I’m not surprised that Pope Francis has met with widespread praise and welcome from all corners of the world. Following on the heels of a red-shoed, calculating and doctrinaire Pope Benedict, who did little to rehabilitate the popular reputations of either Germans or Popes, Francis seems all the more approachable, welcoming, and above all, kind. To those on the outside, Catholicism looks authoritarian, top-down, obedient to the enthroned Holy Father. On the ground, things have always looked a bit different. Growing up Catholic, I never heard much about the Pope. We prayed for him every Sunday, and for Cardinal Law and the unnamed droves of church leadership and faithful, but that was about it. I know the list of the Church’s continued failings: institutional homophobia, misogyny, the pedophilia scandal. Father Geoghan was my father’s parish priest growing up. I come from a line of Catholics raised in the Boston archdiocese, the belly of that particular beast, and I have no illusions about the flaws of of this Church.
Francis looks, to non-Catholics especially, like a scouring beam of light illuminating the fusty and corrupted chambers of the Vatican, and therefore, the Church’s parishes around the world. What he looks like to me is what good Catholics have been all along, and the best of these, to my mind, was my grandmother. Born Marguerite Hayward, nicknamed Peggy, married to become a Fahey, and known to me and to my dozens of cousins as Nana. Last night, on Christmas Eve, I watched the children perform the Nativity pageant, as a little blonde girl and boy walked up the center aisle playing Mary and Joseph, and I thought of Nana. She was devoted to Mary, which made particular sense as she herself was great with child for the better part of twenty years and more, bearing twelve children. She never wearied of children, it seemed, a feat I marvel at all the more now that I have two of my own. When I see a baby, I feel my uterus clench protectively around my IUD, just making sure. Nana, though we were so many, was ever happiest at the center of an orbiting universe of children and grandchildren.
She was madcap and zany; she sent us sticks of spearmint gum individually taped inside cards by way of birthday presents. She was deeply devoted to Larry Bird and the Celtics in their prime. She kept plastic jars of holy water from Lourdes or Our Lady of Guadalupe stashed around the house. She wore clip on earrings and kept tiny saints’ medallions pinned inside her pocketbooks. She prayed to St. Anthony for me when I lost things, and she gave me a scapular to wear under my clothes, with Mary on one of its square faces and the sacred, thorn pierced heart of Jesus on the other. When I hear Francis say, “Who am I to judge?” I think of her. Though she sorrowed for those whose paths, she feared, had strayed, she didn’t pronounce upon them, she only prayed harder and baked them an extra batch of rice krispies treats smeared with a thick layer of chocolate on top.
In the last months of her life, she moved into my parents’ house. I was in college then, but fortunate to come home often. She had lost much of her eyesight to macular degeneration and could not drive herself to doctor’s appointments. I brought her to many of these, and on the way back from one clinic on the North Shore, I got lost somehow. We followed the ocean she could no longer see well as her delight at our wanderings increased and it got closer to lunchtime. “How about we get something to eat?” I asked her, and she, the perpetual dieter, and perpetual diet cheater, giggled and assented. After that, every time I drove her, I carried on the same pretense, claiming we were lost and had better stop and fortify ourselves.
It was two weeks between when I came home for the summer and when she died. I read to her from The Greatest Generation, and I used a little manicure set to do her nails, painting them a garish pink, and rubbing her gnarled and burnished knuckles. She held her hand out, the arthritic fingers pointing off somewhere else, and exclaimed, “I can see them!”
On the last day of her life, we had a graduation party for my sister, who had just finished high school. We have one grainy photo in dim light of Nana with my sister and my cousin Kate. All three are wearing graduation caps, and Nana is smiling her squint eyed smile.
That night, the lung disease that had been slowly claiming her fulminated suddenly. She was in her bed and the whole room was a sudden flurry. I followed the steady, sure-handed example of my mother, a nurse, who recognized the ragged breathing of the dying, and was trying to make her comfortable. My father, whose mother Nana was, came into the room and I tried to hug him but he firmly guided me back to the bed and said, “Go. Stay with her.” And I did. I stayed on my knees beside her as she tossed under the blankets. I held her hand and said almost nothing at all. Then she was gone, and I was still kneeling there, holding her hand. It suddenly occurred to me, her death having come so abruptly, that she hadn’t received the last Eucharist–the Viaticum, “provision for the journey.” Here she was instead, with me, far from a priest, a non-believer. Before we dressed her, and all her sons and daughters were called and those close by enough began to arrive in our back room where she lay, I pressed my palm to her forehead, then bent and kissed her brow. The best approximation I could make of last rites for a soul already well provisioned for the journey.