God Bless You, Father Shine

The Cincinnati archdiocese assigned Father Shine to our parish as an assistant pastor around 1970.  He had been acting as a hospital chaplain, and before that served as a teacher in a boys high school.  A thin man with a large nose, pale skin, jet-black hair and sunken eyes, he trembled at the pulpit when he delivered sermons.  Sweat slicked his forehead and his hands shook when he raised the host at consecration.  He stammered, “B-b-body, body of Christ,” when he handed out communion.

Most of the congregation understood his terror of speaking in public and forgave him his faltering interpretations of Holy Scripture.  We felt sorry for a well-meaning man trapped in a job that ran contrary to his nature.  We also sensed a sweet nature hidden behind the nerves.  The man was ready to forgive sins in the confessional before a penitent uttered the first word.  He never spoke harshly or with cold judgment, and remained unfailingly patient and kind when dealing with folks one on one.

No one knew how the nuns and head pastor viewed Father Shine, but someone with a cruel streak gave him an assignment designed to torture him:  a sex-ed lecture for the eighth-graders.

We were ushered into the library and told to sit on the carpet.  No one told us the purpose of the assembly, but whenever our two classes gathered it usually meant a tongue lashing from the principal.  We were somewhat rebellious, and our budding sexuality sent one of the nuns into spasms.

It didn’t take much to bring Sister M.M. to her knees to pray for our immortal souls.  One flagrant problem that raised her blood pressure:  some of the eighth grade girls had tired of us boys and decided to take up with seventh graders.  Older hussies were seen walking with younger boys on the playground at lunch.  They held hands.  The horror.  The utter horror.

We were surprised when Father Shine shuffled into the room.  He sat down in front of us, but didn’t say anything for several minutes.  He appeared to be morbidly fascinated by the texture of the carpet.  A nun standing nearby whispered a few urgent words to spur him into action.  He looked up for a split second, returned his gaze to the floor, and wiped his forehead with a trembling hand. The nun whispered again, and Father Shine began his address.

“I taught for a few years at a Catholic school for boys in Cincinnati… Cin-Cin-cin-cin…nati…I, uh, the boys, uh….One day there was a dance.  The boys invited girls from a nearby high school for…girls.  Girls…Uh…I taught boys in Cincinnati…dance…There was this dance and girls were invited to come to our gym and…dance…And the boys, the boys…I taught at this school and…”

At this point Father flushed deep red and slumped to one side.  He covered his face with his hands and his shoulders shook.  I feared that he verged on a nervous breakdown.  The nun stepped in, put a hand on his shoulder and helped him to his feet.  She led him from the room.  End of assembly.

Father Shine recovered and returned to his duties as assistant pastor.  He said masses, heard confessions and visited the sick.  I was glad that his attempt to speak to us about sexual morality hadn’t damaged him in any permanent way, and relieved that we had escaped another tirade about a subject I found troubling enough when contemplating it on my own.  My feelings of relief were premature.

Eighth-grade classes usual went on a spiritual retreat to a park-like Catholic center south of town.  Sister told us, to our chagrin, that our retreat would take place on campus.  Her stern look and threatening tone warned me that my classmates and I would probably need a retreat from our retreat.

A balding priest wearing a black cassock, black shoes and socks, and black plastic framed glasses met with us in the library one morning.  He wasn’t afraid, shy, or embarrassed.  He appeared, instead, to be driven by outrage.  He barked at us for an hour about our sinful natures, and his face turned purple with anger.  He scorned our obsession with sex.  He sentenced us to eternal damnation if we thought about it, masturbated, or allowed ourselves to enjoy accidental sexual feelings that occurred at random moments.  The only Catholics allowed to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh were married couples (heterosexual, it went without saying).  And even these lucky few were supposed to reluctantly engage in the act for the sole purpose of making more Catholics.

