SPRING 2010, New York
It was one of two things: either a very bad good idea, or a very good bad idea. Whatever it was, it consumed me, a self-aware college sophomore on a mission to redeem herself. I knew I was no Virgin Mary. But why couldn’t I be a Mother Teresa?
That was the question that came to mind when I signed up for the Lourdes service trip offered at my Catholic university. Lourdes is a small community in the south of France. The service trip was coordinated by campus ministry, and spaces were limited—applying was a competitive process. The chosen few would bathe the sick and dying who made the pilgrimage to this world famous site. It was here, in 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared. Every year since, millions have visited Lourdes in hopes of being cured by a miracle, or even better, seeing her.
Now, why would a 20-year-old want to spend her summer ministering to the sick? She wouldn’t. Unless she needed to make things right with the Vatican—a serious institution which she had screwed over two years prior. Screwed over may sound dramatic, but when the Supreme Pontiff is involved, it’s perfectly fine to make a mountain out of a mole hill. Or in this case, a missed mass.
It wasn’t just any mass. It was a monumental mass—performed by Pope Benedict XVI at the most sacred of places, Yankee Stadium. I was 18 years old at the time, and I had just moved to New York for school. When I learned the Pope would be visiting and the Vatican was seeking volunteers to serve at the mass, I put in an application. I wanted to be a part of history. I dreamt of getting my hands dirty, helping the infallible one bless, break and serve the body of Christ. No big deal.
Yeah right. It was a huge deal! So when I found out I got accepted to serve (in what capacity, I’m not sure, but I doubt I would have been at the right hand of the holy father), I was over the moon. Naturally, when I told my very pious Catholic parents, they were too. Thanks to Verizon I heard the pride in their voices as they promised to watch the mass—which would be televised on national TV—with my grandparents. I pictured them telling my hometown congregation about their devout daughter. If all went according to plan, a hero’s parade would welcome me home at Christmas Break.
SUNDAY, April 20, 2008, Central Park
Mass was at 2:30 p.m. so I had a few hours to kill. I went to Central Park—intending to meditate and pray so I was in a pure state of mind before helping his holiness. Central Park had other plans for me. It was SummerStage and the Bacon Brothers were performing. A free concert starring Kevin Bacon? Sign me up. The music was good. The company was not.
I soon found myself sequestered between two older men, in their 40’s. They took a liking to me, and I was flattered, and curious. After a few songs, they convinced me to join them for one drink. I told them I had to be at Yankee Stadium by 1 p.m. They insisted we’d be done long before then. They said “one;” so I went.
My mind is fuzzy, but it was a bar on the Upper East Side. We walked there from Central Park so it couldn’t have been too far from 72nd Street. I was three years shy of the legal drinking age, but that didn’t stop the bartender from serving me the prettiest orange and yellow cocktail I had ever seen. I don’t remember what it was, because my two new friends had ordered it for me, but I played with the toothpick umbrella and blocked out the part of my brain that was screaming, BAD KATIE, BAD KATIE. WWJD?
“You farm chocolates?” I asked, wide-eyed and a bit tipsy from the source of my third umbrella. I was accumulating quite the collection, soon I’d have every color. “No,” laughed the shorter, chubbier of my two friends, “truffles are mushrooms.” He told me about his farm in Virginia and made numerous references to his wealth. His other friend was also wealthy. Albeit, he had a more traditional profession. He was a dentist.
The truffle farmer and dentist drilled me about myself. They asked where I was from and where I went to school. I told them I went to a Catholic university. Then they asked if my friends wore skirts, like “Catholic school girl skirts.” I said no and tried to change the subject. But I was buzzed and my communication skills weren’t as sharp as normal. My head hurt. But damn, this drink was pretty and I had so many umbrellas.
My alcohol-induced reverie was broken when my new friends pointed up at the TVs hanging above the bar. “Isn’t that your mass?” asked Dentist. I looked up at a close-up shot of the Pope shaking incense over the altar. The camera panned the crowd and my stomach sank. This wasn’t a dress rehearsal. This was my mass. The mass where I was supposed to be serving. The mass my parents would be watching 2,000 miles away at home in Montana. Where was I? A nameless bar, sitting in between two 40-year-old nameless knuckleheads who were trying to convince me to come back to Truffle’s pad in Tribeca.
I pushed the rest of my drink away and told my new friends I had to go. I thanked them for the drinks and stumbled out of the bar. Somehow I made it back to campus where I crashed and tried to forget the day ever happened.
The gravity of what I had done, or didn’t do, hit me a few days later when I received a package at my dorm. It was not a care package from my parents. Unless my parents had decided to take up residence at the Vatican.
Instantly reminded of my absence from Sunday’s mass, I reluctantly opened the package. Pope Benedict stared up at me, knowingly. It was a shiny medal, accompanied by a letter thanking me for my service to God’s chosen people. I wanted to throw up. I didn’t deserve this medal. I didn’t show up. And even if I had shown up, I would have been drunk.
Spring 2010, St. John’s University
Some students crossed their knees, uncrossed them, crossed them again and fidgeted in their seats. Not me. I was convinced I would sail through the Lourdes service trip interview with flying colors. Eventually the priest came out of his office and looked up from his clipboard, “Laura?” he asked. Smiling, I got up from my seat and smoothed out the wrinkles in my slacks. I followed him and his assistant, a plainclothes sister, into his office.
The interview started off well. How could it not? I was being interrogated by good cop, gooder cop. The middle went even better. I smiled and answered questions such as, “Describe your relationship with the Lord” and “What makes you think you’re a good candidate to minister to the sick and poor?” The priest and his lady friend clearly liked me. I was charming them to bits and I was sure I’d walk out of their office as happy as the American Idol hopefuls who walk out with an invite to the next round.
As the interview came to a close, the priest said he wanted to ask me a “fun question.” Just to get a better sense of who I was and to ease up on the pressure of being in an interview. “Game on,” I thought. I can do fun like it’s nobody’s business.
“If you were a Disney character, which character would you be?” he asked. DISNEY? I love Disney! I’ve seen all the VHSes except for the last 11 Land Before Time sequels. Immediately, a Disney character came to mind and I knew it represented me to a “t.”
It wasn’t a princess, or a fairy or even a talking Donkey.
“The Tramp,” I said confidently. Much to my horror, the lady friend’s face lost all of its color. Well, the little it had. I don’t think she got much Vitamin D. The priest didn’t look amused either.
Immediately realizing my mistake, I began to try to salvage the situation.
“He’s resourceful, eager to get others out of their comfort zones,” I began. “Wild. Cunning. Street savvy.”
I wasn’t winning over either of my interviewers. They raised their badly groomed eyebrows and shared a look as if to say, “Did she really just say she was like The Tramp?”
The interview ended shortly thereafter. I walked out empty handed. The next day I received an email. The first paragraph politely thanked me for my interest in the Lourdes service trip. The second paragraph politely informed me that I was not a good fit for this year’s trip. That was probably a typo. I think they meant, “any year’s trip.”
I didn’t bathe any dying people or taste holy water that summer. But I also didn’t get drunk with older men who had a very different definition of holy water. Baby steps, baby steps.