around the Holy Spirit, I wondered? Jesus, at least, had a backstory. He was a cinematic leading man, with a dramatic arc and some really memorable lines. God was, well, God—the being than which no greater can be conceived—but also sort of familiar, like a really comfortable pair of jeans or your favorite grandparent.
The Holy Spirit, however, was an enigma, and in the absence of any clear explication of its character, I reverted to Hollywood for a frame of reference, specifically, horror films. I couldn’t help myself. The Pentecost just sounded like a possession story: A group of fervent cult members (Jesus’ disciples) gathers together to pray and a spirit “fills” (possesses) their bodies, making them do strange things. In the hands of a scriptwriter, this could have been the plot of a low-budget 70s horror movie. My friends and I picked up on that connection right away. When the adults who were preparing us for Confirmation were not looking, we would act out scenes from The Exorcist, which we were not supposed to have seen but had anyway, on pirated VHS tapes. We would take turns pretending to be Regan, the demonically possessed twelve-year-old girl in the movie. One of us would sprinkle imaginary holy water on the other, who would then writhe around and moan “It burns” in our best deep-throated Satanic voice. Or my favorite line, where the demon in Regan tells the priest: “Your mother's in here, Karras. Would you like to leave a message?”
Jokes aside, I knew that nothing supernatural was likely to occur at the ceremony because I had heard older boys explain it to me in detail. The worst that could happen was that the Monsignor would ask you a question in front of the whole church and you would stumble over the answer. The older boys played up this scenario with relish. “You’re gonna choke,” they would tease. “Someone always does.”
I had never met a senior member of the Catholic hierarchy before. "Monsignor," I was told, was a step above priest on the ladder but a step below a bishop. When the day finally arrived, I remember feeling a fluttering sensation in my stomach. Nervousness, yes, but also a desire to be exceptionally clean and well dressed and standing up as straight as possible when he walked down the center aisle of the church. Catholics will understand this feeling towards priests. The Church is especially adept at investing its clergy with an aura of power----the vestments, the ceremony of the Mass, the way in which individual men are given autocratic control over their parishes. As children, Catholics are trained to look up and say “Father” respectfully to the men who occupy the lowest rung on the hierarchy. Viewed from this perspective, the entire superstructure of the Catholic Church appears to tower over us, a great edifice made up of Godly men.
Because of the choices I made early in my career, I would meet many priests over the next two decades. My first two teaching jobs were in Catholic high schools. One of these schools was run by a monastery. I earned a master's degree in religious studies at a Catholic University. Priests were everywhere in my life, and they were an eclectic bunch. There were the young seminarians, many of them burning with ultra-conservative zeal, but a handful were cut from the Thomas Merton mold----deeply spiritual, open-minded, and nonjudgement. There were the “boyo priests”----loud and boisterous, always cracking jokes and doing weirdly hyper-masculine things as if they were stuck in a kind of perpetual adolescence. There were deeply closeted priests and openly gay priests. There were workaholic priests who threw themselves unhealthily into their bureaucratic duties. Many of them were exceptional at what they did. Some of my favorite priests were men who had dedicated their lives to study, scholars who had deeply immersed themselves in their subjects in ways that would have been impossible if they lived more conventional lives. There were the overly indulgent priests, the partiers, the ones who ate and drank a lot and looked for opportunities to travel and enjoy their lives. These men were fun to hang out with on the weekends, but I always worried about them when they were not around. Some of the kindest, most empathic men I’ve ever met were priests, but I met a few cruel, venal priests as well. Some of the priests I met were deeply spiritual, but others had shallow spiritual lives or none at all. The priesthood, for them, satisfied more secular needs or quite simply, provided them with a refuge from normative life.
At thirteen, however, I had only met two priests in my entire life. I knew nothing about priests abusing children, and I was fortunate that these two men were not pedophiles. I was luckier than others in this regard.
When I finally saw the Monsignor on the day of my Confirmation, my first thought was, this guy is much shorter than I thought he’d be. He was all smiles and full of energy. A real back slapper. More than anything, though, I was relieved that he did not look me straight in the eyes and ask me a question I could not answer about the Holy Spirit.
That was 43 years ago, and the Monsignor is still alive, though he is in his 90s now. I have had no contact with him since my confirmation, but have followed his rather remarkable career in the news. In 1981, he was promoted to bishop of the new archdiocese of Metuchen. In 2000, he was named archbishop of Washington. A year later, he was named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II. His sturdy Irish name would occasionally surface in the news between these career milestones: attending an interfaith meeting with Fidel Castro or officiating at the funeral services for Senator Edward Kennedy or voting in the Vatican conclave to elect a new pope.
And then, in 2019, he was defrocked after allegations emerged that he had molested a teenage boy in the 1970s, a charge that unleashed a cascade of other allegations of sexual misconduct, including sexual assault, abuse of power, and soliciting sex during confession. This man, Theodore McCarrick, is now the poster child for the Church’s abuse of power and cover-up of sexual abuse. As it turns out, his entire career was predicated on the Church hierarchy looking the other way when repeatedly confronted with evidence of his lack of fitness to be a priest, monsignor, bishop, archbishop, or cardinal.
