Because of Cesareo

I imagine that all of us have angels in our lives. We may not see them, but I imagine it’s hard to escape their influence.

Not all angels are dressed in shimmering white. Not all of them have wings. Some are bossy (the archangels), some whisper and flutter. Some fight (Michael). Some fall (Lucifer). The whole business of angels is complicated. One of the most significant angels in my life is Cesareo Pelaez, 76 today and battling the consequences of a stroke but 37 and a regular hurricane when I first met him in 1970. (That’s Cesareo on the right in front, with my brother David, wife Katie, and daughter Marian.)

Cesareo Pelaez landed in my life when I was nineteen, during my own fall from A student at premier boarding school to C student at premier liberal-arts college. But hey, it was 1969. My wheels were spinning, even though I knew that what I wanted and needed most was spiritual direction in my life. Cesareo provided that, directly and indirectly. It’s the indirect part that led to my becoming a Catholic nearly forty years later.

For reasons too complex to entertain here (the direct part), I took several long trips in Western Europe with Cesareo. I was five years removed from dedicated service as an altar boy at my family’s Episcopal Church and, except for Christmas and Easter, and “chapel” events at the aforesaid boarding school, I had not attended church in those five years.

In Europe with Cesareo, I did not so much attend church as explore The Church, the church of his devout youth, the Roman Catholic Church. This was not on the program initially; remember, this is the indirect part. But in every city and town, it seems now in memory, Cesareo’s Catholicism, brewed up in the hothouse of Cuba in the 1930s and 1940s, bubbled to the fore, and I, the nineteen-year-old non-Catholic, learned about Catholic culture.

After a while, it was quite common for us to take in Mass at Notre Dame or Montserrat or St. Peter’s or San Damiano; it was par for the course if we stopped into a Catholic bookstore and browsed for an hour; and a day at the Prado was spent mostly in front of saints and Madonnas. We visited Lourdes three times and walked in the candlelight processions of thousands, chanting the Rosary simultaneously in three or four languages—although that does sound impossible, doesn’t it? Memory is a funny thing. We visited Assisi and gawked at the intact body of St. Clare, 800 years old but seemingly fresh and firm as a daisy. Cesareo knew the precise location of the obvious icons (the Pieta in the first chapel to the right inside St. Peter’s) and the less obvious (the Moses at San Pietro in Vincoli). We saw them all.

Thirty-five years passed. Cesareo and I worked as business partners, usually harmoniously. Each of us started our own businesses—he a world-famous magic show, me a couple of far less celebrated publishing ventures. The businesses continue to exist within a block of each other on the main street of our town. Our homes are a mile apart, also on the same street. Cesareo is my friend, my former mentor, but first and foremost one of my archangels.

I suspect that all of us who have converted to the Catholic Church can point to some Cesareos—angels who came fluttering or flying or storming into our lives, bearing, maybe in spite of themselves, the Good News.

I would not be a Catholic today without Cesareo, and for that I will be forever in his debt.


What are the names and stories of your angels?

Because There Are Good Fathers

Born in 1951, I have lived during six papacies—Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI—four Italians, a Pole, and a German, six men in white walking around in a field of Roman numerals. Although John XXIII is already “Blessed” and John Paul II was a paradigm-shifting statesman, for my money, Benedict XVI is the best pope of my lifetime.

I think of these popes as musicians. John XXIII was like a jovial folk singer (Burl Ives, maybe), and John Paul II was a rock ’n roll superstar (Bono). Benedict XVI? He is a musician of incomparable subtlety and brilliance. Benedict XVI is Bach or maybe his own favorite musician (Mozart).

Fact is, I’m prejudiced. Because Benedict XVI is not really my sixth pope, but my first. Josef Cardinal Ratzinger became His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, two years before I became a Catholic.

I remember watching my grandmother’s scratchy black-and-white TV as smoke puffed out on October 28, 1958, and John XXIII became pope. But I watched this moment as a seven-year-old Sunday School student in a Congregational church. Twenty years later I read media reports of the sudden death of John Paul I, with a copy of The Imitation of Christ on his chest, they said. I bought the book and read it cover to cover, but I was a lapsed twenty-seven-year-old Episcopalian at the time. What a thrill it was to hear an Italian cardinal announce a few days later that we had a pope, rolling that odd Polish name, Wojtyla, off his lips and into St. Peter’s Square. How horrible to learn that our Polish pope had been shot, and how moving to see pictures of him face to face with his would-be assassin in jail! But I was not a Catholic at any of these moments, and John Paul was not my pope.

