Saturday, March 05, 2005

The Chicago ROMEOS

A few old men gather and shine

The Romeos continue to meet Wednesdays at Gulliver’s on Howard. They are men of habit, eating much the same items each week for lunch. They are mostly Democrats, relieved to be old enough to avoid George Bush’s reform of Social Security. Indeed, on the day of Mr. Bush’s State of the Union message, they were all talking about what they could watch in preference to Dubya’s vague and glossy speech.

I have written about the Romeos before, but for those who missed them, they are largely a group of resigned priests, most of whom served the church for many years before being “reduced to the lay state” as the dispensation reads. (They used to get angry at the designation. Now they just laugh while taunting each other with barbs such as “traitor,” “renegade” and “reprobate.”)

You can easily tell the Romeos when they all stop at the cash register to ask the owner’s wife how her ailing husband is feeling. He’s been sick for months. Nancy runs the large restaurant and takes care of him -- a sad situation. Once a priest, always a priest. The Romeos can’t resist healing people.

“Romeo” -- in case you’ve forgotten -- is an anagram, meaning “Retired old men eating out.” Most resigned from active ministry years ago. All are married. All are connected to the church they love. Most are involved with their parishes, but virtually none are linked to their chancery office, which needs to view them as profane, unholy, unhallowed, iniquitous, foul, nefarious, heinous, blameworthy -- lost to shame and blind to virtue -- while their ordinaries paid fortunes to mouthpieces who covered the sickening crimes of some of those who remained “faithful.”

Now, these outsiders who were once insiders spooned their soup and talked about Bob McLaughlin, a much-loved priest who had pastored the archdiocese’s cathedral for a dozen years. His funeral was mobbed. McLaughlin knew how to work the curb.

Jim, a Romeo, and one of the three founders of WEORC, a group founded in 1972 and dedicated to helping priests in transition, counted 92 priests who were vested, not counting those who came in just black suit and collar. Bob’s brother, Ed, now a retired pastor, delivered a magnificent homily that prompted thunderous applause. The archbishop followed with a carefully worded eulogy that masked the frictions between McLaughlin and the cardinal. McLaughlin put people above rigid policy. One priest called the cardinal’s eulogy “the end of liberalism” in Chicago. Others viewed the liturgy as a referendum by clergy and laity -- a clear glimpse of just what the faithful wanted in their priests.

However, the Romeos wondered aloud if the core administration got the message. They wanted to believe that people took precedence over rules, but they concluded that more often than not company policy won the toss. Now, they wondered aloud if any of the bishops possessed the moral leadership of a Martin Luther King. Informed that an estimated 40 bishops had clandestinely campaigned for President Bush, they suggested that it might have been many more. They mused that the next pastoral letter would be a screed against SpongeBob, who was said to be tinged with gayness.

I come away with the feeling that these are men at peace. Their wounds don’t hurt as much. Once barred from ordination class reunions, they are now welcomed, together with their wives. (The anal priests are dying off, but the young obsessives are increasing.)

It was an outline of the battle between red and blue Catholics. The conservatives are small in number, but together with the bishops they wield immense power. Now, however, they can only bark. The laity pay less and less attention.

It would be wonderful if the Romeos were invited back to breathe some life into the faithful. Each one still has enough priest in him to change the world.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago. His e-mail address is