This is the first song I ever played in public. That was back in 1965 when I was still in the seminary, a year before I was ordained. On our patron saint’s feast day, St. Columban’s Day (November 23rd), we always put on some kind of show. “Old timers” (far younger than I am now) would sing their favorite songs. I remember that our moral theology prof, Tom McElligott, would sing “Mick McGuire” every year. Well, believe it or not, on this particular St. Columban’s Day, I had the gall to perform this little ditty. Later on, it became my signature party piece. I’ve done it a million times. (Still can’t get it exactly right!)
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)
I knew NOTHING about politics when I arrived in Rome. I knew little about the world. I knew even less of women. All of that was about to change.
Understand that in all those spheres, I had been cooped up in the seminary hothouse since I was 14. For years, we had no access to newspapers. And it wasn’t till after Vatican II that we were even allowed to watch TV news each night. As a result, I was very uninformed about a world that I was taught to consider not worth caring about. (After all, we were here on this planet to pass a test and prepare for heaven.)
With the Columbans, the saving grace was that we returned home each year for Christmas and summer vacations. So, the divorce from the world wasn’t complete. My family [my loving mother and faithful father (a commercial truck driver), my brother and two sisters] kept me more or less sane and in touch. The six of us lived in a tiny two-bedroom house that had my sisters sleeping in the same room and my brother and me sleeping on a pull-out couch in the living room. (I’m sure life was easier for them all when I wasn’t taking up so much space.)
During summer vacations, I worked for a couple of years in a gas station learning about cars and mechanics. Then, when I was 18, I took a summer job at a golf course not far from my family home now in Warrenville, Illinois. I worked there on the grounds crew every summer till I was ordained – and even a little bit afterwards.
Working at Arrowhead Golf and Country Club was a delight. Sometimes I could hardly believe that I was getting paid for that kind of labor (cutting grass, laying sod, felling trees, changing cup locations on the greens, working on small engines . . .) in such an idyllic setting. The job also allowed me to play golf for free. That was fun, but despite decent athletic ability, I was never able to master that highly frustrating game. (I continue to work on that.)
As for women. . . They represented completely forbidden territory. “Custody of the eyes” was the order of the day. However, I do remember being fascinated by one of the girls who worked at Arrowhead’s lunch counter. I made sure to order from her during our grounds crew’s lunch half-hours each noon. I recall that she was also to be present at a year-end party I was invited to. But I decided for that reason not to attend.
With that kind of background, I flew off to Rome in 1967 taking up residence in the Columban house on Corso Trieste 57. Suddenly I found myself in a house with about 15 other young student-priests. They came from Ireland, Great Britain, Scotland, Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand; two of us were from the U.S.
Our house was headed by an Irish Columban rector and his Irish assistant. In residence too was a retired Irish bishop from Vietnam. (Such recollections make me recall that most of my teachers over my 12 seminary years spoke with brogues – quite understandable, since the Society of St. Columban had been founded in Ireland.)
My first impressions of my new community were that its members were much more sophisticated and better-informed in every sphere than I was. These guys were good. Conversations revealed that they even knew more about U.S. history and politics than me. I found that embarrassing.
So, I started reading – no, I started studying – Time Magazine. I couldn’t wait for each week’s edition. Eventually, I won one of our periodic light-hearted quizzes we all took (and joked about) on current issues.
As for academic life in Rome, I was soon faced with an important decision – which of the Roman theological universities to attend? Ironically, even though seminary education had required four extra years of scriptural and theological study following “graduation” from college (with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy) we had nothing to show for those added four years – no master’s degree, nothing. Instead, I suppose, our degree was ordination itself – something (in the eyes of the church) much more valuable than a mere graduate degree.
In any case, before I could enroll in moral theology courses at the prestigious Academia Alfonsiana, I had to get the equivalent of a master’s degree (a licentiate) in systematic theology. The question was where?
