Thursday, October 01, 2015

On Not Smoking the Pope Dope

got the T shirts, didn't go....

Last Thursday, I happened to be in New York City as final preparations were underway for the arrival of Pope Francis. I didn't see any souvenirs, T shirts or banners, but as I made my way toward Penn Station, the streets were being cordoned off for what I imagine was a motorcade to happen in a few hours. The same day, my stepmother was transferred to Cooper Hospital in Camden for some tests. My immediate thought was: How will we get in and out of Camden this weekend? The city was to become an access point for folks walking in to see the Pontiff.

As it turned out, there were few problems. Camden was pretty much deserted, and I heard on NPR that only 250 of 8,000 parking spaces had been sold. Furthermore, just a small fraction of the day's reserved train tickets had been claimed, and there were still rooms available as well. It occurred to me that possibly, just maybe, the local Catholics were not smoking the Pope Dope.

Camden is a city that sits directly across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Notorious for its high crime rate and urban blight, it stubbornly resists efforts at renewal. It has one of the highest rates of poverty in the nation.

I grew up here, ten or 15 miles from Camden. And yet, I can count the number of times that I've driven through its streets. So when, upon making the trip to the hospital on Saturday, I was routed through its residential section, I was unfamiliar with this town I have lived near for most of my life.

I came upon a mural. Hands, reaching up from bodies submerged or buried. People are drowning here. Calling for help. I saw people, on stoops and sidewalks, people of color, children, teenagers, old people. I knew the Pope was right across the river being shown the gleaming and glorious parts of Philly, and mostly white faces. It struck me then that this was where he needed to visit.

I grew up with Catholics. Italian, Irish, Polish and German Catholics. Some were just first or second generation Americans. But I can testify that even in the 1960s and 70s, those Catholics were not adhering to Catholic teaching. Maybe they felt guilty about it, but birth control, pre-marital sex, and even abortion were not off the table. I used to joke about how many times I might have gotten into someones confessions. Meanwhile, my father forbade us to go out with Catholics. So, Catholicism was something I didn't understand.

But I lived, for almost 40 years, in a world that did not acknowledge Camden, that didn't have to. When I reached the hospital, its gleaming plaza and the surrounding blocks of gentrified row homes were a stark contrast with the blighted buildings I had just passed.

Cooper Plaza, Camden

There were many things that troubled me about the Papal visit. But the one that may have disturbed me the most was the number of liberal and progressive people who expressed unqualified delight over the visit.

I watched with growing concern as he skimmed over the very serious question of child sexual abuse. This scourge is rampant, not only in the church, but throughout society, and with the Pope's influence, it might become possible for change to occur. As is, pedophiles are nearly free to go on with their abuse until enormous damage has been done. This is especially true when. as is often the case, the victims are in the perpetrator's family. A father, step-father, or close relative has almost carte-blanche to sexually abuse children in his care, and our so-called Child Protective Services look the other way. I have first hand experience of this, and of the lack of will to change it.

I couldn't believe that he canonized Junipero Serra. Where were the Native Americans who should have been protesting this? Here's a rather generous spin: Click here.

And , yes, there were attempts made by Native American rights groups, but where was the media? Click here.

Next, his refusal to acknowledge the role of women in leadership positions continues. The women priests who protested are courageous and determined. Two of them were ordained to the Priesthood at the UU Church of Lexington, KY while I served there. Click Here.

So, finally, when one of these moments came to light, one that has not been orchestrated for the press, but instead held in secret, people started back-pedaling. I'm guessing some may have gone back and erased their Pope-posts on facebook. Even I, who had remained skeptical and yet happy for the progress Francis represented, was stunned to hear about this. And yet, if we stop and think: the truth was there before us all along.

It actually helped me. Once I heard about Kim Davis, and the clandestine meeting, I decided something. I had been studying the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement. I was thinking about Camden, and Newark, and Jersey City, and asking myself how these balkanized cities are any better than the Indian reservations or internment camps or Jewish ghettos. Mostly, it became crystal clear how the lies, myths and half-truths we'd bought into have perpetuated all of this. It is hard for me to disentangle this from the institutional church, because this, along with family and school, is how myth, or truth, get learned. I'd been thinking a great deal about how change comes about, about power, systems, and organizations. I realized that I am completely over doing things the nice, kind, conciliatory way (those who know me will wonder when I ever did them this way.) I think the idea of revolution has merit, and an older person with less to lose has a part to play.

Black Lives Matter

This isn't about Francis at all. He may be a very kind man, or whatever you wish to believe. But anyone who steps into that role is bearing the weight, the burden, of the Catholic Church and its centuries of sins. I respect people (like many nuns whom I love and admire, or the woman priests) who stay in the church and wait and pray for its betterment. And I think it's also fine that he visit here. I am not a Catholic. Perhaps Catholics have reasons to be hopeful, or joyful, at signs of progress. To me, the stakes are high, and time is growing short.

But I admit that I am disheartened by how easily Americans allow themselves to be swept away by surface things, so much so that they fail to examine the underlying implications, the residual damage, or the potential left unmet. Yes, the Pope's visit was beautifully orchestrated, and everyone, Catholic and non, was able to see his finest qualities.

Interestingly, I am probably one liberal whose opinion of Francis did not change when the Kim Davis debacle broke. I never saw the man as infallible; I assumed he'd probably been somehow duped or misled into it; and yet it neither revealed him to be a homophobe nor did it turn out that he was indeed not opposed to what Kim Davis does. He is still, to me, the most humane Pope, and therefore, the one who has an enormous opportunity. 

We can do better than jump to conclusions and we must. We are being bamboozled in so many ways, and the future of this planet and its people depends upon our thinking clearly, reflectively, and acting courageously.

Camden, NJ.