Periodic Confessional: C-H….C-H. What’s missing?
I confess I am not a practicing Catholic. This has been the case for nearly 25 years, and most of the time it’s hardly worth mentioning. But when you were raised Catholic, it tends to pop up now and then.
Over the past couple months, it’s come up because my nephew who will be getting Confirmed, asked me to be his sponsor. I said yes immediately because my nephew – who is also my godson – asked me. I knew there were probably going to be some awkward moments to come from it, but the way I saw it was this. The church had explained to my nephew what a sponsor should do. He thought of me, ran the idea past his parents, and they said “Great choice!” or “that’s fine” or “this should be interesting”. Something. I don’t know, but he called me and with their blessing, asked, and that was good enough for me.
Things got hairy almost immediately. My nephew handed the phone over to my brother, who laid out the situation for me. He told me this church is a little…zealous. They don’t want just anybody being sponsors. They want practicing Catholics. And there’s a form.
Yes, a form. And they don’t want you to just sign the form that states that you understand the responsibilities of a sponsor and that you’re a practicing Catholic. They want the church where you’re a member to affix their seal.
“Affix a seal? Affix? Seal? Churches have seals?”
Yes, but don’t worry about any of that, he told me. He told the deacon neither of us would be turning in that form, and he wanted that understood and he didn’t want me to be harassed about it. Looking back, the two people in that conversation walked away from the meeting with different impressions.
A few weeks later, my brother called and asked if I remembered that form he had sent me. “Yup. I still have it in my email somewhere.” Well, I’m going to need to turn one in for you. “That’s no problem. I don’t mind.” You don’t have to sign it. I’m just going to turn in a form with your name on it so they can file it away. “OK.”
The next time I spoke to my brother, he mentioned that the form not having a seal raised some questions. If it was OK with me, he was going to draft a letter on my behalf discussing my relationship with the Catholic Church. In his conversations with the church, it had come up that this situation was “jeopardizing” my nephew’s ability to be confirmed with a sponsor.
Now, let’s have a little sidebar from this story. To this point, my brother had just tried to deflect any uncomfortable situations or conversations from me. He didn’t want to put me in a situation where I felt confronted about where I stood with my faith. He also didn’t want to put me in a situation where I felt compelled to lie on his or my nephew’s behalf. In these efforts, I wasn’t aware of a few things.
I wasn’t aware of what he had said about my relationship with the church. I also wasn’t aware of what I might say that could lead to my exclusion from my nephew’s Confirmation. So, to avoid putting him in a tight spot where my letter conflicted with things he had said or triggered some tripwire that would blow up my chances to be there for my nephew, I agreed to let him draft that letter. I would take a look at it before he sent it, and hopefully that would be that.
He drafted a nice letter explaining that I was raised as Catholic as Catholic can be, that the priest I grew up with could vouch for me, that I had drifted from the church, but that this experience with sponsoring had caused me to re-evaluate my faith in a positive way.
It was a good letter. Here’s the funny thing. There have been numerous sponsor meetings in this process and each one requires an hour-and-a-half drive by me up to my brother’s so we can go (he’s sponsoring a friend of my nephew). On those lengthy drives up, as it became clear my lapse of Catholicism was causing a problem, I mentally prepared to be confronted by either the deacon running the catechism classes or the priest of the church. The story I had prepared with was remarkably similar to my brother’s ghostwritten letter.
That made me feel a little better for letting my brother write the letter. I also enjoyed how much we think alike.
The day after he sent the letter, I texted him. “Am I excommunicated yet?” He said he hadn’t heard from them, but it would be taken care of one way or another that weekend. The following Monday, the priest called my brother at work and strong-armed him a bit into giving up my phone number. He wanted to talk to me about this letter I had sent. Furious, my brother called to give me a heads up the phone call would be coming.
“He’s for sure going to call?”
Oh yeah. My brother said he was going to send me some links for preparation because judging from the questions the priest had asked him, whether I had a Catholic wedding was going to come up. I explained to my brother that at this point, my main concern was not making the situation uncomfortable for my nephew. So I would talk to the priest, take my medicine, and get this behind us.
