Fr. James Griffin: My Best College Professor (Personal Reflections Pt. VII)

Einstein

Last week I got a bit side tracked in my efforts to explain my growth in consciousness writing perhaps with excessive detail about the minutia of life in the minor (high school) seminary. “TMI,” my wife counselled.  So I dropped plans to share further episodes from the minor seminary.

Instead, let me get back on track this week by referring to an experience that directly helped me wake up from my culturally narrow stupor. (That, after all, is the purpose of these stories to my children.)

His name was Fr. James Griffin and he was indeed an experience.

Father Griffin was my English Professor each semester during my freshman and sophomore years in St. Columban’s College Seminary in Milton Massachusetts. He came from Ireland and was perhaps 50 years old at the time.

Father Griffin was a tough and merciless critic. He would review our papers in class, demanding that we stand up individually beside our desks while he ridiculed our errors, naiveties, and superficialities before our peers.

On one occasion, he got me on my feet for such purpose. He looked me in the eye, looked down at my paper, returned his gaze to mine, and then crumpled my essay into a ball and threw it in the wastebasket. “Sit down, Mr. Seul, he growled without comment. That was it.

Those first months as a freshman, I was terrified and dreaded English classes. I actually prayed that our professor would be sick and not show up. His health was delicate; so my petitions were often answered.

However, Father Griffin taught me how to write. “Keep your sentences short,” he demanded: subject/verb/ object – SVO. Keep that in mind.  I don’t want to read anything longer than that!”

He also gave me an appreciation of poetry, art, and classical music. He was our choir director.  He called all of us “Philistines” because he found us so uncouth and without a shred of culture. “You’re only interested in ‘shooting hoops’ (Isn’t that what you call it?)” he sneered.

Nonetheless, Father Griffin would bring his Wollensack tape recorder to choir practice and play German lieders for us.  He once sat with us through a televised concert by Pablo Casals.  His main text was Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of Poetry. By the end of my sophomore year, all of our copies were in tatters.

That’s because Father Griffin required us to read and re-read the Renaissance and Metaphysical poets keeping a journal of successive “encounters with the text” – always required to find something new. We assessed again and again the love poems of John Donne and Robert Herrick. Fr. Griffin enjoyed repeating Herrick’s lines.

WHENAS in silks my Julia goes
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.
Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free;          5
Oh how that glittering taketh me!

 

With the conclusion of that last line, he would invariably break out in a broad smile that revealed the pronounced gap between his two front teeth. He was great.

Yes, I came to treasure Father Griffin. He once astounded my puritanical sensibilities by talking of the love affairs of poets and artists. He remarked with a smile that they’re guided by exceptional moral standards beyond our ken. “Don’t blame them,” he advised.

Principally, Father Griffin helped me become a critical reader sensitive to images, symbols, metaphors and similes. He defined images as literary devices that “capture, contain, and communicate what they symbolize.”

I’ve since thought a great deal about that in the context of Catholic faith and what Protestants traditionally see as Catholics’ infamous devotion to “images” and our belief in the “Real Presence” of Jesus in the “Blessed Sacrament.”

Critics insist that the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper are “just symbols.” And to a large extent they have a point.

I however would add that such images are SYMBOLS. That is, in Father Griffin’s words, they “capture, contain, and communicate what they symbolize” – viz. the Real Presence of the saints and especially of Jesus. In fact, all language about God (and life) is symbolic. Our theologies can’t get us much closer to divine reality than that.

More generally, Father Griffin taught me that words are powerful. They transform; they shift shapes, perceptions and therefore reality itself. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword. Once a new understanding has been internalized, the world can never be the same. Absolutes become relativized; certainties crumble.

With such instruction, Father Griffin prepared me for my subsequent scripture studies in the major seminary. It helped me approach biblical texts with the confidence that I could read them without excessive dependence on what the “experts” had to say. It also eventually helped me approach the text of my own life with similar self-confidence. I can unpack and understand it without undue regard for what others say.

