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On the Vatican Catwalk: Scarlet Surplices, Delicate Lace and Gold Tassels

Cardinal Sins

by MICHAEL DICKINSON

My two brothers and I were brought up as Catholics because our mother was one. We attended Mass every Sunday, at the "Church of Our Lady of Arabia" in Ahmadi, Kuwait, an Anglo/American compound where we lived because our father (no, not that one!) worked for the Kuwait Oil Company.

As a child I was a devoted idolater myself and would genuflect and make the sign of the cross with great reverence before the huge statue of the throned Virgin which towered over the altar. She and the God-child in her lap had been crowned with coronets of real gold at a special ceremony. After that they were replaced with painted tin imitations, the precious ones reserved for Christmas and Easter.

I was ten when an actual Italian Cardinal came from the Vatican to the confirmation of me and my schoolmates. He was a friend of our own Italian Bishop, and before the confirmation we queued up in our pristine white clothes for confession with the Cardinal.

I confessed my ten year old sins — disobedience, greed, laziness, disrespect, and other learned formulae, but because of the Cardinal’sItalian accent I couldn’t understand a word of the Penance he gave me.

I asked him to repeat my fine — three or two "Hail Maries"? How many "Our Fathers" did he say? Was that six or seven "Glory Be’s"?

I couldn’t understand his reply, and asked again. The voice from the dark box became impatient, raised and angry, and others were waiting behind me so I thought it best not to persist.

I went back to my pew, knelt and muttered as many prayers as I could to earn forgiveness for my sins — but I was very worried, because I was sure they weren’t the exact formula he"d given me.

Then we queued up to be confirmed by the Bishop who sat enthroned in front of the altar, dipping his thumb into a jar of holy chrism and tracing the sign of the cross onto each of our little trusting unlined foreheads, giving us our chosen confirmation saint’snames, and giving us a light slap. (The slap and the choosing of a name were removed from the ritual in 1971, but this was ten years earlier.)

I chose Saint Francis because he was kind to animals.

After the ceremony, there was a party at the nearby Indian Pakistani Club. In the lounge, as he sat in state, we all filed up and bowed before the Cardinal to kiss his ring; and then there was a competition — rosaries and luminous plastic statues of the Virgin Mary were given to whoever could recite a prayer correctly.

Everyone clamored to pray for the Cardinal. I won one for reciting the "Apostle’sCreed":

I BELIEVE in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth: And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy Catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen

(I could probably recite it again today quite easily – but nowadays I’d insert a word between "I" and "believe" — "don’t".)

My brother got a much bigger statue for a mere "Hail Mary" which I thought was rather unfair:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

The two Maries, however, big and small, glowed together on our bedroom bookcase for many a night thereafter.

Now, forty years later, I’m watching the unctuous reporting on CNN of the choosing of a new Pope.

The Cardinals are lined up behind one another with pious looks on their faces, eyes sedately lowered or raised beatifically, shuffling along in their scarlet surplices with delicate lace trimming. And the gold thread and tassels, the gold or silver crucifixes dangling from their necks; the chunky heavy gold rings on their fingers (the price of which could comfortably feed and clothe every member of a poor village in India or Africa for several years in this capitalist world.)

One by one they place their hands on the open Bible and mutter, swearing their oath of secrecy and move on, sitting sedately in their pews, all having totally ignored the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:

"Swear not at all! – Let your communication be: Yea — yea; Nay — nay; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil."

Such blatant disregard of the advice of their supposed lord is breathtaking.

And seeing those cardinals all dolled up in their majestic finery reminds me of Jesus" words:

"Why take ye thought for raiment? Take no thought saying Wherewithal shall we be clothed?"

But they do — all swanking about in the costliest, gorgeous dresses.

And now the doors close and they are isolated, each with his individual two room suite to relax and ‘take advice from the Holy Spirit" in. Twice a day they place their vote on a golden plate which is then tipped into an urn. When a two third majority is reached the holy smoke turns white; we"ll know that one of the "princes" of the Church has said "Accepto" and become the new King.

I found the funeral of the last one a sickening sob-fest. My favorite part was when the open book of the gospels placed on the coffin slammed shut in the wind.

All those millions of weeping Catholics bidding farewell to their "Holy Father". Loyal to the Church from cradle to grave. What happened to me? How did I manage to escape?

For believe you me, I feel so lucky to have been able to wake up and escape from a vile prison, and I feel a great pity for those who remain, shackled to the greatest sham on earth, an institution that kidnapped Christ and keeps his bleeding body nailed to the cross to this day instead of carrying out his instructions and seeking to build the kingdom of heaven on earth.

I would that they could share the feelings of this poem by Robert G. Ingersoll:

THE JOY OF FREEDOM

When I became convinced that the Universe is natural — that all the ghosts and gods are myths

There entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling, the joy of

Freedom.

The walls of my prison crumbled and fell.

The dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts, bars and the manacles became dust.

I was no longer a servant, a serf, or a slave.

There was for me no master in all the wide world — not even in infinite space. I was Free.

Free to think, to express my thoughts

Free to live to my own ideal

Free to live for myself, and those I loved

Free to use my faculties, all my senses

Free to spread imaginations wings

Free to investigate, to guess and dream, and hope

Free to judge and determine for myself

Free to reject all ignorant and cruel creeds, all the "inspired"

books that savages have produced, and all

the barbarous legends of the past.

Free from popes and priests

Free from all the "called" and the "set apart"

Free from sanctified mistakes and holy lies

Free from the fear of eternal pain

Free from the winged monsters of the night

Free from devils, ghosts and gods

For the first time I was free. There were no prohibited places in all

the realms of my thought — no air,

no space, where fancy could not spread her painted wings.

No chains for my limbs

No lashes for my back

No fires for my flesh

No masters frown or threat

No following another’ssteps

No need to bow, or cringe, or crawl, or utter lying words.

I was free. I stood erect and fearlessly, joyously, faced all worlds.

And my heart was filled with gratitude, with thankfulness, and

went out in love to all the heroes,

and the thinkers who gave their lives for the Liberty of hand

and brain,

For the freedom of labor and thought

To those who fell on the fierce fields of war, to those who died in

dungeons with chains

To those who proudly mounted scaffolds stairs

To those whose bones were crushed, whose flesh was scarred and torn

To those by fire consumed

To all the wise, the good, the brave of every land, whose thoughts and

deeds have given freedom to the sons (and daughters ) of men (and women ).

And I vowed to grasp the torch that they held, and hold it high,

that light might conquer darkness still."

Robert G. Ingersoll (1833 –1899)

"What would Jesus do?" is a question Christians often ask themselves.

In my opinion, if Jesus were to appear again today, the first thing he’d do after taking a look at the Church and other organizations that use his name, would be to vomit.

And when he"d gotten over that, assuming that he was invulnerable (because otherwise you can bet they"d try to get rid of him as quickly as they could, because he would really poop their party!) they"d all queue up clutching their crucifixes and wringing their gold-ringed hands crying:

"Lord, lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?"

And he would profess unto them:

"Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my father which is in heaven. I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity!"

MICHAEL DICKINSON is a writer and artist who works as an English teacher in Istanbul, Turkey. He can be contacted through his website of collage pictures at http://carnival_of_chaos.tripod.com/