Chapter 2: Deciding For Priesthood
[NOTE: Another version of Chapter 2 … the beginning excerpt.]
It was peculiar garb, to say the least. One might describe it as the showpiece of an elaborate ritual, or a costume from a Broadway chorus. From another point of view, it might be a take-off on Little Lord Fauntleroy.
The garment was a pure white robe with red buttons down the front, and a brilliant red sash. That was only the beginning. A red shoulder cape with gold fringe was in turn topped by a five inch Buster Brown collar and a huge red bow as a tie. Getting in and out of it was a chore worthy of a professional wrestler. Wearing it on a hot Sunday was a foretaste of Purgatory.
I was wearing it and I was thirteen years old. And, would you believe, I didn’t mind. Today I ask myself, “What was I thinking?” If the other guys saw this they’d die laughing. “Hey, when did you join the circus?’ Or “where are you going in that getup? Halloween isn’t for another six months.”
Yet this is what I wore, mostly with pride, as the number one altar boy in my parish church. I say “mostly” because I wasn’t totally unaware how weird it was. Only someone in love could be comfortable with such ostentation. The fact is, I was in love. I could rise above all the ridicule and amazement on the part of others. I was an altar server in St. Ambrose Roman Catholic Church and the church was my greatest love. Being altar server was my greatest pride. I had fallen in love with my religion and revered its ritual, passionately.
To be a Catholic back in those days was more than just attending a church. For us, the Roman Catholic Church was THE church of churches. Membership was the true gateway to God and the Catholic Mass was the entrée of choice to the divine presence. Didn’t we have God on our altars (the Blessed Sacrament) whereas Protestant Churches were not much more than meeting halls? This must sound terribly arrogant to someone who has not experienced that frame of reference, but for us, in that era, it was a wonderful reality.
I attended Catholic school right from the beginning. Well, almost from the beginning. I had attended kindergarten in public school and had attended St. Mark’s and St. Luke’s Lutheran Summer Bible School. Catholic parishes did not hold Summer School sessions in the 1920s. The feeling was that the parochial school would take care of its function. Back then, to attend a Protestant function or program was unheard of for Catholic boys. However, my mother was not as passionately Catholic as I eventually became. She was pretty liberal for a lady born into what was as yet the Victorian Age.
As a matter of fact, the Summer Bible School turned out to be a rich experience in the Christian faith. At the age of five I was belting out (as much as a five year old can ‘belt out’) the hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers”. It constituted a prelude to the deep desire I would cultivate to save the world for Christ. Among our other activities at the summer school, I recall filling in with crayons, most diligently, the multi-colored coat of Joseph and being fascinated by his story.
Catholic Schools were a big deal back in the 1920’s in the United States. The rationale for them was very simple. How could all the millions of Catholic immigrants from Poland, Italy, Ireland and Germany preserve the faith of their children without their own schools? Catholics constituted a small, but vigorous, minority from the time of their arrival in America, despite the fact that they were somewhat ghettoized by the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPS). When the first Roman Catholic to run for the presidency of the United States, Alfred E. Smith, was roundly defeated in 1928, Catholics received a jolting reminder of where they stood. Build your own culture or suffocate in the existing one.
In the Diocese of Rochester, New York, Bishop Bernard McQuaid had decreed that every newly founded parish should first construct a school. When that was accomplished, pastors could begin to think about building a church. In our parish (St. Ambrose) school and church were one building. The school occupied the upper floor, the church the lower. The building was basically a school building with a church underneath.
When I entered first grade at St. Ambrose the parish was only six years old, but by that time the school was a smoothly functioning machine, destined to produce Catholic young men and women of indomitable faith. Students took daily classes in religion in which we mostly memorized the compendium of Catholic beliefs called a catechism.
The good Sisters of St. Joseph made certain we were gently bombarded with the spirit and the practices of the Catholic Faith. It turned out to be a kind of perpetual “ baptism by immersion” in Catholic doctrine, history and worship. In short, the Sisters created an atmosphere in which we would grow up as moral, disciplined and faith-oriented youngsters. Of course, not all these Catholic boys and girls turned out the way the good nuns would have hoped. On balance, however, the Sisters had much of which to be proud.
The home I grew up in was solidly Catholic but not zealously Catholic. My father had great loyalty to, and pride in, his boyhood parish of St. Joseph’s. My mother’s faith was somewhat tainted by what happened to her father. He was a carpenter, a deeply compassionate man. The injustice he saw afflicting the lower classes nudged him into joining the Socialist Party. By joining the Socialists he incurred excommunication from the Catholic Church. The Church associated any form of socialism with the atheism of Karl Marx. Later Church leaders realized that not all forms of socialism are atheistic and removed the ban and the penalty. But that was too late for my grandfather, although he was received back into the Catholic Church on his deathbed. In any case he lived a thoroughly good Christian life. I believe that my mother’s faith was dampened by that strange policy of the hierarchy. She stood at the edge of rebellion for much of her life.