Commentary pages recently have been debating a gala and exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that opened with a star-studded event featuring the singer Rihanna revealingly dressed as a kind of pope. The culture watchers engaged in some back-and-forth about whether or not the miter she wore belonged to Cardinal Dolan. An office at the Vatican had lent some items for the exhibit (not the red carpet), and the archbishop of New York took it as an occasion to speak to an audience that might not typically have warm feelings toward the Catholic Church.
George Clooney and Jimmy Fallon made comments to the press about their altar-boy days. Thanks be to God for the real-life warm memories from people with access to megaphones far louder than anything in the church basement or choir loft. Maybe a word or a handshake or a conversation or the mere sighting of a cleric who seems to care, who seems to have joy, will be an invitation back to the sacraments that are at the heart of the Church.
I met a pope once, and that day he had the most beautiful miter, which wouldn’t have cut it at the Met gala. Pope Benedict was wearing an icon of Christ as Teacher and the far-from-glitzy vestments of the green season of ordinary time in the liturgical year. He looked at me with something like the eyes of God the Father, I thought at the time, teaching me something about how we should look at one another. God can use us as instruments, when we have love for Him and humility and truly pray and ask Him to let us not be obstacles but full participants in His work. He seemed full of thanksgiving as I thanked Him for helping us know Jesus of Nazareth (he had just had his last installment of a series by that name published in English).
We went on to talk briefly about New York and Cardinal Dolan, whom he had sent to what we New Yorkers (in, yes, our pride) probably (not probably) think of as the seat of the Church in America. And he clearly had a fatherly love for — overflowed with thanksgiving for — the faith we share. Little did I know what would happen only a few months later, when he shocked the world by stepping aside as pontiff, and all that would come, which still unfolds.
That it still unfolds is an important part of the story that commentary can never quite capture. As we come down on sides and are convinced of sacrilege and outraged or delighted at what looks a lot like blasphemy (say, the Blessed Mother many times arranged on a revealing Versace dress), there’s also the possibility of power at work beyond what we know.
Christians believe in grace. I hear non-Christians — the “spiritual but not religious” “nones” — who seem to believe or want to believe in something like it. They’re “seeking,” and I happen to believe they’re being sought by the Divine in every sunrise and sunset and many an interaction. And whether it was George Clooney or Jimmy Fallon, or perhaps more likely the cameramen and the waitstaff at the gala, who got something enriching or inspiring or even miraculous from celebrities making a scene (some of whom were quite respectful and beautiful, though they aren’t as entertaining to talk about as the provocateurs are, as tends to be the rule of buzz), let it be more evidence that convinces someone somewhere that God works with everything.
One wouldn’t have to be especially cynical to wonder whether the chaplain controversy had something to do with Democrats attempting to reclaim some ground lost when Cardinal Dolan wrote an op-ed expressing disappointment in Democrats for abandoning Catholics on the abortion issue.
I marveled that same week and also the previous week about some of the news cycles that come and go and could give you whiplash. We saw a whole preposterous controversy about the House of Representatives chaplain, who was originally brought in by a Catholic Republican and recently asked to leave by another. The brouhaha somehow wound up exploding into Democrats accusing the GOP of anti-Catholicism. A comment in a private conversation that may or may not have been taken out of context and the stray remark of a House member didn’t help. But the absurdity of Paul Ryan’s appearing to be in the “no Catholics need apply” business (or even “no Jesuits need apply” mode) probably did more to set off alarm bells about Catholics behaving badly than any over-the-top couture at the Met.
One wouldn’t have to be especially cynical to wonder whether the chaplain controversy had something to do with Democrats attempting to reclaim some ground lost when Cardinal Dolan wrote an op-ed in March expressing disappointment in Democrats. They have abandoned Catholics, he said, on the most fundamental human-rights and conscience issue of abortion. The result: “The party that once embraced Catholics now slams the door on us.”
The things we tend to talk the most about are probably distractions. And distractions may just rule the day, from the presidency to many an iPhone. It might take a miracle to see beauty, but some of us believe in miracles. And we do better to pray for them than get wrapped up in the latest frenzy, no matter how glamourous, mundane, or profane. We’re not here for long, and the moments of grace are the ones with the power to transform, on or off the red carpet.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.