Writing the Monsignor

Mary O’Connell recalls her college efforts to write about a scandalized priest from her youth.

Mary O’Connell | Longreads | September 2017 | 18 minutes (4,609 words)

 

How we loved his very name: Monsignor Thomas O’Brien. The elevated French titlethat magnificent silent “g” — coupled with his sturdy Irish name, which, imbued with our cultural bias, suggested all good things. Monsignor O’Brien can tell a joke like nobody’s business! Monsignor O’Brien loves Jameson shots and telling stories late into the smoky night! Monsignor O’Brien always carries Tootsie Rolls to give to children! Monsignor doesn’t stand on ceremony, no sir! Did you hear him mumble “Holy Shit” when his sleeve brushed the altar candle and caught fire?

Now Monsignor O’Brien belongs to a lost age, our personal Pompeii. Excavate us from the lava ash and see us in our innocence: our voluminous eighties hair and hoop earrings, our hands clutching cassettes tapes, The Go-Go’s, A Flock of Seagulls, LL Cool J. See the random fortune that shaped our days and gave us our bold, laughing profiles, the lowered eyes and caved shoulders of a different experience. It was a time when “monsignor” or “priest” was spoken without the slightest wince, without the explicit worry — uh-oh — before the saddest of the sad trombones replaced the golden crash of church bells at Midnight Mass, before the newspaper stories and the movie and the documentaries told a truth more devastating and inconvenient to the faithful than anything Al Gore could conjure, before Sinead O’Connor ripped up a photo of John Paul II on Saturday Night Live. (Note to my outraged 24-year-old self: Go ahead and proclaim Sinead a delusional attention whore, for that will amp up your moral vigor and you will feel ever so righteous, ever so wholesome! But she knows things.)

Back then, we believed the Monsignor was a holy man, but he also walked among us as a totally regular guy, so we pitied him his natural yearnings stemmed by sacrifice. We mourned with him when he gave a Mother’s Day homily about missing his own mother. We spied him driving through McDonald’s with nobody in the passenger seat, nobody in the backseat. The lonely subtext: Having a family of his own to sit down to dinner with was pretty much off the table.

Yet we imagined that loneliness as sublime. It was the waxen sweetness of ivory altar candles and spent wedding roses, the scrape and rasp of his black wing-tips on the icy church steps at dawn, a dinner taken by himself, something hearty, we imagined, something priestly: Shepherds pie chased with Folgers coffee in an earthenware mug stamped with a chunky Celtic cross. Later, if he craved a treat and if it wasn’t Lent, Monsignor O’Brien might eat an off-brand sandwich cookie leftover from a funeral luncheon while he watched the Chiefs on the small TV in the rectory. Later still, he might lay in bed with a notebook, laboring over his upcoming homily.

Perhaps he would rise and pace for a bit; the business of inspiration and enlightenment was surely stressful, the word of the Lord so far-off, so starry and oblique. In his endearing humility, Monsignor O’Brien would never quite feel up to the task of interpreting God for the rest of us. Did he console himself by thinking that the valor was in the effort, not the accomplishment? Did he click off his bedside lamp and listen to jazz on his AM/FM clock radio as his eyelids fluttered shut? Did Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman take him to his rest? Goodnight, Monsignor O’Brien. Goodnight, Jesus. Goodnight to all those saints and angels who have sung your praises throughout the years.

***

The monsignor appeared in my little sister’s hospital room after she had been hurt in a freak roller coaster accident at the Worlds of Fun amusement park in Kansas City, Missouri the summer after I graduated from high school. A few years later, this seemed like a promising scenario to be lightly fictionalized for my undergraduate fiction writing class: Religion! Tragedy! I didn’t scribble my random thoughts — Narrator’s waning belief in God? — in a cloth-covered journal or a hot pink Moleskine; if they even existed in the 80s, I didn’t know where to buy them. I wrote in a regular spiral notebook purchased at Kmart. And when I got serious, when I sat down to really write about my sister’s accident and the Monsignor, I used a Selectric typewriter. Though it sounded like staccato bursts of gunfire, my words had no particular trajectory or force, no nod to the moral collapse of the world, no poetic sadness. Robert Frost would not gaze off into the snowy world, telling this tale with a sigh, by and by, not yet.

