Dear Dirty America


Celebrating the New Pope: White Smoke Can Mean A Lot of Things

March 14
21:30 2013
Los Angeles

White smoke can mean a lot of things…

(UPDATE: As more news reports come in, it turns out our new pope, Francis, is a spartan Jesuit who has long forsaken the comforts of civil society. He’s an old rally cry for those who are squarely against gay rights, abortion, contraception, and equality for women within the church. He is, on the other hand, a striking servant to the poor and the ill, as the story about him washing the feet of people in the sick ward as they withered away from advanced complications from AIDS illustrates. Francis is a conservative populist, but a menace to liberal causes. He can either take the glowing form of Mother Teresa, or a snarling bulldog barking your worst trangession up a tree.)

I was standing in the local grocery store’s booze aisle when my smartphone buzzed in my pocket. I yanked it out and read the urgent Huffington Post headline. White smoke detected. The Vatican’s on fire! I almost hollered, but then I read the rest.

They’ve got a new pope picked out, I said. Two men looked at me lazily, in a manner similar to how grazing cows give you the eye when you shout at them from just beyond the fence. White smoke, I said. They’ve got a new guy in there.

Nobody seemed interested. Well, I was. I like exciting events, especially when there’s live coverage on the major news networks. I forgot about the deals on six-packs and went to the chips and snacks aisle instead. When I came to the girl at the checkout, she smiled and asked if I was having a party, and if so, could she come.

You can come, I said, but only if you’re a fan of the new pope. He’s number 266. Francis, he calls himself. The First. A defender of low-wage earners. And I plan on pigging out and basking in all the live coverage.

I unloaded my shopping cart: a dozen “fresh baked” cookies from the bakery section, two bags of corn chips, salsa, soda loaded with “natural” sugars, and soy hot dogs.

The girl had a beauty mark just above her lip. She smiled. “I’m Catholic.”

I’m not, I admitted, but I enjoy big world events. Especially the black or white smoke signals from the Vatican. I’m not the only one. A local priest was also excited. I read to her an article from my phone:

Father Marco Ortiz was visiting a family earlier Wednesday when he got a text from another priest that read: “There’s white smoke.” Ortiz ran back to the Divine Saviour Catholic Church in Cypress Park, where he watched reports from Vatican City naming Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the next pontiff.
“This is history,” Ortiz said.
When Bergoglio emerged onto a balcony at St. Peter’s Basilica as Pope Francis I, Ortiz clasped his hands together.
“It’s happening now,” he said. “Oh, it’s happening now.”

It’s happening now, I repeated. Right now.

“It’s not really such a big deal,” the girl said, “is it?”

This will change the world, I told her. Every time a new pope is selected I feel a boost of energy in the air. Even the atheists are abuzz, they just don’t know it. The bells are ringing downtown at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Lost Angels church.

“I just hope he cleans up the sexual abuse of all them boys,” she said. “I hope he cleans up the internal corruption.”

Sexual abuse? I said.

The girl bagged my groceries and clicked her tongue. “Yep. It’s pretty bad.”

You’ve got to be kidding me. Sexual abuse in the Vatican? How could that even be possible? God’s own people?

“I don’t know, but they keep covering it up. Even Benedict,” she said, “helped cover up thousands of child sex abuse cases.”

Get out of here! I said. She laughed, smiled, but whispered that what she said was true. Then why would people be celebrating anything associated with the Vatican or the Catholic Church? I asked. You’d think, if what you’re saying were true, that institution would be sunk forever.

I carried my two bags of groceries outside. The sun was warm, but it didn’t burn away the horrible news I’d just heard. I stopped a short man who looked like he’d been painting a house. His white pants were speckled with a dark blue paint.

Would you believe it if I told you there’s been rampant child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, and that Pope Benedict XVI even knew about it, but covered it up?

The man’s tongue crept between his lips and licked his mustache. It’s some sick shit up in there, he said.

If it were true, I’d agree with you. But there’s no way. Those Cardinals keep celebrating and blowing white smoke in the air, and sending out official Pontiff Twitter messages, and everybody in Los Angeles, it seems, who is able, is traveling downtown to crowd around the Lady Cathedral to hear the pealing bells, tells me there’s no way such a scandal could exist. If it did, I’d imagine the masses would have long ago burnt down the Vatican and done away with the corruption.

I held up my bags of party food. As for me, I said, I’m going home to watch the live coverage on my computer.

The man politely excused himself and went inside. I stood outside in the sun and remembered the last time I’d lingered in that exact same spot. The time when a meek Asian woman was brutalized by a transvestite in a power scooter. I’d written about it rather harshly, and was condemned for dehumanizing a transgender person, but I’d been shaken by the scene, and I’d written about it in the only way I’d known how.

I walked through the grocery store parking lot and asked random folks about the charges of corruption and sexual abuse scandals. Everybody who was not reluctant to speak to me had heard of the claims.

But it’s just not right, I heard myself saying to a woman. She quickly hopped into her car. God! I said. It just doesn’t seem possible, I said to a man who’d also heard the claims. To another woman, I asked, How can 1.2 billion Catholics be wrong? They don’t seem to be bothered by these rumors of child molestation and high-level, Vatican cover-ups. They seem rather upbeat about the whole institution, don’t they?

I walked home. My spirit dimmed and confused. White smoke can mean a lot of things, I considered. Like hope for change. Or just more of the same. Or, it can mean that nearby somebody is smoking a cigar.


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