It Happened to Me: My Dad Is a Roman Catholic Priest (It's Kind of Weird)

Being the priest’s kid defined me and my siblings even more so than being the children of a disabled person.

Dec 17, 2012 at 4:00pm | Leave a comment

Pretend for a minute that you have herpes and you've started dating someone new.

Someone you really like, someone you'd don Lucite money-bank stripper heels for, so great is your desire to gain egress to their nethers. You know it doesn't have to be a big deal, and you know if he's worth having around in any sort of repeated capacity that he'll be cool about it. Still, it's an unpleasant talk.

You’re peeling off a layer of your armor and making yourself vulnerable. Because this thing exists in your life and while you didn't choose it, while it doesn't necessarily impact everything you say or do, while it just sort of happened however embarrassing that may be to admit, it's always going to be there.

Yeah. That's a lot like what it's like trying to tell someone new and potentially important that your dad is Roman Catholic priest.

HOW IS THAT EVEN POSSIBLE?

My entire family converted to Catholicism when I was 14. Up until that point, we'd been Anglican, which, to those not in the ecclesiastical know, is a branch of the Episcopal Church that came into being during the reign of Henry VIII. It's often maligned as being the church Hanky-Pants started in order to get his bone on with one Anne Boleyn (who may have had 11 fingers but probably didn't -- the more you know? Or something?) but actually also found its roots in 16th-century religious corruption and more complex political dealings than just banging.

Today the main distinctions are the idea of transubstantiation. That’s a spell-check unfriendly way of saying that Roman Catholics believe the bread and wine served at Eucharist literally turns into God’s blood and flesh, and Episcopalians are more like, “Uh, maybe that is a symbol, but, uh, we’ll be ambiguous about it in our Book of Common Prayer?”

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Dreamy.

Here's where I remind everyone that I'm not a theologian, one just helped make me. I totally respect the complexities of the issues, and know that by being cavalier about them I'm potentially ruffling feathers to which I say -- Dear Roman Catholic Church, you guys have been around a long, long time, you can take it, and frankly you've got bigger fish to fry.

In the 1970s, things got complicated -- I mean, not just in general, although that's true -- but in the Anglican Church specifically. People started disagreeing about stuff, most significantly ordination and a revision to the Book of Common prayer that made some changes to the liturgy that the more conservative or high-church Anglicans were muy not down with.

So rather than be all, "Wait, wait, wait -- guys, our whole deal is Jesus and an over-abundant use of incense and poetic language, man. Let's just jam to some Ralph Vaughan Williams and work this ish out!" they were all, "SCHISM! SCHISM TO END ALL SCHISMS!" As such, the more liberally minded Anglican communities rocked on with their bad selves. Some churches in Texas were even all, "We shall start our own church! Because we are Texas and there is nothing we enjoy as much as annexing ourselves with the exception of maybe steak!" 

The priests in the more conservative churches either made their whole congregation convert to Roman Catholicism (I mean I guess there had to have been a vote, but still it happened), left the priesthood and became Roman Catholic or became married Catholic priests. But wait, I hear you ask -- how? Ah, I say to you, the person I have inadvertently trapped at the cocktail party, because if the Vatican likes anything it's loophole. 

As such, the most radical playwrightin' Polish Pope and my secret boyfriend Pope John Paul II made a provision in 1980 that said all sorts of awesome stuff, but also provided a home for Anglican priests in the Roman Catholic priesthood. Having written this all down, the Pope affixed several scrolls to several ravens and loosed them on the world before quietly shirking off to clean his "good hat," in preparation for the coming winter. So that equals my dad.

Of course this is not what I say at dinner parties. I tend to go with the T-shirt worthy, "I know, it's crazy!" before mumbling about how someone keeps stealing my wine. Even though we converted almost 15 years ago, I don't know what my role is as a Roman Catholic priest's kid, especially when my old role was so well defined.

MY LIFE BEFORE AND AFTER PRIESTDOM

There's a long, awesome tradition of Episcopal Priest Kids -- or, "P.K.s." We're active in our church community -- serving as altar girls and boys, being in youth groups, relishing the post Sunday service's Happy Hour. Ours consisted of as many frozen Entenmann's chocolate chip cookies and Bailey's flavored creamers as we could gorge ourselves with before being caught. 

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My dad and my awesome outfit. There is probably Bailey’s Creamer just out of frame, hence my exuberance.