A couple hours later, while I was at work, he called me. I saw the number come up and thought, “Oh screw this. I’m not having this conversation at work.” I let it go to voicemail, thinking I’d just call him back after work. As things worked out, I ended up calling him two days later and got his voicemail. Three days passed with no return call and my brother and I exchanged some jokes about maybe having outlasted his persistence. After all, the Confirmation was less than two weeks away.
Since this is how my life always works, he called again almost immediately after that exchange with my brother. This time, I took a deep breath and took it. He was wondering if I could meet that same evening. He’d prefer to have this conversation in person rather than over the phone. (In my head: “Jesus CHRIST, this guy!”)Thankfully, I could not because I had an evening meeting for work.
“Well, when will that meeting be finished?”
“Do you need to get home right away after that?”
Screaming OH MY GOD! to myself, I stammered something about wanting to see my wife before she goes to bed and having two dogs and a new puppy that were probably driving her crazy.
“OK, how about Monday?”
“Monday, let’s see, St. Patrick’s Day,” I threw that in hoping he had plans he had forgotten about, “no I should be free.”
“Good, I’ll call you to set that up.”
I had a seven mile run to do that evening, and that gave me a lot of time to obsess over how I was going to handle this. My entire family is averse to confrontation (to a fault, many would tell you, including me) and inconveniencing others so my natural inclination was to just say what he wanted to hear until the problem went away. If he wanted to scold me or whatever, I could take it.
At some point, though, I realized this was not the person I wanted to be. I didn’t want to weasel my way out of this so everybody could feel good about how it turned out. I was going to answer his questions honestly, and if he balked, I was going to tell him in no uncertain terms that I WAS going to be at that Confirmation. If he wanted to do something to not allow it, he’d better be sure to bring his biggest altar boys.
This is how confrontational conversations go in my head. Me being a badass with a nice touch of humor. Some day, I might actually say something that takes place in one of these mental conversations.
As my run wrapped up, I decided I was going to find a happy medium between allowing myself to be browbeaten and threatening physical confrontation. When I next saw my brother, I gave him a heads up as to how I was going to approach the conversation. He loved the line about bringing the biggest altar boys and was wholeheartedly behind me keeping my dignity and answering any questions that came up honestly.
With this blessing from my brother, I achieved a certain calm about the pending meeting. I still prepared some zingers in case things got confrontational, but I felt pretty good about how this was going to turn out. The priest called me Sunday morning at 10:30.
“I hope I’m not interrupting you on this Sunday morning.”
I SO badly wanted to go, “Father! I’m at church! Can this wait?” But I resisted and went with the truth, that I was just stepping out to go get some breakfast. He explained that he wasn’t going to be available Monday and asked about whether I was available that same day.
I thought to myself, “In what world do people drop everything to go get yelled at by a priest?”
“I need to get a pretty long run in today, Father, and I have some St. Patrick’s Day plans with my family.” Again, sticking with the truth, but so so grateful not to have to give up my Sunday for this conversation. “But I’ll tell you what. I have some comp time at work available this coming week, so if you can get downstate again any time next week, I can get off work at 1:30 to meet with you.”
“Oh, that would be great. Can you meet tomorrow then? Can I buy you a coffee somewhere?”
We agreed to meet in the town where I work at 2:00.
He showed up at the local Panera (a sin in itself, going with Panera, but I figured “who gets yelled at in a Panera?”) at 2:15. I was encouraged to see he didn’t feel the need to bring along a young priest.
After we greeted one another, I waited while he bought a coffee. I kept telling myself that there was no way, a week before the ceremony, he was going to ask me not to be there. I mostly believed it.
When he sat down, we pretty much got right down to business. Among other questions, he asked me about my progression from being a practicing Catholic to wherever my faith stood now. He asked if I felt my conscience piqued when I was asked to be a sponsor.
