Confessions of a Madonna/Whore
My enlightening experience as a priest's backstreet girl.
By Mary Beth Crain
I once had an affair with a priest. It wasn’t the brightest thing I’ve ever done, but my excuse was that I was 34, going through a divorce, and Jewish. All I knew from priests you could definitely fit on the head of a pin.
He was 66, a lively little Italian with a soft, seductive laugh and a great sense of humor. We met three years earlier, when my husband and I were visiting San Francisco and a friend took us on a tour of the magnificent double-spired Saints Peter and Paul’s, the last of the great Romanesque churches in the old Italian district of North Beach.
We were admiring the huge stained glass windows when this priest came along and asked if he could help us. He said something funny and I laughed, and he laughed, and our eyes locked and I knew I liked this impish little man. A lot.
He asked what I did and I replied that I was a writer. He replied that he, too, was a writer, of poems, and proceeded to recite one, in that gentle, lilting Italian-flavored English that was rapidly making me melt like gelato on a very warm day. The poem was actually quite good, not the “Every day I look on high and see the good Lord going by” type of drivel I was expecting. I complimented him and he beamed.
“Do you come to San Francisco often?” he asked.
“No,” I replied.
“A pity. Well, next time you are here, come by and we can have coffee. My name is Father Joseph Scanagatta, by the way. In Italian, ‘Scanagatta’ means ‘to slit the throat of a cat.’ Ours was a family that made violin strings, from catgut. A pleasant occupation, eh?” he chuckled. Then he turned to my husband.
“But you’d better not let your wife come up alone!” he warned, wagging a friendly finger at him.
We all laughed, never for a moment thinking he might be serious. After all, he was a priest and weren’t they supposed to be celibate? Besides, he was practically old enough to be my grandfather, although I couldn’t help noticing his tight body and strong, muscular forearms, which, I later found out, came from lots of tennis.
We said goodbye and that was that. Flash forward three years.
My 16-year marriage was crumbling, a particularly painful process because it was not the result of hostility or infidelity, but rather the inevitable conclusion to a relationship that began when we both were really too young to know who we were. I met my husband, Bob, in 1968, on my first day at Indiana University. I was on my way to the dining hall for freshman orientation when a mutual friend introduced us. He was a junior—an upperclassman!—and he was gorgeous, a slim, muscular Adonis with huge, honest blue eyes and curly golden hair that made me blink as though I were staring into the sun. He was also gentle and kind, and so began one of those impossibly sweet college romances that could only have existed in a bygone age.
Our first date was three weeks later, a Peter Paul & Mary concert. Bob didn’t kiss me that night, which was fine with me, as I was a trembling 17-year-old virgin and he was not only equally innocent but moral and upstanding to the max. So, when we finally did kiss, a month or two later, you’d better believe the earth moved under our feet and the sky came tumblin’ down and crash! Were we ever in love.
We were married two years later, in a little fairytale chapel in the woods on campus. I was 19, he was 22. We were the perfect couple, until I started growing up and we started growing apart. The fact that we still loved each other made our separation that much more agonizing. I developed colitis and suffered for months with excruciating abdominal pain. Desperately needing to get away, I went up to San Francisco to stay with a friend for a week. On the morning of the day I was to return to Los Angeles, I awoke with severe cramps. Suddenly the little old priest I’d met in North Beach three years before flashed into my mind. “I have to see that priest again!” I sobbed out loud. And, doubled over in spasms, I got up, dressed and took a cab to Sts. Peter and Paul’s.
The church was empty, except for the cleaning lady. I looked for Father Scanagatta’s confessional but his name was gone, another in its place. It hit me that he might have died and I began to weep. It was all completely irrational and insane and beyond my control. Impelled by forces I couldn’t explain, I searched all over until I found the bookstore and a pleasant lady who informed me that Father Scanagatta had been transferred across the bay, to Mission San Rafael. She wrote his address down and I grabbed the piece of paper like a drowning person who’d just been handed a lifeline. Going back into the church, I sat down in a pew and wrote him a letter.
