Crashing the Gate at Legatus

I am stalking George Weigel.

His trail is very warm, let me add. The lion of the Catholic Right, the latter-day sage of Baltimore, former intimate of Blessed Pope John Paul II and author of A Witness to Hope, is standing big as life at the end of my pew in Phoenix’s Church of St. Thomas the Apostle. With the light from the chandeliers dancing a mazurka in his tortoiseshells, he looks just like he looks on In the Arena, and the sight of him is playing havoc with this very marginal Catholic media figure’s heart.

Turning on his heel, Weigel marches out of the chapel. Through the plate glass at the back of the nave, I see him head for the south exit. Now is my chance. My sources have informed me that he’s a heavy smoker. If I can catch him lighting up, the two of us may bond yet. “You know what they say, Doc,” I’ll tell him, as I produce my own pack of Pall Mall 100s, “Wherever two smokers gather together, it’s the smoking section.”

Weigel will laugh that baronial laugh of his — smoky, rich, and cool, like ancient Scotch pouring over rocks — and say, “Mr. Lindenman, you’re quite the savant sauvage.” He’ll start linking to my blog, and I’ll blow right up.

In a twinkling, I egress from the chapel. Rather than follow at the great man’s heels like a shih tzu, I shoulder my way past half a dozen Dames of Malta, looking witchy in black satin cloaks, and leave through the north exit. Creeping round the stone patio, I see Weigel. He is talking on his cell phone with no cigarette in sight. I abort my mission, feeling — not for the first time that day — completely out of my element.

We — that is, Weigel and I and the Dames, plus a somewhat harried-looking usher — are here to attend a special Mass for Legatus. A highly exclusive association of Catholic business owners and their spouses, Legatus is the New York Athletic Club with a charism. The Mass is open to be public, but Weigel’s the closest thing I have to a peer, and I’m not even sure he’s a member.

It’s just my luck that I learned about this gathering — from a source whose identity I shall conceal — hours after sending all my decent clothes to the dry cleaner. I am left standing on the patio in a pair of jeans, and a sweater made — according to the label — from “Italian yarn,” whatever that is. The only bow I can make in the direction of elegance is a brown leather blazer very much like the one Ray Liotta wears in Goodfellas, in the scene where he pistol-whips the would-be date rapist.

That jacket and that association cut to the very reason I’ve come here, on foot, when I could be writing press releases for at least a nominal sum. Never in my life have I seen the quality. On the corporate ladder, I got tangled up so low that I could see no higher than the twitchy yes-men in middle management. The start-up owners I’ve worked for were those Lexus-driving, gaud-flashing, subpoena-ducking dinks who give the lie to the aphorism that nouveau riche is better than no riche at all. When called upon to put on the dog, I take my cues from gangster movies. I’m here, finally, to learn from my betters.

Judging from the people now trickling from the chartered buses, most of my betters are old, or at least older than I am by a decade or more, which is getting to be the same thing. I see lots of bellies and silver hair, and at least one perfectly awful toupée. Legatus, it seems, has yet to attract any brash young Catholic Zuckerberg. Maybe this isn’t for lack of trying, but I like to think of Legatus being biased in favor of age and stability. Since I can stand to envy a person for only one reason at a time, this is good news.

Dress is subdued, though not funereal. Men favor dark suits, or dark jackets with khaki slacks. Among the women, I see a few in bright pastels. Sporting a gray suit, Weigel is almost festive. One guy, who’s matched a cream-colored jacket to cream-colored trousers and a cream-colored fedora, looks like he’s trying to evoke a Catholic Tom Wolfe or Gay Talese. I’ve always heard that well set-up men, who have their clothes made instead of buying them off the rack, ask each other, “Who’s your tailor?” I realize I’m too ignorant about tailoring to know who I’d ask that of. My shriveled prole eye responds only to Rolex and Porsche logos.

I suppose what I’m really looking for is some sign of gaiety, or even decadence. In his blog, Reditus, former SSPX seminarian Arturo Vasquez writes that “right-wing Catholics are far more pagan and enjoy their religion more [than other Catholics].” I’ve never heard anyone put it quite like that, but I’ve long suspected that conservative Catholicism endorses a hierarchical social order by giving little passes to whoever ends up at the top of it. Think of the meanings of the word cavalier – carefree and loftily dismissive on one hand, partisan of an allegedly crypto-Catholic king against a puritan Parliament on the other — and you’ll get the idea.