I had two choices. One could get me the degree in one year at a school called the Angelicum. The other option was to study for two years at what I learned was (at that time) the best school in Rome – even better than the gold-standard Gregorian Institute – viz. the Atheneum Anselmianum. I chose the latter, even though in those early Roman days, I wanted to get back to the states as soon as I could. (Little did I know that I’d soon be wanting to extend, rather than shorten my time in Rome. Even my eventual five years there would seem far too short.)
If I thought I was out of my depth when I met my housemates in Rome, imagine my feelings at the Anselmo. Classes were in Latin. Students were fluent in Greek; they referenced New Testament texts in the original language. And if I was intimidated by the theological, classical, and general knowledge of those on Corso Trieste, that was nothing compared with the international students I was thrown in with there on Rome’s Aventine Hill. They came from all over the world – from every continent. I was especially impressed by the Italians, Spaniards, Africans, Indians, and Latin Americans. In seminars, some were so fluent (in Italian, English, Latin, Greek, and of course their native tongues) that it sounded like they had written down everything they said before speaking. I was really impressed (and frankly intimidated).
And my professors! Wow. They were so inspiring, even in Latin. Two in particular, both German, impressed me greatly. (I continue to remember them prominently in my prayers each day and I find myself tearing as I write these words.) One was Magnus Lohrer; the other Raphael Schulte. I’m so indebted to them for the knowledge, passion, interest, and joy in learning that they communicated and transmitted. I decided that I wanted to be like Magnus Lohrer!
Significantly in terms of this account of order and disorder, my licentiate thesis centralized the topic of “Ecclesia Semper Reformanda” – the always necessary reformation of the church.
(More about Rome and its welcome disorder next time.)
In 1962, disorder began to enter my life. Its cause was the Second Vatican Council started by Pope St. John XXIII. Out of the blue, it seemed, he decided to reform the Catholic Church – to “open some windows,” he said to the modern world. And with that decision, my life was changed forever – but not overnight.
As a basically conservative person, I initially resisted Vatican II – or at least some aspects of it. I liked the church the way it was. Everything there was so clear and certain.
But now, they were introducing English to replace the Latin Mass. The priest celebrant was turned around and faced the community. Guitars replaced organs. And the music became folksier and less solemn. All of that was fine and rather exciting.
But then, colleagues of mine became critical of things like our nightly Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, priestly vestments, and Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. (I loved that book.) The seminary chapel was radically remodeled so that the tabernacle now moved to the side, looked like a huge treasure chest. It had been designed, we were told, by a Jewish artist. I wondered, “How can someone who doesn’t share our faith in the Eucharist create art that reflects centuries of reflection on Jesus’ Real Presence in the eucharistic elements?” I remember writing a long screed in defense of The Imitation of Christ.
That was at the beginning. But gradually, I became persuaded. More progressive and better-read classmates and elders influenced me. One of them prevailed upon the dean of students to have our library subscribe to The National Catholic Reporter (NCR). It was fascinating.
But most influential of all were my classes in Sacred Scripture and theology. Our scripture professor was Eamonn O’Doherty. He was wonderful. He taught us about text criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism and more. For four years and line by line we went through biblical texts that I came to see as richer than my literalist, fundamentalist mind was ever able to imagine. What I had learned about poetry from Fr. Griffin when I was a college freshman and sophomore enabled me not only to understand what the scholars were saying, but to find my own textual meanings as well.
And then there were the theology classes. Their focus changed from preoccupation with bland traditional manuals written in Latin to actual books by controversial authors like Teilhard de Chardin, Bernard Haring, Hans Kung, Ivan Illich and Edward Schillebeeckx. I remember being greatly impacted by the latter’s Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God as we studied it under the guidance of another of our great professors, John Marley. Fr. Marley was a liturgist who helped us all develop sensitivity to the history and profound meanings associated with public worship and sacrament.
We were reading non-Catholic authors as well – something completely unheard of before John XXIII. I found Paul Tillich especially powerful. I actually discovered sympathy with the Great Reformers we had previously been taught to dismiss and even despise. I read everything I could from the psychologists Erich Fromm, Rollo May, and Carl Rogers.