“Dear Father Joe: You won’t remember me, but I met you three years ago, when my husband and I were visiting Sts. Peter and Paul. I told you I was a writer and you recited one of your lovely poems for me. I can’t explain this, but I suddenly felt I had to write to you and see you again. I am in San Francisco and went to the church to find you; when I saw that you were no longer there, I began to cry, fearing that you had died. I was so happy to find out that you are still alive, and hopefully well. Mary Beth Crain.”
I mailed the letter and returned to L.A. that night. And two days later his reply came flying through my mail slot, as if hand delivered by Angel Air. As I tore it open, all I could think was, “He must have sat down as soon as he finished my letter, fired this off and raced to the post office.” Which he later told me was precisely what happened.
“My Dearest Mary Beth,” it began. “How thrilled I was to receive your letter. Yes, I do indeed remember you, quite well. I would be delighted to see you again! When you wrote that you started to cry when you thought I had died, I was very moved. I, too, cannot explain it but I feel I have known you for a long while. Please let me know when you will be coming to San Francisco again; I am available anytime! I look forward to our meeting with great anticipation. Fr. Joe Scanagatta.”
We began a correspondence that went from 0 to 60 faster than a Porsche. By the fourth letter he was saying things like “I feel as if I love you already.” As for me, the very thought of our coming reunion made me almost sick with longing and fear. Why, really, had I written to this man? What the hell was I getting myself into? I felt like I was in a speeding car that I couldn’t control. Seeing Father Joe again was sure to lead to an affair of some sort, and we all know rebound relationships are a terrible idea. On the other hand, not seeing him again was unthinkable.
I scheduled a trip to San Francisco for the last weekend in July. I stayed at the Washington Square Inn, a picturesque bed and breakfast across the street from Sts. Peter and Paul. Father Joe had written suggesting we meet at the Inn, and I was just on my way down to the lobby when he came bounding up the stairs. Seeing me, he held out his arms and I fell into them.
It was like coming home. We just held each other. Then he began to laugh.
“Forgive me! I was supposed to meet you downstairs, I know, but I couldn’t wait.”
“I know what you mean,” I laughed, and led him into my room. We sat down across from each other, me on the sofa, he on the big easy chair, chastely separated by a coffee table. We began chatting, awkwardly; he asked me about my marriage and I poured out my unhappiness, adding that I seemed to be on a spiritual quest of sorts.
“I believe our meeting was meant to be,” he said softly. “If you are searching for God, perhaps I will lead you to Him.” Then he said, “You wrote to me that you cried in the church when you thought I had died.”
“Yes. It was crazy. I hadn’t thought about you for three years, and all of a sudden I had to see you.”
He got up then, came over to the sofa and, sitting down next to me, took me in his arms. We were both shaking.
“Father, what’s happening?” I whispered.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “But just let it happen.”
We began to kiss. And kiss. We sat there on that sofa for probably two hours, embracing. Finally he led me to the bed, where we continued to just hold each other and kiss, fully clothed, for another few hours. We seemed to leave our bodies, and I had the sensation of our souls locking and soaring into that vague, mythical region known as Eternal Bliss.
And all without sex. I was catapulted back to that happy and yet troubled Age of Innocence, when I was 17 and Bob and I would kiss and kiss without undressing, because we were too shy and scared to do anything else. It was like that now; I was basking in the elation of new love while at the same time feeling too inhibited to take it to the next level. This, time, however, my shyness stemmed not from inexperience but from the fact that Father Joe was a priest and, from what I could tell, still a virgin, because all he did was hold me to him and laugh with joy.
The warm rays of the bright afternoon sun gave way to the soft glow of sunset and the shadows of evening, and still we lay there, locked in this crazy ethereal embrace. Eventually we did undress, and then proceeded to lie there naked, kissing for another few hours. Of course, we talked too, and at one point, in a veritable paroxysm of ecstasy, Father Joe burst into an aria from “La Boheme,” revealing a lovely tenor voice. He was everything I’d dreamed of—mature, cultured, wise, passionate.
By the time Father Joe left, near midnight, he was still a virgin, and I was climbing the walls with unfulfilled desire. I figured all this would change as time went on and he discovered the joy of sex. That’s how dumb I was.