Back then we believed the Monsignor was a holy man, but he also walked among us as a totally regular guy, so we pitied him his natural yearnings stemmed by sacrifice.

Monsignor O’Brien showed up at particularly inopportune time, as my 13-year-old sister was reading Cosmopolitan. When Helen Gurley Brown founded her flagship magazine she might not have imagined injured teenagers and Monsignors as her target audience, but that was how it played out at Saint Joseph’s Hospital in the year of our Lord 1984. And oh, how quaintly naughty it all was, how retro, a porcelain cameo at the closed collar of the old world: my sister, the monsignor and Cosmo!

And the humor was all so tenuous, so cherished. Had my sister’s delicate neurosurgery been unsuccessful, Monsignor O’Brien would have been summoned to the ICU for last rites. But because of an excellent surgeon and a rather miraculous recovery, he served as our family jester. How we loved to envision the Monsignor’s shock and sputtering outrage as he glanced at my sister’s salacious reading material! The August 1984 issue of Cosmo featured Kim Alexis in a bikini top and a mini-sarong. Of course, there were the informative articles: I’m the Sexual Aggressor! How Today’s Women Make the First Move; Lose 10 pounds in Two Weeks, The Professor and the Prostitute.

But on the heels of his pious disgust would come his essential Tom O’Brien-ness. The monsignor would not just see a 13-year-old girl with a brain injury holding a sexy magazine, he would really see my sister, just transferred to the pediatric wing from intensive care. One look at her chart would give him the sideshow narrative. Struck by a roller coaster? At Worlds of Fun, the Monsignor would think, his own brain exploding from the irony. Not just any modicum of fun will do if one is to have their head ripped open by a speeding roller coaster, one must have whole worlds of fun!

He would take a long, tender look at a girl with half her head shaved. (Just like Cyndi Lauper, people would say. Because people were super hilarious like that! Except Cyndi Lauper didn’t have a serpentine trail of stitches on her head, so, no, not quite!) And then Monsignor O’Brien would glance back at the Cosmopolitan and think, ah, what the Hell.

***

On the summer day Monsignor O’Brien walked into my sister’s hospital room, he’d been the subject of abuse accusations for two decades. Though clerical abuse happens to both genders, O’Brien abused boys. A 14-year-old altar boy Monsignor O’Brien had allegedly abused committed suicide the previous November. Monsignor O’Brien had already been sent to New Mexico and Washington, D.C. to receive treatment for his particular problem — the shell game of priest being shuffled around, but always kept in his role as an authority figure. Who doesn’t know what the church valued most in the years of rampant abuse with zero accountability? (Spoiler alert for those just waking from a 20-year bout of soap opera amnesia: not the precious children.)

Now we hope things have changed with the cool pope; now we’re floating in a love cloud of purple smoke — O, that Francis! He’s not one to judge! He cares about Global Warning! We forget the cool guy usually breaks your heart in the end.

But our moment of heartwarming Catholic renewal comes a little late for the abused. What Monsignor O’Brien did sometimes to a child in private, sometime to children in groups, threats made in the aftermath of his abuse makes one wish not to be a human being at all. Probably anything would be better: to be a bird, or a snow tire, or a pebble, or a neglected pet from the 197O’s — those starving dime store turtles in shoe boxes who subsisted on the occasional benevolence of a handful of grass, or more rarely, a cricket — and who lived, compared to the lost boys of my youth, in paradise.

