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A church without its Romeos is lost


The Romeos meet most Wednesdays at Gullivar’s Restaurant on Howard Street on Chicago’s northern border. (Howard is the dividing line between what was once Catholic Chicago, which was wet, and WASP Evanston, which was dry. Evanston is the Vatican of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Uncounted numbers of WASPS were martyred trying to cross Howard to secure a drop of the creature from the brown bag stores owned by the papists.)

Gullivar’s is wet, but none of the Romeos drink -- or smoke -- at least not at lunch. Catholics just don’t sin like they used to.

The Romeos gather around the dark, wooden table under a spectacular collection of antique light fixtures and study the menu, which is only slightly shorter than War and Peace. Reading the pasta section alone can give one gas.

But I digress. Romeos is an acronym, dreamed up by Carole, one of the spouses. It stands for Retired Old Men Eating Out. Most, indeed, are retired and most are enrolled in Medicare -- a blessing because, if the Red Cross learned of their ailments, they would send a sandwich and coffee truck. There is cancer, heart bypass, dialysis, diabetes, fading eyes, prostate problems, hearing problems and so on. Yet, there are no complaints. Instead, they are more concerned with each other’s ailments than their own.

All are married. All are practicing Catholics. All are involved in some capacity in their parishes.

The group has no charter, no rules, no dues or mailing list. Affiliation with the Romeos won’t appear in their obituaries. In a world in which drug cartels have mission statements, the Romeos exist on the thin air of tolerance and the strong bonds of friendship.

Most of the Romeos are resigned priests, although I’m not, and some -- especially visiting clergy -- are still on a diocesan or congregation roster. Harvey, a retired priest from another diocese, was there recently, for example. He was filling in for a local pastor who was in Ireland. The Romeos were laughing at Harvey’s account of his encounter with a woman who had chided him after Mass for his failure to kiss the gospel book at the conclusion of the gospel reading. “Madam, I don’t kiss things,” Harvey said to her. “I kiss people.” Then, he threw his arms around her and thawed her liturgical ice. Romeos love substance laughing at image.

Most of the Romeos left active ministry during the years that followed Vatican II. But they cling to the church like wet leaves and volunteer for everything under the dome.

Jim plans liturgies for a university chapel; Marty directs a satellite liturgy in his parish for a group of mostly elderly people, some of whom he drives to a local school of podiatry to have their toenails clipped. Barry, a former juvenile court officer, monitors the case of a good friend’s son. Peter is the business manager in his parish. Frank, who lives part of the year in Florida, walks around his seaside parish, inviting stray sheep back into the fold and building the parish roster -- this in spite of the fact that his pastor is a former Episcopal priest and a married man. For Frank to be reintegrated into the active priest corps, he would have to abandon his spouse and jump through dozens of hoops. Ed likes intellectual topics. He and his wife run a prayer group out of their home. So it goes.

They gather for occasional days of recollection, and nearly all are part of an annual retreat at a local Benedictine abbey. They pray with the sick and infirm. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear they were priests with portfolios.

The Romeos’ anger with the church is virtually weightless. They look back with humorous and affectionate nostalgia. I have seen them cry when returning to their seminary for a gathering. (Most are local diocesan priests -- a few of over 300 Chicago priests who have resigned -- although there is a former Jesuit and a Passionist among them.)

At a recent gathering, the group was laughing at an item in a recent issue of Highlights, a publication of the Presbyteral Council of the Chicago archdiocese. It contained the news in the chancellor’s section about the policy on resigned priests and their roles within the church. “There are theological restrictions about service at the altar (e.g., lector),” the bulletin read. “We are trying to avoid confusion, especially among parishioners and public.”

Chancery offices constantly view the faithful as so befuddled that, without unctuous instruction, they would confuse the holy water fountain with a birdbath.

“Outreach to a man who is not regularized is important,” the bulletin read. “He is probably hurting and may not realize his situation is not impossible.” The poor, canonically challenged Romeos enjoyed the patronizing tone. They’re not hurting. They’ve been successful in their jobs. Their lives and marriages are in order. (The divorce rate among resigned priests is only about 4 percent.) Most are proclaiming the scriptures -- even giving occasional homilies -- with the blessing of their good friends among the active clergy who are grateful of their talent and assistance. But some canonically driven, active clergy are so prudent that they don’t sing “The Star Spangled Banner” without Vatican approval.

The newsletter’s succinct paragraphs, larded with canonical references, left little room for a pastoral response. The Romeos would prefer an IRS audit.

At the functional level, the Romeos enjoy virtually full acceptance among their fellow clergy and parishioners. They are often the ones who organize class reunions, often held on seminary property with generous support from the local rector. (The silver and golden jubilees are generally hosted by the local bishop, and resigned priests are not invited. But they attend anyway because their still active classmates and friends invite them as part of their ticket quota. No one turns them away.)

The Romeos are an integral part of the clerical gossip network that is common to any healthy organization. If a bishop burps in Podunk, it is heard at Gullivar’s faster than e-mail. Most of the rumors are true, especially those heatedly denied by the core administration.

Lately, with three U.S. cardinals over retirement age and 20 bishops at or nearing 75, careerist clergy with scarlet fever are piling up frequent flyer miles, attending installations, retirement dinners and funerals where their presence is chronicled by local diocesan papers with platitudinous sentiments intended to pass as episcopal wisdom. The announcements, together with local appointments, are analyzed by the Romeos for either deserving pastoral gifts or clout, although as the Romeos advance in age their interest in career track clergy turns to amused contempt. Instead, they cheer the efforts of parish clergy whom they meet at wakes and funerals, in hospitals and at the curb before and after Mass.

The Romeos are enormously well informed. Jim can provide the name of a bishop of a diocese the size of a lighthouse. They tend to read scripture commentary and thoughtful essays on the future of the church, such as the recent one by retired Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco The Reform of the Papacy (Crossroad, 1999).

Books and clippings are shared and commented upon as if Romeos were a priest study group in a diocese. These men could easily slip behind the lectern at a clerical conference and not be spotted until they dropped their wife’s shopping list.

Mostly, however, the Romeos tell stories, just as active priests do. The culture of the priesthood is knee deep in clerical lore, some of it dating to the turn of the last century. It is funny and insightful. The rigid, celibate structures of pre-Vatican II life made for enormous pressure on the cassock and biretta corps of priests. But it gave free rein to eccentricities. The result is a body of clerical lore that would sink an ark.

Quinn’s book on the reform of the papacy states that, if the church is in need of continual reform, “she is necessarily in need of continual criticism.” There is plenty of that around the Romeos’ table at Gullivar’s, but the talk is closely linked to John Paul II’s own statement about the reform of the papacy. Criticism, the pope wrote, could be a “service of love recognized by all concerned” (Ut Unum Sint, 1995).

The dialogue at Gullivar’s is not an option but a necessity. There isn’t much hope for a church that doesn’t listen to the Romeos.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he is turning into a pillar of salt. You can reach him at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2000