Yes, my ordered, predictable world was coming apart. Along with my seminary colleagues (and professors!!), I was questioning more and more – accepted doctrines such as papal infallibility, moral teachings on contraception, abortion, the uniqueness of the church itself, the role of priests, and, of course, mandatory priestly celibacy.
I remember reading an article in the NCR about “reluctant celibates.” Those were actual and would-be priests who felt called to the priesthood but unenthusiastically accepted the celibacy requirement without having an actual vocation to the celibate state.
I feared I fell into the reluctant celibate category. Before my ordination to the diaconate, I discussed this with my spiritual director. We agreed that it was probably just a matter of pre-ordination jitters.
So, come December 22, 1966, I was finally ordained along with nine classmates – three of whom I had been with since my first year in the high school seminary. After 12 seemingly interminable years, I had finally reached my goal. However, by now I was a Vatican II product. The new theology and my scripture studies influenced every aspect of my priesthood from my homilies and the way I celebrated the Eucharist. Eventually, it shaped the way I dressed and the length of my hair; I even flirted with a moustache and beard.
I was at last on fire academically. During my final semester in Milton, I was honored with a request to teach an adult education class in a Boston parish. The topic was Vatican II and the Bible. I relayed to my class of 30 adults – some twice my age and more – exactly what I was learning under Eamonn O’Doherty. They loved it. The class was a great success. I was discovering that I could teach. And I loved that too.
So, I was delighted when my first priestly assignment was not to Korea, the Philippines or Japan, but to continue my studies in Rome. My Columban superiors wanted me to get a doctorate in Moral Theology there, so I could come back to Milton and teach in the seminary.
Rome still smoldering from the conflagrations set by Vatican II (’62-’65), held wonderful and unexpected surprises that would continue the disorder that I (and the entire world at the time) was coming to embrace.
[Next installment (still on disorder): Rome challenges me to grow up in every sphere – intellectual, political, and personal.]
I got word that a very important person in my life died on March 6th. His name is Fr. Dan McGinn. Like me, he was a member of the Society of St. Columban. Dan was 15 years older than me. He came from Council Bluffs, Iowa. Before I met him, he had been a missionary in Japan for seven years. I studied with him in Rome from 1968 through 1972.
Dan and I hit it off as soon as he arrived at Corso Trieste 57, my second year in Rome. There, while I was studying moral theology at the Academia Alfonsiana, he worked in the Vatican – at the Secretariat for Non-Christians.
Dan usually sat directly across from me at our long dining room table, where the 20 or so men stationed with us in Rome ate three times each day. Three of us were Yanks, the others were Micks, Aussies, Brits and New Zealanders.
It was there that we all had such lively and memorable conversations about our studies, the church, theology, politics, and world events in general. Dan usually took great delight in playing the provocateur. The resulting discussions were intense. In fact, I’ve never experienced anything as consistently stimulating since those heady days following the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65).
Dan used to say that if he ever became a bishop (fat chance!), he’d do the expected and adopt an episcopal coat of arms for himself. He never described the shape of the shield he’d design.
But he was clear about the motto he’d have emblazoned on the banner below it. It would read, he said, “No More Bullshit!”
That was the kind of priest Dan was. He was a rebel. And, I guess, so was I. In many ways, I wanted to be like Dan. I considered him my mentor.
More than anything else, he taught me how to say Mass. I remember the first time I concelebrated with him in our chapel at the Columban house. There were probably five of us participating, and Dan had the lead role. He astonished me. He made the whole thing up.
No reading of prayers. No following the prescribed and inviolable eucharistic scripts. Instead, everything was ad-lib. For instance, even at the consecration – the most sacred part of the Mass – Dan said something like: “On the night before he died, Jesus was there in the Upper Room eating supper with his friends. He took a piece of bread and broke it like this (Dan broke the host) and asked them, ‘Do you see how I’m breaking this bread? This is the way my body will be broken for you. Yes, I love you all that much. This is my body which will be given up for you.’” The form varied each time Dan said it.
It all struck me as so natural – as the way the Mass must have been celebrated before the Roman obsessive-compulsives established such complete control. I resolved then and there that I’d celebrate my Masses like Dan from then on. And that’s what I did.
