Thursday, July 12, 2007

Faith of Our Fathers

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.

8 comments:

Tandaina said...

I really have to stop reading your blog updates at work. You had me in tears at the end there, hun.

I grew up Episcopalian, the Roman church was always the big stone edifice across the street. (We always described ourselves as 'the little brick church across from the Romans'.) Rather mysterious, certainly not welcoming. We have begun in our town to work together. We have become neighbors. It seems Rome wants to go backwards, to build up the walls between us again.

I don't think our new friends across the street much care if Rome doesn't want them playing with us, thank God!

(I love, utterly love, that you played church. How unspeakably innocent and trusting and right.)

Gannet Girl said...

Ummm, seven hills -- did you grow up in Cincinnati?

Gannet Girl said...

Now I've re-read more carefully. this is fascinating to read from a Catholic point of view, having experienced it all (as you know) from the Protestant side.

It's like reading Karen Armstrong's book about her years in the convent. I talked to her about it at Chautauqua one year, and told her how enlightening it had been for me to read about my experience immediately pre-and post Vatican II from a nun's viewpoint. "I had no idea what was going on!" I said. "Neither did we! was her response.

Kathryn said...

Kate, have you read Antonia White's "Frost in May"? such similar memories at one level - but I think the frost touched her soul, poor woman, and her faith never recovered...You've started all sorts of memories running through my head...I'd better go blog!

RevDrKate said...

Oh T, you often do the same to me! Have to be careful where I read yours. Our church in town is right behind the big RC. We call THEM "the annex." They play pretty nicely here. Points out I think the disconnect between Rome and the "true church."
No, gg, no WKRPtown in my childhood, I am an Iowa girl. I do love Karen Armstrong, though she is dense reading. But her convent story is great, resonates with me...ah but that's another chapter in my story! And Kathryn, that of course is also why I have immediately gone and ordered Frost in May which I have not read, but having seen the description, now MUST immediately! And am looking forward to your next entry as well.

Jan said...

I've feared that the Pope wants to take the RC church back to Pre-Vatican II days. Growing up unchurched, I only remember my mother telling me I could NOT marry a Catholic! (No thoughts of a Jew, Hindu, or Muslim. . . ) So there was a big division--just like you felt at the dance classes. It would be impossible to return there, right?

However, I've been going to a Catholic seminary for the past six years. Some of the young priests in training are very conservative and probably WANT to go back to those old ways. The priests in Orders seemed much more open and accepting.

How wonderful that you experienced the Holy Mystery while so young, but it was heartbreaking to think of the priests imposing so much guilt on you. Poor child.

Diane said...

I have the same fears...I've so enjoyed post-Vatican. Some of the most progressive people I have known are nuns (one I went through CPE with).
And one of my favorite places in SD is a wonderful Benedictine monastary called Blue Cloud Abbey.
I don't think Benedict is very Benedictine (at least in soem ways).
I grew up Lutheran, best friend was Catholic and we had a lot of "Lutheran-Catholic dialogue" which I'm sure God was very amused by.
My particular religious neurosis was worrying that the police were going to come and get me because I had a little tiny bit of wine at a Jewish's friend's house on Sabbath.

RevDrKate said...

Diane, Blue Cloud is on my list of places to visit one day, I have heard it's lovely.