Sunday, March 31, 2013

Comic Books, Catholicism & Easter

A very old postcard depicting St. James Church in Irondequoit, New York.
I remember May 1981 vividly. As a Catholic school elementary student, that morning I was called, along with the entire school, to the church during class to pray for the life of Pope John Paul II. There had been an assassination attempt on his life and Catholics, as well as others, the world over were shocked by this. I was in sixth grade at the time, and having already put in a few years of service as an altar boy (back before they were called the gender neutral term "altar servers"), though unsure how to process these events, I recall being saddened by the attack on the only papal leader I had ever really been aware of. Given the duration of his papacy, 1978 until 2005, Pope John Paul II's "rule" would turn out to be the defining one of my Catholic life.

In addition to being a (relatively) "good" Catholic school student in sixth grade, I had also already begun my love affair with comic books, in particular, those published by Marvel. The adventures of Spider-Man and, especially, the Fantastic Four had become a hobby of my friends and I, and weekly bicycle trips to the comic book store became as much a part of my weekly routine as visits to church on Sunday mornings.

At the time, my childhood parish of St. James Church in Irondequoit, had three racks of books, missiles and pamphlets for sale to parishioners in the main entrance way to the church. I rarely came in through the front door because  my altar boy duties required me to arrive early and I therefore would come in the back entrance near the sacristy. The only time I found myself in the entrance way foyer was while serving mass--this was the point from which the priest, servers and lectors would begin the procession at the start of mass.

Regardless of how many times I had gone through the motions, the waiting at the start was always a time of nervousness as I would scan the arriving parishioners to see who I recognized, and would mentally review the proper times to ring the bells and carry the various religious accoutrements from location to location on the altar. Waiting for the organist to start the processional hymn, I would often scan the pamphlet and book cover titles, mostly in an effort to prepare for my duties.

Written by Steve Grant with art
 by John Tartaglione.
I don't think I ever actually read any of the titles of the books, though I recall the pictures on the covers: images of saints preaching to the masses, holy Sisters and Fathers bravely walking from bright lights, hands raised to impart blessing, and real world photographs of hungry and sick people suffering throughout the world. After a while, these collections of covers became like wallpaper, that is until one day I noticed a cover that combined both my love of comic books and my affection for our pontiff: in 1982 I noticed a cover depicting an illustration that looked very much like the Holy Father.

After mass had ended, and the wine cruet had been washed and the robes returned to the hangers, I went back to the racks to more closely inspect what I had thought was a Pope John Paul comic book. I was very pleasantly surprised to see that this was not one of those crudely produced "religious comic books" I had on occasion seen in school, but an honest-to-goodness, real-life, comic book published by "Marvel Comics Group"! The cover announced that this issue included "The Entire Story from his childhood to the assassination attempt" in bold, red letters. For more than a brief moments I considered "borrowing" the issue to read.

But I never did. Nor did I buy it. Worse yet, to my recollection, The Life of Pope John Paul II never graced the new comic releases rack at the local comic shop (though Older Me now realizes that comic book speculators may have snatched them all upon release), so I never had a chance to purchase it. Realistically, I may not have bought it anyway as my spare change was very limited and, sorry to say, the latest adventures of the Fantastic Four would likely have trumped any religious adventures comic.

Regrettably, like a treasured back issue, my youthful affection for Catholicism and the late Holy Father, have been remanded to my personal history long box. Much like pulling a fifteen year old back issue of Fantastic Four, however, during the high holy days of the Catholic calendar such as Easter Sunday, my nostalgia for the church of my youth and the comfort attending gave me prompts me to consider the possibility of giving that one back issue another read.

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