“Rome.” Gentle reader must imagine this syllable pronounced in a sustained, Gaelic way, as if the vowel sound would go on forever. His eyes, too, could be rolling slightly.
To my more immediate ancestors (counting only those of the last 500 years), nothing could be more disreputable. “Rome” was, after all, the residence of the Antichrist, who styled himself “Pope” – a title that also merited a somewhat extended vowel.
My mother was a great influence on me – I daresay the same is true for others – and while she was an atheist, made clear that she was a Presbyterian atheist, willing to persist in the old ways, at least for comic effect. I was taught, sardonically, how to sneer at Catholics, from a prejudice so pure that we could laugh at it.
Well: I remember reporting to her that, according to a pretty little girl with bangs and pigtails, from a large Catholic family that always shared a cold, I would go to Hell. This was, the little girl explained, because I was a Protestant. She (as I) was approximately the age of Beatrice, when Dante first met her: perhaps eight years old. I didn’t mind going to Hell, but grieved that she would not come with me.
It was, as proved, the first of many crushes, which revealed my Catholic sensibility to me. For the odd thing was, I found myself attracted almost exclusively to Roman girls. There was a rational explanation for this, however: for they were consistently more attractive.
Here I am speaking of the progeny of a generation now faded: the households that carried the Latin faith, pre-Vatican II. In those days, the females were female. They had long hair, they owned mantillas to crown it, and they went off to church on the Sundays through the morning mists, appareled in lace, floating along the ground like angels. I could endure any amount of abuse from them.
Mama was, as I hinted, being droll. She kept it up till I was fifty, and finally crossing the Tiber myself, having long previously embraced a High Anglicanism that was itself a scandal to the Protestant elect. I have told it before, but it bears repeating: I called dear mama to warn her when I was going over to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic, before she found out from other sources.
“But, but. . .they eat Protestant babies!” she declared, from the other end of a long-distance line.
“Only at Easter, mummy,” I replied. (We both laughed hysterically.)
Her shock was entirely feigned, as was my father’s when he came on the phone to tell me not to worry about my mama, he had all the necessary medications.
Most ageing “traditional” Catholics – a term now used to distinguish them from the New Age types – now remember the more brazen, red-necked, Ulsterish Protestants with a fond nostalgia. While often lethal, in the past, our competition hid some mutual respect. We admire them retrospectively. We recall that they were true believers, who’d go to the wall for their “principles.”
Of which, I reflect, the chief one, binding them through the generations, was opposition to “Rome.”
This stiffness deflated only in the latter half of the twentieth century, post-War. It had required a level of puffed insularity that in turn required great energy to pump; until the air began to whoosh from all the rents in the fabric. In the face of a world, or a modern West, that is in its nature anti-Christian, the pose became, as we say, “ironical.” Popes like John Paul and Benedict inspired them.
Christians – at least those of any orthodox tendency – are by now basically teamed. We will all hang together, and might as well be civil to each other while waiting for the next triumphal escalation from the real Antichrist. Thanks to the advance of politics, at the expense of religion, there is now more difference between a “liberal” and a “conservative” Catholic, than between a sincere Catholic and any sincere Evangelical Christian.
My impression is that the same holds vice versa between “traditional” and “modern” Protestants, throughout the West. One still encounters their church attenders in rural places; but even there, the distinction is internal. There are those who “accept Christ as their personal Savior,” and those who flinch at the phrase. The unflinching look like Trad Catholics to us.
And of course, like ours, their instinct is to breed; to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” or the empty spaces left by abortion, and in the sad knowledge that a certain proportion of our own children will defect, when the easy road of material temptation presents its signage.
Well, I defected twice, from atheism and then from post-modern Anglicanism, aspiring ever upward. People cross the Tiber both ways, on the ascending footbridge or the descending highway, to put it with some necessary edge. And once you are Here, in the bosom of the Church Christ founded, there is no higher to mount, if we except Heaven. We are stuck up the hill.
I realized this, most recently, while listening to an angry Catholic saying that, because of Pope Francis, he will leave the Church.
“Just where do you think you are going?” I asked.
He had some idea of a move sideways, from Rome to Constantinople as it were.
“How is that satisfying?” I wondered. For the humans in the Greek Church have little foibles, too. Better, I said, to stay, and tell that Bergoglio gentleman to leave, if he finds our received teachings inadequate. Or wait patiently.
There will be pain for many generations, as there was and as there will be to come, but I suspect in the grand view of things the twentieth century served its purpose. Outwardly, I regret to say, it is a horribly, and unmistakeably human, mess. But inwardly the remnant Christian forces are mysteriously coalescing.