Father Joe was Italian. He was hotter than Mount Vesuvius, he kissed better than anyone I’d ever been with, and he was 66. Did I honestly believe that he’d never had a woman? Yes, because he was the first priest I’d ever met and he seemed as innocent as a child. In fact, before he left, we somehow wound up sitting on the floor holding hands, and in his next letter to me he wrote, “Our love is so innocent, so pure…sitting on the floor like two children…”
Actually, our love—or rather, his love—was anything but innocent and pure. It was selfish, dysfunctional, misogynistic, hypocritical, and, when all was said and done, one big fat lie. But I didn’t know that yet. All I knew was what I wanted to believe with all my heart: that I was what Father Joe had waited for his whole long, lonely life.
* * *
The following morning I went across the street to Sts. Peter and Paul, to check out mass. Already I was embarking on that silly, deadly path so many besotted women have trod through the ages: willingly, joyfully handing over my identity, my power, and, as it would inevitably transpire, every shred of my dignity and self-respect to the man I thought I couldn’t live without.
Overnight, Father Joe had metamorphosed from simple little priest into God incarnate. In my eyes he was perfect, and perfectly holy. I felt humbled, awed, supremely blessed that such a saint would choose me as his beloved. The least I could do in return was to embrace his religion. The words of Ruth from the Old Testament rang in my ears: “Whither thou goest, I shall go. Whither thou diest, I shall die. Thy people shall be my people, thy God my God…” The only trouble was, Ruth was talking to Naomi, a nice old Jewish lady, not a priest. Their relationship was forged from the steel of true friendship, destined to endure to the end of time. My relationship with Joe, on the other hand, was built on the shifting sands of illusion, and therefore so fragile it was destined to shatter like fine glass, each shard lodging in my heart for years afterwards, a constant, agonizing reminder of my fatal naïveté.
I was so madly, blissfully, dreadfully in love that all I could think of was how we could be together forever. In the church I prayed to a new God, Jesus, who hung there high above me on a giant cross, looking so miserable that I felt guilty bothering him with my piddly little request that Father Joe and I be united in wedded bliss.
I can honestly say that the nicest thing Jesus ever did for me was not answering that prayer. Looking back on it now, from the supreme vantage point of twenty years of hindsight, I am amused and appalled by my foolishness. I was 34, after all, not 17. A grown woman who should have known better. I take full responsibility for the ensuing disaster my life became. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.
Yet I beg to be allowed to introduce one overriding mitigating circumstance. I was completely clueless about the different religions that all came under the umbrella of Christianity. In my limited universe, you were either a Jew or a goy. You either believed in Jesus or you didn’t. The delicate distinction between Protestantism and Catholicism went right over my head like a hot air balloon, because to me that’s what it all amounted to. A lot of hot air about semantics and idiotic superstitions that had caused most of the wars and miseries on earth.
Why, for instance, couldn’t Father Joe just leave the Catholic Church and become an Episcopalian priest instead? It made perfect sense. He could still preach, still believe in Jesus, and he could have me in the bargain. Such a deal.
I actually suggested this to him. All you Catholics out there are probably holding your heads in your hands and screaming “No! You didn’t! Idiot!” Indeed, idiot is the word. I’ll never forget the shock on his face.
“Episcopalian?” he gasped.
“What’s wrong with Episcopalians?” I asked.
“Hey, now don’t get me wrong! They go to heaven too. And some of them might even get there before me. But they don’t believe in the Pope!”
The Pope? As George Wallace once said, that fool in a pointy hat? “So what?” I replied. “The Pope’s just an elected official.”
Joe looked at me with a mixture of incredulity and pity.
“You mean you don’t believe in the Pope?”
“Of course not! If you’re going to believe in anybody, Joe, it seems like it should be Jesus. Period.”
“Oh, you!” he laughed, and took me in his arms. We proceeded to engage in a prolonged bout of mad kissing and fondling. The fact that he was naked and fully aroused led me to broach another loaded topic.
“Uh, Joe? I’ve been meaning to ask you this. Aren’t you supposed to be celibate?”
