Several people wore ashes on their foreheads Wednesday when Goethe and I took a stroll in downtown Frederick; they reminded me of the New Orleans I grew up in. This followed Mardi Gras when more than the French Quarter went crazy in celebration.
“Fat Tuesday,” in French, observed the occasion when Roman Catholics expunged their kitchens of anything that would tempt in the coming 40 days, subtracting Sundays and feast days. The word “Carnival” derives from the same observation; the original word meant “goodbye meat” (Carnevalle), when most of the Christian world swore religious allegiance to Rome.
Pope Benedict XVI chose Monday to announce his resignation, effective February 28, 2013. He affirmed his “goodbye” at a solemn mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, in which he administered ashes on the heads of the faithful. His whole papal career was dedicated to reducing their numbers. He wanted solely “true unquestioning Catholics.”
That’s the Church I knew back in New Orleans, which reminds of a joke learned in childhood:
“A priest visited a girl when she was possessed of new-born puppies and asked their religion. ‘Catholic,’ she replied to his beaming face, and he went along. Eight weeks later, he returned to the house, and posed the same question, expecting the identical answer. She surprised him by declaring: ‘Protestants!’ He spluttered and she explained: ‘Now their eyes are open!’ ”
Many people described themselves as “Christmas and Easter Christians,” describing how seldom they “heard” masses. I remember wild parties after midnight services. The festivities began at noon Good Saturday, when Lent ended; revelers frequently took hangovers with them. Of course, this was in the Latin tradition.
In occupied Germany, there was Fasching, which culminated on Mardi Gras. I had never encountered Shrove Tuesday and the delicious kinklings until I moved to Washington, in the Army. The current pope knows all about the pre-Lenten celebrations; they were festively observed in his native south Germany.
Despite his youthful Bavarian conditioning, Josef Aloisius Ratzinger, reflecting his Nazi upbringings, chose to rule the church with a heavy hand. He sought to return it to 20th Century role, before Angelo Giuseppi Roncalli (Pope John XXIII) instituted Vatican II’s reforms. I covered the Vatican during the reign of Giovanna Batiste Montini (Pope Paul VI); the re-reforms began. Priests applied for laicization casting off their Roman collars, which was allowed by the Curia, the Papal State’s bureaucracy. Several of my friends married.
Non-progressive – but popular all over the world – Karol Józef Wojtila (Pope John Paul) cinched the tightening; providing screen for Cardinal Ratzinger, who exiled many from the priesthood, including Charlie Curran, whom I knew from Catholic University’s Theological Department. “Once a priest, always a priest” applied; the prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith, once labeled the Holy Office of Inquisitions couldn’t un-do consecration. An Irish theologian shipped out for the Holy Land where he was assigned to a monastery.
The Christmas-and-Easter Catholics became more and more in the barrel; bishops and priests who rooted them out. Except for Mardi Gras and pre-Lenten carnivals, the Church became more rigid. Diocesan officials marched in lock steps.
Benedict XVI has given health explanations and I accept them. He is the first pontiff to resign in 600 years, and I think he could have chosen a better time. Christian calendars are crowded with Lenten events and rituals, including penances. Hardest hit of all, the Roman Catholics.