Writing a newspaper column has many upsides — I meet a lot of interesting people — but there is a downside. I have few secrets.
For instance, regular readers know that my family hails from Northern Ireland. They were Protestants. In fact, they were Orangemen. Those are the people who march through Catholic neighborhoods every July to celebrate the Battle of the Boyne, in which the protestant William of Orange defeated King James, who was Catholic. We sing insulting songs as we march.
That is not something to be proud of, and I might as well acknowledge it. I recently read a story about a public park in Memphis that is, or was, named after Nathan Bedford Forrest. He was a confederate general in the Civil War. He was also one of the founders, and the first Grand Wizard, of the Ku Klux Klan. The people who wanted to rename the park brought this up. One of the people who didn’t want to rename the park argued that when Forrest founded the Klan, it wasn’t a hate group as much as a neighborhood watch group.
A neighborhood watch group? I don’t want to be like that. My relatives shouldn’t march through Catholic neighborhoods and sing insulting songs.
Still, one of my family heirlooms is my maternal great-grandfather’s initiation papers into the Orange Institution. He promised to oppose popery in all its forms. On either side of the paper are the words — No Surrender.
Because I have written about this, I am often considered to be anti-Catholic. Whenever I write anything that touches on the Roman Catholic faith, somebody will bring up my ancestry.
This could become a problem if, as I hope, Cardinal Tim Dolan becomes the next pope. I will certainly be writing about him. In fact, I recently wrote a column in which I suggested that if he were named pope, he adopt as his papal name Pope Stanislaus. That would, of course, honor Stan Musial.
That column irritated several people, including Karen E. She wrote, “Once again, your anti-Catholic bias rises to spill over shamefully. Definitely not amusing, sadly hurtful.”
Anti-Catholic bias is a term that would have perplexed my grandmother, who was born in Belfast and raised in nearby Kirkistown. Had I asked her if she were anti-Catholic, she would have said, “Of course. Why else be Protestant?”
Somehow, though, this particular prejudice did not do so well in the soil of the new country. Neither of my parents expressed any dislike for our Catholic neighbors or their faith. That is not to say they were perfect people. They had other prejudices, especially my father. He was not a bad person, though. He was a man of his time and place.
Only my grandmother kept the old animosities alive. I remember when I was in fifth grade and liked a girl in my class.
“But she’s Catholic,” said my grandmother. “That would never work.”
Years later, I married a Catholic girl, and so far it has worked. When we had children, my wife asked me if I had any thoughts about religious upbringing. “Maybe Methodist,” I said. She seemed perplexed. “I’m Catholic and you’re nothing. Why shouldn’t they be raised Catholic?”
Life is hard enough without exposing them to anti-Catholic bias, I said. “You’re the only person I’ve ever met who has any,” she said.
And I didn’t. Not really. Instead, I would sometimes channel my grandmother, who was, by the way, not a bad person at all. She was just a person of her time and place.
So my children were reared Catholic, and Tim Dolan, then a bishop, presided at my son’s confirmation. No wonder I’d like to see Dolan become pope! What a family story we would have.
At the moment, of course, we are in a pope-free world, something my grandmother would have savored. But I felt no joy when Pope Benedict gave his two-weeks notice. In fact, I thought it was odd that a pope would give two weeks’ notice. That just seems so ordinary.
I should also say that I liked Pope Benedict. I liked the fact that as a kid, he was in Hitler Youth. Then he was a young trooper in the German army.
He had to do those things. He could have gotten into a lot of trouble otherwise. Certainly, there are a few people, very few — I think of Pope John Paul II — who might rise above their surroundings, but those people are outliers. Most of us are products of our time and place.
That is something in which a descendant of Orangemen can take solace.