He spent the rest of the day with us, “celebrated” a mass featuring a sermon that underlined the grimmest points made in the prior assembly, and glared at us with arms crossed at his chest during a break at lunch time.  Father Damnation appeared to be standing in for a watchful, vengeful God.

The eighth-grade girls stayed away from the seventh graders that day, but resumed their assignations the next week.  We knew that Father Damnation wasn’t coming back.  And most of us had figured out that his reign of terror had been one more attempt to bludgeon us back in line.  There had been plenty of those, and we had grown used to threats and hysteria.

Looking back, I have to say that I’m grateful to both priests.  Father Shine showed me that there were some clerics in the church who genuinely cared for their congregants, who tried their best even when stretched beyond their natural limits.  Father Damnation showed me that the church ranks had their share of crazies and militants that were best ignored.

God bless you, Father Shine.  Get bent, Father Damnation.

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Angst Vobiscum: Watching Cartoons and Thinking About Hell

When I was a boy I attended a Catholic parochial school from second to eighth grade and was given a  heavy dose of religious indoctrination.  It was unfortunate that I didn’t learn to ignore what we were being taught about heaven and hell, sin and salvation.  Most of my classmates just nodded along and waited for the lessons to end, but I sat and thought about them for a long time after.

My sister Carla suffered from a similar inability to tune out the nuns and priests.  In second grade she received a scapular, a brown patch of cloth with a holy image on it.  It had ties and was meant to be worn around the neck.  She and her classmates were told that they couldn’t die in mortal sin as long as they wore their scapulars.  It was a stay-out-of hell lucky charm.  They were given an instructive little story to go with their magic present: “Suzy got a scapular and thought that she could do anything she wanted to do and still avoid eternal damnation.  So Suzy got mean and rude and did increasingly horrible things:  she kicked old ladies; she shoved her sister down a flight of  stairs; and she stole a cupcake from a bakery.  As she ran out of the shop, laughing merrily as she licked the icing off the top, she didn’t notice the bus rounding the corner.  Suzy ran out into the street right in front of it.  The bus crushed her and as she lay dying on the hard cement she thought, ‘It’s okay.  I’m going to die, but I’m not going to hell.’  And then the ties loosened and her scapular slipped slowly off her neck.  She saw it lying beside her as she drew her last, horrified breath.  The end.”

Carla couldn’t fall asleep that night, but sat up in bed terrified that she might end up in Hell if her scapular fell from her neck while she slept.

When I was in fourth grade we were told in religion class that if we damned someone, even if we just thought “God damn you” without saying the words out loud, we had committed a mortal sin.  One moment of mental frustration and spite could earn the offender the penalty of eternal flames (unless he confessed to the nearest available priest before a marauding bus ran over him).  I took this piece of information home and brooded over it with a growing sense of foreboding.  I had a quick temper and a little brother who annoyed me.  We shared a tiny bedroom.  The odds didn’t look good.

I had never considered the possibility of damning anyone before the lesson, and even though the thought of committing that sin had been implanted by my teacher, I knew that I would be held accountable in the end.  Incitement couldn’t be used as a defense. And sure enough, late the next day, my brother did something sneaky and mean to Carla when the three of us were out playing in the front yard.  Maybe he hit her with a downed tree branch and hurt her.  Maybe he said something nasty.  I don’t remember.  I got angry at him for his behavior, thought the dread words and attached his name to the end of the phrase, and sentenced myself to be cast into the Pit.

I looked around me after thinking my bad, bad thought and wondered why nothing seemed different.  No one noticed any change in me, and I was treated just the same as before.  Why wasn’t I shunned?  I had committed a sin that was in the same category as murder, rape and desecrating a church, and there I went about my business for the rest of the day unmarked and unscathed.  I ate a cheeseburger for supper, listened to my parents talk as we watched Lawrence Welk, did the dishes and got ready for bed. I was a tiny bit relieved that there were no immediate consequences, but was also aware that God knew what I had done.  And though I might fool everyone else, HE knew just what kind of little boy I was. I didn’t bother to go looking for my scapular in the cluttered dresser drawer where I had carelessly tossed it a few months after getting it.  I knew that it wasn’t worth the effort to dig it out.  I could tie it with triple triple knots and it would still fall off my neck at my moment of reckoning.

