With all the activity over in Rome this past week, I have been doing some reflecting about that “pre-Vatican Catholicism” that Benedict seems to want to return the church to so very badly. I knew that church well. I grew up there. When I say I grew up Catholic, I mean: I. Grew. Up. Catholic. The city I lived in was called “Little Rome.” There were seven hills and each one contained a Catholic institution of some sort. When I was little there were at least six motherhouses for nuns, a seminary, two monasteries, a Catholic men’s college, a Catholic women’s college, five Catholic high schools (girls, boys and coed), and more churches than you could count. It was the seat of the Archdiocese, so we had the Cathedral and the mansion for the Archbishop and all the Diocesan offices as well. There were the Catholic Daughters, the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic Order of Foresters, Sodalities and more. Of a population of about 50,000 in the early sixties, about 60% was Roman Catholic. I really didn’t know anyone well who was not Catholic. Oh, there were a couple girls in my dance class who were “Protestant,” (whatever that was) but they were highly suspect, and I clearly remember having a sense of not being supposed to get too close to them.
So of course I went to Catholic school. And as part of Catholic education there were things that were taken for granted. We went to Mass every day. When I was in sixth grade I remember for some reason figuring it out and determined that at that point I had probably been to Mass at least 1600 times in my life. We went to Confession every first Friday, as a group from second grade on, starting with our “first confession” prior to First Communion and continuing until we graduated eighth grade. In Lent we made the Stations of the Cross every Friday. The sixth through eight graders sang all the funerals.
The Mass is a big focus for Benedict. He has given permission for the churches to return to the Mass I attended as a child. The one performed in Latin by a man with his back to the people. I don’t know how many churches want to or will do this. It seems strange to me now that anyone would want to. Because when the liturgy was “given to us” in English by Vatican II it was a Very Big Deal. I was twelve. Sixth grade. We had a wonderful and talented priest at that time in our parish who wrote a beautiful English organ Mass. In order to introduce it to the parish he had the sixth graders present it as a choral drama. The “presider” of course was still a boy. It was, after all, the mid-sixties. But I was asked to read the lessons! It may well have been life-changing. To be part of a service, not just an observer, awakened, I think, a sensibility in me that did not have full articulation until much later. What I had always known from being that tiny person in the far away pew, watching the back of the priest as he communed with God in what we had been told was “God’s language,” was that there was something about what happened in the liturgy that was holy and transcendent. I got the mysterium. I knew without a doubt that God was God. He was there in His celestial heaven surrounded by the heavenly hosts and all the saints. And I knew that when the little bells rang, and the priest lifted high the host and chalice, that Jesus was here, really present in His body and blood. And that, somehow, that was God, too. And I knew that when I went to the rail and ever-so-carefully took Him on my tongue (being careful never, ever, ever to let Him touch my teeth, this was Jesus after all), I was somehow taking Jesus into me. And then it didn’t matter so much that the priest was up with God talking one on one in God’s language, because I had Jesus in my heart. I knew this when I was eight. I remember.
There were such strange disconnects. Much of the church at that time was about rules. We fasted from midnight before communion (even little kids). So the school day began with breakfast after Mass. Jesus, Rice Crispies and chocolate milk form the background of my grade school years. A lot was about fear. I had a meltdown the night before my first communion because I thought I had committed a mortal sin after the confession times were done and so could not receive my First Communion! I actually threw up I was so upset. My poor mother had to soothe me. After patiently explaining to me that saying the word naked isn’t a mortal sin, she told me to “go make a good Act of Contrition and I’m sure it will be ok.” When I was about nine a priest refused me absolution because he thought I “was not sorry enough” for whatever sin I had confessed. And when I was thirteen, the pastor apparently thought monthly confession was not enough for the likes of my sorry soul and he made me make a solemn vow, in the confessional, to confess weekly. When my dad found me sobbing in shame and consternation on my bed afer I'd come home, he wangled out me what had transpired. After dad had a talk with the pastor, I was told I could be "dispensed of my vow." I still remember the roses on the rectory carpet as I knelt there before school on Monday morning repeating after that priest whatever words he told me to say that would "dispense" me. And yet my refuge was the church. The place I would go to hide when playground life got to be too much for my sensitive introverted little self would be the front pew by the Mary statue. I would talk to her and her Son Jesus, and things would always get better. And then there was playing Mass. I’d gather the dolls and the bears and get the Wonder bread and Welches and guess who would be the priest? It seems so presumptuous and audacious. How I went from the distant man with his back to us, to me and the dollies and stuffies floors my adult brain! How I did not think I would be struck down dead with lightening is beyond me! But it seemed the most natural thing at the time. We played house and I was the mommy, we played school and I was the teacher, we played church and I was the priest.
Of all the things that shaped and formed me I think the church of my childhood is one of the most powerful. I steeped in it so long the stains will never leave my soul. Like all the things that shape us this has both its glories and its shadows. As I grow into my own priesthood both are emerging in interesting ways.