But the cavaliers and ladies of Legatus seem to be off their horses and on their best behavior. Wives cleave to husbands and vice-versa. Most everyone files straight into the chapel and into their pews, making only the dullest buzz. Compared to Barry Goldwater’s pumped-up memorial service, which I attended (long story), the mood is downright soporific. Maybe I’m being naive again. This is a Mass, after all, one where four — count ‘em, four — bishops will be at the altar. Even after his courtiers got into the habit of poisoning one another, Louis XIV remained a stickler for decorum.

I reach the door about 20 paces ahead of two couples in their mid-50s. Feeling an obscure need to justify my presence, I open the door and hold it until the last of them passes through. Each of them gives me a tight-lipped smile, reminding me I’ve put them out by making them hurry. This is pretty much the reaction I’d get at Red Lobster, and I take it as a sign that Legatus folks are not without a common touch. If they took their Olympian status to heart, they wouldn’t notice me at all.

In fact, checking plutocratic complacency seems to be a big part of Legatus’ mission. Its founder and chairman is former Domino’s Pizza CEO and Detroit Tigers owner Tom Monaghan, a man with the same sludge in his veins as the average American, a man whose widowed mother placed him for some years in a Catholic orphanage. The idea for Legatus came to him in 1987, after experiencing fame and fortune convinced him these things “aren’t that important.” What is important, he says in the same promotional spot, is to “study the faith, live the faith, and spread the faith.” By following this formula, CEOs become legates, or ambassadors, for Christ. Legatus also binds them closer to their families, or as member Paul Lawless puts it, gives each member an opportunity to have a “spiritual date” with his wife.

This isn’t precisely noblesse oblige or Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth — Legatus’ website omits any specific reference to the use of private fortunes for the less fortunate or the community. But it’s a far cry from Objectivism, and just as far from the paganism that amuses Vasquez. Best of all, it exists in a separate moral universe from the rapacious douchebaggery I experienced in home finance. Monaghan, remember, founded Ave Maria Unversity. Carnegie would have approved. Howard Roark? Not so much.

In his 1983 study of American social distinctions, Paul Fussell describes a “top-out-of-sight” class, whose members inherit their money and live entirely on interest. They sequester themselves from an envious populace behind endless driveways or on Caribbean Islands. Instead of these lucky duckies, Legatus seems to attract people from the next class down — the regular upper class. These people may have inherited something, but they tend to work for the rest. This class, writes Fussell, furnished the nation with its ambassadors, back when ambassadors were amateurs. After the Great Depression, when the very top thought it best to duck out of sight, the regular uppers carried the standard for all the better sort of people. Legatus, then, has plugged itself into a fine tradition.

I’ve been in and out of the chapel several times by now. Finally, I see the usher closing the door behind me — Mass is to begin directly. Both the Mass and the chapel itself seem well geared to this particular crowd, as neither is quite top-out-of sight. With its candlesticks and thronelike cathedrae, St. Thomas’ takes a stab at grandeur, but the stained glass in the windows features a very basic and repetitive grapes-and-wheat motif. Nobody seems to mind. The Mass is a Novus Ordo, and I notice a few people holding hands during the Our Father.

The young woman sitting next to me — who is wearing a name tag, but might be a guest rather than a full-fledged legate — films Bishop Olmsted’s homily on her Smart Phone, an act for which she might have gotten her throat cut in several parishes I could name. Right before the Sign of Peace, the priest sitting on the other side blows his nose loud enough to summon Charlemagne’s army. When I offer him a peace sign instead of a handshake, he grins appreciatively and shoots me a thumb’s up.

The priest’s exact position is unclear to me, but still, in all my time in the Church, I can’t think of five moments that exalted me more. With these tiny, harmless gaucheries, the cream of the American Church and its servants are reminding me that they, too, are dust and shall return to dust. It’s not quite as good as sharing a smoke break with George Weigel, but a man in my reduced circumstances can’t be too choosy.

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