Even when I got back to the states and worked in Kentucky for the Christian Appalachian Project (CAP), that’s the way I celebrated Mass. And, like me, most of the people in the parishes I served there found it all so natural, very meaningful and completely acceptable. Even now, I marvel that I got away with that.
Dan also helped me when (towards the end of my time in Rome) I found myself re-evaluating my decision to remain a priest. I broke the news to him during a retreat we were on together at the Mundo Migliore Center at Roca di Papa on the edge of Rome. I remember walking together and discussing my “crisis,” and Dan’s advising that it might be a good idea for me to do a year of discernment before taking a final decision. I followed his advice and spent that year I just mentioned working in central Kentucky with the Christian Appalachian Project.
After I finally left the active priesthood and was working at Berea College, I spoke with Dan a few times on the phone. He told me once that he thought President G.W. Bush was “absolutely the worst we’ve ever had.” (At the time, of course, neither of us knew it could go down-hill a lot further.)
During those years, I also got on Dan’s mailing list for the poetic political commentary he wrote on what amounted to his blog. Then, at the reunions the Columbans held every three years or so at their former seminary-turned-retirement-home in Bristol Rhode Island, I visited Dan each time I attended – once with my wife, Peggy. At one point he was volunteering as a docent at a local museum.
My last encounter with Dan McGinn came last summer during our most recent Columban reunion. By then he was confined to a nursing home. He no longer remembered me, nor our time in Rome. I found that both sad and threatening. He had been so bright, so engaged, so witty and daring. I admired him so.
With that deep admiration, dear Dan, I send you off. Thank you for your friendship and for being such a good priest. Thank you for teaching me how to celebrate Mass. Thank you for your kind guidance. Know that I’ve tried to adopt your motto as my own. I’m trying to remain, like you – committed to a “no more bullshit” life. You succeeded at that for sure! Thanks again.
[In this series, I’ve been describing my personal development as a critical thinker. I’ve been using the matrix supplied by Ken Wilber who understands human growth as advance through the stages of egocentrism to ethnocentrism and (for some) to world centrism and even cosmic centrism. Each one of these stages, I’ve been arguing, recognizes its own set of “alternative facts.”]
My ethnocentrism grew alongside the first stage in personal development described here last week as “egocentrism.” Ethnocentrism meant that I was fiercely Catholic. For me, that was my primary group identification, my tribe. At this stage, in terms of critical thinking, no other denomination, and certainly no other religion had anything to do with truth that really mattered. All Protestants were simply wrong and destined for hell. For me, that was a fact.
Such conviction stuck with me and grew after I entered St. Columban’s Minor Seminary in Silver Creek, New York (40 miles west of Buffalo) at the age of 14. The seminary belonged to the Society of St. Columban – a missionary group founded in Ireland in 1918 as the Maynooth Mission to China. Its calling involved converting Chinese “pagans” who without our ministries, we all believed, would themselves be bound for hell – another fact.
At this stage, my second ethnocentric form of allegiance was to my country. I remember being confused during a “day of recollection” that our entire seminary (about 100 students) attended at a corresponding institution run by the Passionist Fathers in nearby Dunkirk, New York. That was around 1955, only 10 years after the conclusion of World War II. A rather elderly priest from the host seminary gave some kind of keynote talk. In its course, he described the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as “the most immoral acts in history.” I was shocked and entirely confused. Was this man a communist or what?
My suspicions were aroused by the fact that missionaries on leave from assignments in the “Far East” often regaled us with stories of the evil communists who had by then driven our men and other foreigners from China following Mao Tse-Tung’s revolution in 1949. Communist Marxists hated the Blessed Virgin, we were told. That was enough for me. Communists were evil incarnate.
Similarly, those who opposed them at home were correspondingly virtuous. One evening in 1957 during study hall, one of my most admired professors who was proctoring the session, passed by my desk and whispered, “A great man died today.” He was referring to Senator Joseph McCarthy who died on May 2nd of that year.
