Waiting for Bergoglio

T. Ryder Smith, Wendell Pierce
T. Ryder Smith, who plays Pozzo, during a production of Waiting for Godot in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans Friday, Nov. 2, 2007. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)

 

All summer I’ve been thinking about the most notable performance of Wendell Pierce’s career. The selection from the proud Pontchartrain Park-er might not be obvious.

Not his four seasons as Detective Bunk Moreland on The Wire.

Not his four as trombonist Antoine Batiste on Treme.

Not actually any of his 35 years of official stage and screen credits.

No, I have been thinking of two generator-powered performances, one in the Lower 9th, one on a Gentilly W Street.

Wendell Pierce unforgettably played Vladimir in Waiting for Godot in the fall of 2007, in front of Katrina wreckage and Katrina survivors.

Don’t believe that this was his standout performance? He never wrote a book about The Wire.

Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance.

Written from the despair of Nazi-occupied Paris, Samuel Beckett’s Godot has found poignant home in many landscapes of despair, places where hardship is felt and salve is longed for. Godot, of course, never shows, leaving Vladimir and his waiting-mate Estragon to make sense of it all.

Life happens while we wait.

Ask a Grand Isle homeowner or Isle de Jean Charles Choctaw descendent or, heck, anyone who’s spent any time in Lake Charles the last 12 months. Imagine heading out from Port Fourchon for a watery Godot on the Gulf. In this state, every rig is a stage—and every resident’s a Vladimir.

Unfortunately, I did not make either of Pierce’s performances. I was in Rome at the time, which is actually why Godot has stayed on my mind, not this now-we-wait hurricane season.

I’ve spent the last few months waiting for Bergoglio.

A reply from Pope Francis will surely come, won’t it?

That passed the time. It would have passed in any case. Yes, but not so rapidly.

Before dating—and then proposing to—Jen, I began the laicization process. Literally, the way the Church “makes lay” out of you.

In the olden days, this would have been called “defrocking,” that is the removal of the frock or the outward signs of the priesthood. The priest would have been hauled into church—previously he would have been found guilty of a serious crime like murder, apostasy, or adultery—dressed in vestments and then, one by one, have each removed. There also may have been head shaving involved. A must-see event, to be sure, for those living in Medieval Europe or current-day Jacksonville.

Like most things in the Church these days, the laicization process is a bit less town square and a bit more bureaucratic, paperwork with a pulse beneath. “Laicization” is also not the paperwork heading to thumb for. “Dispensation from the norms of the clerical state” is the full terminology—a fact that would have been helpful to know before, you know, you try it out yourself.

Trouble is, I never attended a Canon Law class in seminary. Arriving in Rome as a transfer from Notre Dame Seminary, I was double-booked in a number of classes, which is how I managed 96 credit hours in two years, dear reader. That and my charmingly good insults. Basically, you get the notes, review the outlines, and say something cogent for the final, oral exam.

After my first Canon Law class concluded successfully—even after taking the final a day late with a quite hangry Irish Dominican—my professor greeted me with, “It worked last semester. Just do it again.”

Something tells me even if I had sat for every lecture, I would still be waiting for the chapter on “dispensation from the norms of the clerical state.” We generally wouldn’t give a step-by-step on the annulment process to engaged couples.

The goal of laicization, I slowly learned, was different from that of an annulment. The priest does not try to prove the absence of an essential element of his reception of the sacrament—the measure for an annulment—but the presence of various reasons for a well-formed decision to leave. No fear or force brought me to the altar, so none of my Baptisms or Weddings or Boudreaux and Thibodeaux jokes would be nullified in the process.

But Pope Francis had to first say so. The pope is the only authority to offer such a dispensation. Collecting my twenty pages of question responses and witness testimonials and seminary records, off went my life to Rome. I could expect the return postcard in 4-6 months.

He didn’t say for sure he’d come. And if he doesn’t come? We’ll come back tomorrow.

Leaving the priesthood in itself is not a sin. There may be sins around that decision, actions or inactions that charted the course, but leaving can present more harbor for safety than rocks for careening.

Getting married without such a dispensation, though…that’s an ecclesiastical problem. A mortal sin, to be specific.

With papal permission pending, why not just pump the brakes? Just wait for the paperwork and move through a sanctioned process?

For one, I lived in Rome. Once, when waiting for a visa renewal stamping, I was shooed out of a government office because of a sudden, localized loss of power. Hours later, the civil servants returned with grocery bags and a request to flip on the light switch. There is no such thing as a process both simple and Roman.

