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Pennants, Peasants & Penance

As I was watching the walking, talking public relations stunt that is Pope Francis capering on television, soaking up all the love and adulation bestowed on him by the apparently dewily naive and childishly gullible public and media, I thought: Really? This is all it takes to restore public confidence in the most corrupt institution in human history, a warm 'n' fuzzy public face with a gender-neutral name who says that it might be okay for gays to exist after all? This is equivalent to Hitler, having won the war, declaring in a fit of generosity that any Jews who'd avoided his murderous net were now free to live and emigrate.

Oh, what, it's not fair to compare Catholics and Nazis? Probably not, to Adolf — the Church's numbers make Hitler and his final solution look like Bono organizing a humanitarian mission to inoculate children in the Sudan.

I personally have no problem with Catholics per se, or any other religion. Whatever rites, rituals, or incantations you require to get you through the day and not kill one another, I say more power to you. It's when the alleged word of God is used to amass wealth, subjugate and/or kill other peoples, gain political influence, and, most recently, engage in a top-down cover-up of some thoroughly reprehensible behavior that I have a problem. Be Catholic and may God be with you, just keep the administration at the parish level and answer to, in the absence of any direct input from the man upstairs, your flock. Complex hierarchies are for corporations and governments.

I was raised without any religious training whatsoever; in fact, all the training of any kind I received began and ended at the potty, and by all accounts I was inattentive and dilatory in that regard. God, once that word entered my vocabulary, was an oath to be invoked in times of grave sincerity (I swear to God I didn't break that window), but I soon realized that the seriousness with which others took that vow, having the fear of hellfire and damnation behind it, gave me, fearing reprisal from neither celestial nor earthly quarters, a distinct tactical advantage in believability. Having little sense of restraint, though, I naturally abused the power and when I eventually started swearing to God that I was a werewolf and had ridden a shark and other such nonsense, my oaths became worthless and any claims I made became suspect.

Having extracted all I could from the God-concept, I didn't give it much thought until we moved down the street from a large, unruly Catholic family. I didn't immediately peg them as such, only that they were different in that they all wore uniforms and got off of a bus that said Divine Redeemer instead of District 12. The Minottis encircled and interrogated me one day at the bus stop regarding my religious affiliation.

"You Catholic?" I was bluntly asked by a sneering, pug-nosed, freckle-faced lad.

"Nope," I said.

"Well, what are ya then?" screeched his younger brother, a redheaded sprite with mayhem in his eyes.

"English, Turkish, German, and Norwegian." I knew it wasn't the same thing but I'd never been asked before, and in the absence of a ready reply I resorted to default smartass mode.

They looked at one another and made incredulous noises. "Nah, numbnuts, your religion," the oldest one said, a blocky, stolid type a few years older than me.

"Nothin', I guess," I said.

"You can't be nothin'. Where were you baptized?"

"I wasn't." I shrugged nonchalantly. "We don't go to church."

"Have fun in hell, 'cause you won't," said the little ginger.

I chewed on that one for a few moments. "Uh what's with the uniforms?" I asked.

"What's with the bell-bottoms, ding-dong?" said Freckles, marching around me with exaggerated, wide-legged steps, going "Ding-dong, ding-dong."

"Knock it off, Bruce," said the older one, casually backhanding him across the face. Bruce rubbed his cheek and narrowed his eyes at his older brother, said, "Alright. Alright," and began testing sticks for heft on the side of the road.

"I'd pick one without knobs on it 'cause it's going straight up your ass, Brucie boy," he said.

"If I were you I'd say an Act of Contrition right now, it might be your last chance to die in a state of grace, motherfucker," Bruce said.

Thus began a long and tumultuous friendship with the Minotti clan, a dozen strong and a class of family outside my experience, not only for their religion but their savagery. I was a little wild and undisciplined, but the Minottis were genuinely evil and depraved. They were brutally violent, and not just in the time-honored shit-rolls-downhill manner of older brothers pounding on younger. The smaller ones would regularly form retaliatory coalitions, and a favorite tactic was employing one in front as a distraction while another came in low from the side and a third attacked from behind. They employed weapons freely, and not just the standard blunt and edged traditional sort, but also whips, flails, bolos, poisons, explosives, and automobiles. They were completely fearless and apparently impervious to pain, collecting stitches and broken bones the way I collected baseball cards.

The older ones had developed a sort of permanently stunned battle-weariness and mostly played defense, but the five youngest walked around fully armed, eyes glittering with the joy of combat and the possibility of maiming one of their siblings.

When not actively engaged in hurting one another, the brothers amused themselves with arson, theft, recreational demolition, buggery, and torture in the guise of biblical dramaturgy. The father was absent and the mother had long since ceded matters of discipline to the Church, but since the influence of the priest and nuns did not extend beyond the church and school, the Minotti boys took the promise of absolution every week at confession very seriously and considered the secular world a free-fire zone, secure in the faith that all sins would be wiped clean on Wednesday.

When the concept was explained to me, I was skeptical. "Lemme get this right," I said. "You're telling me that you have to go in every week and tell the preacher every bad thing you did? And he doesn't tell your mom? And then you have to do pennants? Like baseball pennants?"

"No, penance. It's like prayers to the father and Mother Mary. Like if I had an impure thought about Sister Immaculata I might get four Hail Marys and three Our Fathers."

"Wait, you have to tell him your thoughts?"

"If they're sinful, yeah."

I had been thinking that this seemed like a pretty sweet deal and a useful loophole for getting away with stuff, but even at that tender age I knew my thoughts were not likely to conform to the Catholic Church's standards of non-sinful acceptability and if I gave the confessional a spin I'd likely be Our Father-ing and Hail Mary-ing until the cows came home. Besides, I had no desire to share my thoughts with anyone. That was the beauty of thoughts—they stayed inside your head where no one but you could see them. If I wanted to indulge fantasies about Asians eating my stepdad and carrying me off to Narnia, that was my own damn business.

"So, the priest listens to you do your pennants — "

"No, you do them on your own, after you leave."

"What? Nobody watches to make sure you do it?"

"Duh! God."

This had all the earmarks of a scam, but I couldn't figure out who benefited or how. I thought it sounded like a complete waste of time, but then, I hadn't had the requisite indoctrination necessary to foster belief in an All-Seeing, All-Knowing Punisher, which seemed like the key to participating in the whole thing. The Minottis "feared" the wrath of God, but that was about as abstract a concept as there could be, and the fear was purely for show. My own fears of retribution for my misdeeds stemmed from the very real, very painful and immediate vengeance of the Drunken Stepfather, who for my money was way scarier than the Old Testament Jehovah. Confessing wasn't likely to gain me any absolution, either.

Most of the Catholics I know now seem to regard the mass as a sort of prophylaxis, a vaccination against the torments of hellfire taken weekly as a preventive measure, like insulin or Emergen-C. They rarely think about or discuss their religion when not directly involved with it, a stance I find refreshing in contrast with the wild-eyed fervor of Evangelical Protestants, who can't seem to do even the simplest thing without dragging Jesus into it. I say: if you love him so damn much, give him a day off once in a while.

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