Benedict XVI is my pope. For Benedict XVI I feel the sort of proprietary fondness that I felt for my children when they were born.

I suspect that many uninformed Americans have swallowed media images of Pope Benedict XVI without examining them. How many know that he is from Bavaria, the southeastern corner of Germany bordering Austria and the Czech Republic, where local loyalties in his youth were far stronger to the Church and even to Austria than to German nationalism? How many know that his father resisted enlistment into the Nazi Party or that young Josef himself served unwillingly in the German Luftwaffe, but briefly only in a noncombat role before deserting? How many realize that he was a voice for change as an advisor to Cardinal Frings at the Second Vatican Council, or that he has remained adamantly faithful to the letter of the Council? How many know that John Paul II had to ask him three times before he agreed to take the position of Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith? How many know what the CDF is, or what the position demanded of this intensely private priest who would rather have been back in Germany writing theology? How many know that he is the first professional theologian to serve as pope in several hundred years? How many know that he prayed not to be elected pope? How many have reflected on the name Benedict? This is not the sort of choice one makes lightly.

How many know that for Josef Cardinal Ratzinger as for Pope Benedict XVI it is not ideas or theology that ultimately matters but a singular event in history? “What is essential about Christ,” he has said, “is not that he proclaimed certain ideas—which of course he also did. Rather, I become a Christian by believing in this event. God stepped into the world and acted; so it is an action, a reality, not only an intellectual entity.” These are not the words of a mere theologian.

I know how quickly we adopt received images of public figures. FDR. Ike. JFK. LBJ. Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, 41, Clinton, 43, Obama. Each of these names conjures an image that is necessarily at variance with the reality of the man. I do not want the world to sell my pope short by assuming that he is something he is not. I want people to know how extraordinary my pope is.

My sense of loyalty to Pope Benedict XVI may have something to do with my affection for Father Barnes, my first and so far my only priest. I often wonder what it would have been like to live in a time of bad popes, like the early fifteenth century, when there were not only five popes but also five antipopes. Likewise, I wonder what would have happened if I had walked into a Catholic church and not found Father Barnes. Either way, six hundred years ago or today, it would have been hard to be Catholic.

I am blessed in my first pope and my first priest, and I owe them my personal commitment. But if I had not been blessed in my own father, David Bull, none of it would matter and my chances of having faith in any kind of authority, earthly or eternal, would be sadly reduced.

I have a close friend who had a bad father. Worse than abusive, his father seemingly didn’t care about him. When my friend’s mother died young, he was left with a single indifferent parent and a hole in his heart that maybe never healed. I imagine that my friend has carried that wound like a cross all his life, although he does not talk about it. I don’t know how my friend can be such a good man, such a good Catholic, such a good father, or such a role model to me.

With a father as good as David Bull, it is so much easier to admire, appreciate, and obey the pope, my priest, the Church.

The Catholic Church is patriarchal, yes. We address God as Our Father, not as Our Mother, and we aspire to be like Christ, another male. Fatherhood is central to the church, and it is central to me. To be a good father, to embody the highest virtues of fatherhood is as close as I can come to stating the purpose of my life.

When I went to confession for the first time, fifteen months ago, it was my failings as a father that broke loose. My failings of fairness and compassion toward my children, my lapses from sobriety and paternal patience: These fifty-pound sacks fell from my shoulders. To prepare for confession, I had been instructed to meditate on the Ten Commandments—which commandments I had violated and how. It occurred to me that the central commandment was the fourth commandment, the link between the big three at the head of the list concerning love of God and the rest of the list, the “stuff not to do.” The fourth commandment is, Honor thy father and thy mother. Which led me to consider the converse: Strive to be the father a child can honor. This was what I meditated on.

It is easy to be hard on ourselves. My father was very hard on himself, I know. He accused himself of being too tough with his children, which amounted, as I recall, to a few well-deserved spankings and a certain gruff austerity when we were younger that he had probably learned from his own father, Granddad Bull. By the time Dad died last year, this quality had melted down into the kindest sort of grandfatherly goodness.

It is because we are hard on ourselves—because we fail and then feel awful about failing—that we need confession, that the sacrament of penance is such a grace. To come to the capital-F Father and lay one’s troubles down is a great comfort.

