Saturday, January 29, 2011

I Remember John Paul II: The New Orleans Visit

Have I ever shared my encounter--loosely speaking--with John Paul II?  I don't think so.  Since it may offer comic relief to any reader who may, like me, be struggling with the announcement of the impending beatification of the previous pope, I'll do so now.


John Paul came to New Orleans soon after I had taken my first full-time teaching position in a Catholic university theology department.  I was teaching at Xavier University, an historically black Catholic school in New Orleans.  I was, of course--as with every gay or lesbian faculty, staff, or administrative person at the school--discreetly closeted as I taught theology.  There was (and still is, in most Catholic workplaces) no option except that, for gay faculty, staff, or administrators--and for gay students.

And John Paul was, of course, on my radar screen, since what he seemed to stand for as the chief pastor of the church in which I was a theologian was not, to put the point nicely, my well-being as a human being made gay by God, who had lived some 17 years in a strictly closeted, self-denying, but spiritually and humanly enriching monogamous relationship with another gay Catholic.  We weren't out even to ourselves, sadly and shockingly, and, I feel certain, to the harm of others with whom we interacted.  And so, because I was teaching theology in an institution that did not seem to desire my human well-being, I sometimes had nightmares about the pope.

Really.  I didn't dream of John Paul II the superstar flashing his gleaming smile at me.  I dreamt, instead, of John Paul II the grim and angry gay-basher, chasing me with his crozier held high to bash me on the head, as I ran through the rooms of my grandmother's house, trying desperately to find the attic.  Which was dark and hidden away, and where I might escape the papal wrath coming down on my head.   I did have such dreams.  I really did dream these scenarios.  With precisely those menacing details.  As I started my career as a Catholic theologian.

So, yes, I remember John Paul.  And John Paul meant something to me.  When he came to New Orleans in 1987, he came on the heels of that ugly document published during his papacy the year before, under the authority of the current pope, which coined a new term for me and all brother and sisters like me: "objectively disordered," "intrinsically disordered."  In our very natures.  In how God has fashioned us.  In how and whom we love.

Which made teaching theology in a Catholic university, and coming to terms with  who God makes and wants me to be, rather difficult.  To say the least.

And as I dream and as I begin teaching theology in a Catholic school, word comes down that the pope will be visiting.  Because the university is near a major avenue along which the papal entourage will parade--because the local Catholic seminary sits at a choice spot on that avenue--we quickly see the effects of the upcoming papal visit, as the city spiffs up the avenue.  As it spiffs up the face of the avenue, the only face the pope will see as he rides down the avenue.

There are some symbolic stone lions, for instance, at a strategic point on the avenue.  They're painted bright gold, to shine in the sun and catch the papal eye.  The fa├žades--but not the backs and sides--of many of the grand mansions that have seen better days along the avenue are given new coats of paint.  To give the papal eye something restful and decent to look at as he parades down the avenue.

In our little African-American ghetto off to the side of all this fanfare, many of us at Xavier talk among ourselves about what the pope will not see.  He won't see the conspicuous, shocking poverty of the neighborhoods--of the black neighborhoods--just off the spiffed-up grand avenue on either side of the procession route.  As he eats on the gilded china that our local newspaper tells us is being specially ordered for his grand meal at the local seminary (or was the meal at Brennan's, one of the top-end old Creole restaurants in the city?; I think it may have been there), he may encounter some local African Americans when they serve him the meal.  He won't otherwise, though, until he comes to Xavier.

And we are involved in our own spiffing-up process, too, of course, at Xavier.  We're preparing for the papal visit with all our might and with our limited resources.  But in the midst of the hustle and bustle, no one in the school's administration thinks to inform the rest of us how to dress for the papal visit.

For Catholics born and bred, this is evidently information born and bred in the bones.  For one who has converted to Catholicism later in his life--which is to say, for me--it's information that is not self-evident.  And so, when everyone else shows up in their Sunday best, in elegant black suits and gowns, I, who have always been fashion-challenged at best, totally out of it fashionwise at worst, arrive dressed in a bright purple flowered Hawaiian shirt and white cotton pants.  With sandals.

It's outside, for God's sake.  And it's New Orleans--hot and steamy.  Who knew that you dress up in a suit and tie when the pope comes to town?  

So I spend the entire time of the papal visit wanting to shrink as far into the crowd as I can, wanting the ground to open up and swallow me.  But listening with amusement to a colleague who has never told me he is gay--though I know, of course, and he knows that I know--whisper snappy observations in my ear about other strictly closeted gay faculty members who have come to the event with their boy- or girlfriends.  All in proper black suits.  As we pretend to be the kind of place that sings the Angelus and Salve Regina every day.  And in Latin, no less.

And then it's all over and I walk across the street to the old World War II army barracks that house my office and those of other members of the theology department and the English faculty, to discover that, while the pope was on campus and we were singing, the ceiling in my office fell.  Symbolic, some would surely say.

But all to the good, since it means that someone will finally clean the building a little bit, and will perhaps be able to deal with the source of the rat droppings that we all find every day on our office floors and office furniture.  And will perhaps also deal with the needs of a homeless person who is clearly sleeping in the unsecured building, though we never see him or her.  Only signs of the night's occupant every morning when we come to work.

So the papal visit was worth something, in the end.  The grand avenue near our school got a face lift.  And some of us got cleaner, somewhat renovated office space out of the visit.  Solely because my ceiling caved in while we pretended to be the sort of Catholics who intone the Angelus and Salve Regina in Latin everyday.  While wearing our Sunday best, sober black, in the humid heat of a late-summer day in New Orleans.

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