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"Did you go to church?" My father asks this every Sunday at the beginning of our weekly phone call. I always hesitate before answering truthfully, "No." As if there would be some consequence in saying, "No. I did the Times crossword puzzle, had sex with my spouse, then went back to bed." Instead, "No, Pop. I didn't go to church today." Silence. He then proceeds to tell me all about his new hearing aid, choosing to ignore the elephant in the room. The one that didn't go to Mass.
The Philippines was a Spanish colony for more than 300 years. The Spanish legacy to the islands and its people was a kind of medieval Catholicism: fire, brimstone, the butt of a musket. The kind of spiritual uplift that terrorizes you into being colonized. As a result of this fear-based dogma, Filipinos don't just believe in God. They believe in everything. Vampires. Leprechauns. Bigfoot. Apparently, the only thing they don't believe in is paying retail. Growing up, we had altars to the Blessed Virgin Mary, religious statues, and crucifixes all over the house. I once asked my grandma who lived with us why we had all these things everywhere. She said one word: "Protection."
I attended Mass weekly, sometimes daily, with my father. It was the one thing I did that pleased him. Being a mindful, repentant Catholic boy was met with such pride and
affection, I even thought about becoming a priest. I also fantasized about being a frequent guest star on Sonny & Cher. Given the wardrobe and set decor, there would have been very little difference.
I went to church long into my adulthood, finding strange comfort in the ritual and its tenuous link to my past. The God I was raised with was punitive and needy. Mindful of all transgressions, he was susceptible to prayer as petition. This sent my faith into a tailspin in the '80s. Surrounded by mentors and friends succumbing to AIDS, I couldn't conceive of an entity that would mete out this plague as retribution or ignore my pleas for an end to their suffering. I expressed this much to my parish priest, who shortly thereafter told me he was gay. I had a million questions. First and foremost, How the hell can you be a gay and a Catholic priest? And where did you get that violet cassock?
He told me his orientation did not preclude his call to service: "The only hypocrisy greater than church doctrine would be for me to ignore my need to serve in this particular way. Now more than ever I believe my ministry is vital and necessary. Faith without works is dead. As for AIDS, you have to decide what's more important--the meaning of a catastrophe or your response to it. The robe came from a catalog. And actually, it's lavender."
With the pope's recent reiteration of a 1961 ban on gay priests, medieval Catholicism is back. Pope Ratzinger has called for an end to do-it-yourself Catholicism. The faithful cannot select which of the church's teachings to obey and which to reject. Fine. Start the revival without me. I've long since chosen Quentin Crisp's view of theology: "It does not seem to me to be sufficiently humble to imagine that whatever force keeps the planets turning in the heavens is going to stop what it's doing to give me a bicycle with three speeds. But if God is the universe that encloses the universe, or if God is the cell within the cell, or if God is the cause behind the cause, then this I accept absolutely."
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