In 1959, Pope John XXIII announced that he would call a council for the entire Catholic Church. After 3 years of planning, what became known as Vatican II opened in 1962 and closed in 1965.
Vatican II brought radical changes to the Catholic Church. Not only was the Latin mass changed to the vernacular but the nuances of the liturgy were streamlined or in some cases, “protestantized.” One of the intentions of Vatican II was to make the Catholic Mass “accessible” to mainstream Protestant religious bodies like the Lutherans and Methodists. The idea was to set the groundwork for Christian unity, to make Catholicism “ecumenically friendly.”
To the chagrin of Catholic traditionalists, the design of the “new” Mass was orchestrated by six Protestant clergymen. At the end of Vatican II, change for the sake of change in the Church became the order of the day. The concept of the Mass as a “meal’ rather than a “sacrifice” heralded the new position of the priest facing the people rather than east of the altar. After that came the removal or deconstruction of the high altar itself, with plastic or wooden tables replaced centuries-old altars in Catholic churches around the world.
Other changes in the Church continued with the fever pitch of a Donna Summer song. The 1970s saw folk masses, jazz masses, basketball masses, Halloween masses, hand clapping and other Protestant evangelical trappings. Gregorian chant flew out the window; in its place pedestrian “hymns” like “On Eagle’s Wings” became signature liturgical music. Change even affected the religious habits of some orders of Catholic nuns. The “modern” nun, fashionably coiffed in short hair and long earrings, came to resemble the nice lesbian feminist next door. Sadly, the Audrey Hepburn nun of The Nun’s Story became a fossilized antique.
But if proponents of Catholic theological change thought that Vatican II would alter or modify Catholic doctrine, they were mistaken. The truth is, Vatican II was more style then substance. The Council took much of the fun out of Catholic worship (the smells and bells) but left more important areas like birth control or human sexuality, untouched.
Scott Pomfret’s memoir deals mostly with this “new” church (called the Novus Ordo by traditionalists), the church of “cool” masses that get down (or up) like bad Broadway shows. Mr. Pomfret, a Boston trial attorney and a lay minister, is a committed gay Catholic. He writes of his experiences as an involved parishioner with the satirical sagacity of a latter-day Art Buchwald. This highly enjoyable memoir touches on every aspect of parish life, from eccentric fellow parishioners to the anti-gay edicts of the Cardinal-Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, whom Mr. Pomfret refers to as “Sean.”
Jonathan Swift once wrote, “Nothing is above satire.” Mr. Pomfret would seem to agree. Here, for instance, is his take on a local Boston Dignity service: “Dignity’s liturgical procedures mandated such strict gender equality. They hailed the Holy Spirit with all three pronouns, alternating among he, she, and it. Wherever possible, the liturgy used the word God instead of masculine pronouns and nouns, but the gender-neutral construction often caused blips in the rhythm of the prayers: ‘Our Father and Our Mother, who art in Heaven….'” “Dignitarians’ capacity for egalitarianism,” Mr. Pomfret continues, “had outstripped my imagination.”
Writing about the Dignity-style Kiss of Peace, or the greeting that Mass goers are supposed to extend to their neighbor, Mr. Pomfret reports that “everyone in the room had to be hugged—some of them twice.” In conclusion, he says that the average friar at his Boston parish church, the Shrine of Saint Anthony, “could have crammed two Masses into the span of time it took the Dignitarians to exchange peace.”
The author goes to great lengths to understand Cardinal Sean, whom he describes as “personally broken,” after the Massachusetts Catholic Church failed to stop the legalization of same sex marriage there. So devastated was the Cardinal, Mr. Pomfret writes, that he wouldn’t even look the opposition in the eye when it came time to shake hands at conferences or religious roundtable discussions.
There’s hardly a niche or crevice in American Catholicism that Mr. Pomfret doesn’t cover.
When he visits a Courage meeting (a gay Catholic group committed to celibacy), he observes: “Their alienation from their sexual identity was compelling—but also obscene, like watching a little girl with a box knife cut herself.”
Surprisingly tolerant when he writes about Courage, Mr. Pomfret does manage to include a few Courage quotes, such as “People who have successfully integrated homosexual desires with their personalities…are rare indeed.” The Boston Courage chaplain is described as a “hunk.” “Father John was a man’s man–forty years old, movie star handsome, a strong handshake, and a tough South Boston accent. A lot of the celibate boys surely developed serious crushes on him,” Mr. Pomfret writes. Although Courage’s celibate boys are only about ten in number, the author wonders, “The Church really is determined to torture these guys. They couldn’t have chosen a little ninety-year-old eunuch as chaplain? Instead they assign this virile stud?”
As to why he remains a Catholic in the impossibly rigid doctrinaire atmosphere of Pope Benedict XVI (or B16), Mr. Pomfret says, “I can no more shed my Catholicism than my gayness.”
—— SINCE MY LAST CONFESSION
A Catholic Gay Memoir
by Scott Pomfret
Hardcover, 320p, $26.00