In his portraits, Pope John Paul II was supremely gentle. There was a man who understood humanity’s suffering. That he could muster a smile was encouraging. He looked that way in a print overlooking the gymnasium where they served us lunch. His palm, enshrined in gold leaf, extended over the basketball hoops. Once, I sank a game-winning basket there in seventh grade. The contest was between Farmville B-teams, but the Pope and I had home-field advantage. They’d have him on TV in the school library. You’d watch him roll through the sea of humanity, waving from a pickup truck. None were disappointed to see God’s main man, all the faith in the world, waving hello behind bulletproof glass. The precaution was understandable. The Pope took four bullets and a bayonet before I was even baptized.
I have a memory from second grade of our teacher laying a crucifix on the ground. We, at seven or eight-years-old, gathered around for a story. The story was about a classroom of children just like us, who were one day disrupted by soldiers from a totalitarian regime. The soldiers placed a crucifix at their feet, informing the students that anyone who wouldn’t renounce Christ by stepping on it would be executed. All but one young girl renounced Christ. She professed her faith, and was shot. To die for Christ, our teacher said, was a lesser price to pay than for the sin of denying Him. The strangeness of it all, the stark logic, preoccupied me.
Three times a week, we attended mass. As a young artist, I’d study the muscle structure of Christ’s battered body that hung over the altar. To the left of the proscenium stood his virgin mother, holding the wise baby Christ, her foot crushing a Satanic serpent. To the right, charitably, was Christ’s adoptive father. Often, I was altar boy, dangling my brass thurible, incense smoke rising past my face and up to Heaven. The altar boy’s great privilege was to assist with the transubstantiation ritual. That’s where bread and wine are transformed into Christ’s flesh and blood. Three times a week for seven years, I watched Father Heltemes perform the miracle. The product of transubstantiation is called Holy Eucharist, and though it still appears to be bread, catechism teaches it has literally become Christ’s flesh.
“By the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.”
Most Catholics I knew weren’t fanatical. They were just comfortable. Nevertheless, my questions were met with annoyance. I’d ask, “But the bread is still bread. In what way is it flesh?” The religion teacher would grow tense, “It’s a divine mystery.” For me, it was another crack in the dam. By the time I was a teenager, I sat through Mass in silent contempt. Now, I studied the sedate expressions as the congregation shuffled through their cannibalism ritual. I didn’t want to be there.
When I completed my Catholic education, I was permitted the sacrament of Holy Confirmation. This meant the Church now considered me an adult. I hoped that my choice to renounce Catholicism could now be accepted. This event presented me the opportunity to select a Confirmation name (to adopt a saint’s name of my choosing into my full name). On Confirmation day, Bishop Kinney came to our church to perform the service. He asked me, “What name did you choose?” “Peter,” I told him. “And why did you choose Peter?” he asked. “Because he denied Christ,” I answered. The Bishop smiled, returning calmly, “And he was forgiven.”
One weekend, when I was 20 or so, I visited my parents’ house. My mom, a Eucharistic minister, was preparing for Saturday evening Mass. I declined to accompany her. She asked, “If you aren’t Catholic, what do you believe in?” “Nothing,” I said. She pressed, “You don’t believe in God?” “No,” I said. She shrieked, “So you mean to tell me your grandmother and grandfather just disappeared?” “But it’s not my fault,” I told her. It was the last time I was invited to Mass. Each of us are left to reconcile the disparity by our own reasoning.
Still, even without God, Catholicism remains the nearest thing to heritage I know.