Deeply troubled by the current public turmoil in the Roman Catholic Church (revelations of pervasive pedophilia, matters of sexual preference and women’s rights, resignation of Pope Benedict XVI just to mention a few headline issues), I’m moved to serious soul searching about the role of the church in my life.
Reared in a traditional Catholic family and loyal to the fundamentals of the faith during my 78 years, more than ever do I find myself intellectually and spiritually challenged and conflicted.
Experience has shown that often what seems to be insignificant at the time can have profound, long lasting influence on one’s perspective, values and behavior. This is true of my religious belief and practice in the backdrop of today’s crisis-plagued Catholic Church.
Serving Mass as an altar boy was, in my day, a unique honor and privilege. The criteria for selection was strict. One had to demonstrate to the pastor, nuns and church staff you had the self-discipline, patience, endurance, pious character and family support to deal with the demands of sacred church rituals, some of which went on for hours. You also had to memorize the responses to Latin prayers and learn the required server actions, choreographed for a variety of ceremonies. Months of training and rehearsal went in to preparations to be called for your first Mass.
The candidacy for serving was voluntary, and with parent’s consent, began when a boy was seven or eight years old. In my era, the 1940s and 1950s, girls were not allowed to serve. I met the qualifications in 1943 when I was eight years old at St. Paul’s Nativity Parish where I attended grade school.
So I was scheduled to serve at my first high funeral Mass. Bishop Byrne would conduct the memorial service for the family of a wealthy Highland Park parishioner. It was to be an elaborate lengthy affair with all the traditional formality, pomp and ceremony suited to honor the prominence of the deceased.
If my memory serves me, the altar boy contingent included my classmates, some of whose names are familiar to those who grew up in St. Paul-St. Croix Valley and to be later well known: Jack Donahue (Father Jack), Bob Murnane (well known St. Paul attorney), Bob Gallivan (pro athlete, writer and insurance mogul), Ron Bacigalupo (editor of the Downtowner newspaper), George Jensen and Jerry Roth. Serving Mass for the bishop was a big deal and this was Nativity’s first string. I was proud to be included as junior server on the roster.
We had to arrive at the church a couple of hours early to prepare the altar and rehearse our roles, so it was pre-dawn when I left home. No rides from parents in those days. Dad left for work by 6 a.m. and my mother never learned to drive. I began the walk through the early morning darkness carrying my freshly laundered and hand-pressed cassock and surplice on a hanger.
No matter where I was on the altar boy roster, Mom would never allow me to leave the house without washing and pressing my vestments.
Nativity was about a mile away from our home on Palace Avenue. Anxious about the big production and still half asleep, I didn’t see the big German Shepherd approaching me around the corner at Jefferson and Prior until he was right in front of me, growling, threatening and blocking the sidewalk. I tried to ignore and walk around him, but he gave no ground. We stood like that for several minutes. Nearly petrified with fear, I prayed and fumbled for the Rosary I’d hung around my neck before leaving home to avoid forgetting it in the rush to get to church on time. (Devout young Catholics typically carried a Rosary and wore what was called a Scapular for special blessing and divine protection.)
In the eyes of an eight-year-old boy, the Shepherd looked wolf-like The street was deserted at that early hour, no help. As I prayed, I noted the dogs eyes were fixed on the cassock and surplice I carried. Then it came to me. The dog’s interest was not me, but the bag I was carrying. Instantaneously, I knew what I had to do — at least it was worth a try so I could flee. I threw the cassock and surplice down on the wet, muddy area next to the sidewalk. (I knew Mom would ‘kill’ me when I got home).
As the dog began sniffing the garments on the ground, apparently distracted, I took off on a dead run and didn’t look back until I got to the church door. Pale and thoroughly shaken, I entered the sacristy, minus my cassock and surplice, but otherwise unharmed.
I explained what had happened to the monsignor, the Rev. Steiner who was assisting the bishop, and the nuns who were helping with arrangements for Mass. They found another set of vestments in a basement closet. The funeral Mass went off without a hitch, although I fought off faint and nausea several times during the service. Later, someone dropped off a cassock and surplice that had been found on the Prior-Jefferson corner. It had been chewed and ripped to shreds.
That event left a deep impression, and placing a Rosary around my neck before going into harm’s way or dealing with high risk situations became standard practice with me. I’ve gone through a lot of Rosaries and taken a lot of ribbing from skeptics over the years. I feel no compulsion to explain myself or a spirituality that is beyond explanation. I only know what the doctors observed as they extracted the string of beads from my neck as I was recovering from a potentially fatal parachute static line strangulation at Fort Campbell in 1956. The incident is one of many close calls I’ve weathered over the years with maybe more to come.
In the decades that followed the dog confrontation, my view of religion, Catholicism and spirituality have undergone re-evaluations and changes, some for the better and others not so good. I once considered the priesthood as a vocation, but opted for the military. In light of what’s happening to the Church, it was the right choice.
While I consider myself a practicing Catholic, I no longer attend Mass or participate in the sacraments on a regular basis. I’ve chosen to put aside some of the church’s dogma in order to exercise my intellectual curiosity and pragmatic world view.In a wide variety of piritual-philosophical-theological positions, the church is hypocritical and in defiance of science and common sense. I guess that would put me in fallen-away-Catholic category.
I am mistrustful of the church’s politics and bureaucracy. Without trust, one cannot have respect. The conduct of church officialdom is appalling in its ignorance of truth and justice. The hierarchy should have its collective knuckles ruler-rapped in the manner of the old-school Nativity nuns to get its attention. Short of that metaphoric action, I see no way it can repair its self-inflicted damage.
Call me sacrilegious or blasphemous, even blind faith has its limits.
Given that perception of the state of the Catholic Church and its dilemma, it might be difficult for anyone to understand why I still kneel at night to say traditional Catholic and Native American prayers and have continued to wear a Rosary around my neck when anticipating danger, whether it be physical or psychological. This goes beyond the adherence to any doctrine or blind faith. Symbolically, the Rosary is my expression of confidence in a power beyond our humanity. For me, it’s more than a talisman or superstitious practice. And as long as I believe that, regardless of the human flaws of the church, I’ll continue to ask for whatever help may be out there.
Ayers is a regular contributor on these pages. Post his early youth in St. Paul, he grew up in Stillwater. He is a semi-retired military-CIA veteran now living in the wilderness near Frederic, Wis.