Updated: August 21, 2013 6:04AM
I’ve had a troubling obsession with my Catholic religion ever since I was a kid.
Between the six altar boys in our family serving Mass every week, and at least one of us always preparing for a first communion, confession or confirmation, religious affiliation seemed at least as important as membership in Davy Crockett’s fan club, growing up in the 1950s.
My own participation was dutiful, if reluctant. For it was no secret that I was the worst behaved child in our household, the undisputed champion of fighting, disobeying, talking back. So even at the tender age of 9, I felt like a hypocrite while devoutly folding my hands in prayer, the same hands that had earlier stolen the loose change from my mother’s purse (sorry, Mom).
Ironically, it may have been my childhood mischief and mounting guilt that led me to ramp up my religious commitment, sending me to St. Joseph’s Franciscan seminary in Westmont at age 14. A sinner like myself might be able to save his soul if he could just get a job on the inside.
Predictably, that plan was doomed from the start. The same “high spiritedness” that made me a trouble maker in the McGrath home got me booted from St. Joe’s. I personally didn’t think that keeping a transistor radio inside the cutout pages of my Bible, so that I could listen to the White Sox after lights out, meant that I was incorrigible. But they had their own rules.
During that time period, however, something interesting happened: I discovered that the adults — the priests and brothers who were our teachers and surrogate parents — were a lot like me. Not worse. Just human.
The ceremonies, the robes, the pomp — it was all mostly for show, rather like the way I used to fold my hands.
Father Blaine was as vain as I was. Father McArdle an even bigger hypocrite. Father Gerard may have been mean, but Father Floyd was cruel, the king of sarcasm, and this was decades before bullies on the Internet.
The discovery was disappointing. But in many ways, it set me free.
Later, when priests from the same generation in our suburban white church chose to remain silent during the civil rights battles, I was surprised even less. For I knew they were ordinary men running the church, the same ones running GE or the NAACP or the NRA. The church was just another business or fraternal organization, willing to do what was necessary for money, for power, and for defense of their own interests.
Don’t get me wrong. I do not denigrate the genuine Christian message of compassion and love for all mankind. I reference only the clergy, the shifty folks who hijacked Jesus’ church and never practiced the preaching.
All of which is why today, upon reading about the imminent canonization of Pope John Paul II, that my reaction is not, technically, cynical. Rather, I am as unsurprised as when a CEO of one of the banks that brought the U.S. to its knees is rewarded with a generous bonus.
That’s because conferring sainthood upon a man who showed no compassion to the innocent victims of heinous sex crimes, perpetrated by his own soldiers, is more of a public relations stunt. Or a sham. Or a political attempt at a distraction, at best.
John Paul deserves sainthood, say church officials, because of evidence of two separate miracles, in which individuals experienced unlikely recoveries from terrible diseases after they prayed to the departed John Paul.
Whereas, when he was alive, he failed a much more telling test, by having never apologized for the church’s horde of sex criminals.
This was no oversight. During his papal tenure, he apologized officially for everything from the Crusades to the persecution of Galileo.
Yet, while formal reports of cases in which priests molested multiple children in America were made to the Vatican as early as 1985, Pope John Paul II remained mostly silent.
Here is Notre Dame theologian Richard McBrien’s assessment of John Paul: “Indeed, he had a terrible record, full of denial and foot-dragging, on the greatest crisis to confront the Catholic Church since the Reformation of the 16th century.”
He never apologized and refused requests to meet with victims, blaming the media’s “sensationalism” of the scandal.
John Paul would not accept responsibility. What’s worse, he allowed that the church’s zero-tolerance policy be altered to grant easier due process to accused priests.
This CEO of the Catholic church chose, unsurprisingly, to serve his “shareholders,” and to hell with the traumatized children and the journalists who believed them.
Admirers of Pope John Paul point out that he spoke 13 languages, traveled all around the world, spoke against communism, and advocated for the common worker and human rights.
He reached out to Jews, and he actually visited a prison to forgive the man who shot and nearly killed him in St. Peter’s Square.
But when the most debilitating scandal in church history occurred on his watch, the Jesus-like love and piety that John Paul was known for was never extended to the victims of the church’s predatory priests.
Seriously, wouldn’t the heart of a true saint have gone out to those who were so egregiously harmed?
Shouldn’t a “Saint” John Paul have said, “I’m sorry”?
David McGrath is Emeritus Professor of English, College of DuPage, and author of “The Territory.” firstname.lastname@example.org