“Aha! I knew you were going to ask about that. Let me tell you something. There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing.”
“There’s nothing anywhere in canon law that says I can’t have a woman friend.”
Run that one by me again?
“Joe,” I said. “I think there’s a little bit of a difference between a woman friend and a lover.”
“Hey!” he looked at me sternly. “We are not lovers!”
“Then what are we?”
“We’re…” he searched for the proper term. Since it didn’t exist, he was obliged to invent it.
“We’re…lovin’ friends! You see,” he stroked my cheek, “There’s nothing wrong with a little kissin’ and huggin’. As long as we don’t have intercourse.”
This brings up a delicate subject. Presumably because of his years of sexual abstinence, Joe was like a teenager. He had a constant erection—“Not bad for 66, eh?” he would brag—and the ability to ejaculate without any stimulation other than heavy “kissin’ and huggin’.” I, on the other hand, wasn’t quite as lucky. Like any woman, I required foreplay, and a couple of months into our relationship, he still hadn’t touched me “there.”
“But we—I mean you—have orgasms.”
“Sure. I’m human! But they are not intentional orgasms.”
“Oh. Is that why you won’t touch me?”
He took me in his arms. “A spontaneous orgasm is OK. If we have an orgasm and we don’t mean to, God doesn’t blame us. After all, he created us this way! So it’s His fault! But if I gave you an orgasm, it would be intentional. Do you understand?”
“Yeah, sure. You get to come and I don’t.”
“Now, now,” he said gently. “Don’t get mad.”
“You know something, Joe?” I said. “The Jews have the Old Testament. The Muslims have the Koran. The Hindus have the Upanishads. The Mormons have the Book of Mormon. And you have the Book of Loopholes!”
In spite of himself, he laughed. That was one good thing about Joe, at least early in our relationship, before he grew to hate the sight of me. He knew when he was sounding like an ass, which, when you’re a priest playing around with a woman and pretending that you’re not, was a hell of a lot of the time.
So why, you may rightly ask, was I in love with an ass? Was it a replay of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” with some mischievous sprite putting a donkey’s head on my inamorata and blinders on me? Not quite. There was a glimmer of sanity behind the madness. Joe wrote me love poems. He would read me Dante in the original Italian, as the warm evening breeze wafted through the window of my friend’s bedroom in San Francisco, where we had many of our trysts, and the intoxicating scents of the summer night made me feel as though I were in the Garden of Paradise. He would sing me Puccini and Verdi arias, an old Italian tradition he remembered from his childhood in Vicenza, when young men would stand outside the balconies of the girls they fancied and serenade them as the first stars appeared in the evening sky and all the neighbors turned out to applaud and give advice to the lovers.
“Ah!” he would reminisce. “You know, in Vicenza, in the spring and summer, the men would go out to the big piazza in the evening and sit and have their coffee and their wine, and all the women would dress up, in their heels and their makeup and their tight skirts, and parade through the piazza. And the men would wink and make jokes, and the women would laugh, and everybody, they were in love! It was so beautiful!”
Joe bubbled over with passion. He was that irresistible combination of spiritual leader and Latin lover, minus the actual sex. I’m sure I’m not the only woman who fell for his endearing old charms. It all seemed like a dream, and in fact, it was. For Joe had lived in dreamland his whole life, and wasn’t about to move to Realityville any time soon. As the Church turned a blind, albeit winking eye, he was able to create a universe that contained the best of all worlds: the adulation of his parishioners; salary, room and board and healthcare for life; and a backstreet girl who could give him all the unintentional orgasms he desired.
Joe, you see, was an Italian first and a priest second, which meant that he was entitled to a mistress. This was the ethos that formed him, and deformed him—a misogynist, patriarchal culture so steeped in madonna/whore theology that women never stood a chance, from the moment they were born until the moment they were buried. Being a child of the 60s, on the other hand, I couldn’t even conceive of the warped ideas that filled the head of my saintly little priest. I assumed that he respected me, not only as a woman but as an individual. I assumed that his gratitude at having found me at last would liberate him from the nightmarish repression of the church. I assumed that somehow we would find a way to cancel out 66 years of ruthless anti-female, anti-sex indoctrination and live as husband and wife, happily ever after. That was my dreamland.
