“Preaching to bishops,” a long-dead churchman told me years ago, “is like farting at skunks. You’ll win some battles, but lose the war.” All the more so, no doubt, the higher you go. His Holiness, Their Eminences and Excellencies—“Don’t cross ’em,” the curate cautioned; “those boyos aren’t to be tampered with.”
Among the blessings of my work as a funeral director is that it has put me in earshot of the reverend clergy trying to make sense of senseless things: the man who kills his wife, their poodle, and then himself; a mother who drowns her baby then does her nails; the teenager with the broken heart and loaded pistol; the tumors and emboli, flus and tsunamis, deadly contagions and misadventures—the endless renditions of the Book of Job. When someone shows up—priest or pastor, rabbi or imam, venerable master or fellow traveler—to stand with the living and the dead and speak into the gaping maw of the unspeakable, I know I am witnessing uncommon courage and my perennially shaken faith is emboldened by theirs.
“Behold, I show you a mystery,” they always say. They are balm and anointing, these men and women of God, frontline infantry and holy corpsmen in the wars long waged between faith and fear.
Which is why the recent ecclesiastical mischief by rear- and upper-echelon sorts seems cartoonish, unseemly, so lacking in gravitas by comparison. The papal poaching of “traditionalist” Anglicans (to wit: those put off by female clerics and homosexuals) is but one sup of thin gruel boiled up lately by the hierarchies. Another is the carping of Archbishop Raymond Burke (late of St. Louis, latterly installed in the Vatican) at Cardinal Seán O’Malley’s generous opening of the church’s arms to the corpse and people of the late Edward Kennedy—an epic senator and sinner, self-confessed. Then there is its decidedly downsized version (for mid-careerists): the Right Rev. Thomas Tobin’s harangue on the sacramental options open to the late senator’s son, Patrick, who votes with his caucus on matters of civil law. “Erratic” is the word His Excellency used to describe the congressman’s conduct—twisting the prick of insinuation, as we Irish-American Catholics so deftly do.
In Ireland, the shoes of the fishermen are on the other foot. Coincident with the worst flooding in memory, budget woes and recession, and nationwide public-sector strikes, the report of Judge Yvonne Murphy on priestly abuses in the Dublin archdiocese is not so much a reiteration of old news about pedophiles as it is a stark indictment of the up-line of hierarchs who colluded with civil authorities to provide cover and protection for such criminals. Some bishops, it turns out, behaved like “company guys,” obstructing inquiry, hushing complaints, covering the tracks of abusers, protecting the interests of the world’s oldest merger-and-acquisition firm from any whiff of scandal. Their calculated malfeasance has done permanent damage to the faithful and to faithful priests who will spend the rest of their lives trying to repair trusts they never had a hand in breaking. The Murphy Report and the stonewalling from Rome have occasioned calls for the removal of the papal nuncio, for the immediate sacking of bishops (four subsequently resigned), for the removal of public schools from diocesan sponsorship, and for the church to be once and forever disentangled from the civic life of holy Ireland.
While back at home, the Vatican’s investigation of American women religious makes many of us who were well schooled in faith and morals by nuns even more devoutly lapsed than we’ve been for years. Trying to retain the imitation of Christ our faith calls us to while removing ourselves from the endless contretemps and imbroglios of the church’s princely caste is becoming more the mug’s game than ever.
The church is already served by a “priesthood” of women, gay bishops, and good Catholics who have long ignored the preachments of the old boys on sexual matters. To be blind to what is while proclaiming what isn’t is not faith. It is denial. The church’s people have moved along, even if the prelates won’t.
Bringing the dead and their families into church is something I’ve been doing all my life, first with my father, then with my brothers and sisters, now with my sons and nieces and nephews. It is our family’s thing: what we’ve been “called” to do. Not by voices from on high or burning bushes, but by human voices, in the middle of the night, the middle of dinner, the middle of otherwise uneventful days. They call for help when there is trouble. And I know when the clergy who meet us in the journey—whether male or female, gay or straight, celibate or sexually active, whether robed in talliths or white chasubles, Brooks Brothers suits or business casual, reciting from Bible or Torah, Qur’an or Zen koan, with incense, icon, or ancient liturgy—I know they bring a brave and sacred narrative to bear on the existential questions: Is that all there is? Can it happen to me? Are we all alone? What comes next?
In earshot of such powerful medicines, the high-churchy intrigues and inquisitions, the connivance of bishops seems a waste of God’s precious gifts of grace and time.