Being the priest’s kid defined me and my siblings even more so than being the children of a disabled person. My father has cerebral palsy, which affects his speech and his walk. His role as a priest protected us, made his disability a secondary thing, by no mean a defining feature of who he was. It probably also kept him on a pedestal for far too long.

My sister and I used to make short claymation-style movies about the dude, called Priest Man, where he fought aliens with the assistance of our black lab, renamed Deacon Dog for the purposes of our stories. People were far more likely to ask us why our dad was wearing a priest’s collar than they were to ask us why he walked the way he did. The collar did make him a sort of superhero to us, and the fact that he could be in any way fallible -- as a person or even just physically --  took a long time to take root for all of us I think.

Growing up, the church my father was the Rector (read: boss of) of was a second home to me. While I didn't have a lot of luck with friends at school (the whole glutting myself with creamer may have contributed to this), I had great friends at church. I belonged there -- I knew that I was supposed to be setting an example, I knew that if I acted up it would be reported to my dad, and I knew the people who clashed with my dad would, from time to time, misdirect their emotions toward me.

When we converted, I was embarrassed and angry trying to explain that to my friends who assumed Roman Catholic meant hating women and homosexuality.

As much as my parents assured me that nothing would change about my life, church-going and otherwise, the changes came quickly and undeniably. After a very rough time in middle school, my parents had sent me to an all-girls Catholic school. Starting off there as an Anglican among devoted Italian American Catholics was just my kind of subversive. But then -- I was one of them.

The teachers were fascinated by my dad's journey, classmates I didn't even know were asking me if my dad still had sex with my mom. I wouldn't answer, just blush, as my inner Sid yowled, "Better her than little boys, right?" and then hit them in the head with a bottle of Bud.

Church no longer felt like me either. The services made efforts to be modern, and the more contemporary language and music left me hollow. My burgeoning faith started to dwindle on the vine.

The toughest of all of this was no longer having a place in the different parishes we visited. By design, married Catholic priests cannot run a parish. The idea behind this being, I suppose, that they've already got a flock of their own to manage. This is a totally counter-intuitive argument, but look who you're arguing with, right?

As a result, my father -- and my family -- became church nomads, going from mass to mass. It became clear that while priests converting had been around since the 1970s, we were on Papal time, which ranks somewhere up there with glacial in terms of evolution. The community of parishioners made every effort to welcome my father, and by extension us, but they just straight up did not know what to make of the priest's family. The support and community I'd found as a kid, I now sought out in my high school theatre group.

KEEPING THE FAITH

I never thought I'd be ambivalent about my faith. Sure, when I was small, my belief was learned by rote, but I grew up, and began to have my own relationship with God as I perceive him to be. But I could not believe in a God who hated people for simply loving; I was hurt by the idea of a God whose church dictated not only that no one of my gender could celebrate mass, but also seemed to think that they had any sort of place dictating law over my body. I did my best to try and separate the theology from the mansion erected on earth -- like, I now realize, any good Protestant. 

While a teenager, the gibes made about priests and children were simply a handful in the setlist most amateur comedians like to try out on me. They also like calling me a bastard, which I will admit, is mildly hilarious. But as more and more allegations of abuse came to light, and, more importantly, more truth behind the Vatican’s concerted effort to cover up the crimes and hide the guilty priests from legal scrutiny came to light as well, I felt a door in my hard-won spiritual life swing closed forever.

There are things theologically in the Roman Catholic Church that I believe, even though they challenge me. But what I believe seems to have taken a backseat to the anger and hurt I feel every time I enter one of their churches. The extreme dictums seem baseless, not taking into account the complexity of the human person, whom I believe God created.

My father’s reasons for converting, other than what I’ve said here, are his own, as are whatever thoughts and feelings he has now a decade after his conversion. While I have not yet declared myself to be no longer Roman Catholic, I do not worry that doing so would alienate me from him or from any other member of my family. The bedrock of understanding between us was laid a long time ago and runs deeps.

I know that the greatest gift he and my mother gave me was my love for God. Not the Pope, not Rome, not hate-mongering hypocrisy, not politics. Not some guy in the clouds ready to bestow guilt and to smite you for your wrongdoings and sexy-times.

For a compassionate, awe inspiring kind of guy whose love inspires me to live my life honestly and openly and hope that by doing that I can impact the other people in my world positively. So that’s where I am now, one foot out the door, the other firmly planted on the road different from any other one I’ve tried before, scared, but absolutely confident, and absolutely loved. 

 
 

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