Catholic an identity not always practiced
Catholicism was more than a Religion in my growing up years in Rome, New York. For me, and probably several hundreds of thousands like me back in the ’50s being Catholic was identity. First I was a Catholic, then I was a Puffer and next, an American. In Rome, New York, there were five Catholic Churches and I belonged to St. Peters. That was essentially the Irish side of the Rome Catholic populations though it was far more diverse than that. Transfiguration was the Polish parish. St. John’s was the Italian parish. St. Mary’s I remember as the Northern European or German parish and later St. Paul’s came into being — the richer Catholics.
Like a lot of Catholic kids I went to a Catholic school — St. Aloysius, the same school that my mother had attended in her growing up years in Rome. St. Aloysius was affiliated (joined at the hip if you will) with St. Peters. Until my senior year in high school, St. Aloysius was First Grade to Twelfth. The parishes got together and build Rome Catholic High and I was in the first graduating class spending my senior year — 1963–64 in that beautiful new building.
Catholic schools had the reputation of being academically focused and with a teaching core of nuns from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Corondolet, St. Aloysius was a solid representation of academic focus. While there were lots of facts that were facts, much of the education was certainly through the Catholic lens. My early New York History was a story of the missionary priests who were trying to convert the Iroquois. Interesting to me in these times of the need to teach Black History and Women’s History, there was no lack of Catholic History in my formative educational experiences. The lens was always focused on the Catholic role. It was years later when I discovered this view of academics was not universal and that many of my peers at the public schools never learned about the exploits of the missionary priests. And, even through that particular lens, the nuns found ways to enlarge the circle so that most of us came from that Catholic education experience well versed in the basic facts of the subjects and with a capacity for critical thinking that has served us well through our various life experiences.
Even now, in 2022, the idea that I grew up a Catholic still has impact on decisions, on actions, on thinking on exploring, on seeking on being. It is been quite some time since anyone would consider that I was a practicing Catholic yet that identity is never far below the surface. It seems the lens through which you initially view the world can have a greater life role than we may ever know.
I had my first confession as a seven-year old in the second grade and the Sunday after that I made my first communion. There is a memory of being in the bathtub with a relative helping out as a baby sitter. In the memory she is telling my mother of my refusal to take off the new brown scapula that we had been given because one of the nuns had said to never take it off. I was quickly an All-In Catholic
I became a choir boy in the third grade. Sister Marie let me stay in choir boys as long as I only mouthed the words because the tunes that came from my lips were always discordant — apparently always with lost keys, flat notes and no part harmony. So beginning in the third grade I was a quiet choir boy. Even today my three, four and seven year-old grand children tell me not to sing when everyone else is in the middle of Happy Birthday. We got to add Altar Boy to the skill set a couple of years later — after spending several months learning the Latin that was in the required Altar Boy responses. Even today I can often remember Ad Deum Qui Latificat ju ventutum meum. (There is no chance any of that is spelled correctly but for purposes of this memory story it is the thought that counts)
I was an all-in Catholic. I was one of those who heard the teaching of the nuns and knew that if it ever came to it, I would be willing to die for my faith. (I was probably wrong about that certainty but it was part of me.) As an Altar Boy I was always on the daily mass serving schedule and that was one of the experiences that led to one of my strengths of dependability. I did not miss my turn very often and because in high school I became a frequent daily Mass attender, I was often subbing for others who did not get out of bed for their turn. And, there was a great deal in that experience of being an all-in Catholic that helped carve consistency or persistency into my being. While I am not sure if it was my sophomore or junior year of high school — it was one of them where I did not miss attending Mass every day for a year. That is one of those experiences I sort of credit/blame for my ten year, two month, 12 days of not missing a day of running several years later in life.
While I was an All-In Catholic I was also a product of the mind exploration that the Nuns were good at helping us learn. There were things that did not always make sense and the whole idea of “Free Will” remains one of those mysteries I even find myself contemplating to this day. One day as a sophomore I had a knock-down drag-out debate with Sister Francis about the impossibility of God being All Knowing and our ability to really have a Free Will. There would be more of those kinds of thought debates through the years that would result in my becoming much less of an All-In Catholic.
I was a Catholic Altar Boy. I know that the Church has a bad record of priests abusing those in their charge — it never happened to me. Priests were a major part of my world at both church and school and even on the playing fields and the priests I know were all people to whom I looked up — even if I did not always like them. I know now that bad things happened but not to me; which makes me even more fortunate than I knew I was.
I was an Altar Boy for years, even sometimes continuing to serve Mass at the Newman Center on the SUNY — Cortland campus. At some point in those years Sunday Mass seemed to me to be populated by people who should not have been there and so I stopped. For another year or so, I still went frequently to daily Mass — though that tapered off as college continued. But, even then, without Mass the being Catholic was an identity that did not disappear. (You might think of it in terms of good Catholic and bad Catholic and decide that I had become a better example of the latter than the former.)
Over the years my affinity for organized religion has become pretty much a thing of the total past. Too many wrongs through human history have been spawned by those in power using Religion as a tactic to expand their power. As humans, we need a lot of what is offered by a belief in a well-meaning, caring Supreme Being . But when we have to subjugate our beings to the mandates and manipulations of those who use their understanding of the Will of the Supreme Being, religion loses its benefit to becomes the chain.
Today, I sometimes think it would be interesting to have a good discussion with the 11-year-old in the accompanying photo to hear what his view on the world in which he was living.