When I was twenty-four years old I had the great fortune to marry my best friend. If you find that kind of love once in your life, however qualified or brief, you are blessed beyond words forever. Bridget was my running buddy for years, my wing woman when I went looking for girls, and we were there for each other through a succession of mutually failed love affairs. We had many adventures together.
Forty-two years ago, as I write these words, we stayed up one night smoking bongs and tripping on mushrooms and talking about how much we hated growing up in the Catholic Church. We both came from Irish Catholic families, and Catholicism, like herpes, never completely goes away but rather lays dormant in your system waiting to strike again when you least expect. We spoke through the night in fits and pieces, in halting half-sentences filled with outrage for a religion which promised hell for abortion, hell for birth control, hell for homosexuality, hell for masturbation, hell for promiscuity. It seemed to me our prospects for salvation grew slim even as our chances of being engulfed in flames surrounded by our many friends increased proportionately. We both felt we had misspent our teenage years bathed in a contrived shame, waiting in fear for an excommunication that could never possibly come.
I had seen the movie “Becket,” and I watched awe-struck as the College of Cardinals renounced Thomas Becket’s name, cast a silver staff upon a marbled Roman floor and condemned his soul with a collective “Anathema!” That’s what I wanted: a timeless ceremony in a distant land slaked in tradition that would consign my soul to Hell for eternity. That and perhaps a small certificate suitable for framing. Still glippy from shrooms when the sun came up we decided to pay an immediate visit to Holy Name Church, the parish where I was baptized five blocks away. We were going to demand an excommunication.
The archetypical housekeeper seemed to be the same woman who answered the rectory door when I was ten years old. We said we wanted to see a priest, and she asked if we had an appointment. We held hands and pretended to be a couple-in-love.
“No,” I said meekly, “But we really need to get some advice.”
We were ushered into a small mahogany-trimmed office and presently a young priest from India, not much older than ourselves, came into the room. When we told him we wanted an excommunication he giggled nervously.
“I can’t do that,” he said. “That would have to be the Bishop’s decision.”
“Where was the Bishop?” we wondered.
“Not far,” he said politely, and he gave us the address.
The housekeeper at the Bishop’s residence told us that His Excellency was a very busy man. We feigned our lover’s pain and expressed an immediate need for holy guidance, and were led into a small cluttered office that smelled pleasantly of old books. After a brief wait we were joined by the Right Reverend Joseph A. Francis, Titular Bishop of Valliposita at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, New Jersey. He was a tall, good-looking black man with a deep stentorian voice that I can still hear clearly more than three decades later:
“What can I do for you?”
We immediately dropped any conceit of a confused couple and told him that we were quintessentially fallen Christians who bore an abiding resentment against the many hypocrisies of the Catholic Church.
“We want an excommunication,” I said, “Like in ‘Becket’”
“Where do we sign?” Bridget asked.
The Bishop did not giggle.
It was approaching ten o’clock in the morning, and we had been up all night. The mushrooms had worn off for the most part and left us with a pyschonaut’s confidence.
“Now why would you want to do that?” Bishop Francis said quietly.
We had our reasons. We told him that we were both raised in strict Catholic households and had come to reject the divinity of Christ. We told him we believed deeply in our own counter-culture values and that our treasured lifestyle had placed us at odds with the teachings of the Church. We practiced birth control. We both fiercely believed in a woman’s right to choose. We had gay friends, “I know a transvestite,” I proudly chirped. We were agnostics or atheists or pagans – we certainly weren’t Catholics. We had other Gods before us. We did not keep the Sabbath. We were unrepentant.
“Where do we sign?” Bridget smiled.
We thought it was a joke but Bishop Francis thought we were damning our souls to Hell. To his eternal credit, he cleared his calendar, cancelled a few appointments, settled in for the long haul and argued for our salvation.
“When I was young,” His Excellency began, “I saw many terrible things.” He lowered his head and shook it a tad too dramatically. “Terrible things.”
Bridget and I smiled at each other. This was going to be fun
Joseph A. Francis was born in 1923 in Lafayette, Louisiana. He was the same age as my mother and two years younger than my father. He was raised in the deeply segregated South, and when he was twelve he entered Saint Augustine Seminary in St. Louis, which at that time was the only seminary in the United States that accepted African-American students. He was ordained into the priesthood in 1950 and founded Verbum Dei High School in the Watts section of Los Angeles; and he was present when that impoverished landscape burst into flames during the riots that gripped the nation in August 1965. He was elevated to auxiliary bishop in the Newark Archdiocese by Pope Paul VI in 1976, becoming the fourth black bishop in the United States. When he sat down with us in 1978 he was about to publish his landmark “Brothers & Sisters To Us,” the first pastoral letter to discuss the sin of racism in the Catholic Church.