***

In college, I thought to give my fictional Monsignor O’Brien the name Ezekiel O’Neil, which sounded completely awesome, but in a way that was perhaps a shade too awesome for fiction, so I demoted him to Father Dan O’Kelly. I called my sister’s character Jade, which aside from being entire galaxies cooler than my sister’s real name, Jane, was how I pronounced her name when my allergies were acting up.

But as I sat in front of the typewriter at the kitchen table admiring the feathery red wreaths of my lipstick imprinting the Marlboro Light filters, something was not right. I had a beer or two as drinking and smoking was simply what one did while creating art, and took many breaks to admire my reflection in the window: girl, writing. The story had plenty of sadness, and a happy ending, but the Monsignor O’Brien section provided the necessary comedic element, and it wasn’t — in the de rigeur lingo of an undergraduate workshop — working. It wasn’t especially funny on the page.

The monsignor appeared in my little sister’s hospital room the summer after I graduated from high school. This seemed like a promising scenario to be lightly fictionalized for my undergraduate fiction writing class.

In my mind’s eye I saw Monsignor O’Brien walk down the hall in the pediatric wing of Saint Joseph’s Hospital, the man in black except for his white collar, a short, slump-shouldered man with, well … I was sorry to trot out the standard leprechaun lore and feared my words would end up circled in red ink: CLICHÉ? But a quick Google search of his photo proves the memory correct. Monsignor O’Brien had twinkling Irish eyes. Really, all the details came easily enough: I remembered the nubby orange chairs had been sprayed with a floral freshener, that the chemical bouquet didn’t quite mask the amped up BO of anxiety. I remembered the constant blare of the TV mounted on the wall — my God, was local newscaster Larry Moore really talking about my sister’s accident? And I had a precise recall of the Monsignor turning at my sister’s door, flattening his palm to push open the door, my brain on fire with The Cosmo! The Cosmo! The Cosmo! Holy Shit! I’d purchased it for myself at the gas station and read every word before I passed it off to my sister for her restorative perusal. How vividly I remembered being the worried teenage villain in a sleeveless paisley blouse and acid-washed denim mini-skirt — Monsignor O’Brien! What you are about to discover will shock you to your very core — there in the fluorescent gloom of the pediatric wing.

***

I chain smoked late into the night, staring at the typewriter keys, but something hazy and unspoken troubled me. It wasn’t the cigarettes, though they made me feel a little guilty. I had promised God I would stop smoking if my sister lived through her surgery. I believed God agonized over my smoking, that in fact all the members of the Holy Trinity were invested in the pinkening of my lungs: The Son of God that hung on my family’s wall in his blue-eyed Caucasian glory — Another Irishman! What were the chances? — agonized anew each time I stopped at Quik Trip for a fresh pack of Marlboro Lights, his punctured sacred heart oozing a fresh trail of blood with every flick of my neon green lighter. And the Holy Spirit, in his neutered omniscience, must have observed my smoking in silent sorrow but what could he really do? He hadn’t created the world or walked in it as a person, so he was doomed to swirl around in our souls, forever the third wheel and unknowable as a sea horse.

The cool thing? My sister had not only fully recovered but I was still enjoying smoke after smoke after smoke! My sister made straight A’s! She would go on to be a National Merit Scholar! I was still a purveyor of Marlboro Lights! Poor old God was a cuckold, or worse. It was a terrible thing to consider, but the thought formed in my mind: God? Well. My newly forming agnosticism might make for a pretty terrific narrative arc! Perhaps it would make the narrator look both bold and sensitive, qualities to further draw the attention of the cute cool guy who had told me that he’d really liked my last story. On the way out of class, he’d touched the inside of my wrist after his compliment and then said, his voice low and delicious: I’m not just bullshitting you, it was a really good story. My God, the world was full of little victories! I imagined that, with this wildly poignant story about my sister’s injury, he would fall definitively in love with me, and that I would have to break up with my boyfriend, and actually the prolonged agony of that would probably be quite good for my writing life, etc.

