Hello. My name is Tony. I am a restaurant owner.
I haven’t always been like that. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, and we all took for granted everything the priests and bishops said we had to do according to the directives of the Second Vatican Council. None of us had read the documents, but we believed our leaders had, and we obeyed. They counted on it.
When our pastor removed the marble communion rail with its mosaic inlays of eucharistic symbols (a basket of five loaves, two fish, a bunch of grapes, the Lamb of God), we thought he knew what he was doing, and we submitted. When he whitewashed the church walls, removing the fleur-de-lis stenciled patterns, so that what had been warm and shaded was now bare, with no color connection between the stained glass windows, the figure murals of the Old Testament, and the painted ceiling above, we thought he knew what he was doing, and we obeyed. When he covered the hexagonal, white and dark green cruciform-patterned floor tiles with a bright red carpet, we wiped our feet and obeyed.
So we obeyed a lot. The bishop had caught the fervor of the council, and soon the diocese was dotted with billboards reading “Project: Expansion”. It was a time of expansion, we thought, a time of building new diocesan high schools, new parochial schools, new parishes. And all that expansion has cost money. Each family was asked to pledge what they could afford. My family promised – I don’t know how much, but my father and mother were devout, generous, obedient Catholics, and what they promised, they paid for.
I don’t blame the bishop. How could he know that we were on the verge of a calamitous collapse? Our parochial school, built a hundred years ago with money from the family of an Irish clergyman, is today the office and dungeon of the borough. Only one high school remains for the diocese.
In another shift, all at once, we would sing hymns. The strategy was to teach them to schoolchildren, then have them attend 9:15 a.m. mass, the third of five every Sunday, to sing them and thus teach them to their parents. I remember learning “A mighty fortress is our God”, which I liked very much. Others? Well, most of them were boring (“This Is My Body”) or sappy (“Sing to the Mountains”), but none of us knew anything about the long tradition of Christian hymnody.
Most men did not sing. We had high school mass on All Saints Day and other holidays, and then we got the guitars out, and pretty much everyone sang the songs. We didn’t know anything else. These songs would wear out over time. As music, they were and are pretty bad, like goofy show tunes for an off-Broadway romantic comedy. Their theology was the worst and the poetry the worst of all. But I obeyed.
We learned almost no prayers at that time. In elementary school, every first Friday afternoon, the nuns took us to church for confession, the boys on one side, the girls on the other. After that, we prayed the Rosary, then came the Blessing. I remember now the priest kneeling before the altar and leading us in divine praise, and I can still hear the responses of the nuns, who knew that when he said, “Christ, hear us,” the answer was, “Christ, hear us graciously.
I liked Benediction. Little did I know that in a few years this rite would be forgotten in most places and that I would meet many Catholics who had never seen or even heard of it. But that didn’t shock me. Again, I thought the officials knew what they were doing.
The only thing that hurt the people of my town, as far as I can remember, was that certain beloved saints were struck off the calendar – Barbara, Lucy, Christopher, George – as being only simple fables. It was a shock. If the Church could be wrong about this, what else could it be wrong about? If the Church needed to catch up on its own timeline, perhaps it needed to catch up in other ways as well.
Sexual morality was the obvious candidate for progress. I didn’t understand a thing about it when I was a schoolboy, but when we high school freshmen had a “values clarification” class instead of an actual study of scripture or catechism, I thought that the sister knew what she was doing. It was a feature of the new Church – the Church knew more and better than before about sex.
Although most of us in that high school carried an old residue of moral sense, by the time I went to college in 1977, the Church in its ordinary life – in its preaching and evident practice – did not offered no safety barrier, no direction. I never considered myself disobedient because the Church, in its practical life, did not consider me so either. Love covers up a multitude of sins.
I didn’t like modernist church architecture, but I didn’t care enough to have a real hatred. I had grown tired of the bad songs, but again, I didn’t know anything else. I thought having choir girls was a good idea, mostly because I somehow didn’t care about vocations to the priesthood, and I didn’t see that as part of the furious attack on the sexes as such. If women wanted to be readers, let them. I didn’t like high-pitched voices, but who really paid close attention to the scriptures anyway? The first Bible I bought for myself was the Jerusalem Bible, and I thought it was great, especially in its translation of the prophets.
by Hans Kung Does God Exist? helped me stay in the fold because of its sweep through the history of philosophy and theology, which I was mostly unaware of. I told my father that the Church had stifled the greatest theologian of his time, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. See what an obedient boy I was! If there ever was a Ghost of Vatican II, I had my Catholic Ouija board and was jotting down messages from the great beyond.
But slowly, so slowly, I started to learn things. Part of it comes from my study of medieval and Renaissance literature. Part of it came from my ending as a teacher at a Dominican-run college, so that I—whose church and childhood school was named after him—read Thomas Aquinas for the first time. Part of it comes from the fact that I had to teach Renaissance and medieval art and architecture. Much of it came from my dear wife, a Protestant, who knew the old hymns, so that I was singing, for the first time in my life – as she insists on going to mass only where the music is real – songs as powerful as “Le Roi d’amour est mon berger” and “To you belongs the glory”.
A lot comes from reading. CS Lewis once joked that an atheist better watch what he reads lest he be ambushed by the truth. I was ambushed by beauty, spiritual depth and consistency. I admit – I heard the one from Palestrina Miss Papae Marcelli, and I thought I had entered another world. I confess – I learned Koine Greek and can work my way through Old Testament Hebrew, and I have Bibles in those languages as well as Latin, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese , Welsh and Russian, so the Jerusalem Bible no longer impresses me, not to mention that bathwater version we hear every week at the lectionary.
I confess — I have an old Gradual for French-speaking Canadians, and I saw the songs that the choirs of our old fishing village used to sing. I admit – I looked at the deliberately Swiss Scripture passages in the Mass readings. I confess – I have perused, and have prayed often since, the Treasury of Prayers printed on the back of the old missal of Saint Joseph, which everyone had. I confess that I have translated 100 psalms for a breviary used by Eastern Rite Catholics in America, and have come to appreciate Prime’s beautiful canonical hour.
I confess – I have come to see the connections between minimalism in art and minimalism in morals, between minimalism in our appreciation of the sexes and minimalism in our sense of the fatherhood of God, and between all the forms of minimalism, i.e. modernism, and the clearing of vast fields of learning and beauty; between the priest who despises what our Lord himself says about fornication because what he says is supposed to be ancient and time-limited and the student who despises reading Chaucer, or even Dickens, for the same reasons.
I read too much, I saw too much, I heard too much and sang too much. I am a restaurant owner. I’m like someone who knows there’s riches around the corner and I want everyone to come and see. I can’t help it anymore. The experience of beauty is alcoholic. It gladdens my heart. Pope Francis cannot, I’m afraid, teach me to love the ugly, the muscular or the incoherent, nor teach me to despise the beautiful and the rational, and the mysteries beyond reason. May he therefore pray for me, so that the wine that has gone to my head will become water again. Nothing else will do.
[Photo Credit: Unsplash]