Tenderness and Horror

I grew up in Scranton’s Catholic diocese, which is now reeling from sex abuse scandals. I don’t know how to process the loss of that spiritual home.

St. Peter’s Cathedral in downtown Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Christopher Seliga/Wikimedia Commons.

I grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the 1990s and early 2000s. Scranton’s a blue-collar town that’s getting whiter, though its roots are always showing. Pretty much every kid I knew growing up had a grandfather who died of black lung after working the coal mines; pretty much every dad-aged person I knew had a fondness for trains (Scranton is Steamtown, after all); pretty much all the women I knew knit or crocheted; pretty much every grandmother in town still spoke a language from a long-ago home and English, the language of a newer home. Communions, baptisms, and confirmations weren’t just sacraments, but communally celebrated rites of passage complete with parties, newspaper notices, and much fuss. There’s an earthiness to Scranton—a sense of history, of place, of continuity.

And though I grew up to be queer and moved away from both Pennsylvania—where, at the time of my departure, my fiancée (also a woman) and I couldn’t plan a legally recognized wedding—and the Roman Catholic Church, an abstract space wherein I will never be considered married at all, I know myself to be both from and of both Scranton and the church. Recent scandals highlighting sexual abuse within the Catholic Diocese of Scranton have left me sick. Though I was never touched by the named priests, I knew several of them growing up. I grieve their victims; I grieve my hometown; I grieve the faith those men have shattered.

And so it’s from both a distance and yet an intense, aching closeness that I watch the Catholic Diocese of Scranton burning. I scroll through Twitter and see hundreds of people I never met writing screeds about “pedo priests,” calling the Roman Catholic Church “demonic,” blaming parents and families for putting their children in the vicinity of men who might abuse them, and acting like any Mass-attending Catholic is a tacit endorser of child abuse. You know, I get it. I see the point. I myself can be quick to snap judgments. I’m inclined to think that anyone who says #AllLivesMatter is a police brutality apologist; that folks who “don’t see color” are casual racists; that folks who “love the sinner, but hate the sin” are homophobes. I, too, can be black-and-white, cut and dried about the complex systemic powers that work to oppress, to silence, to hurt. So this rush to judgment against the church makes sense to me: Some wrongs are unequivocal, and some wrongdoers don’t deserve a chance at penance. But when respondents say “the church” is at fault, they hurl barbs at church members as much as at church administrators—and I don’t know if that’s fair.

When I think of the Catholic Church that had been woven so seamlessly into my childhood, it’s hard not to see in technicolor, in texture, intensely. I’m not a church apologist; I’m a Unitarian Universalist agnostic who believes in a benevolent universe and harbors great antipathy for many of the dogmas of Catholicism. I’m disgusted by the abuse of children and vehemently call for its investigation and its extinction. I’m queer. Married to a woman. I’m an unlikely defender or advocate of blue-collar, Catholic towns like Scranton as they suffer the pain of horrific scandal, but I am also an exiled child of Scranton who moved away, who looks back, who feels both tenderness and horror, and who has spent too many years trying to make peace with the difference.

If our consciousness and memory mark our real entrance into our own lives, I was born in a Catholic church. My first memories of being alive are at midnight Mass at St. Mary of Czestochowa, where Father Homer would eventually be pastor. The smell of incense, heavy and thick, and the feel of my father’s beard tickling my cheek—I can remember being cradled in his arms as he walked to receive Holy Communion. I can remember my brother Jeff carrying me home, and the feel of the December night soft on my skin—O silent night, O holy night. We only lived a block away.

My childhood church was also my father’s childhood church: St. Mary of Czestochowa sits atop a hill at the border of Scranton and Moosic. If you walk down the hill to the left, a handful of lots down you’d find the house where my dad grew up—the house where my uncle and his family still live. If you walk to the right, a block away you’ll find the house where I was carried home from the hospital as a baby, and took my first steps, and left for college, and had my bridal shower. My dad’s siblings would meet every Sunday at SMC for church, with Uncle Tommy and his family and my brothers, parents, and I walking—and arriving to meet my Aunt Janet and her kids, and my grandparents, and my Uncle Jim and Uncle John and their families when they came into town. In full force, we took up two pews and 22 seats. That’s before any of us kids grew up, got married, had kids of our own. My first memories of being alive are of being surrounded by my family, in the night, amid the incense, listening to what sounded to me like choirs of angels singing. I was born into the arms of God. I don’t believe in him anymore, but I believe in the constellation of memory and in that sense of place—God’s arms, a place.