But the muse will eventually appear, even to a vain and self-aggrandizing young writer who knows nothing at all, and when he finally showed up, he pointed to an empty chair. Because what was missing from the Monsignor story was the Monsignor himself. He had only visited my sister that one time, but from my vantage point in the open waiting room adjacent to the nurse’s station, he had seemed a perpetual presence. And I remembered the thing I’d wanted from him, just two years earlier, but a whole world away, back when I was not yet a pseudo sophisticate in a creative writing class, back when I was a teenager who adored risqué magazines and the Lord: I wanted Monsignor O’Brien to pray for my sister.

I prayed for her constantly. I tried to pray without ceasing, to float the Hail Mary through my mind as I ordered at the drive-through or made small talk while buying Junior Mints in the hospital gift shop, but I knew my words didn’t count as much to God as the Monsignor’s and really, why should they? Jesus was the calculus whiz and I was kissing up to him, trying to get him to whisper the answers to the most difficult equations because I hadn’t bothered to study. I was carefree, unlike the Monsignor, who had given up so much for Jesus. I could help, though. I could pray that God would listen attentively to Monsignor O’Brien. Dear Lord, hear his prayer.


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I imagined that Monsignor O’Brien would start praying conversationally, with a familial closeness that was his due. Christ, What a day I’ve had. Then he’d move onto cursory, light-hearted requests: Let’s get the Royals moving in the pennant race, shall we? Well, the tomatoes sure could use a little rain. Then he would go deeper, the Monsignor on his knees in his bedroom, the heavy curtains drawn. He would pray to end poverty, racism, hunger, all anxiety. And then he would pray for my sister.

Monsignor O’Brien would beg, Monsignor O’Brien would cajole: no lasting brain damage, please, please please. He would pray for my parents, for the light of Christ to fill their hearts in such a strange, dark time, and he would pray for my brother and me, too, that we would be strong for my parents, for each other. After Monsignor O’Brien made his requests known to God, he would pray to the saints, asking for their intercession on my sister’s behalf. And then he would quiet his mind, and go deeper still, beyond any known denominational devotions, beyond all chatter and despair. The Monsignor would enter a realm of prayer to supersede all others, a place so wordless and sacred that it could only be expressed in colors, the mind layered in lavender blue and velvety gray and deep navy until all prayer coalesced into a single shade, a saturated black violet that bore my sister’s name.

***

The boys in the newspaper photos, their dear little faces from elementary school yearbooks and the closed-mouth smiles of middle school orthodontia, then the experimental hair styles of high school, the dead-looking eyes. Grainy reprints of Polaroids that show the boys in their altar gowns standing in arched church door wells next to their proud parents, the dads in their ill-fitting suits, the sun glinting off the mothers’ patent leather pocketbooks. With the knowledge of the future comes the horror movie soundtrack: Get your out son of there! Get your son out of there! With the knowledge of the future comes the need to address the evil. O, we have seen the priest stepping away from the lectern, moving out to the middle of the altar and taking a few steps down so that’s he’s on the same level as the pews, the same level as us. Behold, though, he’s not bringing the slightest good tiding of great joy. He’s embarking upon a difficult homily, and it starts a little something like this: The first thing we should acknowledge is that the Catholic church has committed the great sin of sexual abuse, and that this abuse is everywhere. It’s in the workplace. It’s in the schools. It’s in all branches of the military. Abuse occurs in all religious denominations. (Solemn gazes from the pews, but difficult not to wonder: Exactly what percentage of Merchant Marines are pedophiles? Do Lutheran congregations declare bankruptcy over settlements for systemic abuse?)

He’d been the subject of abuse accusations for two decades. A 14-year-old altar boy Monsignor O’Brien had allegedly abused committed suicide the previous November.

O, my old ephemeral dream house of saints and angels, my consolation and my joy, reduced to the rationalizing lamentations of company men, eyes forever trained on your wallet, because there’s always a building project on the horizon — don’t forget to pick up your pledge forms, located at the end of the pews! But nothing really prepares us for the horrific and whiny subtext realized as we drive home in silence: Everybody’s doing it!