When I told my father, Dave Bull, that I was converting to Catholicism, he replied that his mother would roll over in her grave. A Methodist, Grandma Bull harbored a Midwestern Protestant’s distaste for papists. But five minutes later my father was speaking of confession and was making a surprising confession himself: “There are a couple things I have done in my life that I am deeply ashamed of,” he said. “I have not even told your mother about them.” My mother was sitting beside us. Then my father added, “Maybe I’ll tell her on my deathbed.”

I do not know whether he did so, although I doubt it. As a devout Episcopalian, my father went to his grave without the sacrament of penance and probably without a final unburdening of his conscience. He was a private man and a very good man. When I die, I want to know that I have been half so good a father.

The world needs good fathers the way the earth needs rain. The same can be said of the Catholic Church and good priests, good bishops, good popes.

In this Year for Priests, let’s all pray for good ones—and for every priest, good, bad, happy, or sad. We need them, as they need our prayers.

Because Dorothy Day Was a Catholic

Dorothy Day was more my political cup of tea: a hunger-striking, pro–Civil Rights, anti–Vietnam War, out-on-the-picket-lines kind of gal. Funny that I didn’t know about her in the 1960s, but only discovered her as a fellow convert last year.

A radical socialist writer in her twenties, Day ended her first pregnancy with an abortion she later regretted deeply. When she became pregnant again, by a man she loved, she chose to have the child baptized in the Catholic Church even though it meant losing her (atheist) lover. When a nun told her that she herself should convert if her child was going to be a Catholic, Day agreed—and began a lifelong journey of faith.

Committed to the working man and woman, she combined social activism with Christian devotion by founding The Catholic Worker, a newspaper that sold for one cent. Its mission was to lure workers away from communism (this was the 1930s) and to show them that the Church had a viable social program for them as well. Inspired by the itinerant evangelist Peter Maurin, she opened the first Catholic Worker House of Hospitality in New York City a year later.

Her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, is one of the great spiritual memoirs I have read. Day’s cause for beatification and canonization was formally opened with Vatican approval in 2000.

Here is a beautiful bit from Dorothy Day’s book Loaves and Fishes:

Someone once described me in an interview as “authoritative.” Later, listening to a tape recording of a talk I had given on the plight of agricultural workers, I had to admit that I did sound didactic. . . . If I am didactic it is because Peter Maurin was my teacher, because he gave me principles to live by and lessons to study, and because I am so convinced of the rightness of his proposals.

“How can you be so sure?” Mike Wallace once asked me in a television interview. He spoke with wonder rather than irritation, because he felt my confidence was rooted in religion. I told him that unless I felt sure I would not speak at all. If I were ever visited by doubts—either religious ones or doubts about my vocation in this movement—I would accept it as a temptation, as a great suffering that I must share with so much of the world today.

Even then, deep within, I would be sure; even though I said to myself, “I believe because I want to believe, I hope because I want to hope, I love because I want to love.” These very desires would be regarded by God as He regarded those of Daniel, who was called a man of desires, and whom He rewarded.

Because William F. Buckley Was a Catholic

There are many very smart Catholics and I admire smart people. Don’t you? William F. Buckley may have spoken with marbles in his mouth. He may have been a thorn in the side of the antiwar movement during the Vietnam years and I was on the peacenik side, but I always thought he was one smart dude. Imagine my surprise to learn that he was also a devout Catholic. Here’s a beautiful line from his autobiography of faith, “Nearer, My God.”

To ponder the glory of God is to worship a transcendence that gives us a measure of man, near-infinitely small on the scale of things, but infinitely great, as the complement of divine love. Who are you, buster? I am the man Christ-God died for.

Why are you a Catholic? Send me your answer and I’ll publish it.

Because It’s OK for Catholics to Laugh

I just found the latest interview between Stephen Colbert and Fr. James Martin, author of My Life with the Saints. It was this book that tipped my scales and led to my becoming a Catholic. (See “For All the Saints.”) Both Colbert and Martin are Catholics.

The Colbert ReportMon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Turning to Religion – Jim Martin
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorHealth Care Protests

Because of the Catholics in Front of Me

Every morning at seven I sit in the same pew.

When I first began attending mass as a non-Catholic eighteen months ago, I sat on the opposite side of the nave, halfway back on the Epistle side. In our church we call this St. Joseph’s aisle because a statue of the saint watches from the head of it. Back then we had a newly ordained assistant priest who was a native of The Congo. He had a thick accent that my aging ears had trouble translating. In a short series of daily jumps during my first week as a Catholic-in-training, I migrated from Epistle side to Gospel side, from St. Joseph’s aisle to St. Mary’s, and close enough to the front of the nave to be near the pulpit without being under it. Here, in the sixth pew from the front I could read Father Charles’s lips.

