When the Pope visited Vienna in 2007, I was excited to join the crowd of 20,000 who gathered in the rain outside Stephansdom Cathedral to watch the Mass on gigantic television screens. I even bought a souvenir, a little Pope flag. I'm not sure why. I'm not Catholic; indeed, although my true-love Frink once considered becoming a priest and his family are devout believers, I can't help feeling a certain antipathy for the church.
And yet, I derive pleasure, and sometimes even peace and joy, standing in a cathedral, absorbing through its cold marble walls and floors the solemn echoes of ritual and time. There is something beautiful and enviable in pure belief.
As I stood outside Stephansdom that day, I felt richer somehow -- richer for sharing the pomp and ceremony, richer for seeing the beautiful, shining smiles of joy on the faces of five nuns from the Phillipines who stood near me in the crowd. People were waving yellow & white flags, yellow handkerchiefs, and a few red and white Austrian flags. Yellow umbrellas here and there indicated priests who were moving through the sea of people giving communion. (It’s a good thing it had stopped raining; I might have had an awkward moment or two, since the umbrella I carried was that precise shade of yellow.) After the mass, the Pope came out and addressed the crowd. His message, in German, was largely lost on me, although I read later that he encouraged people to have more babies and to respect the Sabbath.
The crowd was surprisingly quiet. I didn’t hear a single cell phone ring or anyone speaking much above a whisper, except for one guy with a shaved head and tight blue and white checkered pants. Waving his souvenir flag, he commented loudly to the woman beside him, which elicited many frowns.(A few days before the Papal Mass, I toured Stephansdom. We were inside the gated area in the nave when I noticed a little mustached, Italian man crawling under the ropes that separate the general tourists from those who have paid for a guided tour. He rushed up to a young guy in our group, gesturing and saying something rapidly in a muted hiss as he snatched the black cap from the young man's head. The tour guide, a cherubic-faced fellow, placidly ignored this and kept talking about the lizards and frogs carved along the balustrade of the pulpit).
The press reports that people in Austria have become “apathetic and hostile” to the church, due to recent scandals and a heavy church tax, but from where I stood, I couldn’t see much indication of that. And yet, I understand that perspective all too well.
I bridle against the church's prejudice against women, the certainty that people who share my gender are lesser beings, unfit for the priesthood. I find it hard to ignore the weight of history, from the Crusades to sex scandals involving children. And the sheer wealth of the church is disturbing. I'll never forget standing before an altar of solid gold in a barrio in Mexico City, where just outside children in rags begged in front of tin and cardboard hovels.
And then there is the fact that my own marriage was annulled by the Catholic Church.
We weren't even Catholic, my ex-husband and I. And yet, one day, six or seven years after our divorce, a letter arrived from my ex, telling me that he had become Catholic and was having our marriage annulled. A few weeks later, I received a letter -- all officious with burgundy logos and seals--from the Archdiocese announcing that it was conducting a Tribunal. After taking evidence and testimony from those who deemed themselves qualified to dissect our marriage, it would make its ruling. I declined to participate, save for writing one short paragraph summarizing the reasons for our divorce.
That tribunal, and the inevitable annulment that resulted, was the ultimate betrayal in a marriage rife with lies and deception. To fully understand why, I have to take you back to to the last months of my 25-year marriage. After five miscarriages, I was pregnant again.
By this time, I had learned to wait until the fourth month to tell my family I was expecting again. When I shared the news, my mother sent me a pile of hand-made receiving blankets, decorated with tiny rose buds in blues and yellows. I began turning our guest room into a nursery and sounding out names. A boy would be Michael. A girl (which I longed for), would be named Annie. One day, as we were walking to the car, I shared this name with my ex (who shall be known here as Matt). His response -- an abrupt snap of the head, a piercing look, a mumbled "it sounds childish" -- seemed odd.
I soon learned why. Matt was having an affair with a nurse at work. By cruel coincidence, her name was Annie. And she, too, was pregnant with Matt’s child.
To this day I cannot utter the woman’s name. (In my house, she is known as “The Slut.”) Nor can I remember the exact sequence of events: how far along I was when I learned the news, how long after this I lost my baby. Some scenes, however, are crisp and clear: Matt choking out the words. Me rocking back and forth, sobbing hysterically, hurling questions and accusations. How could a doctor, a doctor of all people, be so careless, so stupid? Matt falling down the stairs, his face a torment as he tried to escape my devastated wrath. Sitting in my OB’s office, cheerfully telling him that this time my baby was going to make it, only to see by his grave expression that I was wrong. Lying on a table as the ultrasound wand pressed into the gel on my belly, the machine beeping and clicking, Matt making the sounds and expressions of a caring husband at my side. Throwing the flannel receiving blankets my mother had made in a garbage bag and shoving them in the back of a closet. Praying that The Slut would lose her baby, too.
Matt said he was not in love with the woman and wanted to save our marriage. Early in our separation, Matt would visit me, the baby seat in his car a cruel reminder of the child that we – that I – would never have. Finally, I stopped seeing him. I needed time alone, to think, to feel my own emotions without having to deal with his. I soon realized that I would never be able to accept this child and his mother into my life. We divorced, and not long after, Matt married the mother of his child.
I won't lie and say it was easy, but after long years in Al-Anon and the hard work of honest self-assessment, I had come to terms with Matt's betrayal -- had even grown grateful to the woman who rescued me from a disastrous, unhappy marriage that I had been too loyal or too frightened to end. Then, out of the blue, that Pronouncement from the Tribunal landed with a slap on my counter. I had been annulled. The Slut's marriage to Matt was now sanctified, now bore the official imprimatur of the Church. And mine had been annulled. The irony was breath-taking.
So I hope that you will understand my mixed emotions when I look at my little Pope flag or visit a cathedral. It's all there -- the awe and the anger, the envy of pure belief and the disdain for officious hypocrisy.
And I hope you will forgive the little taste of schadenfreude I felt when I learned that Matt and The Slut are now divorced and engaged in an ugly court battle. I wonder what it will cost to get this one annulled?