I’ve done the math.
884 is the number of masses I attended between when I was born & when I was 17. If you think about holy days that’s at least another 34, maybe 51. That totals us at approximately 935 masses give or take.
How many weeks did we skip mass?
I’m remembering the one time when we pulled up fifteen minutes late in mom’s blue station wagon, before it had the crack in the windshield, before we doodled in sharpie on the ceiling, before the panels feel off the doors & before no one sat in the backwards facing trunk-seat anymore. Mom scanned the parking lot & I played on my blue Nintendo DS. She decided we should go home because we’d be walking in so late.
The rest of that hour I wanted to make up for the church we’d missed. I paced the downstairs. I asked her if we were okay, if we were going to be okay.
It is quite possible that I attended 1,000 masses. Some weeks I served twice. Some years we went to more than one Christmas mass. The assumption of Mary. The Feast of Saint Blaise.
In my lifetime Saint Mary has been assumed, again, into heaven only 22 times. Again & again so goes. Again & again she watches her son grown old & crucified over the course of the year. She doesn’t go to church now, how could she? She knows the story, yes?
I’ve avoided this. I’ve avoided writing this because I felt like it didn’t need to be written again.
Can I retrospectively claim my position as an altar boy?
The math, yes, give me the math. If I started when I was 11 then I probably served at least 200 times. Dad liked it when I served on Saturdays. When the sun was going down early & the church lay twilight dark as I’d light the candles. I had to light the candles. On Saturdays Mr. Costello, who would die before I graduated high school, would lead the rosary. On days when I wasn’t scheduled & other servers turned up, Sister Katherine would still make her way over to me to ask me to serve.
She was a short woman with biscuit hands who died before I graduated high school. At least 50, at least 50 times she had to have asked me to serve. The sister they got to replace her never approached me. She wore dull sweaters instead of the nun’s habit & was somehow sterner.
I don’t know what I’m scared of, why my heart rages in my throat.
My first crush was on another altar boy. We held hands during the Our Father & I focused hard on trying to not have sweaty palms. His hands were dry & boney. His name was Noah or maybe it was Isaac or maybe it WAS Noah, having crawled out of the Old Testament to a small one-priest church outside a farm-town in Pennsylvania.
I was probably the bell acolyte more than half of the times. 70? Yes.
I told you I liked the bell because you got to ring the bell but really, I liked it because I didn’t like having to hold the book for Monsignor, I didn’t like pretending to be an inanimate object while he read from the book in my hands.
What is the world read upside down?
As everyone gets older they eventually become the cross bearer. The oldest server bears the cross. They have no other role but to walk in front of the other two.
Our church has a cross made by a local artist, green & gold coloured & gnarled with thorns.
The cross was clumsy & heavy.
I will not be & was not the only young queer human to bear the cross.
You were the one who told me about this before it was in the news. You said, a few months ago when I called you on the drive home from a hookup that I told you was just a friend’s house, that there were accusations of priests & cardinals in our area.
I asked if Monsignor was one of them & you said that they hadn’t released the names. That they were keeping the names.
It reminded me of the construction-paper tree they put up in the gathering space each fall, the one where they’d write the letters of dead parish members. Most of the time we didn’t know anyone, we’d linger in front of the image a few moments before going into church.
Keeping the names.
We always sat to the left of the altar, 3 rows back.
The 1st row was for the Moores & the 2nd for the Cormacks & the Pirots scattered themselves in the back: 1, 2, 3, 4.
I had to have been alone with Monsignor in the sacristy 112 times. Green robe, green robe, purple robe, what is the red robe for again?
The 3rd week of advent he wears the pink robe, only once.
There were, of course, visiting priests.
The Cardinal came for confirmation once a year, his hat too holy to be touched by the hands of altar servers.
I wanted to interrogate you, I seethed, I threw all my hate at you as if you were the double church doors.
Sometimes when your mouth opens it bleeds like the jagged stained-glass windows of St. Mary’s. Sometimes you stand & I see you as a chalice. Sometimes you bring out all the shame in me because you still go to church. By now you’ve gone more than me even though you’re my younger brother by 3 years.
18 times, at least 18 times Monsignor spoke about sex in the homily. Masturbation. Homosexuality. Gender-breakers. The theology of the body. The question you slip away from when I plead with you to love me more than god.
I am not selfish for this. I am hurting.