A year ago, after the required instruction, I was received into the Catholic Church. A month later Father Charles moved on to another parish. Fortunately, Father Barnes, our gifted pastor, remains behind. Although his homilies can be heard clearly in the rearmost pews, I stay here in my spot, in what I think of as Orchestra Left, Row 6, Seat 101. Like a lifelong opera buff determined to die during the climactic aria of Rigoletto, they will have to carry me out someday.

A friend recently asked me why I became a Catholic. A number of possible answers came to mind, but one answer jumped right out: The Catholics in the five pews in front of me.

Properly speaking, this was not one of my reasons for becoming a Catholic, but it helps explain why I remain one, and why I return to the same seat each morning. When you sit in the same spot every day, facing the altar, facing God, the people in front of you—whom you embrace with a single gaze as you look over them toward the celebrant—become dear to you. Together with them, sitting, standing, kneeling in praise of the Creator, I am a member of the Holy Catholic Church. Together, we are branches on one vine. Being alone in Church can be serene and comforting, but ultimately being alone in church is an incomplete experience of my humanity. The Catholics in front of me complete me as a Catholic.

Let me begin with Frank. At daily mass, I often arrive by 6:30, half an hour early, and Frank is the only person in front of me at this hour. Frank was baptized, confirmed, and married at St. Mary’s; Frank is 82; and unless the Apocalypse comes first, Frank’s funeral mass will be said here someday, and I will be here, God willing. When I arrive at 6:30 Frank is on his knees, and until three or four minutes before the mass, he stays on his knees. I seldom see him move, although I know from kneeling beside him on occasion that his lips move silently as he prays. Frank has an Italian surname, like many in our parish, which also features descendants of Irish immigrants. Frank pronounces his surname with gusto and relishes pronouncing the Italian words for virtues that his father once stressed, like pazienza, patience. I understand that Frank was a door-to-door salesman, who began with Electrolux; that he sold shoes and home improvement products later, neighborhood to neighborhood for some decades; that he studied all the sales masters, from Dale Carnegie to Og Mandino; that his wife does not come to daily mass with him because she is home caring for a disabled grandchild; that Frank helps out at home when he is not at mass.

Frank is our unofficial cantor for the communion song at daily mass, which he sings by referring to lyrics he has written out by hand and keeps tucked in his wallet, perhaps out of habit but more likely because, in his humility, Frank knows that he will forget someday. Each day he chooses one of two songs, just two. One begins: “I love you, Lord.” The other: “Oh, Lord, I am not worthy.” Some of us join in with him. At the end of mass, Frank often passes me on his way up the aisle, grinning his cockeyed, toothy grin and twinkling at me with more than a hint of shyness from behind thick glasses. He always has a positive word or phrase for me as he passes. Sometimes, he cocks his right fist, gives it an energetic pump, and says, “Go easy.” Frank is precious to me.

By the time mass begins, one or two other men are usually seated beside or just behind Frank. I understand that they sit there for the role Frank has played in their lives. Jonathan is a convert like me, and I imagine he shares my devotion to Frank. Bill is a cradle Catholic who fell away from the church and returned within the past decade. He has told me that Frank encouraged his return.

Jonathan has always intrigued me. About forty, single, living in an apartment just down the street from me, Jonathan is a slight, fit, angular man and very cerebral. Intelligence twitches behind wire-rimmed glasses. His lips are set in firm resolve beneath a neatly trimmed mustache. When I first saw Jonathan jogging on our street several years before I began attending mass, I noted that he was out in all weather, usually in a T-shirt and shorts despite snow or rain.

I understand that Jonathan works as a technician somewhere up on Route 495, Tech Alley, but that he prefers his extracurricular role as an independent scholar specializing in English writers of the Renaissance. About literature, religious or secular, I have seldom heard more informed commentaries, which Jonathan shares at our Saturday morning mens’ group.

Jonathan usually slips into the pew behind Frank a minute or two before the mass begins. Although he has probably just completed a run in his underwear, he is never out of breath. All summer long Jonathan cares meticulously and pro bono for the rectory garden, along with Rose, who doesn’t sit in front of me but who is as precious to me as if she did. Rose and her sister, Anna, sit in the back pew.