And still the wounded watchdogs of the church keen from the pews, from the after-mass coffee and donuts extravaganzas: It’s so unfair! I have known so many wonderful priests! They give up so much! Soooo very much! Which is God’s truth. I sense the spirits of those whose lives of courage and kindness and faith and poverty and martyred greatness leave me in the dust as I go about my day of quotidian middle-age privilege; the ghost of Blessed Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran Archbishop murdered for his devotion to the marginalized and terrorized, rides shotgun in my mini-van, giving me the side eye as I pull through the Starbucks drive-through and order a four dollar hazelnut latte: Bitch, please. And I’m tempted to join in the chorus rhapsodizing about the falsely maligned priests, because I have known some brilliant priests who were the furthest thing from company men; I have known some very, very nice priests. But a lot of the boys in the newspaper photos were probably pretty nice, too.

***

I had just received an uncharacteristic A on a paper about Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and as I sat in front of the typewriter, I tried to think deeply about what troubled me, as Rilke instructed: Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perplexed and embarrassed perhaps, or perhaps rebellious. But don’t give in…insist on arguments and act this way, watchful and consistent, every single time…

Well, I didn’t particularly want anything spoiled for me, and my mind was trained toward Midwestern pleasantries: Monsignor’s gift of a snappy homily was just terrific — he could get us to Pizza Hut by 6:15 if he was saying the five o’clock Saturday mass! And though I was having the standard collegiate experience of rejecting the tenets of my childhood faith, I still attended mass with my family when I went home on breaks. I still loved the overall transcendent aesthetic: touching the cold marble gown of the kind-eyed Virgin Mary who I once believed could discern my every thought, dipping my fingertips into a golden font of holy water, gazing at the gussied-up baby girls with velvet bows scotch taped to their bald heads, opening my mouth for the body of Christ that dissolved so effortlessly on my tongue. All the iconic loveliness of Catholicism had cost me nothing at all.

Yet my uncertainty remained and eventually seized upon this: There was a reason Monsignor only visited my sister once, and it had nothing to do with a sexy magazine. I had seen Monsignor O’Brien enter the hospital room across the hall from my sister’s several times, and in memory it was a boy’s room.

Cue the fury of the burgeoning feminist who had just learned the word “patriarchy” and was not afraid to use it: Of course Jane/Jade was perfectly second rate, for she would never enter the seminary and discuss Saint Augustine with Monsignor O’Brien over pints of Guinness and grilled hamburgers. He would certainly never lean out and touch my sister’s shoulder as she filed past with the other parishioners after mass; the monsignor would never stand on the church steps with her, sharing a random sports joke or enquiring about her summer plans. Because Monsignor O’Brien wasn’t so great after all. Monsignor O’Brien was a sexist old dude who didn’t have much regard for a teenage girl and her family.

Furthermore, I wondered, would it have killed him to be kinder to my parents? Could he have not picked up the phone and asked how my sister was doing? Even? One? Time? Would it have been such a trial for Monsignor O’Brien to offer up the loaves and fishes by way of sneaking my dear and stressed father a drink in the pediatric wing, perhaps one of those doll-sized bottles of Canadian Club that the airlines handed out? By telling my mother that he was praying for her last child, her red-haired girl? What a lovely man, my family we would have said: Monsignor O’Brien? He’s the real deal. How we would have marveled at the Monsignor’s goodness, at his tender attention during our hard time, had my sister been a boy.

