After the Summer, I found myself back at Saint Paul’s Catholic grade school, but only temporarily. It would only take a few days in the third grade, in that ever so freakish Autumn of 1968, for me to be transferred right out of the school.
We had a young Benedictine nun for our first class. She wore a full habit, scapular, wimple and veil. It spoke to me of her dedication both to God and to us. I loved that altogether, but was oh so very wrong. She seemed pleasant enough – no rulers cracked on the back of the knuckles – but, as I then immediately noticed, was entirely disconnected from us, distracted, not available for us, wrapped up in some sort of effervescent nicey-niceness that didn’t include us.
After a few minutes, she could contain herself no longer. She was going to do what she had clearly planned to do all along, perhaps since 26 July, the day after the publication of Humanae vitae, when all hell broke out in – how to put it? – America’s Catholic Church.
“You know Superman, don’t you?” she asked us. “How he changes into his Superman costume really quickly? Watch this! I’ll be right back! Just… just… stay right there! Don’t leave the room! And NO TALKING. I’ll be right back!” And away she raced, out the door and down the hallway.
She was gone for the longest time. There was some talking, of course, mostly disgruntled comments that increased with the frustration of having nothing to do, which is a real trial for third graders.
But then, what I thought was another woman came in with the blandest, most ugliest clothes, and close-cropped hair, half-way between a crew-cut and a bowl-cut.
The boys were confused, but the girls gasped, recognizing more quickly than the boys that this woman was actually the nun who had left our classroom a few minutes previously.
Some of the girls tentatively said she looked pretty, which was an unwittingly out-of-the-mouths-of-babes comment on what the real intent behind the discarding of religious habits was all about: it was all about them, not about Jesus.
Other girls – quite loudly – proclaimed that she was ugly, which wasn’t, I’m sure, a comment about her physical appearance, but about the difference between the resplendent religious habit and the dumbed-down niceness of her new-found “relevance” to us.
Many of the boys just murmured. We were there to learn, not to witness an it’s-all-about-me fashion show. I was stunned. “Where’s our nun?!” I asked the others. “That’s her! That’s her!” they responded. It was all just too monstrous.
She answered the general disgruntlement by proclaiming: “It’s really me! I’m free! Don’t you like my freedom?!” Some of the kids asked what the red marks encircling her face were, if she was in pain. She said that that was from the edges of the wimple she had discarded, and that she was now free. I think if she had felt any more freedom, she would have sung Tiny Tim’s 1968 version of Tiptoe Through the Tulips at us.
Directly proportionate to her new-found freedom, she was dead set on bringing us headlong into her ever narrowing, darkening world. Actually, that doesn’t describe what was happening, for there is no “with” in the abuse of power; there is only “at”, a lording it over others, especially those who are young, who are vulnerable. That’s what the obscurantism of her self-proclaimed enlightenment was all about. She was using us little kids as the engine driving her turning in on herself. She was projecting herself onto us, solving, or rather justifying her own very adult problems with us.
To put it in psychological terms, she was transferring herself onto us, looking to see our reaction so as to affirm herself, and this, quite regardless of what our reaction was. Ideology does not see reality, but only a projected idea, only itself, a kind of meeting of Descartes and Satan. She was a false prophet that would have been done in by the great Saint Elijah.
We were to see no more of her. She was gone, just like that. Tens of thousands were to leave the priesthood and religious life from that time onward.
We couldn’t just sit in the classroom with no teacher, however. So, another lady was sent in, obviously not a nun, as she had a very classy hairdo and expensive clothes. She was an emergency substitute sent in by the now ever-changing principles of the school.
This new teacher didn’t know what to do, and so had us write out numbered counting: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7… Some of us made it well into the 10,000s before she returned to check on us, only to disappear again. All was in chaos. We were moved to another classroom, then back again, then down the hallway. Chaos.
I clearly remember being filled with zeal: I could be with the Lord even in the face of grotesque opposition, a kind of triumphalism in the friendship of the Lord. Zelo zelatus sum pro Domino Deo exercituum!
Holding a candle against the darkness is not an act of hatred of darkness, but the provision of light to the darkness, which is either transformed into that light or retreats at the speed of light. Holding a candle can be seen as an act of aggression by the darkness which runs away, but it is an act of love, as is known by the darkness which is transformed into light. Holding fast in friendship to Christ Jesus cannot happen except that such love be shared with others, whether they are overtaken by that love or retreat from it. In short, I was sent to the principle’s office a number of times, not because I was a troublemaker in the sense of breaking windows or some such thing. I think they were all a bit frustrated with me, as I’m sure my attitude just didn’t portray that I was going along with the new program.
I rather abruptly found myself for third grade over at the familiar local public grade school named after President Wilson, where I had been for Kindergarten and first grade.