Father Griffin was also a golfer. Once in Ireland after ordination while I attending a “Chapter” (i.e. a leadership conference) of the Society of St. Columban I played a round with him. We had a great time. And I had the chance to tell him how important he was in my own development.

He seemed surprised, but clearly appreciated that.

Later I heard that Jim was also surprised about my leaving the priesthood. He thought I’d be the least likely of all to leave the Society of St. Columban. He didn’t know, of course, that what he taught me about critical thinking played such a role in moving me out.

Thank you, Jim. I remember you every day in my prayers.

Why I Left the Priesthood: Pt. 2 Intellectual Influences

I didn’t have much of an intellectual life when I was in the seminary. True, I studied hard and got good grades. I learned what I was expected to know on tests. But the intellectual curiosity just wasn’t there. Why should it have been? As Catholics we had the whole truth; there was nothing new to learn. There was no salvation outside the Church. The pope, at least, knew all the answers. There was no need to think much, except to “defend the faith.” 

Beyond that, thinking critically wasn’t much encouraged at all. In fact, from my high school seminary days till half-way through the major seminary (when I was about 23) a palpable anti-intellectualism pervaded the curriculum. For instance, I remember being taught in my first or second year as a philosophy major that Descartes “didn’t know his head from his elbow.” We never read Descartes, nor anybody of much consequence as far as “the world” was concerned, apart from snippets in the various manuals – and then only as parts of refutations. These quotes, followed quickly by rebuttal, did after all give the distinct impression that Descartes, Kant, Marx, Freud – not to mention the “Modernists” and Protestants in general – were clueless. So why be concerned about them or their writings?

In 1962, of course, things started to change, when John XXIII summoned the Second Vatican Council. I was a senior in college then. And some of our professors started encouraging us to actually read books, and to discover what was happening in the world. I resisted. I had well internalized the passivity which the seminary curriculum had encouraged in terms of not thinking for myself, at least theologically.

I had the good fortune, however, of having classmates and friends who were less gullible than me. They were excited by the prospect of the Council. After a bit of a struggle, one of them even got our library to subscribe to the National Catholic Reporter. In class and outside, others voiced criticisms of a whole host of things I considered sacred. I remember, for instance, a spirited seminary-wide discussion about the worth of continuing to regard The Imitation of Christ as a source of spiritual wisdom. I resisted that too. I remember writing something “learned” defending The Imitation’s author, Thomas a Kempis.

A series of lectures put together by the Paulist Fathers in downtown Boston was especially instrumental challenging my defensiveness. First of all it was a relief to be outside the seminary walls to attend the series. Most importantly though John L. McKenzie, Harvey Cox, Andrew Greeley and others gave powerful lectures as part of the program. Particularly memorable for me, however, was a talk by Barnabas Ahern. As a scripture scholar, he spoke of the human Jesus, and of the way the Gospels had gradually elevated the historical Jesus almost beyond recognition.

Our faith, Ahern reminded us, is that Jesus was a divine person who is fully God and fully human. We believe the first part with all our hearts, he said, but pay only lip service to the second. Ahern’s words made such profound impression on me that the next day I wrote out from memory virtually everything that he had said. His approach showed me what demythologizing in its best sense is all about. I resolved that I wanted to think and speak that way. That represented a tiny step towards adopting as my own a motto suggested to me by one of my mentors years later in Rome: “No more bullshit.”  

Eamonn O’Doherty, one of my scripture professors in the major seminary also moved me in that direction. The beginning of the Council coincided with my class’ entry into our four-year theology program in Milton. Central to it all was Eamonn’s introduction to modern scripture scholarship. Eamonn insisted on dealing exclusively with primary sources. His own notes and lectures provided the commentary. His approach was contextual. And with that I was introduced to genuine critical thinking for the first time. In Eamonn’s class (unlike Moral Theology of all places), questions were encouraged. I especially remember two colleagues (both a couple of years ahead of me) raising many questions I found interesting. Even more intriguing was the fact that they could actually ask them.

