Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A Church More Like Kaye

I just learned that an old, one-time friend of mine was elevated to Bishop. I won’t mention where and for the purposes of this brief essay, I’ll call him only “Jay.” And also without saying why, I’ll tell you that I was flabbergasted when I heard this news. Not terribly surprised, I admit, for Jay’s ambitions were always pretty apparent, but I was still flabbergasted. After my usefulness as Jay’s friend diminished and we drifted apart, I decided (perhaps uncharitably, perhaps not) that I didn’t think Jay was much of a priest. He will, of course, make a perfect Bishop.

One of the reasons this has jarred me as much as it has was because of the passing of another friend this past weekend. Kaye Ashe was a Dominican Sister, a scholar, a theologian, and a feminist. I met her and got to know her simply because she was close friends with another wonderful soul who had befriended me. Joan O’Shea, another Dominican Sister and childhood friend of Kaye’s (they met in kindergarten!), was one of several faculty and staff from Dominican University in River Forest who traveled to Fanjeaux, France, in May of 2002 for a summer study program on Dominican history and the Dominican tradition. I was one of the representatives of another Dominican college from Long Island.

My wife Mary Pat was also one of the Dominican University travelers on this pilgrimage, and that, in fact, is where and how we met. Joan was one of our first mutual friends and has remained our friend ever since.

I first met Kaye at Mary Pat’s and my engagement party. Kaye and Joan talked with us until late in the evening, after other guests had gone. I have a very clear image in my mind – vivid, immediate – of Kaye standing alone in the backyard of Mary Pat’s house, eyes closed, swaying to whatever piece of music was playing on the stereo, a soft smile on her face, clearly enjoying a moment of non-verbal prayer. That’s how I think of Kaye even now: swaying, playing, praying.

We last saw Kaye just around the New Year. We were having dinner with Joan and other friends and Kaye stopped by (they lived in the same apartment complex). She had been ill for the last few years but looked well this evening. She left a copy of one of her books that she asked us to read a passage from after we had finished eating. The book was “Today’s Woman, Tomorrow’s Church,” and the passage was about Molly Burke, another friend who was with us that evening, along with her husband Ed. This was Kaye: quick to share her feelings, quick to praise the strengths of others.

There was more to Kaye, of course, and I was privileged to learn about her. Being a divorced and remarried Catholic, one is forced into confronting certain uncomfortable facts about yourself that, like it or not, others are bound to make judgments about. For instance, doctrinally I am excommunicated. That’s a fact I live with. Again, doctrinally (and that is not a meaningless word), if and when I go to mass and choose to receive communion, I am not only in a state of sin, I am committing a further sin by receiving communion.

One of the things I learned about Kaye – indeed, about Joan, and Melissa, and Jeanne, and Clemente, and all the other members of my adoptive Dominican family – was that there was no pretense of sanctity. Holiness is not a façade you erect or a costume you don for special occasions. Holiness is a life lived in the peace of Christ, a life of love and forgiveness. Kaye and my Sisters acknowledged their own imperfection, lived with it, sought absolution for it – and forgave it in others. There was never a finger pointed at me. If Kaye or any of my Sisters judged me, it was no less merciful than the judgments placed on them; the judgment of a loving and forgiving God.

So losing Kaye – as little as I’ve known her, our handful of get-togethers each year for only the last twelve years, and the last three of them filled with her illness – has been really difficult for me. There’s no real logical reason why it should have had the effect on me that it has. Perhaps it’s the closeness of the event: other members of my Dominican family have passed on to God since they welcomed me into the fold, but only a handful – for whatever reason – have been as close in a spiritual sense as I felt to Kaye. Joan, Melissa, Jeanne, Clemente, Jean and Philip Mary. Perhaps I’m simply coming to terms with my own mortality and the mortality of my friends and family. But perhaps there’s more to it.

The elevation of Bishop Jay represents something painful to me. It represents a Church that’s not truly a home to me. It represents a Church dominated by men and ruled by bureaucracy. It represents a church of darkness, secrecy, chicanery; of hidden skeletons and con men playing three-card monte with peoples’ lives. It represents asylum in the Vatican for negligent – or completely incompetent – shepherds who relocate abusive wolves to new parishes where they continue to prey on an unsuspecting and far-too-trusting flock. It represents a Church that respects the primacy of men for no particularly good reason and investigates, stigmatizes, and devalues women who lead lives guided by Christ. It represents a Church where, no matter what kind of a person you are, you can still get to wear a fancy gown and bejeweled mitre if you have the right contacts in Rome.

And it all makes me sad – very, very sad. Because I think we’d all be better off if we had a Church more like Kaye.

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