My friends—the non-Catholic ones—were no help. They thought it was the most romantic story they’d ever heard, and that I was the luckiest woman alive. “It’s ‘The Thornbirds’!” they all sighed. Of course, “The Thornbirds” was fraught with forbidden love misery, but that wasn’t the issue. In the noble echelons of romantic myth, I wasn’t the luckiest woman alive because things were necessarily going to turn out the way I wanted them to, but because I had experienced the ultimate in passion.
“Most people go an entire lifetime without ever even knowing this kind of love,” I was told. And what I can say to that now is, thank God. They’re the lucky ones. Because this kind of love isn’t real. It’s built on the cheap foundation of desperate need and irrational dreams and magical thinking, and thrives not on peace but on pain—clear warning signs of self-destruction.
The biggest myth “The Thornbirds” fed into was that forbidden love will last forever. No matter how much grief it causes, nothing can quench it. When soulmates find each other at last, neither time nor space can ever part them. Two hearts may be separated by millions of miles and still beat as one.
Father Joe was a firm believer in that crap. “You know,” he would say to me, “We don’t even have to be together. You can be down there in Los Angeles and I can be up here in San Francisco, and I can feel you with me every minute. I even know what you’re thinkin’!” Which sounds terribly romantic but which, in actuality, was the ultimate cop out. If we didn’t need to be together, he didn’t have to lift a finger—literally—to keep our relationship going. He never so much as dialed my number in L.A. He never got on a plane to come down to see me. I was always the one spending the time and money and effort to make sure we got to see each other.
Of course, down deep I knew Joe could make the effort if he really cared. But unable to admit that to myself, I made the usual excuses women make for abusive boyfriends and spouses. He couldn’t help it. He couldn’t call me from the parish because his phone was probably tapped. (This was the pre-cell phone age, remember). He couldn’t call me from a pay phone because long distance calls are expensive and he’s on a fixed income. He couldn’t come down to see me because he didn’t have the money for the plane ticket. And even if I gave him the money, it would look too suspicious if he kept flying to L.A. Besides, he couldn’t get away—his priestly duties always came first. Blah, blah, blah.
In the first letter Joe wrote me after we fell in love, he had said, “I have no right to you. But whatever you can give me I will be grateful for.” Oh, yeah. Eagerly I gave, and gave, and gave, happy to make him happy. And it was all part of the plan. As I was to learn, priests are great takers. They are bred to believe that everybody owes them because they’ve sacrificed their lives—i.e. their sex lives—to the Church and its flock. Joe was always getting things from his parishioners. Money, dinners, cases of wine, cashmere sweaters, tennis rackets, theater tickets, opera boxes, plane fare back to Italy—it was never-ending. But this seeming charity was really a win-win for both parties. The more a parishioner could give to a poor, humble priest, the more frequent flyer miles he or she was earning for that one-way ticket to heaven. And the more the priest came to believe in his own sanctity and his ensuing entitlement to material delights.
My Catholic friends, on the other hand, sniffed a rat from day one. “He’s using you! There was this priest in my parish who was having a big affair with a nun…There was this priest in my parish who would do marriage counseling and end up fucking all the wives…When I was an alter boy, Father Ignatius couldn’t keep his hands off of me…Joe’s just another rogue priest!”
If only I’d listened. But who listens to reason when they’re in love? As Pascal observed, “The heart has reasons that reason knows not of.” My biggest mistake, though, was not falling for a priest, but confusing passion with real love, the kind that rolls up its sleeves when the going gets tough and slugs it out through thick and thin, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, til death do us part. While the intense bond I had with Joe was definitely real, in the final analysis it wasn’t worth a mass in hell. I was willing to leave my job and my life to move to San Francisco and make our relationship work, but he had no such dedication. Compassionate, unselfish commitment to another human being wasn’t even remotely within his comprehension. He would take what I gave him, because in the Book of Loopholes, it was OK to receive a woman’s devotion. Committing to that woman, however, was a sin, because he was already committed to another woman, Mother Church. In essence, I was having an affair with a married man. A celibate married man. Sort of. Welcome to Catholic logic.