& this year when they go to crucify him in front of me for the 22nd time since I have been alive, I will lay the cross down, use the back end of our father’s hammer & pry the 3 nails from his hands & feet as evidence.
I have heard faggot hurled at least 22 times but none have hurt like the promise that there is sin written into the flesh that binds me.
& when we held hands for the Our Father, I always managed to get us in trouble.
I wanted to ask if you see that sin on me. If it blares through the phone as I call you & you tell me about the reports of abuse from priests & cardinals & bishops who preached at us.
What disturbs me the most is that my impulse is to say, you see, you see now this is what they are. This means they have no authority, they are the perverts, the pedophiles, the shame.
Take my shame oh take my shame.
It doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t come off.
How many hail Marys have I said? How many, then, how many Our Fathers?
Is it a 1,000?
1,000 is the number, the number of child victims of assault by holy people. Holy people have violated bodies. Holy people have violated bodies at least a 1,000 times.
It took me till now. Till now 8 weeks after you told me one the phone. It took me till today on a Sunday. On the 7th day. & the Lord rested. How dare he rest. This is a fist on the door of your mouth, this is what I have left to pray.
‘We believe that the real number of children whose records were lost or who were afraid ever to come forward is in the thousands,’ the grand jury report says.
Tell me, brother, whose children were we?
For 8 weeks I have told myself that I don’t need to read the articles. That I know. That I already know what it will say. That I don’t have a right to feel trauma having never been one of the 1,000.
& they didn’t just hurt them, they hid it.
What makes a sin capable of being hidden?
Where was it then? Where do the voices live now?
In one of the 4 silver chalices where Jesus poured his vine-blood each week? Under the 2 gold plates?
Washed down back to the soil where all the pieces of god must again be planted?
I remember it was in my dwindling days with god that mom made me go to a mass in Allentown for Catholic teens. I remember little other than fading into myself after the opening processions, lamb of god oh lamb of god.
Where is the wolf when the Shepard is a pile of stones?
In the Allentown diocese, a priest admitted sexually molesting a boy & pleaded for help, according to documents, but was left in ministry for several more years
In Allentown, a priest who had abused several boys, according to the grand jury, was given a recommendation to work at Disney World.
For these 8 weeks I have said I have no words.
These are my words. Let no one try to make them holy.
Alone in the sacristy together we put on the white robes. Yours was a size 10 on the tag & mine a size 13. My size never changed the 5 years I was the altar boy.
The 1 full length mirror in the sacristy where I watched my body change, grow older, grow short haired & bare skinned.
I have taken the body of Christ into my mouth more than the number of times I’ve been at mass. The numbers buckle in him.
He was there in the parking lot when we didn’t go, when we drove home & I was ashamed. He tasted like pancakes & wore pink. He wore purple in ordinary time, not just advent.
He’s there in the shadows of my body that hold pleasure—in the thumbs that tune my skin. In the collar bone of a lover where I sleep & still find the shame.
This body. This 1,000 body.
I want to go back to the mirror. An altar boy. I want go fishing in the reflection for their voices. Is this where they’ve gone to hide? What size robe? What acolyte? What cross?
These are 3 nails, one for each of us brothers.
I want you to go with me. I want you to tell me that you love the body of your brother more than god.
The headline read ‘Grave Failings’.
His hat too holy to be touched by the hands of altar servers.
I want to run my hands all over it, across the rim, the white cloth.
How many weeks did we skip mass?
The victims said this was ‘not a vendetta against the church’ & that abusers have ‘to be accountable in the church for what they did’.
That is where we are different. I do not feel that there is enough accountability left for this.
Will you skip one more mass, this one?
Count with me, the 3 stop-lights home. Our own rosary beads.
Pound the 1 nail into your bedroom wall & I will do the same.
Robin Gow’s poetry has recently been published in Poetry, Glass Mountain, Furrow, carte blanche, FIVE:2:ONE, and Corbel Stone Press. He is a graduate student at Adelphi University pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing. He runs two poetry blogs and serves as the production editor of the Lantern literary magazine and the poetry intern for Oyster River Pages. He is an out and proud bisexual transgender man passionate about LGBT issues. He loves poetry that lilts in and out of reality and his queerness is also the central axis of his work. He’s inspired trans and gender non-conforming poets like Eileen Myles and Alok Vaid-Menon.