One such example of looking the other way was his experience at Seton Hall University, where I studied as a graduate student from 1989 to 1993. For decades, he exhibited inappropriate sexual behavior while working with seminarians who lived and worked there. Though I never crossed paths with McCarrick at Seton Hall, I learned recently that he would invite seminarians to a beach house owned by the Diocese of Metuchen where they would discover (wink, wink) that there were not enough beds in the house for all of them. At that point, McCarrick---who was by far the most senior among them in the Church hierarchy---would invite one or two of them to sleep in his bed. There is some question about whether or not McCarrick actually groped some of these men, but in a pattern that should be familiar by now, seminary officials knew about his behavior but kept quiet about it.
By the time I learned the extent of McCarrick's misdeeds, I was already well beyond being shocked by such stories. Like many other American Catholics, I had followed Boston and Pennsylvania priest sex abuse scandals very closely. Also, two of the priests I had worked with in the past have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors. I had once received the sacrament of confession from one of these priests. I had received communion from the hands of the other. If I count my confirmation under the gaze of Theodore McCarrick, three of the seven Catholic sacraments have been tainted for me by men who used their power to abuse children.
That was a long time ago. I am no longer a practicing Catholic, though every Catholic knows that “practicing” vs. “non-practicing“ is a distinction that does not even begin to scratch the surface of an individual’s relationship with the Church. Catholicism leaves a permanent mark that is deeply felt throughout our lives. Many self-described “ex-“ or “recovering” Catholics are especially adept at articulating the complexities of their relationship to the Church—the enduring force of its sexual repression on their lives, for instance, or the rush of good feelings they get when they drive by a church, or the flutters of shame and guilt that they long ago internalized, or the awareness of a moral compass or social consciousness that was the legacy of their Catholic upbringing. Whether these long-term effects are described in positive or negative terms, they are real and enduring.
I never felt the need to formally exit the Catholic Church. My feelings about Catholicism have always been complicated, so it was easy for me to live inside of a kind of limbo, without strong feelings one way or the other, even as I have learned terrible things about the clergy over the past twenty years. My ambivalence may have been aided by the formal education I received in religious history and theology, which allows me to speak abstractly and intellectually about the Church, to hold it at a safe distance. It wasn’t until I became a parent that I felt compelled to make hard choices about the religion I was born into. When my daughter, who was baptized a Catholic, was old enough to receive the sacrament of First Holy Communion, my wife and I had to decide whether or not to enroll her in the preparatory classes. After a series of fraught and at times agonizing discussions, we decided not to move forward with the classes. Both of us had had mostly positive associations with the Church when we were children. The problem was that we were not church-going people and we did not want to force our daughter to do something that we were not willing to fully support in our own lives. It was a question of authenticity.
But for me, the priest abuse scandals sealed my decision. Bottom line: I did not trust my daughter’s safety to the care of the Church and its representatives.
It would be too easy to end on this note of moral certitude. I won’t do that. My daughter will be safe from abusive priests, true, but she will also be missing out on something that I had as a child. As a writer, I owe an incalculable debt to the Catholic imagination. The Church offered up an entire universe of great books, stories, and mythology. From an early age, this vast symbolic language fired my imagination. I realized that the stories and myths could be reshaped into new forms, folded into my own narratives, or rewritten with better endings (At the same time, I discovered that I was mostly immune to the orthodoxy; in fact, I took a little thrill from thinking heretical thoughts and sometimes speaking them aloud). On some level, stories were just stories, whether they were religious or not. Knowing this---feeling it deeply---opened up an entirely new relationship between me and religion, the one enjoyed by many artists.
My big epiphany about orthodoxy and art occurred when I took a road trip to New Mexico in my 30s. I was trolling through art galleries in Taos on morning and happened upon this tiny second-story studio of an artist whose name I have long forgotten. His entire studio was crammed with paintings of the Virgin Mary, many of them depicting the Assumption, an event in which Mary is taken bodily to heaven. These paintings were both reverently Catholic and imbued with an inexplicably heterodox power. It was as if the artist had severed Mary from the influence of two thousand years of theological interpretations and transfigured her into an as-yet-unnamed goddess figure from a recently rediscovered lost religion. I asked the artist if he was Catholic, and he replied “not anymore; not really.” I understood immediately the liminal space he was inhabiting. Being Catholic—practicing it and proclaiming it as an identity—was not important to him. What mattered were the creative possibilities his unique encounter with Catholicism afforded him. He now inhabited a space that was beyond orthodoxy, obedience, and doctrine---beyond belief itself. He had absorbed the tradition and made it into something that was entirely his own, something new and original. This was, to my eyes, the absolute pinnacle of what religion can achieve in a person.
Just last week, Theodore McCarrick was formally charged with assaulting that boy back in the 1970s, and though he ascended almost as high as a person can go in the Church hierarchy in his lifetime, he is not the pinnacle of anything worthwhile in the human experience. He is a tragic figure whose entire life has been revealed as a farce. He represents the planet-sized ball of awfulness that is the systemic abuse of children by priests and the Church's massive coverup campaign. But there is also that artist in Taos and his studio full of Assumption art. When I think of that, I am reminded of some of the ineffably beautiful things that also reside in Catholicism, if you first strip away the hierarchy and the patriarchy the terrible crimes to look carefully for them with, as Ralph Waldo Emerson called it, the "integrity of your own mind."