But being in a public school meant I would need catechism lessons, or C.C.D. as it was called, after the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. So, back to Saint Paul’s I went on Wednesday evenings, but, again, only for a few weeks. My parents just allowed me to drop out for a few years after what was to happen.
They would later bring me a couple of times to catechism lessons being provided in the upper church of the Cathedral. The nuns there still had some sort of modified habits, a skirt with a tiny veil on the back of the head. It wasn’t their incessant ukulele playing of Michael Row the Boat Ashore and Kumbaya, which made me want to scream; it was their extreme flaunting of a condescending and patronizing attitude that I despised. They could not possibly have been more distant from us kids in their efforts to be — there’s that word again — relevant.
But let’s go back to Saint Paul’s Wednesday evening C.C.D. classes. It was like being thrown from the skillet directly into the flames.
Something was wrong from the first second of entering that classroom for our first catechism lesson. The teacher’s desk was no longer in front of the room but on the side. All the row desks, on rails, you know, the ones with the ink wells in the top corners, had been removed during the Summer, and had been replaced with Formica topped stand alone desks.
The purpose of this was to have us participate in relevancy by having us turn our desks towards the teacher’s desk, you know, in a circle. This turned me off entirely. It was all about method, not about content. I felt I was being manipulated into an ideology. I wanted nothing to do with whatever would go on in that kind of situation. I wanted Jesus, not mind games.
The let’s-be-in-a-circle thing would later develop into no desks, just chairs, since it was all about experience, about ourselves, not about learning, not about God. Here’s a superb example of that, most excellent:
O.K. If you liked that, here’s a meeting with G.K. Chesterton himself:
Sorry. A distraction!
On a more serious note, and sad, here’s a short academic paper (just three pages) on the discarding of religious habits by Benedictine nuns written by one who seems to agree with everything that happened then as an effervescent symbol of what is happening now [changing habits.pdf]. That details what happened a year or two later in Chicago. Central Minnesota was a leader in 1968ism, since the largest convent of Benedictine nuns in the world at that time, Saint Scholastica’s in Saint Joseph, was sychophantically following the nearby largest Benedictine monastery of monks in the world at that time, not a good idea since Saint John’s in Collegeville had long been at the forefront of what they called liturgical renewal with Father Virgil Michel, O.S.B. (the teacher of my old friend, Father Paul Marx – R.I.P.), but had degenerated into using the liturgy as a tool of rebellion against the Church. But more on that later in the autobiography. You can read my friend Donna Steichen’s book Ungodly Rage: The Hidden Face of Catholic Feminism to find out more about Saint Scholastica’s.
At any rate, for our first class, we all received what looked like a simpler version of the Baltimore Catechism than the one I had borrowed from my older sister the previous year so as to prepare for Confession and Communion. Still, it looked pretty good. This was given out by a nun who was at least in a modified habit. So, O.K. We could get enthusiastic about learning once again.
But then, it happened. Not ten minutes had gone by when a very butch looking, pudgy young woman, with terribly short hair, and sporting a gray sweatshirt and jeans, disrupted our class by barging in and telling us to hand in the catechisms we had just received, and that she would be back later with another box of catechisms, much to the consternation of the nun in our class.
The nun, obviously shaken, said that she would hand out the yet-to-be-delivered catechisms at the end of the class, but that we were to hand in the catechisms she had just handed out to us. I was hoping we would get even better catechisms, something like my older sister’s Baltimore Catechism which I had surreptitiously used the year before in preparation for first Confession and first Holy Communion. I should have taken a hint from some quiet tears in the eyes of our nun. She herself had obviously been traumatized, and tried to mention something of the meetings which had brought all this about. She was overwhelmed.
The butch looking woman – who, of course, had to be a nun – finally came back with a large box of catechisms and… and… plastic bags. She placed those on the teacher’s desk, all in a flurry, and hauled away our other just-collected catechisms. We were handed not any small text books with crisp print and explanations and helpful diagrams, but rather some oversized, super glossy, floppy picture books of children having fun running through sprinklers on a hot day, or holding balloons, or eating ice-cream. My heart sank. But surely, I thought, this was just something nice. We would also be getting catechisms. I was distracted from this thought by the complementary book bags, which were simply very large, plastic, new-fangled, zip-lock freezer bags.
While walking home with a friend, I asked what the assignment was for next time. I hadn’t been paying attention since the picture books were so boring, so very condescendingly, patronizingly “relevant”, a constant theme of those days: nothing about God; it was all about us. There is, of course, nothing more irrelevant than ourselves being purposely placed apart from the Creator of the universe, who loved us so much.
My friend told me that we were just supposed to page through the new catechisms we received. I told him I had to go back and get my new catechism, since I didn’t receive one in class. He pointed to my see-through book bag and said I was carrying it. I denied it, and took out the books I had.
