Thursday, October 20, 2005


JohnCardinalWright, originally uploaded by farmboyz.

Here we are escorting (hoisting) the massive and brilliant John Cardinal Wright out the door of a banquet hall in Rome on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1973. I’ll call my classmate on the left Ned. We met on the Rafaello as it left New York on a sunny August afternoon. We were immediate friends and spent the entire seven day crossing on deck chairs calling for drinks. Ned taught me how to drink gin: it is a clear beverage and must be approached with the same hospitality afforded water. When Ned announced as we passed through the Straits of Gibraltar that he had dated Cybil Shepard in high school, my awe was boundless and I knew that we were in for constant adventure.

In Rome, our rooms overlooked clay courts and I insisted that Ned and I take up tennis. Ned agreed, and found that by carrying the balls in his shorts, he could fill the cannister with a healthy gin and tonic, and, turn heads on the way to our game.

I don’t remember the details of my first six months in Rome. Over the Christmas holiday, Ned and I were to tour Vienna, Salzburg and Munich by train with three other classmates. The two of us celebrated the day with extreme verve, and our companions were forced to pack our bags for us, and to cart us to the station that evening to commence the vacation. I woke up somewhere in the Alps to the sound of Ned shrieking as he rummaged through his suitcase. What they had packed for him was not the problem, as his clothing was all impeccable. What they had neglected to include made him distraught. I joined the wailing when I discovered that my own bag did not contain a hairdryer and that no one else had packed one. In those days, I had the kind of hair that needed a sustained and well-aimed shot of hot dry air to create the tossably feathered and straightened chestnut shag that I felt was owed the continent. Luckily, the bathroom in the seminary in Vienna had a hot air hand dryer that saved the day. It was mounted low upon the wall. Ned and I knelt under it having a religious moment that the Viennese seminarians found curious. In order to survive the rest of the trip, while our companions dutifully inspected art, Ned and I visited several Viennese furriers and purchased cloudlike hats of lush and radiant animal pelts. I’d be broke for the rest of the trip, but fabulously.

I returned to Rome with the realization that I was not constructed for gin. I could not keep up with Ned, and so I gave it up. A glass of Orvieto bianco at pranzo and Rosso Antico on ice in the late hours were all I really wanted. Ned and I grew apart.

A few years later, as I was dressing for the sacrament that, if in fact it actually took, would end my life as a seminarian, Ned stopped by to bestow a hug and a kiss and wishes. He sat on the bed while I applied a bronzer guaranteed not to streak even under perspiration. He confessed that he hadn’t been around much during the last three years because he was being kept by a jealous young Italian doctor. He wondered if I had known that, and if he had been the object of quiet and long-term gossip. Nope. News to me, you lucky dog.

His own ordination followed several months later, after our return to the States. We saw each other once more at a reunion, after which our lives were entirely disconnected. One day, rectory phones around the country were white hot with news. My classmate in Iowa was the first to reach me. It seemed that Ned, discontent with the d├ęcor of the church to which his bishop had assigned him, burned it to the ground and announced to the parish that proceeds from insurance would provide them with a gorgeous new house of worship. He was soon uncovered, having rather botched the deed, and he now resides in an ecclesiastical prison that exclusively houses criminal priests. Know that the inmates of this place are not there because of sexual misconduct. They are men who have mishandled money, a far greater crime in the eyes of the Church.

Sometimes I look at this photo and see only the face of John Cardinal Wright.

In the summer of 1975, I ran an office for visitors to the Vatican. Every morning, Cardinal Wright would slowly and painfully cross the piazza on the arm of his handsome secretary (now a prominent American archbishop). I would come to the door of my office to greet him with a faux-fawning "Buongiorno, Eminenza". He would pause for a few words, always full of delicious sarcasm and clever delivery. I adored him. Another classmate once told me that he had modeled his entire ministry on the advice of John Cardinal Wright who held that the best priests are always theologically conservative while socially liberal and entirely forgiving. I don’t suppose he’d much approve of how I turned out, but I made a finer go of it than Ned, didn’t I, and in the end, he’d still hug our shoulders close to him, laughing as we groaned under his weight.

1 comment:

tornwordo said...

SO much to learn about you. You open my eyes to worlds heretofore unbeknownst to me. Thank you.