Just in case readers might have forgotten: my project in this series of reflections on the occasion of my 80th birthday is to illustrate Richard Rohr’s observation about human growth in terms of the “three boxes” into which, he says, everyone’s personal growth trajectory more or less fits. According to Rohr, if we’re lucky, the first part of life is characterized by order, the second by disorder, and the third by reorder. In those terms, I’ve been very lucky.
I’ve tried to illustrate that luck in previous entries in this series. There I briefly described how I mostly benefitted from a highly ordered life starting in a very Catholic household with loving parents. Those years included nine years of education in St. Viator’s Catholic school on Chicago’s northwest side. Then, I shipped off at the age of 14 for a monk-like, highly regulated existence in a seminary preparing teenagers for a life of celibacy and service to God. In St. Columban’s minor seminary in Silver Creek, New York, we were already being shaped to convert what we understood as pagans in foreign missions like Korea, the Philippines, Burma, and Japan.
So far, my story has taken me from my family home in Chicago and subsequently in Warrenville, Illinois to that seminary in Silver Creek. From there I attended a corresponding college seminary in Milton, Massachusetts. I then completed a novitiate-like “spiritual year” in Bristol, Rhode Island. That was followed by four years of “graduate” scripture and theological studies back in Milton. Then finally, following my ordination in 1966, I completed my formal education with five years of doctoral studies in Rome, Italy. By then, I was 32 years old.
When I left my story off, I was in the middle of telling about those halcyon years in Rome.
My hope is that sharing such reflections might help me better understand my own journey as I enter my ninth decade. In the process, it would be wonderful if readers would also be stimulated to similarly examine their own transitions from order to disorder and hopefully to the ongoing process of reorder.
In any case, I want this particular blog entry to help me (and anyone mildly interested) better understand my own political development. Recounting its story will stretch me far beyond Rome to most of western Europe. It will then take me to more than 40 years of teaching (and learning!) at Berea College in rural Appalachia. Sabbaticals and other travel opportunities sponsored by Berea ended up peppering my journey with subsequent long stopovers in Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, India and Cuba. At each of those stops, I learned political lessons that have informed and shaped my life. I’ve been lucky indeed.
But let me begin at the beginning.
My parents were basically apolitical. As a truck driver, my father was a Teamster Union member, but he never betrayed any corresponding political consciousness. (I just remember that he didn’t like paying union dues.) My mother sometimes spoke of her preference to “vote for the man, not the party.” Together, both mom and dad claimed to be Independents rather than Democrats or Republicans. However, their leanings were clearly towards the GOP.
Apart from that, my first recollection of a significant political thought came when I was a freshman in the high school seminary (1954-’55). We were off at some sort of day of recollection at a nearby rival seminary. And older priest (I’ll bet he was about 50!) was onstage giving a keynote address. In its course, the old man remarked for some reason that the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (a decade earlier) amounted to the most heinous crime in human history.
I was completely shocked. At the time the McCarthy hearings were in full swing. Anti-communism was in the air. I wondered, “Why would a priest say something so unamerican? Was he perhaps a communist? Surely no priest could be a communist.”
My question was framed like that because at the time, anti-communism was in the very air all Americans breathed. After every Mass, we all offered specially mandated extra prayers “for the conversion of Russia.”
The sentiment invaded our minor seminary with a vengeance. The Columban Fathers had just been expelled from China by the 1949 Communist revolution. So “Old China Hands” returning from “fields afar” addressed us frequently about their experiences with such evil incarnate. They told us that the communists hated the Virgin Mary and her rosary. That was enough for any of us. Nothing could be eviler than that.
I remember that during one study hall on May 2, 1957, one of my most admired teachers who was monitoring the session came by my desk and whispered, “A great man died today.” He was referring to Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Politically speaking, that was the world I grew up in. I had no idea what communism was other than an anti-God, anti-Mary worldwide conspiracy by absolutely evil people.
Again, cut off as we were from the news and unexposed to any historical information other than that conveyed in standard (boring) history books, no wonder my political formation was so narrow. Everyone’s was.
It was also no wonder that when I cast my first ballot for U.S. president (1964), I voted for Barry Goldwater. I did so not only because of strict “American” indoctrination, but also because I greatly admired my mother’s brother, my uncle Ben. Of all my relatives, I thought he had the most respectable job. He worked in some capacity at Chicago’s First National Bank; he went to work in suit and tie each day. [Everyone on my father’s side of the family were laborers – brick layers, bartenders, plumbers and general construction workers. One of them was a bookie. (I remember him showing us one day his basement with a whole array of phones connected with his work.)]
So, in my desire to be more informed and sophisticated politically – more like Uncle Ben – I had long conversations with him about issues of the day. He steered me towards the Republicans and criticism of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War resistance.
For instance, in 1967, when Martin Luther King voiced his searing criticism of U.S. aggression in southeast Asia, I thought, “It might be well and good for him to speak about civil rights for blacks, but now he’s gone too far. What does he know about foreign policy and Vietnam?”
That was the state of my political consciousness when I went off to Rome at the age of 27.
And that’s precisely when political disorder set in to complement the theological disorder I’ve already described.
(Next time: the particulars of political disorder)