One of the stories Fr. Britz mentioned during the 2005 St. Ignatius Parish Mission – the story about John XXIII and wine and company at meals – resonated with me. Fr. Britz said he was a young seminarian at the time.
I was 6 years old in 1960. I attended a parochial school taught by nuns who wore black, floor-length habits. I was an altar boy and I learned the responses in Latin – the Latin Mass continued into the mid ’60s as I recall. I remember the Baltimore Catechism, school Masses, weekly confession. It wasn’t an unhappy world, for a child, although the arithmetic of sin, confession, and redemption could be scary. I wanted to please my parents, and my teachers. There was value in academic and intellectual performance, and in being good within the system of Catholic Church and school. The school did what all schools do to educate in basic literacy. I think schools try to teach cultural values, but kids learn those values through socialization and that is often outside the control of any school or teacher. In a Catholic school, there was tension between the tendency to learn general and cultural values, and the exposure to religious teachings. As children we watched TV, played with other kids, read books. As children we learned cultural values from other kids, and there was a constant pressure to run with the pack. Being valued by friends was important, and being valued by the teachers was important. Other kids didn’t like smart kids, and other kids questioned authority.
Within those tensions there was a question of whether, as Catholics we were special, or weird and inferior. Within my emotional life, I think that became attached to issues. My parents were immigrants and working people and I became aware of many ways in which my family was different from the norms and ideals held up in popular culture. As well, I had problems trusting the people I loved. As I grew up I became more distant from my family and I looked at my family with shame and anger, even as I have tried to act as devoted and caring person.
The Catholic teachings and practices of the day tended to florid piety in worship and devotion, a general suspicion of anything and anyone without the Catholic brand, and a Jansenist moralism (Jansenism was Catholic Puritanism. It became prevalent in France and Ireland before being condemned as a heresy but it had a lasting influence on Catholic thinking in Ireland and North America. Some Catholics broke away from the Church when Jansenism was condemned and founded the sect called the “Old Catholics” which has gained public attention because Mel Gibson’s father is one of them.)
I had started to become aware that the teaching of the Church were not consistent with scientific facts, and I was, at an early age, curious and arrogant. I was impatient with the Catholic Church’s version of fundamentalism. I thought there was more to religion than ritual and piety and belief in a supernatural magical superhero God.
I associate John XXIII with stepping away from Catholic isolationism. I associate him with the Church giving up, as America and the USSR sent astronauts into space, the discredited cosmology of medieval mythology. I associate him with Catholics like John and Bobby Kennedy, who claimed the right to participate in governing their nation and fought againt long-standing and prevalent Protestant and secular prejudices against Catholics. I wouldn’t have been aware of Jansenism as such, but I was aware that the Church was being liberated. However in many ways the freedom from tradition was simply the freedom to accept the conventional wisdom of the general culture.
For me, at the time, the reforms and changes in the Church seemed to be necessary and inevitable, and they were empowering and energizing. My memories of the feelings of my childhood and teen years have disposed me to embrace liberalizing change in the Church. Part of that has been to draw away from the traditional pieties and to place a great deal of emphasis on my own conscience and intellect.
I went through a time where I explored the mystical evolutionary ideas of Teihard de Chardin. However as a thinking person I found it hard to grasp that. I was also finding myself reacting against the conventional wisdom of the 60’s. I didn’t have the tools to understand and describe my reactions then, but now I can say that I don’t like the myths of Romanticism. I don’t do fluffy.
During the next decades I thought the Church was going the right way on social justice issues, but it pulled back. The Polish Pope hated Communism and he became convinced that the Marxists had subverted the Church in Central and South America, so his attitude on liberation theology came across to me as contradictory, paradoxical, pro-capitalist, calculating, and unjust. On the hand I agreed that the Church was not a political party, and I agreed that speaking for the marginalized should not imply a permanent loyalty to liberal and countercultural values. I didn’t like the way the Polish Pope was seeming to try to lead the Church back to its old isolated, pietist, arrogant, anti-intellectual, position, but always detested the Catholics who are drawn to the cultural values of Romanticism and mix up the Age of Aquarius with the Second Coming.
This makes me a lonely Catholic. I don’t know if I am going anywhere with this memory – it just came up out of his discussion. It explains some of the resonances I felt during the three nights of the mission.