I have an Irish friend back in Boston who claims that we, the Irish who came to Massachusetts to work in mills a hundred and more years ago, successfully drove the wealthy Protestants out, sending them on to Texas or elsewhere in the West. But to what purpose? They daily find their way back, as Jeb Bush’s American journey returns him to Maine where the family has built him a nice little cottage. He was not long a Texan anyway, quickly moving on to Florida. But moving “back”—as that is what you do when you move to California, say, or Texas, then return East; you move “back”—declares your ritualistic, awakening journey “west” to be null and void.
The Bushes were essentially Yankees in transit. Massachusetts, Kennebunkport, were always still within reach. And that thing with the cowboy boots and H.W., when he was asked if he was really a Texan or really a Yankee? Really a Yankee.
What is most interesting about Jeb is that somewhere along the way he, as they used to say, “turned Catholic.” My grandmother would have been delighted, as the first contention between working class and wealth here was in the original paradigm of Henry Cabot Lodge vs. John F. Kennedy; Protestant vs. Catholic. It became even the Marxist political style.
What is most interesting about Jeb is that somewhere along the way he, as they used to say, ‘turned Catholic.’
Communists in the day and socialists like Dorothy Day would “turn Catholic” as it was the religion of the working people. In New York and Boston anyway, where the “working people” were primarily Irish, Italian, some more literate Jews, Quebecois in New England and a few others, as scripted in the masterful Coen brothers movie, Miller’s Crossing. Martin Scorsese went so far as to suggest in Gangs of New York that we, proletariat of places like Five Points, South Boston and the other white ghettos of the Industrial Revolution, were the very real founders of America.
But by the time Jeb turned Catholic no one seemed to care or even notice.
It was too late. Americanism had taken us and was the better bet. Who do you think would win in a street fight anyway, St. Patrick or Little Richard? One elderly Catholic priest back in Boston in the Sixties said, “ I just don’t understand it. It wasn’t as if they left [the Church] with any hostility. It was just like they took off an old coat and put it aside.”
Perfect. Then the church had changed as well, and when they told us to turn and shake hands with the others in the middle of the mass, my uncle said, “But you’re not in my pew.”
I had occasion just a few weeks back to visit the graves in my maternal line; the infants a hundred years dead who only briefly saw the light of day, my grandparents, parents, sister, the very tall, porcelain ancient aunties more recently over from the Old Sod who never married, and I’d never put it together before that they were all buried together in the same small plot of earth with all the other Irish people in the old neighborhood. Many born in Ireland and looking alike, as they had married together in the same town possibly since the 12th century.
I noticed in the funeral mass that the priest was facing the people during the sacrifice. They have done it that way since around the Vatican II movement, when they started shaking hands with each other in church. Prior to that the priest had his back to the people, representing the people to God to offer up the sacrifice from the people to God. Then they flipped it, the priest now facing the people instead, seeing himself as representing God to the people. As the ritual reenactment of a primordial blood sacrifice it made no sense whatsoever and has been called authoritarian, dominating, totalitarian. The troubling thing is that the politicized Church today no longer appreciates or possibly understands the difference. They are thinking about other things. They are thinking about marketing.
I can still recite much of the Latin Mass and smell the glue in the old black prayer books, with their onion thin pages and streamers to hold your place, but when I die they will more likely be reading the Buddhist sutras, a practice acquired on a tour of duty in Southeast Asia.
Today, Saint Patrick’s Ireland suggests instead Saint Genet—as Jean-Paul Sartre dubbed rebel, activist and iconoclastic author Jean Genet (The Thief’s Journal). The Ireland of a hundred generations and a hundred thousand ancestors and blood relatives preceding has finally passed. Not because they have legalized gay marriage. But because in a world without fences, Ireland has become as Americanized as Cleveland, as the Roman church has, as everything everywhere has. Pope Francis, the single-dimensional, fully politicized rock and roll pope (unPope? anti-Pope?), come to us first on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, gives the wink and the nudge (“Who am I to judge?”) to the Irish, to the PLO, to his full political agenda. In an age of incredibly shrinking men, Pope Francis opens new frontiers. He most resembles the priest in Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie who really wants to be a gardener.
But there is in this no breakage. That which was once for the intuitive, poetically inclined, deeply spiritual and introverted Irish “The Church” has lost its pulling power to the aggressive and intensely extraverted and politicized American tempo. Gone even before the Sixties and Vatican II when tens of millions suddenly said why bother, took off the old coat, rolled a jumbo, and instead followed The Beatles in a horde, here, there, everywhere then onward to India and the waiting embrace of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
We would have left the Church anyway, and would not have turned back. There was no longer any place left to go home to, even then.