Although Frank and Jonathan and Bill and Rose did not cause my conversion to Catholicism, I believe that they validate it. As do Barbara and Warren. Barbara has dramatic curvature of the spine and Warren has Down syndrome, and when they sit one behind the other at the right edge of my field of vision at early Sunday mass, Jesus smiles and so do I.

Barbara walks to church in all weathers, usually bearing a staff. Barbara’s staff is about five feet long, which makes it taller then Barbara. The staff is festooned with an American flag, many ribbons, and one of those whirly plastic fans on top that kids make spin by running around the backyard at cookouts on the Fourth of July. Barbara sets herself down with a bit of rustling, unbuttoning nonmatching head gear that seems different every day. Like a punk girl, she seems to use more silver hairclips than her quantity of hair requires. Then, like Frank, like Jonathan, like me, Barbara pulls down her kneeler, folds her bony hands, and says a few words to God.

Warren usually arrives Sunday mornings even before Frank, though only on Sundays. Warren is Asian, perhaps Korean, and about 30, maybe 40. I know nothing about Warren’s family, if he has any, although he lights one or more votive candles before the Blessed Mother each Sunday morning. Perhaps he is an orphan. Warren carries a comic-book version of the Bible, which I have only seen from a distance when he flashes it proudly at me from four pews ahead. He wraps his hands in his rosary beads when he prays. I doubt he knows how to say the rosary, as his verbal skills are limited, though his smile is not.

Like Frank and Barbara, Warren smiles a lot. But then that’s true of many of the Catholics in front of me. Henry and Phyllis smile a lot, as do Carrie and her husband, another Frank. (I personally refer to the two Franks as the Italian sausage and the Polish one.) Carol-Lynn smiles broadly when she turns to offer me the sign of peace from under her Paddington Bear hat. Elizabeth has a beautiful smile, as does her husband, Michael, who is studying for the permanent diaconate.

* * *

Yesterday, a Saturday, I looked up after finishing my rosary at about ten minutes before the hour and was startled to see that the five pews in front of me were empty. Not even the Italian Frank was there; he was waiting in the sacristy as the lector for the day, while others usually populating my field of vision were either late or absent.

The church felt empty. The spark of life was missing. The altar candles were lit, the ribboned missal was open and in place: Yes, there would be a mass today. But for the next two or three minutes—or until Phyllis and Henry, Elizabeth and Michael, Barbara and others, and finally Jonathan dropped into place in front of me—I thought about silent meditation, about facing an object of worship alone.

When I was in college and turning away, pro forma, from everything about my upbringing, including Episcopal churchgoing, I became interested in meditation and eastern spiritual teachings. I read about zen and practiced some on my own. I studied yoga, using its asanas to stretch my body and calm my mind. I was introduced to the teachings of George Gurdjieff, which I continue to hold in high esteem. In many of these practices, silent, solo meditation has a central place.

For a number of years, without a church in my life, I practiced silent meditation at home, alone, squatted in my living room. Moving inward toward something realer whose full identity I seldom questioned adequately, I grew calmer, more collected, as the detritus of daily living fell temporarily away from me. Of course, no sooner did I rise from my squat than life began to stick to me again, like lint. Still, while I did not question it much, I think I believed that meditation alone, moving silently toward God—or at least toward a quality of myself that I recognized as more authentic—was enough.

Today, as a Catholic, I’m not sure that that is true.

In all my life, I have never belonged to a community outside my parents’ nuclear family or the one I have with my wife Katie where I have felt more welcome, more loved, more at home than I do in the Catholic Church, in my Catholic church, in my pew at morning mass. No class in school, no camp or club, no work environment has ever come close. Everywhere else there has always been another agenda; everywhere else motives can be secret and slippery; everywhere else there is fear, ambition, greed, backbiting, with of course some love and fellowship too.

But facing the altar with my morning group of friends, each as odd and broken as I am, I experience a wholeness and a broadened sense of myself that no lonely, silent meditation has ever provided. Both Franks and Jonathan and Barbara and Warren are all part of that. Without them, I could not be a Catholic.

In church, the Catholic church, we are all here for God, not to be seen by others as in upscale churches of my youth, but to be seen by Him. If we do not always see Him in return, then at least we speak to Him. We have this in common, my friends and I, and that makes them infinitely precious to me.

I will greet them warmly at my funeral.