MAILANDER’S LA - It typically comes as a shock at some point, even to the most shock-proof Angeleno, to discover that there are rosary beads on the seal of the City of Los Angeles. Indeed, it does make sense that they are there, on the crest of a city named not for The Angels but for the rosary's Queen of Angels. LA, on some level, and perhaps more intimately than most other American cities, does indeed look to Rome, and never more attentively than when Rome elects a new Pope.
Consider me also one of those curious gawkers from afar, staring not only at the balcony but also straight into a past that feels like intriguing but dangerous medieval history to me. When it comes to watching the exotic parlor games of those red hats in Rome, who elect a Pope a scant few times in an ordinary lifetime, I am both celebrating and cringing along, enthusiastically, hoping for the best.
There are a billion Catholics on the planet and only a handful of Cardinals, and that small handful does this on behalf of the billion, with little patience for the input of others, and as infrequently as famous comets brush the earth. And they elect only one Pope, point person unto the billion in general but especially unto the handful, who turns around and appoints Cardinals, at times capriciously, at times bizarrely, including one from our corner of the world from time to time.
This time around, you could feel the conclave straining to elect someone less than perfectly mandarin as other recent Popes have been. Humility was likely high on the wish list, even if it doesn't strike the faithful as a quality you ordinarily associate with a Jesuit.
The Catholic Church is certainly the world's most disproportionately non-representative organization. We 4.2 million in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles are typically represented by one single soul (that wasn't true this time) at the conclave.
The Church is famously not a Democracy, that's for sure. It almost doesn't even deserve to be called an oligarchy, in fact: fully half of its adherents, the female half, simply are not part of its hierarchy at all. And I know that my own opinions as a cradle Catholic, formed over the course of a lifetime, some from decades and decades ago, are but a small, faintly blinking, portion of comet dust to this heavy-handed, relentless, vast galaxy of faith--my own opinions, as of those of every other human, are not represented anywhere in the conclave, not anywhere, not anywhere in it at all.
Kevin Roderick of LAObserved noted the other day that our local news stations dutifully sent correspondents and even local anchors to Rome to cover the naming of a new Pope--and they typically don't even send such people to Sacramento to cover our own State's most pressing legislative news.
I don't deny that this is a deplorable editorial condition. But this Church, even in Rome, also fits the bill as a local newsmaker, not only by virtue of the numbers.
In California and especially in Los Angeles, the Church does an enormous amount of mountainous good work that rarely gets credited in the quotidian press, even as it piles up transgressions that are rather more well noted. But it is hard to imagine California becoming anything other than a perpetual catastrophe without Catholic hospitals, Catholic schools, Catholic prison programs, Catholic Charities, Catholic social services, on which our government and indeed our social order is reliant to a degree that other places may even find embarrassing.
I learned from working at Catholic Charities a quarter century ago that there are two sides to the Church: the ugly newsmaking side and the quiet but enormous continent of relief services the humble service side provides.
I learned to nurture contempt for some local noisy Bishops but also to understand how those who truly help the dispossessed can do so day after day and year after year with the barest of resources.
I would not know how to write about affordable housing, for instance, without having watched nuns slam heroic numbers of dispossessed into Section 8s and other kinds of housing with the charming efficiency of concierges, and all while taking little cash or credit or notice for doing so.
As for me, I lost my inclination to support or endorse the hierarchical, paternalist side of the Church of Rome suddenly, like a bankruptcy. The path had nothing to do with the various newspaper-fueled scandals that sandbag the Catholic Church in any given decade. (As a putative Democrat, I even liked Cardinal Mahony, in fact, who never hesitated, for instance, to tell the faithful to shop for Xmas trees at stores that had knowledgeable union workers retailing them, and who also gave excellent, highly attentive confessions).
But still, even as an Angeleno considerably distanced from organizational faith, it is fun for me to watch Rome, even more so than it is to watch...say, Sacramento. And when we hear that Pope Francis is a champion of social justice, he is championing roughly the same kind of social justice that is also being championed, especially by Latino political figures, in LA's very own public schools--more so even than in our local Catholic schools.
And like the 4.6 million others in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles who call themselves at least nominally Catholic, I am constantly asking myself while the pageant of a new Pope unfurls in sacred and profane Rome: do I regret my own Catholic journey? As for me, not at all. Do I endorse it? No, not that either.
Catholicism when you dismiss all the mundane journalism about it and all the contempt for it is at very bottom two things: an adherence to a specific creed, the Nicene Creed (which is truly the center of the Church's dogma) and an super-abundantly fleshed-out tradition of wisdom regarding an exploration of the mystery of life--which is what has fueled all the great writings by the so-called Doctors of the Church, people like Augustine and Aquinas and Francis de Sales and St. John of the Cross and Theresa Liseaux--and for that matter writers like James Joyce too. These writings stand up to the tests of many faiths, not only their own home faith.
The Church of Rome's hermetic, longstanding grasp of mystery leads a few to wisdom but also many to cargo-cult-styled magical thinking: we see this all over LA, in impromptu devotional shrines and murals and increasingly even in tattoos on those aspiring to be more faithful still. These inevitably disappoint the cynical and the elite but the magic also fuels a tremendous amount of do-gooding.
The organization of the Church was also low-hanging fruit for the local charlatans who said they were priests when they were actually hopeful, would-be child molesters. The Church has paid and will continue to pay for this, many times over, but I doubt the effects will be as catastrophic as some may quietly hope. After all, the Church also endured 300 years of assorted outlaw statuses in England and Wales, where dioceses themselves were forbidden, and despite various violences done to it, and violences it did to others, remained a real presence in lower Britain the whole time.
As for this Pope, people who are expecting Francis to change teachings and practices on sexuality, gay rights, women priests, &c.--those dogs aren't going to hunt, not at all. But those who are hoping for a Church of Rome that focuses on the poor, on the people called out in the Beatitudes--those dogs might.
A Jesuit becoming Pope, someone from the New World becoming Pope, a Jesuit who isn't heavy-handed, taking the name of the top man of their most antithetical order, Francis--in internecine Catholic circles, you couldn't hope for more peacemaking. "Social justice" and aiding the poor--this is, despite the sex stuff, more a Democratic Pope than a Republican Pope, or even perhaps an intriguing hybrid. This Pope is, in short, I believe, an excellent fit for Los Angeles, and maybe a better fit for a place like ours than he is for many other urbs.
My own lifelong suspicions of faith as managed by an organization also form my own personal testimony regarding what to expect and what not to expect from any kind of Church, Temple, or Mosque. But here it is, five years after a private lapse, and still, when I sit in the backyard and look at the bees working the pale purple rosemary blossoms or the long lavender, I see some of the old poetry and tradition of wisdom I found in my own faith, and am sure those of all other faiths share the same kinds of feelings of a universal poetic, a mystery revealed.
On balance, despite my Zen walks and jazz afternoons and profound disappointments, when I see the Roman celebration of a new Pope even from a considerable distance in every sense of the word, I am indeed glad that someone answered a few chilling questions on my behalf when I was baptized, barely three weeks old, in flung-far-from-Rome Manhattan Beach, who came to reside in the City of Our Lady of the Angels, my forehead splashed with a tactile admission of the poetry and mystery of the universe into my own little life.
(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of Days Change at Night: LA's Decade of Decline, 2003-2013. Mailander blogs at www.josephmailander.com.)
Vol 11 Issue 22
Pub: Mar 15, 2013