If no timeframe could be possibly assured, I determined to just transparently offer all the information I could, hope for a positive response, and get on living during the waiting.

More significantly, I found no theological problems in moving forward. I have always appreciated the structure the Church provides, while also taking its positions to their conclusions. For instance, mortal sin.

To get married without proper permission, Jen and I would both contract (great verb) mortal sin. The officiant, if Catholic, would be excommunicated by the very act. Even guests would be tainted by scandalous participation—that is, participation that could somehow lead others to stumble into sin. Though shalt not Facebook location tag!

Mortal sin has a way of shrinking a guest list.

But what does it all mean? In a state of mortal sin, individuals are cut off from the life of God. All ties of grace severed. Ordered motivations crumbled.

Is that what I see in this relationship? Is that what anyone sees? Is that what God sees?

I understand the definitions, the whole doctrinal edifice. But their application? Tread lightly.

To the mortal sin equation, I would humbly add “by their fruits you will know them.” Someone said that, at some point, somewhere.

Neither denigrating Church teachings nor mindlessly hitting the “find-and-replace” button on my Catechism to dole out punishment, I can seem to be playing verbal gymnastics. Can you really thread that eye of a needle? Respect for the Church and respect for the journey?

I prefer to see it all as living a life in tension, forcing myself to avoid simple answers and to engage in deeper questions. I love the Church. I respect the Church rules. And I don’t think this is a proper application of Church teaching. It might not be a pretty, Instagramable faith, but it’s mine. And I can’t imagine choosing another.

So we waited, confident in our process forward and hopeful for a good response. We waited, going to Sunday Mass out of love, serving neighbor habitually, moving through marriage preparation with our parish priest. We waited, producing fruit.

Tomorrow when I wake or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot.

I got the call when we were looking at rehearsal dinner venues. Pope Francis mailed in his regrets, stamping “rejected” however you would in Latin. Something about needing to forty years old and/or five years out of ministry. Whatever comes last, I presumed.

It was disappointing, both the decision itself and my prospects of any future penpalling with our American pope. But it was within my range of expectations.

My only question was my constant one: but what is the meaning behind it?

The delay is to show that I have made a final decision.

I appreciate the policy concerns. How would you govern a worldwide institution? How would you allow someone with six years of formation and ten years of service to exit? How would you explain all these machinations to Catholics trying to keep the faith?

I mean, you could just click to myneworleans.com and read a few blog pieces, but the Vatican Curia probably has a few things more important going on… [resisting a barb on the financial scandal, the altar server scandal, the Grindr scandal… oh, here’s one for polite company…]

Did you know the Curia only works after lunch twice a week? Tuesdays and Fridays. Fittingly—or is it, emblematically?—they are called the “Sorrowful Mystery Days.”

No matter how cute it would be to see Pope Francis stand outside my window with a boombox aloft, my decision has been made. Full stop. Basta così.

While such a decision does not really cut us off from the life of God, it does make church feel a bit different. A rejection notice from the pope has a way of shortening cathedral ceilings and tightening stained glass walls.

I began this blog quoting one of the opening jokes from Annie Hall. The other goes: “I would never want to be part of group that would have someone like me as member.”

I like that one, too, even if it’s a little too on the nose these days.

Contracting (there’s that verb form again) a marriage outside of the Church has consequences, namely refraining from receiving Communion at Mass. Not as a punishment, the company line insists, but as a way of acknowledging one is out of alignment with the community. Though I have some thoughts on that deeper meaning, I do not plan to flout the rule.

Life, after all, happens while we wait.

Why are we here, that is the question? And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come … We are not saints, but we have kept our appointment.

In a makeshift, post-Ida chapel, the priest preached on the occasion of Mary’s birthday Wednesday morning (hope you find the cake and candles each September 8th). Mary had some twists and turns in life. A good deal of waiting. Some fruit to carry her through. “Our life,” the homilist concluded, “is to insert ourselves into God’s life. And when we do that, it will work out to our fullest end.”

May it be so, Father. And please pass on a good word to the Holy Father. We’ll be the ones waiting a bit longer for Bergoglio.

-30-

 

I can’t find any clips of Wendell Pierce’s Godot performance, but here’s a five-minute piece from NPR on it. Keep a Kleenex ready for any dabbing.

 

And we can’t talk Wendell Pierce this week without remembering Michael K. Williams. Kleenex number two.

 

And, finally, take Kleenex number three and turn it into a 2nd Line instrument. A groovy 2nd Line, but one still. Hope you and yours poured one out to the linemen this week.

 

Categories: Pulpit to the Pew