Our eternal love lasted, let me see, approximately six months. From July 1985 to January 1986. That was when Joe supposedly lost his virginity. I say supposedly because to this day I still have no idea how many other women he had, and how far he went with them. I only know what transpired between us one rainy winter night, when we were in my friend’s bed, drowning in kisses as usual.
“Make love to me,” I whispered.
Eve dangling the apple. And Adam bit, at last. After six months of heroic superhuman abstinence, Joe pulled me to him and consummated our love.
It was so unspeakably beautiful that I shall say no more, quoting instead from the young Theodore Roosevelt’s diary, the morning after his wedding night to his beloved Alice. “Our joy is too sacred to be written about.” End of entry.
Now, being a normal non-Catholic woman, I naturally assumed that this was the beginning of our “real” relationship.
Instead, it was the end—of that and everything else.
I didn’t see Joe the next day, nor did I hear from him. By the day after that, when the phone was still silent, I was a basket case. I ended up calling him at the rectory, something I hated to do. Sure enough, his nemesis, Monsignor Patrick (Joe hated the Irish priests, who were the BMOC’s of the American Catholic Church) answered the phone.
“Could I speak to Father Scanagatta?” I asked, trying as hard as I could to keep my voice calm.
Unfortunately, I don’t think that I sounded like Mrs. Rigatoni inviting Fr. Scanagatta to officiate at her 50th wedding anniversary mass. I think I sounded like a young woman whose heart was breaking. There was a stern silence at the other end. Then Monsignor grumbled, “I’ll see if he’s here.”
A few minutes later, Joe came to the phone.
“Joe?” I said.
“Oh,” he replied. “Yes.”
His strangled monosyllables told me that Monsignor was still lurking around.
“I just wanted to find out how you were feeling,” I stammered. “After, you know…”
“Wonderful,” he replied, with an embarrassed little laugh.
“Me too,” I said. “I love you.”
“Yes,” he replied.
“Will I see you before I go back to L.A.?”
“I don’t know.” His voice was impassive, distanced. “I will call you, OK?”
“OK.” I hung up, tears running down my cheeks. I knew it was over. How, why, I couldn’t fathom. But the man I had just spoken to was not the man who had held me to him in ecstasy a mere 48 hours before. This man was a stranger, the wrong Father Joe. Was there another one floating around his parish?
There sure was. He was the Evil Father Joe, and he had kidnapped the Good Father Joe and was holding him hostage, in some impregnable underground fortress where his screams for help would never be heard.
Well, this sounds a little dramatic, I know. But it really is true. In order to survive his double life, Joe had to have two identities, Father Jekyll and Father Hyde. And the transformation was eerily like the Stevenson horror classic. It seemed that Joe had taken some sort of potion that had suddenly turned him into a monster. Overnight he became nasty and harsh. Once, when I tried to talk to him after one of his masses, he actually raised his hand as if to strike me, and I realized he was capable of real violence. I recalled with a chill that he had cat throat-slitting genes, after all. How much more difficult would it be to slit the throat of a woman, especially one who was putting your mortal soul in peril?
And in the weirdest of twists, I had become two people as well. Before we’d gone all the way, I was still the Madonna; even though Joe knew, logically, that I wasn’t a virgin, he could still pretend that I was with him, anyway. But once I gave myself to him fully, I turned into the whore. Kicked off the pedestal I was sharing with the Blessed Virgin Mother, I was now the “fallen” woman, not only in virtue but in his entire estimation of me. It may not have been fair, or kind, or decent, but it was the convenient ammunition he needed to distance himself from me once and for all.
Finally I received a letter, not from “Your Joe” but from “Fr. Joseph Scanagatta,” informing me that we had nothing in common and that it would be better if we stopped seeing each other.
I went out of my mind. He might have been willing to drop me like a piece of used Kleenex, but I wasn’t about to give up without a fight. I drove up to San Francisco and demanded that he see me. He grudgingly agreed.