O night divine …

There are all kinds of things we believe so that we can keep on living. Where was I born, if not into that moment? Who would I be? My family is like most other families in Scranton, and my childhood was not unusual. I attended Catholic elementary and middle school at a time when each neighborhood had a school of its own. Almost none of my classmates had fewer than four siblings. I played basketball in the Catholic youth league and weekend ball at St. Joseph’s. Very visibly Catholic in my own right, I served the televised masses at St. Ann’s Basilica and participated in the (also televised) weekly children’s mass for years alongside boys who would grow up to be priests and local police officers. If you ever scrolled through the channels and saw Catholic TV, maybe you saw me—I won the Bishop’s Lay Award for Youth Service to the Church when I was 13. I sang in my church choir. My childhood was standard; most kids in Scranton did some combination of these things, and Catholicism, like whiteness in other places, was so pervasive that it didn’t seem like a religion so much as a fact. To be Catholic was to be “normal”: de facto, built-in. Catholicism: a condition of life, the air we breathed, a communal spirit.

And within that community were priests and nuns. They taught us at school. They sang with us in choirs and in church cabarets like the annual Cathedral Capers—I can still picture Father Altavilla in a sombrero, with maracas; he made me laugh till my sides hurt. My youth choir adored him; he was young, nice, funny. Priests chaperoned our school dances, coached and refereed our basketball games, counseled our families, and gave us sacraments. They were trusted adults, family. And we loved them. And they loved us.

There are things you believe so you can keep on living. The church itself was family—a community both large and vast, and yet deeply particular and stratified. In old cities like Scranton, there are still ethnic neighborhoods where various European groups have settled: west side (Italian), south side (German, Hispanic), east side (Slovak, Ukrainian), Minooka (Irish), Moosic (Polish). As a kid, you don’t think much of it: Your grandmother speaks old country and new, and your family has recipes other families don’t have, and in the summer each church’s festival provides a special type of cuisine.

I look back, now, and I see it differently. Those ethnic churches represented ties to another world—a world carried across oceans, baked into halupki, sewn into our grandmothers’ quilts, whispered in lullabies that sounded like ancient spells. These churches were bastions of culture, of life and language so quickly being forgotten by new generations. I didn’t know, as a child, the gift it was to grow up surrounded by babcis making homemade pierogies, singing to me in Polish, teaching me Yiddish swearwords. The church was both a spiritual “religious” community and a spiritual “Polish” community for me: It was a family that sustained itself and its members through lore, love, shared memory, and identity that seemed frozen so beautifully in time amid a modernized world. No, clearer still, not frozen at all—alive.

The Polish Catholic Church kept my family’s history alive. It blurred together my sense of community, identity, God, home. God’s arms, a place. Where was I born, if not into God’s arms? Who is my family, if not the people who quilted our histories around me and through me, who held their souls in front of me like shields, who brought me to the hallowed place where our stories and languages and legacies came to life like miracles? The Catholic Church is not just priests, nor the Vatican. It wasn’t to me then; it isn’t to me now. The Catholic Church is its members, and their grief in the wake of horrific scandal is not a howl of institutional loss—their loyalties aren’t to the pope or the bishop. It is a howl of pain for the loss of sacred, secular community. The loss of an ancient sense of shared identity—not spiritual identity, but human identity. The loss of a living, flesh-and-blood meeting place in themselves and in one another where their grandparents and great-grandparents still exist in the flickering ether. The loss of God’s arms, a place.

I will never forgive the priests who shattered the communities that made up my childhood and the lives of so many others. I grieve their victims—the children they wounded, the families they broke. But in the media haze and the glib, cavalier barbs thrown at the church itself, and Catholics themselves, I need to tell you— each of you, all of you—that the church is its members, not its priests. And that God’s arms are a gentle place. And that I hate the church. And yet I love the church. It’s a cross I don’t know how to bear.

My friends and I grew up in the church—and, pointedly, we grew up as the church. I can remember running the block home from the SMC festival with my cousin Colleen, halushki in our bellies, excited to tell my parents we won a raffle basket. I remember holding my friend Kristen’s hand and praying the morning of 9/11. I’m still friends with the boys, now men, with whom I served those televised masses. We grew up in different neighborhoods but within the same community—our babcis and nanas and omas cooked different foods and spoke different languages, but we had the same deep sense of mysterious, precious, beloved identity. Beloved by one another, and by our shared God.

And we grieve that now. There are things you believe so you can keep on living. Until you can’t, and you need to find some other way to live. Some other way to find your grandmother’s voice in the air. Some other way to sense your childhood. Your family. Catholics in Scranton are not foolish people who threw their children to wolves. They are children of God—a God I don’t even believe in, yet still know to be real—curled into his heartbeat all their lives, connected through him to a lifeline of family, identity, sacred belonging. They trust that sacred belonging, and it is distinct from the Vatican. The church, as a community, is alive and human and separate from the church as an organization. It’s not that they blindly trusted the pope or a priest—they trusted one another; they trusted their communal family. It’s not a thing so easily given up. And despite the fact that vile scandals of child abuse now feel like old news to secular culture writ large, it doesn’t hurt less for us who feel the loss of that spiritual home. The loss of God’s arms. The loss of that place.