The next day I woke up early on a sunny Sunday morning.  I fixed myself a breakfast of chocolate milk and a pop tart.  I sat down on the carpet in front of our television set with my brother and sister and we tuned in “The Tom and Jerry Show”.  This was my favorite cartoon.  I loved all the violence and vengeance.  And as I sat there laughing when Tom chased Jerry up a drain spout and got stretched out to ridiculous proportions, I had the nagging feeling that something was terribly wrong.  Then I remembered that I was going to Hell.  Jerry whacked Tom with a pool cue.  I grinned at my brother even as I realized that I was eternally estranged from my Lord and Savior.  I nearly snorted chocolate milk out of my nose when Jerry stuck Tom’s tail into a light socket and burned it to cinders.  But when I stopped laughing and choking the crappy feeling of dread returned.

I managed to resolve my spiritual dilemma during the car ride to church.  I knew that I could never go to confession and admit what I had done.  The parish priest was a grim giant of an old man who intimidated the adults as well as the children in the congregation.  I couldn’t face him in the darkness of the confessional booth even if it meant that my cowardice sent me to Hell.  I told myself to forget about the whole thing, that I couldn’t possibly be held accountable in such a terrible way for thinking a couple of words, and that I must have misunderstood what the teacher said during our lesson.

And I remembered a precedent:  when I was five I heard that an actor on a TV show got fired, and I thought that his termination meant that his boss tossed him into a bonfire and killed him.  I was very relieved when my mother cleared up my confusion and told me that the actor was alive and well.  I convinced myself that this damnation business was a similar case.

So I sat in our pew with a fairly clear conscience, sang the songs, rose, sat and genuflected at the right times, and went up for communion.  The sun still shone through the church windows and no angels descended from heaven with flaming swords to smite me when the priest placed the host on my tongue.  The last traces of guilt, fear and dread began to dissipate, and by the end of the day I felt just fine. The Scapular Slipped

Nuns

I went to Meadowlawn Elementary School in Kettering, Ohio for kindergarten and first grade.  I transferred to Ascension, a Catholic parochial school, and attended from second to eighth grade.  I encountered my first nun in third grade.  She was dressed head to toe in a black habit and wore squared off, black, leather shoes.  She was a slightly stooped, fairly deaf, ancient woman.  I forget her name, but her order renamed their sisters with a masculine first name and a feminine second name when the novitiates took their final vows.  Let’s say that her name was Sister Thomas Marie.

She was a good teacher, fair and not too insanely strict, but had an unfortunate talent for turning arithmetic into  processes as intricate as filling out  tax forms.  I think that long division required at least ten steps.  She was patient about most things, but was strangely vigilant in restricting the time we spent in the restroom.  Twice a day we were herded en masse down the hall  to relieve our bladders.  She waited outside for us to finish, but would open the door and extend her skeletal arm inside if she thought we were taking too long.  She held a wooden, spring powered device in her gnarled fingers, and she would click it at us while calling out, “Hurry up, boys!”  in her high pitched, wavering voice. She may be the reason why I have difficulty peeing in public bathrooms.

My second nun was my fifth grade teacher, Sister Joseph Marie.  Her face was long and horsey, but she had a lovely spirit.  She laughed easily and angered slowly, and won us over with her kindness and consideration.  Even the hard cases who usually delighted in bedeviling our teachers left her alone.  She was one of the few priests or nuns that I met who gave the impression that a vocation in the Catholic church led to a life of  joyful service.  My memories of her might be biased, however.  At that time I was sometimes told at home and on the playground  that I was a weird kid.  She was the first teacher who appeared to genuinely like me, and was the first to understand and appreciate my sense of humor.

