I attend church in a left-leaning parish that specializes in outreach services to students at the local university. It succeeds so well that every Sunday night at 7 p.m., the place turns into Studio 54 — a magnet for coltish, confident, overachieving young Catholics who glow as though someone tossed them into a swimming pool filled with chrism.
Or so it seemed to me two and a half years ago, when I began to attend catechism classes offered through the parish’s RCIA program. I was a thirty-four-year-old bachelor and grad school dropout. Since leaving the academic life, I’d bounced from one office job to the next. My own glow had long since faded.
But, in church, the promise of renewal hung in the very air. Through the rite of baptism, I was to be reborn in the spirit. Why, I began to wonder — as I watched the young Olympians prance off to drink microbrew and (I imagined, gnashing my teeth) abuse their flesh — could I not also hope for a backward projection of ten measly years, to the time when women wanted to date me and men gave a hoot in hell for my views on the threat of Russian expansion in the Baltic?
As I memorized the difference between doctrine and dogma, and the importance of perfect contrition, I filled my closet with Ed Hardy t-shirts and highlighted my hair. Every Sunday after Mass let out, I dutifully took my place in the small smoking section by the parking lot, waiting for God to grant me admission to a Ph.D. program, along with a girlfriend with bangs and a nose ring.
A fool’s errand
It didn’t happen. After smoking hundreds of cigarettes and striking as many Mickey Rourke-ish poses, I realized I was on a fool’s errand. An overripe thirtysomething can only keep his dignity in the company of his coltish juniors if they’re being threatened by town rowdies, and he’s Billy Jack.
I decided to leave youth to enjoy itself unenvied, and find a niche in the Church where I could wear my age gracefully.
There are a number of other Masses I could attend, but none of them feel quite right. The 9 a.m. Mass caters to the Hometown Buffet crowd. Noon Mass is for families. There is a 5 p.m. Mass but I was never able to determine its composition, since our Catechism class met at the same time, directly above the chapel where it was celebrated. (Coming through floorboards, “He is Exalted” sounds pretty much the same, no matter who’s singing it.)
The unmarried and unordained
It is easy to see the logic. The Catholic Church has always stressed the sanctity of family life. The unmarried and unordained, once they reach a certain age, threaten to gum up the works — especially if, as I did, they still secretly think they’re cool.
But I soon learned I’d been underestimating the charitable impulses of Mother Church. One day, I was invited to attend a retreat for people exactly like myself — that is, for singles who considered themselves too old to join the youth group. The retreat’s exact theme I forget, but it was something like “How to be an older single Catholic and not go barking mad.” Relieved at the prospect of fellowship with real peers, I accepted.
As the first day of the retreat approached, my enthusiasm faded quickly. The whole notion of fellowship based on a negative felt demoralizing. It reminded me of that support group from the first scene in Fight Club, where everyone’s lost his testicles to cancer. Catholic, single, aging — these attributes might describe what I was, but I could not let them define who I was. In the end, I begged off, pleading exhaustion from a trying workweek. The lie was shameful, but the act of punking out was a psychological necessity. It saved my self-respect.
At this point, I wish I could write that I’ve found exactly the kind of affirmation I’ve been after. But I haven’t. The Church is what she is. She teaches that one of the three basic vocations — marriage, Holy Orders or celibacy — has my name on it. Whichever it might be, I’ve got to resign myself to it sooner or later.
My resignation is still a work in progress. I’ve put out feelers to the Dominicans and the Paulist Fathers. If it turns out there’s no cassock in my future, maybe I’ll figure out some way to do celibacy in style — say, by founding the Confraternity of Gene Tunney, a Catholicized fight club whose members have to take off their shirts but leave on their scapulars.
In the meantime, I’ve found the perfect Mass. It begins at 9:15, Sunday evening. At such a late hour, the mood is more meditative than festive. The crowd, though young, is usually too tired to frisk or flirt. Best of all, it takes place by candlelight, which I understand makes me look thirty, tops.