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.

Lost Souls

Sister Mary Margaret, my eighth grade home room teacher, asked me to stay behind at lunch as she had something important to ask me.  I walked up to her desk after the other students had left for the playground.  She fixed me with her steely gray eyes and said, “Are you going to go to Archbishop Carroll High School?  I see that you haven’t enrolled yet.”  She tapped a list of names.

“No, my family can’t afford to send me.  I’m going to Fairmont East.”

“You could get a job,” she said apparently unaware that fourteen year old boys were not allowed to work in the state of Ohio and that the tuition at Carroll, comparable to state university fees, could not be earned part time at minimum wage.

“Mom wants me to focus on my studies.  No jobs…She and my Dad and sister all transferred to public schools after eighth grade,” I said.

“You’ll drift away from the faith,” she told me.  “Your soul will be lost.”

“My parents and sister are still Catholics,” I pointed out.

“Your soul will be lost,” she solemnly repeated.

I studied the flakes of dandruff that accumulated daily in shallow drifts on the shoulders of her dark habit and tried to find something to say.  One possibility, telling her that hell seemed preferable to an eternity spent with the likes of her, tempted me.  My instinct for self-preservation kicked in and I said, “I’m not going to Carroll.”

She squinted at me and a blush of red deepened on her cheeks.  She had been angry when she called me aside, and now my bluntness had made her angrier.  I didn’t care.  I knew that I’d be free from her and my parochial school in a few weeks.

My parents sent me to a public school for ninth grade and signed me up for CCD, a Monday night program at church that taught religious education to kids who had endangered their souls by attending public schools.  The classes were segregated by gender but undivided by age.  Few boys were older than I, but many were two years younger.  Their hopes of salvation had begun to fade even earlier than mine.

Our classes were taught by fathers from the parish, and few had training in education and theology.  The lessons faltered whenever questions beyond a Dad’s level of knowledge had to be suppressed and pushed aside.  Our instructors droned out a rehash of the doctrines drilled into us in lower grades.  These tenets could be reduced to the following:  Do what Mother Church tells you without question and get a free pass to heaven.

One night after class I ran into a guy I hadn’t seen in a few years.  His name was Ben, and he used to team up with a dim-witted giant who did his bidding.  Ben enjoyed picking fights and bullying boys larger than he was.  If they defended themselves or returned his insults he unleashed his bodyguard on them.  I once saw Matthew B., a rawboned kid with lethal elbows who played center on our basketball team, get beaten to the ground by Ben’s stooge. Ben looked on and smiled wistfully as if enjoying the beauty of a moment that would fade all too soon.

I passed by Ben as he sat slumped on the cement floor of the corridor leading to the exit.  I didn’t say a word to him.  He whispered, “Hey, pussy!”  I looked over my shoulder, not knowing at whom he had directed his insult, and saw him staring at me with sad, tired eyes.  I kept going, and he called after me, “Aren’t you going to come back and beat me up?”  He laughed as I pushed open the door and walked outside.

Years later my mother wrote that my sister’s youngest boy, Chris, had penned an essay that had been published in the parish newspaper.  He had attended the same parochial school as I, and apparently gotten the same warning when a nun found out that he also planned to go to Fairmont East.  I read a clipping of his article that Mom had included in the letter, and Chris’ words were a desperate plea for help as he entered into a world of non-Catholics conspiring to steal his salvation.  I thought, “Holy shit, boy.  They really got to you.”

Ten years passed and I attended Chris’ wedding.  Both he, his bride, and his bride’s family were former Catholics.  The wedding ceremony acknowledged the possibility of spiritual bonds in marriage, but there were no Bible readings.  The officiant was the mayor of a suburb of Cleveland.  I learned that the bride’s family were staunch agnostics and had removed their children from a parish school after a conflict of some sort.  I thought, “Good for them.”

I talked to Chris a few years later and mentioned his article in the parish newspaper and his later conversion to agnosticism.  “What happened?” I asked him.  He smiled and said that he had been dating a girl at the time he wrote his essay who was a bit hysterical about religious matters.  She had influenced him, but when he started to attend a public school his fears vanished.  He said, “The people at Fairmont East were so much nicer to me.”  I felt pride as I smiled back at my confident, free-thinking nephew.  According to the nuns Chris had lost his soul, but he appeared to be doing quite well without it.