In seventh grade I had an ex-nun (they count–they never really leave an order like ex-Marines remain Marines for life) named Miss Engler.  She was an unhappy woman who addressed us like an aristocrat giving orders to her least favored serfs.  We didn’t merit her respect.  She never bothered to learn our names, but would address a girl as “Missy” and a boy as “Bud”. She would look down her long nose at us as if inspecting something offensive: our entry into adolescence appeared to disturb her.  She would praise the sweetness of the children in the lower grades, and  let us know  that we had fallen a long way from that state of innocence. She would tell us that we stunk, and that the groin was “the dirtiest part of the body.”  She recommended that we wash that area frequently.  She was especially vigilant about policing the skirt length of the girls.  Their uniforms were cut so that they fell a few inches below the knee when they stood.  When they sat down their hems were not supposed to rise more than an inch or so above the top edge of their kneecaps.  Miss Engler frequently interrupted her lectures to point and bark  the following at some unfortunate girl seated near the front: “Pull your skirt down, Missy!” I suppose she believed that when a thirteen year old revealed a few square inches of lower thigh it was a sign that the young Jezebel was headed for a career in the sex trade.

One day Miss Engler brought in a kitten in a cardboard box lined with a soft blanket.  She was terribly fond of her pet and spoke to it with kindness and affection.  We didn’t know that she was capable of that and were even more surprised when her goodwill spilled over onto us.  We started to fawn over the kitten in hopes of extending our period of good grace.  Our plan worked for about two or three days, but someone finally said something so saccharine that her suspicions were aroused.  She realized in a moment that we had been playing her, and her hostility toward us returned with renewed vigor.  The kitten was seen no more.

In eighth grade we came under the strange domination of Sister Mary Margaret.  She was fairly twisted even for a nun, and had a lot of experience in using a distorted version of Catholic doctrine to manipulate us and to attempt to inflict mental damage.  If we were in the slightest way disobedient as a class she would tell us the next day that she had spent the night praying for our souls. Whispering in class apparently put us at the brink of the fiery pits of Hell. If students did not intend after graduating from Ascension to go on to Carroll, the Catholic high school that charged a tuition comparable to a public college, she would take them aside one by one and assure each that their “soul would be lost.”  (She performed this routine on me, and when I told her that my father couldn’t afford to send me she coldly ordered me to get a job.)

Her most vivid moment came when she discovered that an unknown girl (the letters were rounded in a feminine manner) had written “Fuck you Nun!” in the back of a vocabulary book.   She held us back at the end of the first day of interrogation and threatened to keep us from riding our buses home if we didn’t give up the perpetrator.  She relented at the very last minute, probably fearing the wrath of twenty-five angry parents, and we had to run to catch our buses.  She spent days afterword grilling us to find out who the culprit was. When threats and intimidation didn’t work she turned to psychological warfare.  She told us every once in a while over a period of a month that whoever had written such a horrible thing in a Catholic school textbook (she would pause dramatically before delivering the punch line) was disturbed and in need of treatment.  She said that she wanted to help that poor individual recover their mental health and to come back into the good graces of the church. She was a pretty good actor when she said this, and any fool who didn’t know her better might believe that she felt actual concern.

The girl who had “desecrated” the vocabulary book finally broke down and confessed to Sister in the hallway outside our classroom one afternoon.  I didn’t hear the confession but witnessed the reaction.  Sister Mary Margaret dug her fingernails into the girl’s shoulders and shook her so hard that her head whipped back and forth.  I forget what the nun snarled at her, but it had nothing to do with love and concern.

The Catholic church and I parted ways a few years later. I drifted away as Sister predicted when I was no longer under the daily influence of the church and was freer to think my own thoughts about matters of faith.  I don’t regret leaving, and when any stray doubts flutter through my brains I simply recall the sight of Sister Mary Margaret’s face as she attacked a fourteen year old girl.  Beet red and distorted into a grotesque mask of spite and hatred, it reminded me more of the Bride of Frankenstein than the Bride of Christ.