***

The night I sat in the Intensive Care waiting room, my sister’s life hanging in the balance, I daydreamed setting fire to Worlds of Fun. It seemed crucial to protect other people, and also to punish Worlds of Fun for my sister’s accident. And if anyone could get away with setting an amusement park on fire, I thought it was probably me. I wasn’t good at sports or academics, and I wasn’t the sort of high school beauty who caused high drama and resentment, but I was pretty enough, and more importantly, I had the confidence of a deeply loved child. I believed I could enter the park after hours by telling the guards I’d left my wallet at the funnel cake kioskI’m always forgetting something! Once inside and far from the security gates, I would check to make sure Worlds of Fun was absolutely deserted and then pull matches and a Sprite bottle filled with gasoline from my purse. It felt powerful to have a vengeful fantasy, jagged orange flames behind my closed lids, but I was no teenage arsonist, and our family tragedy had a storybook happy ending.

But how are the churches where Monsignor O’Brien served still standing? How do the parents, elderly now, drive past on their way to the doctor or the grocery store, knowing what happened to their babies in those buildings? Is it impulse control or decades of crushing, catatonic sadness that keeps them away from gas cans and explosives? Each time they look at their sons — the boys of the eighties I grew up with, now deep into the bloated vulnerability of middle age — do they feel the unrelieved shock of it, the perpetual sorrow?

***

I stayed up all night, trashing the comedic element of my story and adding the entrenched patriarchy of the Catholic Churchthe Selectric keys crashing away because, people, I was on to something!and knowing exactly nothing about the extent of my family’s good fortune. Because my sister was a girl, there would be no future newspaper photo of my mother sitting next to a headstone, a rosary snaked around her bent fingers, and my father was not sentenced to live outside the door of the home he’d once loved — a beautiful door of polished mahogany and stained glass — where something terrible happened to his child. My family would not live in that anteroom of unknowable anguish.

O, how lovely I was sitting in front of the typewriter — girl, writing — how poignant my callous righteousness, how unfettered my joy at calling out some seriously sexist BS, and how lucky were my classmates who would soon get to read my illuminating tale! Because I didn’t know I was a jackass; I didn’t know anything at all.

My newly forming agnosticism might make for a pretty terrific narrative arc! Perhaps it would draw the attention of the cute cool guy who had told me that he’d really liked my last story.

Except, not quite.

In the era before spoiled suburban teenagers busied themselves with AP classes and weekend-obliterating enrichment activities, we worked at the mall. Customer service was known to be dreadful in the evenings when so many managers and full-timers went home and the teen workers manned the registers, but I loved my job at Musicland, the loud pop music and the requisite co-worker dramas, and I loved my breaks, the menthol cigarettes I smoked slumped down in the furthest booth at the food court in case one of my dumb teachers was treating herself to TJ Cinnamons before she hit the panty hose sale at J.C. Penney’s.

One night, the winter before my sister’s accident, I was walking out of Ward Parkway shopping center after my 5-9 shift, pausing in the stale vestibule that separated the trapped sugar and grease smells of Topsy’s popcorn and Winstead’s hamburgers from the refreshing cold air. I instinctively scanned the parking lot for any waiting danger and saw a man standing next to his car, parked close to mine. I watched him — he was smoking under a streetlight — as I waited for someone else to walk out the door with me, as a girl must. But as soon as I recognized the man, I swung the door right open, because my precaution was so not needed, my precaution was rather hilarious, for my would-be assailant was a priest at the Catholic high school down the road!

He was wearing jeans and a Members Only jacket: the nylon epaulettes on the shoulders, the label on the front pocket. It was always vaguely unsettling to see a priest in regular clothes, but the Members Only jacket really cranked up the weird factor. Well, it would be a good story for my parents when I got home: the corny designer jacket, the smoking. He called out Well, hello! as I walked closer, his voice as buoyant and friendly and as if he were wearing a cassock and greeting me from the church steps after mass. I understood he certainly didn’t want to scare a girl walking out to her car, but his kindness was unnecessary. I had seen this particular priest around the mall before, talking to boys on their break, so I already knew he was only waiting, and not for me.

* * *

Mary O’Connell, a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, is the author of the young adult novels Dear Reader and The Sharp Time, and the short story collection Living with Saints. She is working on an essay collection about the seven sacraments.

Editor: Sari Botton