I wondered what they were reading. One of them gave me a list of three books – two by Hans Kung. Meanwhile our Liturgy professor acquainted us with Edward Schillebeeckx, and had us read Christ: the Sacrament of the Encounter with God. Soon I was delving into James Kavanaugh’s A Catholic Priest Looks at His Outdated Church. I was on my way.

I didn’t realize it then, but even before my ordination, I was starting my exit from the priesthood. I was beginning to recognize that what I was aspiring to – its rationale, its way of life, its theological justification – just couldn’t stand up to the evidence, not scriptural, nor historical nor theological.

By the time ordination came, I was secretly hoping I’d be sent to do graduate work instead of to the “foreign missions.” I wanted to know more. So I was delighted when my first appointment was to Rome and the Academia Alfonsiana to “do” Moral Theology. Evidently, my superiors planned for me to teach in the seminary following my years in Rome. (My intellectual development there however soon had them rethinking that idea.)

I knew Bernard Haring, the great Catholic moral theologian, taught at the Alfonsiana, and looked forward to studying under him. However, before beginning that three-year program, I had to get a degree in Systematic Theology. (Even after four years of theology in Milton, we had no corresponding degree to show for it.) So I enrolled in the Benedictine Atheneum Anselmianum.

Rome was still electric in the aftermath of Vatican II. After each day’s lectures at the Anselmo, I remember coming home on fire. I really admired Swiss Professor Magnus Lohrer. I can still see him smiling enthusiastically as he explained some fine point of the Council, Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth – in Latin. Raphael Schulte wasn’t far behind in my estimation. Their excitement about theology, their engagement with the world, their scholarship shook my world and drove me to make up for all that “lost time” at Milton. I read voraciously – everything I could by Rahner, along with books by Congar, Schillebeeckx, Dewart, Cox, Tillich, Moltmann, and (later) by liberation theologians, especially Franz Hinkelammert of Costa Rica. Meal times in the Columban residence on Corso Trieste were spent in hot debate. I remember those discussions so well: liberals versus conservatives – and all the time enduring our rector’s dark scowls.

It was at this point that news started trickling in about seminary colleagues who were leaving the priesthood. The huge post-conciliar exodus from the priesthood had begun. Table talk on Corso Trieste refocused to that topic. Was the priesthood really forever? And what about celibacy? By now everyone knew that renunciation of marriage was quite late coming along as a requisite for ordination. Its imposition and defence had a lot to do with protecting church property from the heirs of priests. Besides all of that, Vatican II had changed the very ideas of priesthood and church. The priesthood of the faithful had been emphasized. And the church itself was primarily understood as a People of God, not as a top-down clerical hierarchy. Clerics were less important. So, what harm if ordained priests realized all of that and acted accordingly?

Such insights and insistent questions spilled over into the General Chapter of the Society of St. Columban, which I attended in Ireland in the early ‘70s. There I and an Irish and Australian colleague were specially elected “youth” delegates – even though all of us were over 30. Because we were such youngsters, we had voice at the Chapter, but no vote. I remember being disappointed, but not surprised at how closed older delegates tended to be to new ideas expressed not only by the three of us (who were literally “back benchers” in the Chapter hall), but to those expressed by forward-looking priests I had come to admire.

We were impatient for change, and for addressing big questions such as the purpose of missionary activity in an ecumenical world, and even priestly celibacy. Lack of serious response had an alienating effect, at least on me. Additionally, personal observation of the way my order worked, of its members’ basic fear of change, of stonewalling, machismo, and denial intensified the impression that those in charge didn’t really know what they were talking about.

But then, of course, alienation of youth was a “sign of the times” in the early ‘70s. Estrangement of young priests from church structures was part of all that.

It was also part of my story.

 Next Week: Personal Steps away from the Priesthood