Long Island Topic
Ritual and Remembrance

By Paul Mariani
February 16, 2003

Just as many of us - Catholics and non-Catholics alike - feared, new allegations of sexual misconduct and cover-up by members of the church continue to surface. It's been an especially tough time for believing Catholics, who can't help noticing the further emptying of pews in our parishes each Sunday morning, or the varying looks of anger, dismay and betrayal on the faces of fellow Catholics whenever clerical abuse is brought up. Though the spotlight was mainly on Boston last year, many of us thought it was just a matter of time before allegations surfaced in other places. Now the light is focused on Long Island, where I grew up 50 years ago.

As Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota released a grand jury report claiming that the Diocese of Rockville Centre failed abuse victims, I thought back on the scandals in Boston and Springfield and the uneasy sense of recognizing some of the names that have made the papers: priests directly or by association connected with clerical sexual abuse of minors. To me, these are not predators going about in the guise of priests, as the media has insinuated. Rather, these are priests who have violated their vows of celibacy and the trust we give to them. I think there's a real difference.

All my life I've been what they call a practicing Catholic, proud of my faith, proud of almost all the many religious leaders I've been privileged to know. Even where their names are lost, I have fond memories of the priests I knew in Levittown and Mineola, parishes where my brother and I served each Sunday and often at the 7 a.m. Mass on weekdays, reciting the Latin responses - Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meum - to a handful of blue-haired grandmothers ready to begin their days or men in coveralls getting ready to go off to their jobs delivering oil or driving buses.

I'm the oldest of seven, and in the mid-1950s I went to Chaminade High. My father ran a Sinclair gas station back then, located across from the county courthouses in Mineola, in a half-mythical time when gasoline was just 25 cents a gallon. Thinking back, I didn't question how it was that my parents could afford to send me to a private Catholic school, and it wasn't until much later that my mother let drop that Father Hagen had helped pay my tuition out of his own meager salary. He was a tough little Irishman, as we all knew, but he performed his duties quietly and even heroically, going to his reward long ago, and I will always remember him for his generosity and example.

And there were others: Father Delaney, who let me babysit the rectory when he had to be away - this was in the days before answering machines. And the priests I knew when I was studying for the priesthood with the Marianists up in Beacon, N.Y., along the majestic Hudson. And the priests and brothers at Manhattan College, who gave so unselfishly of themselves. And the many Jesuits - Father J.J. Bresnahan at Gloucester among them, and Father Larry Corcoran in Weston, and others, who led me step-by-step through the spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola. And Fathers Ed Keyes and Johnny Johnson in the Cursillo Movement, and so many other priests, whose names I have forgotten.

The thought then of a priest abusing his position as our pastor - our shepherd - was for me unthinkable. I have met several priests whose names have surfaced in the Boston scandals, one of them I thought I knew quite well. At first, I wanted only to put distance between myself and them. But they have yet to be charged with anything formally, and I still hold - though it's difficult at moments - that one is innocent until proven otherwise. Besides, as much as we Catholics respect our clergy, we've never believed that they constitute the church. We're all part of the church - laypersons and clergy alike - trying to go the journey we all have to go.

Yes, I'm troubled - angry even - at what has happened. But the church is bigger than them, and I refuse to let these men rob me of the consolations of my faith.

The daily round of things - the Hours, ritual, likewise - sustain me. And so, at this time of the year I rise in the dark, often grumbling, get dressed, part my hair, climb into my tomblike car and drive the seven miles north to Turners Falls, much as I rode my bike to Mass 50 years ago down on Long Island, to once more attend the 7 a.m. Mass. I do this because I need it, because I need spiritual nourishment even more than I need my morning oatmeal or bagel. I know this, because I used to try to do it my way, as if I were a law unto myself, which I wasn't, and failed spectacularly not once but over and over. Usually there's no great revelation vouchsafed me. But there's the profound peace that never fails to come with the taking of the bread and wine in the Eucharist. There it is, offered to all who come, no questions asked.

And, if the truth be told, I find myself praying for both the victims and for the priests who hurt them, and for our church - that we can heal the rift and rise beyond the present scandal, and get on with the work that needs to be done, of feeding the hungry and solacing those who need solace.

As a Catholic I believe Christ himself is in that Eucharist, and that he comes to us to make us more whole, more what we might fully be if we would only let God work through us. He had a dream for us, God's beloved, and spoke of it on the night before he died. It's something we remember in every Mass we celebrate. And it is a celebration, in spite of the fact that it was the same night on which he was betrayed - by one of his own. It was the same night that Peter and the others who had followed him from the beginning suddenly scattered like shot dogs before the powers of this world.

Just now it is the members of the church hierarchy who are implicated in the betrayal of the innocent, many of them adults who have had to live with that betrayal seared into their minds and bodies. But we know - don't we? - that we've all betrayed God, some more, some less, each in our own special way. Which is why I need the church - and its many good priests and religious and laypeople - more than ever. I have to believe that after this Good Friday there can come again an Eastering, if - as the prophets and Christ himself warned us over and over again - we will only turn back to God again, because, really, what other option do we have?

Paul Mariani, a professor of English at Boston College, is the author most recently of "Thirty Days: On Retreat with the Exercises of St. Ignatius."

Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.