Fadó Fadó* as we say in my part of the world, some short time after the Second Vatican Council, a new and curious creature started to appear in the land — the land being Ireland, the creature being a 1960’s/70’s version of that feature of every Irish town, the local priest.
This ostensibly new version of an old perennial was the result of the liberalization and more open face of the Catholic Church in the wake of the Vatican Councils reforms. Suddenly the Church was awash in invariably fresh faced young men, flush with hope and optimism, basking in the new openness of the Church and presenting a more pastoral rather than the familiar authoritarian attitude that Irish Catholics had come to expect from their priests.
They were the kind of young men who aul’ wans described as “lovely” and wistful young wans described as “a waste” (as in “it’s a shame he’s a priest, it’s a waste, he would have made a lovely husband”). They were the priests who ran all sorts of youth groups and organised the abomination that was the “folk mass”. (Do churches still do this, dreary renditions of “Let It Be” and “Morning has Broken” sung by spotty kids, a couple of youngsters on their new Ovation guitars and the traditional accompanist smiling tightly while reluctantly playing along? God I hope not).
They apparently “spoke the same language as the young people” (how condescending is that?), could engage the altarboys about the latest football news or present a seemingly safe, asexual crush object for teenage girls. To adults, they were the new face of the church, more open, more friendly, more understanding. I remember overhearing some grown-ups talking in tones of wonderment when one such priest turned up in civvies at a local pub and had a pint with the regulars, an unheard of interaction up to this. (What the denizens of the local grog shop thought about it I don’t know, but I’ll wager they weren’t too pleased to have a Man of God in their midst while they were doing their drinking. Is nothing sacred?) They seemed to work at being contemporary and what we might now term “hip”. The comedian Dermot Morgan, who in the ’90’s would create the disappointed and frustrated Father Ted, essayed an earlier version of the type in his stand-up, whom he aptly dubbed “Father Trendy”. Father Trendy’s tortured attempts to be contemporary and hip by using ridiculous examples from modern life to illustrate his “cool” two-minute sermons captured the essence of the new type of priest.
Of course, it was all a load of bollocks.
Underneath the new velvet glove there remained the old iron fist. The Catholic Church had it’s talons deeply embedded in the Irish body politic and in all aspects of civic life. It would take the exposure of the horrors of the sexual and physical abuse scandals in the 1990’s before that grip was loosened, indeed broken. But in the 1970’s the embrace was still very strong. Occasionally however, even the new Fr. Trendy’s let their masks slip. I recall one young priest at first attempting to firmly but gently to warn a class of boys about the inherent dangers of reading books on black magic. Sensing he wasn’t getting the response he wanted, he launched into a diatribe on how Satan is Real and by “dabbling in the occult” we could call up some primordial evil and damn our very souls. The eyes got wilder, and in my minds eye I can see some flecks of spit in the corner of his mouth as he swung the rope belt cinching his cassock. That was an exciting religion class, let me tell you.
On another such occasion, this time with a Sister Trendy, the class started out with Sister inviting a frank and open discussion of religion only to find she was closeted with thirty potential Richard Dawkins or more likely Chistopher Hitchens in miniature (even at fifteen we had several burgeoning topers). She fled ashen-faced and in tears after about twenty minutes, returning with the red faced rector threatening blue murder on our black atheistic souls. So much for the new openness.
Oh aye the masks could slip all right. I remember one young priest who wormed his way into a student organised soccer tournament. It wasn’t “what the hell were we thinking” letting him play — more like we couldn’t figure a way to stop him. And he proved a right monster, booting twelve and thirteen year olds all over the place, until two courageous lads tackled him, “doing” both his knee and his ankle and forcing him to sit out the rest of the tournament. So he shrugged it off as all part of his out-reach plan, I hear you ask……like f**k he did, the bugger visited vengeance on those lads for the rest of their school time.
So what has inspired this reminiscence of the dreaded Fr. Trendy? Rick Santorum actually.
It’s been scratching at the whiskey-addled brain cells that there was something familiar about Santorum — the smugness, the righteousness, the absolute certitude of his convictions, the thinly concealed disdain for any deviations, any challenges to his worldview. One commentator last week ventured that “he is a very nice man” and it suddenly came to me “no he’s not….I’ve seen his face before”. It’s a mask, not just the politicians mask, but the mask of religious fanatics who believe themselves privy to revealed, higher truths than the rest of us and who use the mask to conceal their disdain and often disgust at having to engage with those of us who disagree with them. I suspect Savonarola and Calvin and St. Paul and Muhammad and any number of Old Testament prophets all had such masks. Rick Santorum does. And I suspect we are about to see the mask truly slip under the weight of what is sure to be an all out assault from the Romney campaign and their SuperPac surrogates. In the wake of last nights Santorum victories, they will turn their attention to him and attempt to bury him. Faced with challenges to his world view Santorum, like the Fr. Trendy’s of my youth, will revert to type and the dogmatic, authoritarian religio-fascist will be revealed. It’ll be just like being back in religion class watching the Fr. Trendys explode.
* Long Long Ago — the Irish equivalent of “once upon a time”