When it comes to religion, I consider myself a “cultural” Catholic. I have always been (and still am) fascinated by the pomp and circumstance of Catholic ritual. As a kid, my best daydreams were during mass. In my head saints were just wizards and sorceresses, their relics the source of their magic powers. In that hour I studied the art and internal architecture, the furnishings, noticed the weekly change of the floral arrangements, the bold 1960s wood-block style images of the hymnals, the changes of the altar linens during specific holidays, and of course, the priests’ vestments.
I remember a long time ago, my parish organized a Good Friday procession. But this was no ordinary procession. We were asked to dress in the style of the period. I’ve always enjoyed a good costume, and was very excited at the prospect of biblical drag. But for some reason my mom didn’t dress us. Maybe it was too much work to make costumes for 4 kids and herself (father would NOT have done it), or maybe she thought we would not want to.
I did get the opportunity to be St. Joseph in a Christmas Nativity play, and St. Anthony for an All Saints celebration. Well technically, I couldn’t wear the costume for St. Anthony because it was too small. The nuns found a stand-in, and I became the “voice” of St. Anthony. In retrospect, they could’ve just had me write it all down and just give it to my stand-in to read. But they also should’ve had me in for a fitting prior to that morning. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me that the costume didn’t fit me. But the other kid looked really good in it. Damn skinny kids look good in anything.
Later on I had an opportunity to be an altarboy. But I became aware of the altarboy clique, and knew that I wouldn’t fit in. Besides, I hated the altarboy uniforms. They were the traditional black cassocks and white surplices. I was already self-conscious about how I looked, and I was not going to wear the church’s equivalent to a boy moo-moo. So when asked to be part of them, I declined. This didn’t sit well with mother. She gave me the how dare you look, and told me that “God was going to punish” me. My little brother, however, did accept the invitation. I felt guilty at first, then a little jealous, when I learned that the altarboy uniforms changed - something more like a hooded monk’s robe, in white, with a red waist rope. The hoodies gave them the urban edge I wanted. But it was too late for me. I got over it, and even had the last laugh when mother took little brother out of altarboy duty because of the increasing financial and time commitments. I remember that she had to pay for a bunch of stuff beyond the two uniforms, and unless little brother was going to profess his calling into the world of clergymen, mother wasn’t having it. I don’t know if God ever punished me for not being an altarboy.
I don’t go to church now, unless I’m a tourist, a wedding guest, or some other socio-cultural obligation. As an adult, I continue to enjoy learning about the architecture, art, design, and history (including scandals). I still stare at the walls, furnishings, art, and floral arrangements. And I collect vintage religious kitsch. My vintage rosary collection started when I bought a 1960s glow-in-the-dark rosary at a vintage store. Because you never know, you might wake up in the middle of the night and want to pray a Novena. Now that I think about it, I should have the radium levels checked on it.
With the exception of the two fully sterling silver ones ($40-$45) and two other vintage ones from antique stores ($18-$24), most of them are from thrift stores, and were no more than $5 each; some as low as 50 cents (I got one with a sterling silver cross for $1!). So if I’m channeling 1980s Madonna, or ‘Rican B-boy, I’ll wear one or two of these bad boys out. They’re not blessed, so it’s OK to wear them as jewelry. At least, that’s what I tell myself. Catholic guilt can be a powerful thing.