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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Review: A Gay Catholic Memoir by Scott Pomfret

Since My Last Confession (a gay catholic memoir) by Scott Pomfret
Arcade Publishing, New York $26.00 288 pages

Vatican II brought radical changes to the (western rite) Catholic Church. Not only was the Latin mass changed to the vernacular but the nuances of the liturgy were streamlined or in some cases, “protestantized.” One of the intentions of Vatican II was to make the Catholic Mass “accessible” to mainstream Protestant religious bodies like the Lutherans and Methodists. The idea was to set the groundwork for Christian unity, to make Catholicism “ecumenically friendly.”
To the chagrin of Catholic traditionalists, the design of the “new” Mass was orchestrated by six Protestant clergymen. At the end of Vatican II, change for the sake of change in the Church became the order of the day. The concept of the Mass as a “meal’ rather than a “sacrifice” heralded the new position of the priest facing the people rather than east (or the altar). After that came the removal or deconstruction of the high altar itself. In Catholic churches around the world plastic or wooden tables replaced centuries-old altars. (Traditionalists derogatorily refer to these plastic tables as “Julia Child’s table—without the Cornish Hen”).
Other changes in the Church continued with the fever pitch of a Donna Summer song.
The tabernacle, once the immovable focal point of the high altar, was removed to a side table. Sacred iconography went the way of all flesh: statues and icons in some cases were removed and replaced with burlap banners decorated with Biblical quotations. Highly stylized Church crucifixes were replaced by a tacky looking resurrected Christ (arms outstretched) or in some cases bare plus signs. Altar rails, some of them hundreds of years old, were demolished and turned into parking lot slabs. The overall architectural design of Catholic churches changed as well. New churches came to resemble secular meeting halls or interdemonitional spaces.
“Is this a Catholic church or a Protestant church?” became the common refrain of the day.
In many ways the Catholic Church of the post-Vatican II era was a different Catholic Church than its predecessor. The 1970s saw folk masses, jazz masses, basketball masses, Halloween masses, hand clapping and other Protestant evangelical trappings. Gregorian chant flew out the window; in its place pedestrian “hymns” like “On Eagles Wings” became signature liturgical music.
Change even affected the religious habits of some orders of Catholic nuns. The “modern” nun, fashionably coiffed in short hair and long earrings, came to resemble the nice lesbian feminist next door. Sadly, the Audrey Hepburn nun of The Nun’s Story became a fossilized antique.
But if proponents of Catholic theological change thought that Vatican II would alter or modify Catholic doctrine, they were mistaken. The truth is, Vatican II was more style then substance. The Council took much of the fun out of Catholic worship (the smells and bells) but left more important areas like birth control or human sexuality, untouched.
Scott Pomfret’s memoir deals mostly with the “new” church (called the Novus Ordo by traditionalists), the church of “On Eagles Wings” and “cool” masses that get down (or up) like bad Broadway shows.
Mr. Pomfret, a Boston trial attorney and a lay minister, is a committed gay Catholic. He writes of his experiences as an involved parishioner with the satirical sagacity of a latter-day Art Buchwald. This highly enjoyable memoir touches on every aspect of parish life, from eccentric fellow parishioners to the anti-gay edicts of the Cardinal-Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, whom Mr. Pomfret refers to as “Sean.”
Jonathan Swift once wrote, “Nothing is above satire.” Mr. Pomfret would seem to agree. Here, for instance, is his take on a local Boston Dignity service:
“Dignity’s liturgical procedures mandated such strict gender equality. They hailed the Holy Spirit with all three pronouns, alternating among he, she, and it. Wherever possible, the liturgy used the word God instead of masculine pronouns and nouns, but the gender-neutral construction often caused blips in the rhythm of the prayers: ‘Our Father and Our Mother, who art in Heaven….’”
“Dignitarians’ capacity for egalitarianism,” Mr. Pomfret continues, “had outstripped my imagination. [During Mass] the entire assembly participated fully in Prayers of the Faithful. They appealed to the predilections and causes of so many splinter groups that it completely undermined the communal nature of the experience.”
Writing about the Dignity-style Kiss of Peace, or the greeting that Mass goers are supposed to extend to their neighbor, Mr. Pomfret reports that “the dyke sitting next to me gave me a kiss on the mouth,” as “everyone in the room had to be hugged—some of them twice.” In conclusion, he says that the average friar at his Boston parish church, the Shrine of Saint Anthony, “could have crammed two Masses into the span of time it took the Dignitarians to exchange peace.”
The author goes to great lengths to understand Cardinal Sean, whom he describes as “personally broken,” after the Massachusetts Catholic Church failed to stop the legalization of same sex marriage there. So devastated was the Cardinal, Mr. Pomfret writes, that he wouldn’t even look the opposition in the eye when it came time to shake hands at conferences or religious roundtable discussions.
“People who encountered [the Cardinal] reported a stunned, deer-in-the-headlights look,” he writes. The marriage victory in Massachusetts, Mr. Pomfret adds, was embarrassing for the Archdiocese of Boston where the state legislature is 70 percent Catholic.

“The Church, limping, haggard, once a moral contender, had weakened to a shadow of its former strength. A different Church, one that retained a speck of moral authority, might still have articulated Gospel imperatives that really did bear repeating: poverty, capital punishment, war, goldfish murder, the ubiquitous frat boy uniform of khaki pants and braided belts, and other objective evils,” Mr. Pomfret writes.
There’s hardly a niche or crevice in American Catholicism that Mr. Pomfret doesn’t cover.
When he visits a Courage meeting (a gay Catholic group committed to celibacy), he observes: “Their alienation from their sexual identity was compelling—but also obscene, like watching a little girl with a box knife cut herself.”
Surprisingly tolerant when he writes about Courage, Mr. Pomfret does manage to include a few Courage quotes.
“People who have successfully integrated homosexual desires with their personalities…are rare indeed.”
“It is therefore easy to see how the homosexual relation fails as a totally human relationship.”
The Boston Courage chaplain is described as a “hunk.” “…Father John was a man’s man—forty years old, movie star handsome, a strong handshake, and a tough South Boston accent. A lot of the celibate boys surely developed serious crushes on him,” Mr. Pomfret writes. Although Courage’s celibate boys are only about ten in number, the author wonders, “The Church really is determined to torture these guys. They couldn’t have chosen a little ninety-year-old eunuch as chaplain? Instead they assign this virile stud?”
As to why he remains a Catholic in the impossibly rigid doctrinaire atmosphere of Pope Benedict XVI (or B16), Mr. Pomfret says, “I can no more shed my Catholicism than my gayness.”

Thom Nickels is the author of eight published books, including Philadelphia Architecture and Out in History. He is also the architecture critic at The Philadelphia Bulletin. He can be reached at

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