When he arrived at my friend’s apartment, I got sick. Really sick. I was flushed and feverish, and he took one look at me and said,
“Hey! What’s goin’ on?”
“I don’t feel so well,” I said.
“Well, if you were sick, why didn’t you tell me? I wouldn’t have come.”
“Excuse me,” I said, and ran to the bathroom, where I puked my guts out.
When I returned to the living room, white and shaking, he looked at me coldly.
“What’s the matter with you?” he barked. “Why are you acting like this?”
“Oh, Joe,” I moaned. “I didn’t do this on purpose.”
And suddenly he fell apart.
“What can I do?” he whispered.
“Help me to bed,” I said.
Tenderly he led me to the bedroom and helped me undress. Then he got into bed with me and just rocked me in his arms. Poof! Evil Father Hyde was gone, kind Father Jekyll in his place.
“I love you so much,” he whispered. “So much.”
“Then why have you been so cruel?” I sobbed. “Why did you send me that letter? Why are you trying to pretend that there’s nothing between us, when you used to rush into my arms?”
“Because. It can’t work I can’t give you what you need. Marriage, children…”
“Who said anything about children? I don’t want children.”
“Don’t want children?” He was sincerely shocked. “But you would make such a beautiful mother!”
“I just want you.”
And then it hit me. I don’t know why it took so long.
“Joe,” I said. “Did you confess us?”
He hemmed and hawed and finally nodded.
“Why?” I asked. “You should have been thanking God for the happiest moment of your life, not asking his forgiveness!”
“You see?” he threw up his hands. “You will never understand. We love each other, yes. But our worlds are too far apart.”
I started to cry. He took me in his arms and we lay there, just holding each other, not even kissing, until I fell asleep against his chest, breathing to his heartbeat. When I awoke several hours later, he was gone.
To his minimal credit, he did phone the next day, to see how I was. “I didn’t want to wake you,” he said. “You were sleeping so soundly.”
And that, pretty much, was that. I returned to L.A. and spent the next couple of years trying to forget him. In 1992, I met a wonderful man, Adam Shields, whom I married the following year—and who, in the irony of ironies, was the nephew of Barry Fitzgerald, the wonderful Irish actor who got an Academy Award for the role of feisty old Father Fitzgibbon in the 1944 Bing Crosby hit “Going My Way.” I jut couldn’t seem to get away from those priests.
Two months before the wedding, I began having a series of dreams about Joe, whom I hadn’t seen for six years. I wondered if maybe he’d died, and was trying to let me know. One day, overcome by curiosity, I called his parish, figuring the secretary would answer the phone. Instead I heard his voice.
“Joe?” I said.
“Speakin’!” he replied.
“Joe, do you know who this is?”
“Uh, the voice…it is familiar…”
“Joe, this is Mary Beth.”
“Mary Beth!” He got all excited. “Hey, it’s not because you called, but I’ve been thinkin’ about you!”
“I know. I’ve been having dreams about you.”
“So,” he said. “Just callin’ to see if I’m dead yet, huh?”
“How did you know?” I laughed.
“Because! I know you! I know everything you’re thinkin’!”
He began asking me about my writing, and if my brother had finally finished the house he was building, and it was exactly as if we were resuming a conversation we’d started the day before.
“Hey, you know something?” he bragged. “I’m 74 and I don’t look a day older than when you saw me last! And my tennis game is better than ever!”
That’s justice, isn’t it?
When I told him I was getting married he got quiet.
“Oh,” he said. “When?”
“I see. And may I ask to whom?”
Remembering how Joe despised the Irish Ruling Class, I saw my moment of triumph up ahead.
“Do you remember Barry Fitzgerald, Joe?”
“Hmph!” he sniffed. “Who doesn’t remember Barry Fitzgerald?” The enemy incarnate!
“Well, I’m marrying his nephew.”
I savored the dead silence. Then he changed the subject.
“Tell me, do you ever come up to San Francisco?”
“Yeah. My publisher is Harper San Francisco. I go up there every few months.”
“And you’ve never called me?” He sounded hurt. Honest to God.
“Why would I?” I replied, amazed.
