Tuesday, December 1, 2015

World AIDS Day

I didn’t know him well until that crazy night when we made newspaper miters for our heads and danced to the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin Man” like two frenzied bishops on the coffee tables of the student lounge of Our Lady Of Angels Seminary in a small town an hour out of Albany. That is what you did in the seminary when you found a soul mate.

He was a year ahead of me and when they closed down that seminary at the end of that academic year, Christopher Peck was sent to Rome for his four years of postgraduate Theology leading to ordination. I was sent to the deeper wilderness of Saint Meinrad’s Seminary in Indiana to complete my degree in Philosophy and ponder where I would do my Theology years. I’d get letters from Christopher insisting that I join him in Rome. He’d enclose photos of himself serving Mass for the pope. I was hooked, but I knew full well that being chosen to go to Rome was nothing a seminarian could induce on his own. You had to have come from a wealthy Catholic family, or be well connected with the hierarchy or deliver exceptional academic performance. I had the grades, but ultimately a high-ranking priest got me the appointment, and when I stepped onto Italian soil after a seven-day crossing on the SS Raffaello, Christopher Peck was there to greet me and bring me to the North American College in Rome where things that glittered were often gold.

The next few years were a gorgeous blur but we had more fun than any two closeted gay men should ever be allowed. Christopher returned home to work in a parish upon ordination. He came back to Rome for my ordination a year later, and was in my room at the college as I sprayed my hair into place minutes before the ceremony. He looked at me with a wicked smile and said, “Ordination is a sacrament the reception of which requires a clean conscience. As a priest, I can hear your confession and give you absolution….” I looked away from the mirror and shot him a glance. “Not a chance in hell. Start the music. I’m ready for my close-up.” We shared a final roar of laughter and headed to the chapel.

Christopher’s parish was in Albany. Mine in Hartford. On our free days, we’d meet in New York City. He was my introduction to gay nightlife. He dragged me out onto the dance floor of a club where I was clinging nervously to the bar. He ripped off my cable-knit sweater and my shirt, sponsoring my membership in that brotherhood of dazzling men who danced at the fabulous gay discos of the late 70s.

We lost touch over the years. He had somehow managed a transfer from Albany to San Francisco. I left the priesthood and met the man I would marry, another Christopher. I got a telephone call from a stranger who said in the calmest of voices that he had been asked by Christopher Peck to call a list of friends. He said that if I wanted to say goodbye to him, I should do it within a day or two before they started the morphine. I made the call, the hardest of my life, and we managed to laugh about our years together, even though his voice was weak and raspy.

In 1996, we were in Washington, DC for the March. I located his panel in the “Names Project” quilt that blanketed the Mall. I wanted to laugh at his friends' attempt to fashion a papal coat of arms above his name, but I cried for the loss of my friend.

Today, the first of December, is World AIDS day, which is not a feast day in the Roman Catholic calendar. The Catholic Church has never acknowledged the many priests lost to AIDS. Although his panel in the Quilt might be getting a bit musty, I keep alive the memory of Father Christopher Peck, always a step ahead of me into the next adventure.

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