Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Speaking truth to priesthood

Clutch the beads

My godchildren are a curious pair. The elder, my nephew, is a cheerfully lapsed Catholic who acceded to his fiancée's desire to be married in her Protestant church (to the scandalization of his parents and grandparents). When I agreed to be his baptismal godfather thirty years ago, I had no serious qualms. The younger, my niece, was born a few years after her cousin, by which time I was no longer a practicing Catholic. However, they didn't ask and I didn't tell when the possibility of my being her baptismal sponsor was raised. It would have been more awkward to decline than to accept, so I became a godfather for the second time.

Unlike my godson, my goddaughter is a good little Catholic, steeped in the family's simplistic obedience to Church authority. She remembered me at Christmas with a packet of candies, into which she had slipped a small bag containing a mini-rosary. It's a puzzlement. What does she hope to achieve with this holiday gift?

It's not a secret from the family that I am not a practicing Catholic. My parents no longer bother to drag me along to mass with them when I am staying at their home during holiday visits. It's just a little surprising, since I don't object to tagging along. Visits to my hometown church give me a chance to see people and sights I seldom see. And I swear that I do not chuckle aloud during the sermons. It's just an outing—like going to the zoo.

Besides, my eyes do not make noise when I roll them.

There was a time when I would have been delighted with a mini-rosary. When I was a child enrolled in parochial school, the rosary loomed as a grueling endurance contest. A full-fledged rosary contains five groups to ten beads (“decades”). Each of the fifty beads represents a recitation of the Hail Mary. The decades are separated by beads representing recitations of the Our Father (the Lord's Prayer). Monsignor, our school's principal, conceived the bright idea of inculcating regular devotion to the rosary by distributing little pledge cards. We were supposed to fill in our names and write down the frequency with which we would promise to pray the rosary.

I was horrified. The rosary was stultifying and mind-numbing. Fifty-three repetitions of the Hail Mary. Six Our Fathers (and the mini-prayer known as the Glory Be). I found it excruciating.

I slowly and carefully printed my name on the pledge card, postponing the fateful moment of commitment. Finally, though, my pencil was hovering over the line where I was supposed to fill in my promise. It would have been easy to lie, but I had a very well-formed conscience in those days. The lie would have plagued me forever, but a truthful commitment would get me off the hook after a brief pang. I wielded the pencil:

1 rosary per month

That was reasonable. I could do that. It wouldn't be fun, but it was feasible. My conscience was clear.

Monsignor never mentioned it to me. He was probably too shocked to comment. And I kept my pledge, too. For about two months.

If only we had had mini-rosaries!


Anonymous said...

Okay, so were you an altar boy. Did you have to memorize the Latin mass? That was true torture.

There were a few goods that came from being an altar boy. One I guess I was lucky to miss the "bad" priests. Then there was the incense burner for the stations of the cross (among a few other uses) ceremony. I have no idea, but a friend and I both found that hysterical (irrationally so of course) but none the less hysterical. Needless to say we were not asked to do the stations ceremony very often after the first time that we smirked our way around the church with a highly irked priest.

Zeno said...

Yes, I was an altar boy, but memorizing the Latin mass was no sweat. I was already bilingual by the time I was recruited into the ranks of lace-clad boys, so what was one language more? The mass also had quite a bit of variety to it and was more fundamental to the faith that I still accepted in those days, while the rosary was just boring, boring, boring (and I knew it was really intended for shriveled up little old ladies from the Old Country, who were never without their clicking beads).

Anonymous said...

My parents lived in a neighborhood with a lot of retirees, and quite a few Catholics. In the late '90s, they started up a Rosary group, where they all gathered in someone's home once a week for coffee, cookies, and praying the Rosary.

What amazed me was not that my mother attended -- she was a big Rosary fan -- but that my father, not Catholic, went along too. Prayed along with the rest of them, apparently. That's one of the biggest demonstrations of devotion to one's spouse I've ever seen.

Zeno said...

My brother-in-law did something similar, Karen, in attending Sunday mass regularly with my sister for 25 years just because he thought it was something the family should do as a group. He therefore had much better church attendance than most Catholics during that first quarter-century of their marriage. Then he finally converted, so his attendance doesn't impress me quite as much as it did before it became a solemn obligation instead of just a devotion to his spouse.

llewelly said...

I don't know much about Catholicism, but I had thought 10-bead rosaries were taken into battle by German Catholic soldiers in WWI, as well as by German Catholics during the 19th century.

Anonymous said...

I guess I was less "honest" than Zeno. I would prefer the rosary, as I could rather easily fake it, while the Latin mass was torture for me.

As it turns out, going to Jesuit high school, Latin is the only foreign lanuage I studied - 4 years in high school. I guess that mass was not so bad after all.

BTW - I am new to reading this blog, I do enjoy in some manner your student stories as I see some of myself in each of the poor souls you describe. Although, I had the advantage or disadvantage of seemingly being smart enough to get by anyway - I did second semester Physics at U of Wisconsin and never made any classes, labs, or TA sessions and passed with a C based soley on acing the exams. The class conflicted with other classes and work $$ both necessary for my continued enrollment. But at that time I was a 3rd year electrical engineering student who needed the physics because of credit mismatch from Vermont to Wisconsin so I hated re-taking the class so to speak.

Ah we poor students are so persecuted by these acedemic rules that are so inflexible.

Anyway, keep it up. I love the stories. Makes me feel a bit better about my own adventures.

Zeno said...

Thanks for the kind words, Anonymous. I always enjoy reading what comments others have to share, but I especially like the nice ones.

Some academic rules are enforced to the point of absurdity, like my friend who was admitted to a college English program with advanced placement and whose graduation was later held up because he had not taken Introductory English Comp (although the English department had specifically waived it when he signed up).

That leads up to an important truth that I learned thirty years ago in grad school: you can petition for anything. Sure, they might turn you down, but the academic bureaucracy seems to have a form for every imaginable (and unimaginable) contingency. The trick is to get the right signatures on it. Get the signatures and all is well, no matter what you're asking for. My English major friend got the chair of the English department to admit there was a graduation petition codicil that he could sign that would waive (or waive again, in this case) any specific graduation requirement. With the signatures of the chair and academic advisor, the petition was hand-carried by the petitioner to the admin building where some bored functionary time-stamped it and my friend graduated.