Of course, we knew none of this. To Bridget and I he was hypocrisy personified, and he deserved everything we threw at him.“The Catholic Church terrified both of us when we were young, and we want to sever our ties completely,” I said.
“Members of the Church are not commonly excommunicated today,” he countered. “It’s usually reserved for professionals like that priest in France who continues to say the Mass in Latin.”
“That may be true,” I said, “but that didn’t stop the priests and nuns from threatening to excommunicate us for every sin imaginable”
“We admit what we did, and we’re going to continue doing it. We have no remorse,” Bridget told him. “Are you saying excommunication is just an empty threat?”
“I’m saying you’re doing something here you may regret later. This is a serious matter.” His genuine concern was palpable.
“We have a good reason for doing this,” I argued. “If I died tomorrow my mother would cut off my hair, put me in a suit and bury me in the family plot in the hallowed ground of Gate of Heaven Cemetery. That’s not what I want. I want to be cremated and by doing this I’m making sure that my wishes will be carried out. I won’t be buried in hallowed ground.”
Bishop Francis debated with us for over two hours. He was unrelenting, passionate, unyielding; but we both came from the stubborn Irish-Catholic stock that would never concede. Finally the Bishop admitted that he didn’t have the authority to grant an excommunication.
“Your request would have to be taken up by the College of Cardinals in Rome.”
Now we were getting somewhere. “What do we have to do to make that happen,” I asked.
“Well,” the Bishop said wearily, “I suppose you could write me a letter making a formal request, and I could forward that letter to the Vatican. We’ll see what happens.”
“Okay. That’s what we’ll do,” I said while Bridget stayed silent. We thanked him for his time and took our leave of Bishop Francis.
“You’ll be hearing from us.”
“I’ll be praying for you,” he said.
While walking to the car Bridget said, “He was a nice guy.”
“Yes, he was.”
“He gave a lot of his time.”
“Yeah, I was surprised by that.”
After a moment, she said, “Let’s not do it.”
“He was a nice guy and he treated us with respect. If we go ahead with this letter thing, it’s just going to embarrass him.” She looked directly at me. “I don’t want to embarrass him.”
I remember her in the parking lot, the springtime sun glancing off her bright red hair. Her blue Irish eyes and her wide beautiful smile.
“Okay,” I said and that was that.
In the fall of 1978, Bridget and I became platonic roommates. We had both been living the wild life for many years – too many lovers, too much drink and too many drugs. We were twenty-four years old, and we both felt it was time to put away our toys and grow up a little. I wanted to be a writer and she wanted to be a mom.
“Yeah. That would be cool,” I said. “I’d like to be a dad.”
During our first Christmas together we confessed an abiding love for each other that, in retrospect, was obvious to everyone except ourselves. Deep friendship turned to destiny beneath the early winter stars. We were married two weeks later, on January 8, 1979 – Elvis Presley’s birthday – and woke up in our honeymoon suite at the old Americana Hotel in New York City, surprised to find ourselves so unburdened. Soon after, she got a job working at a pharmacy and supported me for the next year while I stayed at home and tried to write my first novel. I published my first cover story in a magazine during that year. When the first draft of the book was complete we were going to start a family…
On several occasions in the ensuing years I sat down to write Bishop Francis a letter, but each time I tried, words failed me. I knew what I wanted to say but I couldn’t bring myself to put it on paper. I’ve begun that letter in my mind so many times that by now it’s unwritten opening is committed to my memory:
Dear Bishop Francis, (I would write)
You probably will remember the two young people who came to your office some years ago and impudently demanded an unlikely excommunication, and you may have wondered what became of that ardent pair over time. I thought I should write to you and tell you the end of the story.
You should know that you impressed Bridget that morning with your kind respect, and she insisted immediately afterward that we would not follow through with our request. She was as wise as I was arrogant, and we never wrote the letter you suggested. Shortly after we met with you, Bridget and I fell in love and were married. We discovered we were made for each other and together we found a great deal of happiness…”
But then my thoughts always dissolved into skein of confusing images, and I have never found an adequate way to admit that fifteen months after we were wed – on Good Friday, April 5, 1980, – my wife was killed by a drunken driver while she was hitchhiking on the side of the road, trying to get to work. Five days later, following a surreal service in a Catholic church, during a pounding cold springtime rain, I buried Bridget in the hallowed ground of Gate of Heaven Cemetery next to my mother and grandmother. But I do know, however, how I would end the letter. I would say, “And that’s where I’ll be buried when my time comes…”
Everybody loves irony; but nobody likes to pay for it. Chalk up two souls saved (perhaps) by the ministry of the Most Reverend Joseph A. Francis, the patient and wise Bishop of Valliposita at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart (1923 – 1997).