“Well, the next time you come up this way, phone me. We’ll have coffee, and a little hug…”
“Joe,” I said. “I’m getting married. M-A-R-R-I-E-D.”
“So? We can still have a little hug, can’t we?”
Yup, this was a priest, folks.
“No, I don’t think so,” I replied. “Take care of yourself, OK?”
“I love you,” he replied, and you know, I’m sure he did. In a Book of Loopholes sort of way.
Adam died in 1996, of cancer. We had been married not quite three years. I have never remarried, because he was simply too tough an act to follow. Next to his love, Joe’s was a plastic diamond ring from one of those put-in-a-quarter-and-see-what-comes-out cheapo vending machines.
The years passed. I continued to call Joe’s parish every Christmas, purely out of curiosity, to see if the old fart's expiration date was finally up. If the receptionist answered, I said that I wanted to send Father Scanagatta a Christmas card and did she have his address? If she gave it to me, I had my answer. If Joe himself happened to pick up the phone, I hung up.
Every year he was still alive. And every year I was more surprised at God. Why did my husband, a man of true kindness, selflessness and integrity, have to die while this jerk was still hanging around, playing better tennis than ever?
On Joe’s 85th birthday, I had a dream about him. Thinking he might have finally croaked, I called his parish and spoke with a pleasant-sounding Monsignor Somebody, who informed me that Father Joe had “severe dementia,” and was in a nursing home in Oakland.
“You can send him a birthday card,” he said. “But I don’t think he’d have any idea what it was, or who you were.”
My heart constricted. As mean as he’d been to me, I would never have wished that on him. Not in a million years.
A few months ago, I learned that Father Joe was dead. Not merely dead, but really most sincerely dead. A friend of mine had seen his obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle.
I’d like to be able to say that I shed a tear or two. But all I felt was a sort of relief. I wondered if Joe could still hear what I was thinkin’, from a million billion trillion miles away. Or maybe he was right there beside me, a decidedly uncomfortable thought.
“Well, Joe,” I said out loud. “You’re finally in a place where you have to face the truth. There’s no more hiding behind Mother Church’s big billowing skirts. You were a rogue priest. You were a smug, selfish, bald-faced hypocrite. You had orgasms with women, and God doesn’t give a flying fuck if they were intentional or unintentional. It’s time to pay the piper, so have fun. And if you happen to run into my husband, tell him I love him.”
Maybe it was an exercise in futility, kicking a dead horse, but it sure felt good, to get that off my chest and to know that somehow, somewhere, Joe was listening.
* * *
The ultimate irony of all of this is that today, when dear Pope Benedict has just given the order to cleanse the American seminaries and parishes of all homosexual priests and wannabe priests, Father Joe might actually come out smelling like a rose. According to Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, coordinator of the screening review of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland, “We don't want our people to think, as our culture is now saying, that there's really no difference whether one is gay or straight, is homosexual or heterosexual. We think for our vocation that there is a difference, and our people expect to have a male priesthood that is—sets a strong role model of maleness.”
In other words, if you’re a priest playing around with women, you pass muster? You can come flying out of the heterosexual closet and receive the Vatican Seal of Approval? And hey, don’t forget to flaunt those notches in your belt. The more women you’ve had, the better!
Just what is this “strong role model of maleness” horseshit? If you’re a priest, you’re not supposed to be a flaming heterosexual! You’re not supposed to be anything, gay or straight! Has the Church finally gone certifiably bonkers?
Under the circumstances, I think I should petition the Vatican to award Father Joe a posthumous Medal of Honor, for dedicated service in the trenches of maleness. God knows there wasn’t a gay bone in that man’s body, no pun intended. There also wasn’t a truthful one, but then, truth seems to have fallen a bit low on the Church’s priority list these days. Who knows, maybe someday there’ll even be a statue of Father Joseph Scanagatta erected (and I do mean erected) right in front of Saints Peter and Paul’s, with our room at the Washington Square Inn declared a holy site. After all, with the squirrelly Catholic Church in retreat and running for its life in the wrong direction, anything’s possible.
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Contributing editor Mary Beth Crain's last piece for SoMA was Yum—Kippers!
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