So we went. We were all excited to wear the new Barbiconi clerical shirts we'd picked up as soon as we'd arrived in the city. But it was a bit of a let-down. The cardinal spent most of the morning talking with what appeared to be a rich American couple at the other end of an elegant sitting room. We picked at the croissants and other food that was somewhat lavishly displayed along one side of a center, wooden table, and we awkwardly made better friends with one another—we'd all met for the first time just a few days before.
Eventually the cardinal came round and we introduced ourselves, shook his hand, kissed his ring. I don't remember actually meeting him, but I'm sure I did. I do remember posing for a picture. I knew there was something weird about it, but I wasn't sure exactly what. I was twenty-one years old then, and not versed in church politics. Cardinal Law was a bad guy in Boston—the abuse cover-up story broke when I was still in high school, when I cared a lot more about senior volleyball players than the Vatican—but I figured things had been mostly sorted out by now, somehow.
I kept a copy of the picture but never showed it to anyone, except for a few close friends, and usually accompanied by a disbelieving remark.
* * *
The Church I didn't know about then is probably a lot like the Church I don't know about, now. But today, there are arguably even more dubious, high-profile clerics to keep track of. The whole landscape of the Vatican has undergone a tectonic shift, from the late-John Paul and early-Benedict era to the age of Francis. In 2007, Cardinal Law's high status was a curiosity. By the time he died in 2017, it was just one of many such questionable, even dire, cases throughout the Church.
More than a decade later—when corruption seems to seethe from the very walls of St. Peter's—my Catholic identity still rests mainly on the elements of faith instilled in my childhood, that were vivified as I grew and learned more about them in study, prayer, and struggle. Not on a keen sense for sniffing out good churchmen, or for seeing through all the optics. It's a bit unsophisticated, but it's a decent place to be. I can calmly handle most things that come my way. I can cope with the mystery of sin in my life, and I can deal with my faults in a way that respects the Gospel and the sacraments. I don't take my faith for granted any longer; the parts of it I love and desire most are the ones that draw deeply from my senses, and from the aesthetics of my adolescence. Above all, I'm hopeful that I can pass all of this along to my children.
I'm mystified that so many young Catholics know so much more about the Church than I seem to. Information abounds now—but I didn't live under a rock. I wasn't sheltered, but the idea that when I was a teen or young-twenty-something I should be an expert on Vatican politics or Catholic culture didn't even occur to me. Of course, I wrote and spoke like I knew something important, but no one listened, and I knew intuitively that's what my opinions were worth.
Even now, at thirty-three, with what I'd venture is a good deal more worldly experience in Catholicism than most people my age, Church politics aren't something I've figured out. When I read the news about scandals or the synod, I still feel like that young man, invited by a Prince of the Church to an exclusive get-together in a hidden palace, overwhelmed by opulence and opportunity, unsettled by it all, but unable to draw any strong conclusions. I'm eager to revere the offices of bishops, and especially the pope, even if I know something isn't quite right. It's unlikely I'll figure out just what that could be—despite countless others claiming to be certain.
* * *
A few days after meeting Cardinal Law, I left for Assisi to study Italian. It was one of the most beautiful months of my life. We spent mornings and afternoons in class, and evenings on the terraces of our hotel, drinking wine and gazing at the Umbrian countryside, or in the Piazza del Comune, drinking beer and playing bluegrass and singing. I spent long hours near the tombs of St. Francis and St. Clare, and met a few locals who'd graciously help me to practice their language. On the feast of San Rufino, the whole town paraded through picturesque streets in the dark. I remember local children dancing around a fountain lit by torches and singing songs, just as twilight faded. We hiked in the hills, ate lots of pasta al tartufo, and slowly, but quite actually, became citizens of that holy place.
I wish that everyone who'd met a Cardinal Law—or who'd labored or been preoccupied over a man like him—were able to learn to love the Church, her culture, and her rich history the same way I did.