In 1964, at the age of 24 I cast my first ballot for president. I voted for Barry Goldwater. That shows how ethnocentric I was. In terms of critical thinking, my proud and sincere guideline was “My country right or wrong.” My facts were those of Mr. Goldwater, the Catholic Church, Joseph McCarthy, and J. Edgar Hoover.
World Centrism Emerges
My horizons started broadening in 1962. It was then that I began accepting “alternative facts” soon after Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65).
That represented the thin end of a wedge that would gradually change forever what I considered true. The Second Vatican Council seemed to call my most cherished beliefs into question. It recognized that Protestants were “Separated Brethren” rather than enemies surely destined for hell. The notion of priesthood was widened to include their notion of priesthood of the faithful. Council theologians also problematized conceptions of church as the “perfect society” as well as papal infallibility. That in turn led to conclusions about an “ecclesia semper reformanda” (i.e. a church in need of continual reformation). Mandatory celibacy was criticized as an impediment to personal growth among the clergy. Seminary curricula like the one I was following in St. Columban’s Major Seminary were disparaged for their narrowness and tendencies to indoctrinate rather than educate.
Initially I resisted all of that in the name of my faith and tradition. But my ethnocentrism was under assault.
My resistance though couldn’t last. Following ordination, I was sent to Rome to secure my doctoral degree in moral theology. So I left the seminary hot house, where I had spent my formative teen age and early adult years. Suddenly, I found myself in an international atmosphere that in every dimension was so much more sophisticated than anything I had previously experienced. Rome’s context was still electric in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II. And the Council’s spirit was reflected in the courses I took at the Athenaeum Anselmianum and Academia Alfonsiana. In their light, my secure notions of theological truth underwent continual challenge.
Gradually I found it all quite liberating.
However, on the political front, it was shocking and embarrassing. Remember, these were the late ‘60s. The anti-war movement was in full swing, along with the struggle for Civil Rights and women’s liberation. It was the era of “Troubles” in Ireland. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were both assassinated in 1968. My last year in Rome (1972), George Wallace was shot, and the Palestinian group, Black September, terrorized the Olympic games in Munich.
Meanwhile, I was living in the Columban residence on Corso Trieste with about 15 other young priests all pursuing graduate work. Two of us were American. The others came from Ireland, England, Scotland, and Australia. Our conversations over meals revealed to me my narrowness of perspective. All my colleagues were better informed than me. They even had a superior grasp of U.S. history.
I resolved to remedy that and gave myself a crash course in current events courtesy of Time Magazine. I even ended up winning our small community’s annual political literacy contest. However, that sort of knowledge turned out to be quite superficial.
Gradually, especially because of my theological studies, I was drifting more and more leftward. In the field of theology, I frequently challenged my colleagues about the humanity of Jesus, the faults of the church, and the whole idea of trying to convert “pagans” from Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam to Christianity.
None of that sat well with superiors in the Society of St. Columban. Towards the end of my stay in Rome, I was informed that plans had changed. Whereas the whole purpose of sending me to Rome had been to prepare me to teach in our major seminary, I was now considered too “dangerous” for that. I would be sent to Mindanao in the Philippines instead.
For the first time, I considered leaving the priesthood.
Politically, I became similarly alienated. It stemmed from my thought that if what I had been taught about God, the Church and even Jesus were untrue, if I could question the pope, whom I had always considered infallible, why not the U.S. government? Daniel Ellsberg’s publication of The Pentagon Papers in 1971 sealed the deal. Now I strongly opposed the War in Vietnam. I became a McGovern Democrat.
My journey towards world-centrism advanced. In terms of my evolving criteria for critical thought, I could already see that leaving ethnocentrism behind would mean expecting challenge.
I don’t exactly remember what I thought about the Bible before beginning its formal study the year after receiving my B.A. in Philosophy (1961),
Ironically, although I had been in the seminary all those years (since 1954) the formal study of “religion” hadn’t at all been central in. the curriculum.
