Confessions of a Bad Catholic
I grew up in an Irish Catholic family. My Irish Protestant mother converted
to Catholicism when she married my father, as was expected by the Catholic
Church. Her parents were not pleased. As it turned out, she was a more
devoted Catholic than my father was. He rarely attended church, and the
job of raising Roman Catholic children was left to my mother. Every Sunday,
I was forced to wear a suit, white shirt, and tie, which I found very
uncomfortable. The starched shirts made my skin itch. Even to this day,
I rebel against uncomfortable clothing.
We attended St. Francis de Sales Church in Barrington, New Jersey. Actually,
the church was not finished when my father built our house in Barrington,
so I remember attending a church of a different denomination (maybe Episcopal)
before St. Francis was completed. I also remember going to one woman's
home, where she used a felt board to tell Bible stories. Somehow I found
how she stuck various Biblical characters on top of the desert backgrounds
to be quite entertaining.
Catholic Church was not so much fun. I spit out my first communion, which
set the nuns into a frenzy. I'm sorry, but it was like trying to swallow
cardboard. It was the first time I considered converting to a different
religion. My parents bought those uncomfortable suits I wore from a Jewish
tailor in Philadelphia. The shop was beneath the Ben Franklin Bridge.
The tailor and his wife were very nice and served us matzah . I remembered
it to be far superior to what the Catholics forced me to swallow.
It took even longer to build the Catholic school, so I attended public
elementary. My younger sisters and brother were sent to Catholic school.
Later, my mother told me she regretted that decision because she thought
they received an inferior education. In those days, Catholic schools were
considered better because or their ability to maintain discipline. That
is, the nuns were able to hit the kids. In 1960, the rumor going around
my elementary school was that if JFK was elected President he would replace
all the teachers with nuns and we'd all get the crap beat out of us.
Because I was not in Catholic school, I had to make up for it by attending
Catechism once a week. I don't remember any corporal punishment there,
but I do remember making the nuns very uncomfortable by the questions
I asked. Once, we asked about evolution and got the nun so flustered she
brought in a priest to explain why the theory was wrong. It turned out
we knew more about evolution than he did. Another time, a nun was explaining
how a man could receive all the sacraments, while a woman could not. The
man could get married, become a widower, and then be ordained a priest,
she said. Or, I suggested, he could get divorced. Then to make things
worse, I suggested that women could receive all the sacraments if the
Church let them be priests.
I grew up in the heart of Quaker country, but I didn't have a clue what
a Quaker was or believed. I frequently saw the stereotypical Quaker image,
most familiar to us on the Quaker Oats box. In Philadelphia, there was
the statue of William Penn on top of City Hall. For many years, the city
was unable to build highrises because nothing was supposed to be higher
than Penn's statue. Cartoonist Bil Keane, famous for his Family Circus,
had a cartoon character in the Sunday Bulletin he named Silly Philly.
He was a kid version of William Penn who made bad puns. It wasn't until
I moved to California that I became a member of the Society of Friends.
There is more about that in my adoption story.
My family's experience of Catholicism in San Diego was divided among three
churches. The first was St. Brigid's in Pacific Beach. That was the church
of my Uncle John's family. When our two families had a falling out, we
started attending All Hallows on the top of Mount Soledad in La Jolla.
All Hallows was the richest and whitest church in the world. It was also
very beautiful. The A-frame construction had a gorgeous view of the Pacific
Ocean to the west. The wall facing the ocean was entirely glass with the
altar placed in front of it. The parish was well funded, with every piece
of the structure and grounds dedicated to somebody, especially one Thomas
J. Fleming Sr. Masses were said for Mr. Fleming at the request of his
family. I figured these rich families were trying to buy their dead relatives
a place in heaven. Eventually, the snobbery even turned my mother off
and we descended down the hill to another church, Mary, Star of the Sea.
Located in downtown La Jolla, not far from the Quaker meeting, the parish
was still wealthy, but the architecture was a more humble Spanish adobe.
The ceiling was painted as a lovely starry night. I still had trouble
warming up to the place.
My last attempt to hold on to Catholicism came when I found myself walking
into St. Brigid's on my way home from school. I stopped to pray that god
would make me straight. It didn't work.
Years after I left the church, I found an obituary in the Los Angeles
Times for All Hallows former Monsignor John Storm. Like me, Storm had
become frustrated with his well-to-do parish that was more concerned with
bestowing riches on its property than taking care of the poor. He eventually
fled to a poor parish in Southeast San Diego to minister to the Latino
population. The sad part of the story was that Monsignor Storm was a closeted
gay man who was unable to find acceptance in his spiritual community.
One day, he took a swim in that beautiful Pacific Ocean that was framed
in the picture window of his old church. He never returned to shore.
I grieve for Monsignor Storm and salute all of those who want to make
the Catholic Church the institution Jesus had intended it to be. Fortunately,
some of their stories have happier endings. One of my favorites is Father
Bill O'Donnell of St. Joseph the Worker in Berkeley. I met Father Bill
one day at a local homeless shelter. I told him I was a Quaker. "I
like Quakers, " he answered. "Quakers are cool." Father
Bill proved that Catholics could be cool, too. When Father Bill died,
he was at his computer, writing his next sermon. They say St. Joseph had
a happy death. I can't imagine a happier death than being in the process
of doing something you love. At the computer, writing; that's a great
way to go.