I took a deep breath and explained that the key factor to me accepting the responsibility was my nephew asking. That was the important thing to me. I told him there had been stretches in my life where I would have called myself an atheist, but last year, I had gone through a rough patch where at the same time a dear cousin had died, my mom had told me about a growth on her palate that the doctor believed was malignant.
At one point, I felt overwhelmed and found myself asking, pleading, that my mom’s cancer had not spread beyond the small growth and that she would come out of surgery okay. It wasn’t intended as a prayer at the time, but it did later occur to me that I was asking this of something or someone. I was fine calling it God, and that re-established belief was one of the things that allowed me to say “yes” when asked to be my nephew’s sponsor. I told him I doubted I would have said “yes” if I considered myself an atheist at the time I was asked (my one lie during this conversation).
Furthermore, since I could say I believed in God, I was willing to keep an open mind to returning to the Catholic Church. I was not foolish enough, I explained, to think I was impervious to changing my mind over the next fifty or so years*.
*However, unlikely this seems to me now, this was actually the truth. My Catholic upbringing and schooling has never left me, has never been all that far away, in fact. That’s despite some deal of effort at getting some distance at certain times. It doesn’t seem impossible that things could turn in such a way that I’d turn back to it. I shudder to think of what would cause that, but it doesn’t seem impossible. I didn’t tell the priest any of this, but felt it was worth stating.
There it was. I had laid it all out there. Not quite that eloquently, and there was more stammering and clarifications on statements I thought could be taken the wrong way, but that was the gist of it. He seemed to take it well, without seeming judgmental.
He moved on to a bit about what it meant to be a practicing Catholic and brought up my having been married. He mentioned that my brother had thought it was presided over by a Justice of the Peace. I clarified that it was actually a UU Minister (I didn’t mention no Justices of the Peace were available), but same difference in his eyes, I’m pretty sure.
He went on for a LONG time about the importance of getting a Catholic wedding, what that would entail, and how it was the only way I could regain good standing in the Catholic Church should I want to return. Well, that and the sacrament of Reconciliation, of course. Most of the time he was talking I was trying to get a bead on where this was going. He wasn’t seriously going to expect me to agree to get married again in the Catholic Church, was he? He interrupted my internal dialog with a “Well, what do you think?”
Oh shit, I thought. Did I miss a question? “About getting married again in the Catholic Church?”
“Well, just your thoughts, in general.”
“Um, where I’m at right now, I can’t sit here and tell you I’m going to have another marriage ceremony through the Catholic Church. I can reiterate that I can keep an open mind.”
He laughed and said he wasn’t expecting any decisions right now. From there, we talked a little more and finally got down to brass tacks. Would I be my nephew’s sponsor? He said that if I were a member of the local community and it were better known that I wasn’t a practicing Catholic, he might struggle more to allow me to be my nephew’s sponsor. But as things were, only he and my family would know, he would embrace my being there for my nephew.
“There it is,” I thought, simultaneously relieved and disappointed I wouldn’t need to use the altar boys line.
His only request, since I wasn’t a practicing Catholic, was that I did not accept the Eucharist during Communion. I explained that I was brought up Old School and had been taught that you could not accept the host with a mortal sin on your soul. Since I would not be going to confession before next week, I would be honoring that belief, as I always had.
Soon after, we said our goodbyes. I texted my wife and my brother to let them know I was finished. My brother called and I explained I was “in” and the only stipulation was I couldn’t take Communion, which I easily agreed to.
“Really?” he asked. Realizing the ambiguity of the question, he added, “That’s all it took?” I re-hashed the conversation and he apologized profusely for my having to go through the experience. I told him it was no big deal and I didn’t mind. Considering what I had prepared for – scolding, excommunication – it went exceedingly well. I told him I’d see him at the rehearsal and we hung up.
Then I called my wife. “How’d it go?” she asked.
“Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is I get to be my nephew’s sponsor.” Silence.
“What’s the bad news?”
“The bad news is we have to get married again in the Catholic Church.”
She laughed. “Wait, you ARE kidding, right?”
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