Yes, we attended Mass every day (and twice on Sundays). And there were all those daily chapel activities and devotions: morning and evening prayer, afternoon rosary, “visits” to the Blessed Sacrament before and after meals, nightly Benediction, conferences by the seminary spiritual director, etc. There were also those inspirational readings I mentioned accompanying breakfast and lunch in the “refectory.”
But formal study pretty much concentrated on languages (Latin, Greek, and French) and normal secular studies associated with high school, on the one hand, and on the other, college courses associated with a Philosophy Major.
So by the time I began the formal four year (and post-grad) theological curriculum (1962) my understanding of such matters, including the Bible was fairly uninformed. I’m sure I thought the Bible was the very word of God valid for all time.
That began to change with exposure to the teachings of Fathers Eamonn O’Doherty and Jack Moriarity, both of whom introduced us to modern scripture scholarship which emphasized the history behind the Hebrew and Christian Testaments. They introduced us to form criticism and redaction criticism as well.
Form criticism made us aware that the Bible is filled with various kinds of literature. Literary forms found there include myth, legend, debate, fiction, poetry, miracle stories, birth accounts, letters, apocalypse, annals of kings, law, riddles, jokes, parables, allegories, etc. None of that, really, is history as we understand it. And if we read poetry, for instance, as if it were history we’ll commit huge interpretational errors.
Just realizing that can change one’s entire approach to the Bible. It did mine.
I remember sitting each day for classes in “Old” and “New” Testament in our aula maxima on the second floor or our Major Seminary on 1200 Brush Hill Road in Milton, MA. The entire student body – those about to be ordained, and the three classes behind them – took those classes together. There were probably sixty of us. So I found myself edified (and intimidated) by the good students among my elders whose questions and observations always seemed so sage, perceptive, and sometimes daring.
For a long time, I pretty much kept quiet. But the wheels were whirring at top speed inside my head. For a biblical literalist like me, it was all hard to swallow
For instance, I recall the day during our study of the Gospel of Luke that the penny dropped for me that the Three Wise Men never existed. It was all a “midrash,” we were told, on the part of the gospel’s author (whose real identity remains unknown). Midrashim, it turns out, are usually fictional stories meant to elucidate particular biblical texts or beliefs.
“Say what?” I thought. “The next thing you’ll be telling me is that the resurrection never happened.”
Well, that day never came – from the actual teachings of my Scripture Profs. But it sure did for me. So I remember one day screwing up the courage to ask Father Eamonn about it in class. I asked, “Is it possible, Father, that gospel stories about what’s called the ‘resurrection’ of Jesus were also simply creations of the early Christian community to reflect their gradually dawning consciousness that Jesus’ words were true: ‘Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me’ and ‘Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst?’ In other words, might the resurrection, like the tale of the Three Wise Men also be a midrash?”
I awaited Father O’Doherty’s answer with bated breath. Perhaps my question wasn’t clear enough, I feared.
Well, the question was clear enough. Father O’Doherty paused a few moments. Then he responded: “No,” he said. And that was the end of it! He moved on.
Now that might give you the impression that Father Eamonn wasn’t a good teacher. Quite the contrary. I’m confident in saying that nearly all of my peers recall him as their most influential Prof during our four years of theological training. I agree with them. Eamonn imparted to us not only essential facts about the Bible, but an entire approach that stuck with us all.
In my case, his classes provided me better than any other a firm basis for what I would learn in Rome during my doctoral studies there (1967-’72). – and for what I internalized subsequently as I continued my studies with liberation theologians in Brazil, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and elsewhere in the developing world. Of course, I’ll have more to say about that later.
But for now, I must tell you about Father O’Doherty’s teaching method. Again, it proved extremely effective. However, it’s not the sort of thing you’ll find in the best treatises on pedagogy.
The other day, I was looking at the basic primary source text we used in his New Testament classes. It’s Augustinus Merk’s Novum Testamentum Graece Et Latine (pictured above). It’s the entire New Testament in its original language, Greek on one side of the page and Latin on the other. Originally published in 1948, its footnotes are filled with scholarly critical apparati. – mostly pointing up and evaluating variant readings of the Greek texts. I[n itself, that’s interesting. We were actually dealing with texts very close to the originals (none of which, it turns out, have survived. Instead all we have are copies of copies of bad copies. But that’s another story.)]
