By Leonard Adame
I didn’t like the statues, which to me were real people frozen forever. I wanted to know why they were in pain and crumpled, always looking down at me, the blame in their eyes making me guilty—but for what? All I’d done was steal a few cents from my sister’s purse, looked at my uncle’s nudist magazines once in a while and hid food I didn’t like behind the milk carton. Still, I felt I was guilty of more every time I passed beneath them, an emotion that helped me to somewhat understand martyrdom.
This didn’t make sense when I was eight years old, and it still doesn’t. My mother said that God loves and forgives everyone. That it was only at church where you could tell a priest your sins, do a little penance and then leave feeling like you’d taken a long warm bath and smelling like soap. The soap of the forgiven, I presume now, the soap of the soul and the hope of those who had nothing else in the world.
So how come I felt worse than when I went in? Was it the statues, Christ bleeding above the altar, the priest looking like a hungover Judge Roy Bean, ready to hand down despair and hanging in so many movies I’d seen that contributed to my malaise?
Was my mother mistaken? Was my grandmother who placed her entire trust of the universe and goodness in this building on a small hill at Pottle and Inyo in West Fresno, flummoxed by some propaganda machine claiming it would justify the suffering of the masses, that it would reveal God’s grand plan for all, that it would assure the way to an eternal place where all frolicked in sunshine next to holy arrays of endless food and peace? I suppose so, since that message hasn’t changed.
Years later, beginning in the 1970s and on through the 1980s, liberation theology took hold in the Americas. These priests, going beyond the usual dogmatic missions, and the nuns helped people build health clinics, schools, literacy. They also taught them history, the kind that exposed the corruption of church-backed Spanish governments since 1519. This progressive philosophy of the church’s mission, however, was seen as subversion by the Pope, who ordered that it all stop and that those priests who initiated this unseemly curriculum return to the traditional Catholicism or be excommunicated. And since liberation theologists were seen as subversives by American-owned Latin American puppet governments, their lives were threatened. In fact, more than one priest was killed for defying dictators.
Still, it’s these priests who should be adorning the walls of Catholic churches everywhere. Their history and contribution to the betterment of those who truly suffer should be taught to all Catholics.
Instead, the church continues selling itself as the gateway to all things saintly, ignoring the maggots in the closets of their vestments and in the hearts of priests who somehow came to believe that abusing little boys was Godly. Instead, the church chose to protect their pedophiles, transferring them to other parishes where they continued their inhumane practice not far from the suffering saints on the wall.
As usual, at today’s masses, I rarely see homeless people. I do see retirees, middle-class people, some fat cats, some politicians and some in fine clothes looking terrifically bored. They arrive in fairly new cars, some of them expensive, dressed fairly nicely, especially the women, some of whom still wear veils and upscale attire. But no homeless people in need of a shower and a few meals. No homeless driving up in cool cars. Maybe I just missed them. I am a little older now, so maybe my eyesight ain’t what it used to be. But I doubt it. My eye doctor says I see fine.
So what’s going on? Especially in West Fresno, where so many people are homeless and miserable, where so many somehow survive freezing nights only to wake to another day of not knowing anything for sure but that they’ll be wandering and begging and feeling more that their time on this earth is even shorter.
Now we have a Pope retiring under the pall of an even wider scandal of child abuse. He has a history of protecting pedophiles. In fact, he’s sanctioned, like so many before him, a network of enablers, including our former Bishop Roger Mahony.
This Pope is also a reactionary, wanting to reinstitute masses in Latin. I’m not sure how that will help people understand homilies, but there it is. Transplant him to the Midwest, and you have another Karl Rove in temperament and philosophy: that only the elite count; that governments, and the Vatican, are beyond scrutiny; that all that the church and government does is sanctioned by God. There can and should be no arguments against that view.
When I was a kid shaking in the pews at Mount Carmel because I’d been made to believe that all people are born sinners and that because God could spy into my heart, I didn’t understand what kind of power could cause that in a person. Now I know: It is an ancient power, evil in its intent to control people in all respects, in its intent to curry the rich, to browbeat people with the whips of guilt into being followers, into thinking questioning dogma is practically a mortal sin.
In the meantime, the people Christ said we should help, and thereby help ourselves, go despairing into the urban jungle every day. They would be, if they found themselves in church, told that they must help themselves before God could intervene, that if they just stopped sinning and desiring ungodly things, they would find themselves saved and on their way to God’s side, wherever that is.
It seems to me that this is what the martyred souls hanging on the walls of so many churches should bemoan: that their own organization has betrayed their sacrifices, their want of good and peace on earth. The Church, in its betrayal of those who need Christ’s words of hope the most, has forsaken God. It’s gone its own way, even into war and the torture of dissidents in violation of the tenet that says to forgive is Godly.
Perhaps the child abusers may be forgiven someday. But it seems to me they have to confess, do some serious penance, and ask to be forgiven humbly and sincerely. Good luck with that.
To people that find themselves in Easter Mass this year, I ask, why would anyone be at a place that has sanctioned child abuse and, historically, other forms of human misery?
And where are the homeless and those who truly are in need of rekindling their spiritual selves? Where’s the sincere and effective outreach by the church and its parishioners?
Those old statues still give me the willies, but now at least I think I know why they suffer.
Leonard Adame has retired from teaching college English. He now plays drums in various bands, takes photographs, reads mystery novels to a fault and has published poetry in college anthologies. He most enjoys re-learning about human beings from his grandkids. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.