 

The Sanctity of Guilt

Religions elevate different emotional states or personality traits to the highest standard of moral behavior.  Christians praise self-sacrificing love.  Readers of the Bhagavad Gita learn that they should not be concerned by the results of their actions, but that they should make sure that every step taken is one of devotion to God.  Quakers believe that an Inner Light is available for guidance, and if it is consistently followed the believer will live a life in harmony with the whole of humankind and nature.  All of these core beliefs are powerful tools for setting social mores, to leading people toward happier and more productive lives as well as to spiritual peace.

The interesting but sad history of nearly every faith is the perversion of their core beliefs into repressive, rigid codes that are used by a hierarchical structure to garner and maintain power and wealth.  Secondary tenets are usually added onto the original inspirational teachings of the founders of a religion, ones that aid and abet the franchise building of current spiritual leaders.

I grew up in the Roman Catholic faith.  The power structure of the church, at times, was emphasized from the pulpit more strongly than the Sermon on the Mount.  We weren’t encouraged to read the Bible in our spare time as we might get ideas that ran contrary to the teaching of our parish priests.  Certain passages of the New Testament were ignored (Jesus had brothers and sisters and a mother who was worried that He would embarrass the family in front of the neighbors.), while others were heavily underlined (Mary’s miraculous state of virginity when she became pregnant and gave birth to Jesus).  Loving sacrifice, when it was taught, was usually tied to giving generously to charities sponsored by the church and to the church itself.

Secondary tenets were added on to ensure our docile acceptance of church doctrine and its hierarchy.  Obedience was emphasized, as was humility in the face of God’s amazing power.  God’s representatives on earth were the priests, bishops, cardinals and the Pope, so kneeling before them and accepting their direction without question was an act of piety.

Guilt was a big thing too.  We were taught to feel guilty for merely existing.  Baptism released us from an original sin passed down to us from Adam and Eve that we had acquired simply by being born.  Jesus died for our sins, even the ones we had only imagined.  We were told that we constantly sinned in thought, word and deed, and by acts of commission and omission.  From one sunrise to the next we were actively engaged in fouling our souls, and only by rushing to confession to seek out church sponsored forgiveness could we expunge a few stains.  The agonies of our Savior on the cross were described in detail to reinforce the idea that we, the faithful, were a bunch of miserable shits requiring an extreme sacrifice to square our debts with God.  And, of course, if we were ingrates and failed to toe the (church) line, then Jesus would act as our judge and condemn us to eternal hell….So much fun.

Guilt became an act of piety.  If folks had moments when they felt a little too good about themselves they would be reminded of their faults.  A “big head” meant that one had forgotten about his or her innate fallibility.  It was better to counter any moment of satisfaction with a self reminder that one had screwed up in the past and would do so again.  If persons felt that they had made some strides in conquering a bad habit they kept it to themselves, or even suppressed any thoughts of accomplishment.  She had been taught not to trust in herself–only God (and a priest) could really recognize the true state of her soul–and God might be tempted to throw harder challenges at him if he got cocky.

In recent years the child abuse scandal has finally exposed the depths of corruption in the church.  The revelation that the organization was designed mostly to promote and protect its own, namely the clerics  and not the lay people, was a heartbreaking surprise to those who had spent their lives revering the official caretakers of the church.  The faithful parishioners had hoped that there really leaders more chaste and holy than themselves, that all those years of guilt-tripping had been a meaningful exercise in becoming more like the clergy if not like Jesus Himself (the unattainable goal).

The truth has come out, but the question is, “Will it set us free?”  Can we go back to the original teachings of an avatar, saint, or savior and discern their core message?  Can we put divine inspiration into effect in our own lives without guidance from a teacher who may or may not be corrupt?  Is there a church that hasn’t debased the revelations of its founding prophet?  And if we rely solely on ourselves will be fall prey to self-delusion?

I’ve been left to wander after leaving behind the Catholic church.   The faith into which I was indoctrinated still has a lingering influence, and my fall back stance whenever I am praised or criticized is an uneasy mix of humility and guilt.    I meditate and have dabbled in studying Buddhism and Hindu belief systems, but have never found a true spiritual home.  As far as I know there have been no organizations created by human beings that can ever establish a heavenly space here on earth.

Perhaps the most that we can hope for is to see occasional glimpses of a better way of existence.