These surely weren’t the catechisms, were they? “These have nothing to do with religion!”, said I, just as shaken as I had been in seeing the nun discard her habit. He just shrugged his shoulders. I was shattered. Soon he peeled off in another direction to his home and I ran back to the classroom, filled with anxiety: It couldn’t be true! No! Noooo!
It was true. The attitude of the teachers only temporarily frightened me. They were cold and authoritarian, revealing the true hardness of nicey-niceness, smirkily flabbergasted that I was ever so innocently challenging their efforts at discarding religion.
I was happy to have the chance to walk the better part of a mile back home alone, devastated once again before God: “Why? I want to learn!” The week was to see me paging through these picture books, trying to look for something, anything religious. I thought, yes, it’s O.K. when people are good to each other, but… but… what was the driving force behind all this? Where was God? Where was Jesus? There were a couple of prayers in the back, the Our Father and the Hail Mary. But that struck me as a justification, a mockery… at eight years old. I think my guardian angel was working way overtime.
The next Wednesday evening came quickly. The nun we had the week before told us that she had to leave for that class, as there was another teacher who was going to take over that class. She apologized. It wasn’t her decision. The replacement teacher was very butch looking, very young woman (who must have been one of the postulants of the nuns). She was so very unfeminine. She said that we were going to talk about something different that day.
We – she said – were going to talk about boys f***ing girls. We were only eight years old. She said this word, acknowledging that it was usually thought to be a bad word, but was not. So she repeated it, again and again and again: F*** F*** F*** F*** F*** !!! We had to know, she said, that having sex was clean, not dirty. Having sex was good, not bad. For my part, I didn’t have the least interest in having sex just right then and didn’t think of it as clean or dirty. I had never even heard of this kind of thing. I had never heard the word F*** before. Being in competition with the other boys was hilarious, while the few friendships I had with girls was exhilarating, but this sort of activity just wasn’t on the radar for me, at all, not at eight years old. What were they doing? I felt like I was being manipulated yet again. But I realized it. That was a great blessing.
She gave us a sex-ed class about the mechanics of having sex – all extremely graphic – what part went where and how that came to be and how nice that was, and how all this is where children came from. This was all very unhelpful. After this class, outside, the talk of some of the boys, of course, was to see with which of the girls they could have sex, right then and there. I argued with a couple of the more knuckleheaded boys in particular, saying that they shouldn’t take advantage of the girls, but was met with incredulous looks. They had taken the scandal. I was upset that this was entirely the fault of the “catechism” class we had just received: Forget Jesus. It’s all about having sex. I stood outside the school for the longest time, just staring at it, as if it were evil incarnate. The experiences I had already had in this area in my life made it easy for me not to run in that direction. We had to respect each other, didn’t we?
It was all so sad, thought I to myself, slowly walking home, quite alone. But not alone. Jesus was there. But my anguish was increasing exponentially.
This was to come full circle for me in my very first parish assignment as a priest. It was only for a month, as “acting pastor.” The actual pastor was going away on vacation for the month of August, just before I went back to Rome, to continue my degree work at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. I noted that the catechisms of the parish were all simple picture books and much of it was simply sex education. I forthwith brought all the books to the dump and purchased Ignatius Press Catechisms for the parish, at quite a large expense. They arrived just in time for the first classes. “Hah!” thought I. “The Lord always works with irony.”
Back to our story. Whatever with the ditching of the Catholic school and then the catechism lessons, we still had to go to Mass on Sunday. And this is how it would develop that very year at Saint Paul’s:
The high altar had been destroyed. There was a table out in the middle of the sanctuary. Next to that, there was a new wall of sorts, big black boxes, and in front of that, a drum set. When Mass started, a rock band was in place.
The volume coming from those black boxes, their speaker system, was so high that I could literally feel the sound waves in my guts. I remember telling my mom that it hurt, twice. We were pretty close to the front and to the right side for that Mass.
The next Sunday we would be in the back of the Church. This time the band played Pete Seeger’s Turn Turn Turn in the style of the Byrds. This, of course, brought screaming teenage girls and a few boys out in the aisles to dance.
The next Sunday, a full third of the parishioners were gone. Then, a week later, another third was gone. A week later, half of the remaining third disappeared. And that’s where the numbers stayed for decades. We never went back. We went church hopping. I remember my dad making grumbling comments about the clergy of the parish.
* * *
Now, I suppose that all that sounds like a lot of complaining, and, I suppose, it is. However, the point of bringing all this up is that in the midst of all this, I still felt the Lord calling me. He was permitting that I learn to be with Him even in times of great anguish. This was a steep learning curve. There was no one to trust but Jesus. My parents, for however faithful they wanted to be, just were not homeschooler types, and didn’t set out to teach me themselves. Pity, that. I was on my own. And yet, not alone. Jesus was turning my anguish into enthusiastic ferocity.
But then we moved to Collegeville. Saint John’s Abbey was my parish. But that’s another chapter.
Stay tuned. Yikes!