Besides the text itself, what was even more interesting to me were my notes in the margins of each page. Each was jam-packed with cursive scribblings in my smallest possible handwriting – so small, in fact, that I needed a magnifying glass to review some of them last week.
And that was evidence of Father O’Doherty’s teaching method. It involved (1) his lecturing to us each day reading mostly from his notes, (2) our transcribing notes as fast as we could, pausing occasionally for someone to ask questions, (3) Our transferring those notes into the margins of the relevant texts during out study periods, and (4) Recopying those detailed marginal notes onto exam papers in response to our teacher’s exam questions.
To me, in retrospect, that sounds pretty much like what the great Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, excoriated as “Banking Education” – where teachers make deposits into the “accounts” of students who subsequently make withdrawals at exam time to purchase good grades.
But here’s the funny part: it worked! Father Eamonn wasn’t a particularly dynamic teacher. But what he taught us was so interesting and well-organized that we learned important lessons from a process that seems like pure regurgitation. Put that in your pedagogical pipe and smoke it!
Ask any of my peers. All of us love Eamonn. And we remain grateful to him to this day.
(Next Week: a full account of what I learned about the Bible over the years – in two dozen points)
These weeks I’ve been trying to trace the origins of my own awakening to the necessity and power of critical thought. I’m doing so even though the reaction of many kind enough to read my blog might be “Who cares?” From them, I beg indulgence.
However when the “who cares” thought occurs to me, I think, “I’m writing especially for my children (Maggie, Brendan, and Patrick) who might some day care – even if not now. I’m writing for some students at Berea College (where I taught for 40 years) and whose tuning into this blog suggests they might still be interested. Same goes for the hundreds of Evangelical college and university students whom I ended up teaching in the Latin American Studies Program (LASP) in Costa Rica where I worked off and on (as “Don Mike”) for more than 20 years.
So allow me to continue.
I was saying that insofar as any “awakening” has occurred in my life, it has happened in a world that I’ve gradually discovered to be mostly the opposite of what I’ve been taught by well-meaning parents, teachers and public figures in the United States. I don’t hesitate to say that in very important ways, most of what they taught me as “right” turns out to be wrong. Most of their “truths” I’ve come to see as falsehoods. And I’m referring to some of the most important aspects of life – women (yes, I list them first on purpose!), God, religion, history, and politics.
In that context, as I attempted to show last week in the case of my English professor, Father James Griffin, I experienced many caring people (especially Sisters of St. Joseph and professors within the Society of St. Columban) who while not necessarily exemplifying critical thought in the political sphere, encouraged me to think critically about poetry, literature, and the Bible at a time when the term “critical thinking” had not yet come into vogue.
Certainly, all of them were critical in a small but important aspect of the wider sphere because they were operating within the context of the Catholic Church. In the United states of the ‘40s,‘50s and ‘60s the Church still found itself on the defensive before a population still prejudiced against it. So while the Church was trying desperately to fit in as Super American, it did so while defending its religious beliefs against hostility directed towards “Papists.” It was important for us to root for Notre Dame on fall Saturday afternoons. It was an act of cultural resistance.
My journey towards genuine critical thinking took giant strides when after finishing my undergraduate degree in philosophy, I entered the major seminary. “The Major’s” six-year curriculum comprised the final two years of undergraduate work in philosophy and was completed by four years of post-grad theological studies culminating with my ordination to the priesthood at the age of 26 in Milton, Massachusetts. (Thereafter, as you’ll see, I was sent to Rome for five more years of work towards my doctoral degree in theology.)
Actually, I don’t remember benefiting much from my philosophy major. However (paradoxically as I show here) one of my most memorable and in some ways influential professors was Fr. Norbert Feld. He taught us metaphysics and cosmology. Turns out that way back then in the early ‘60s Norbie was a precursor of today’s right wing Republicans. He was a fan of William Buckley and The National Review. He’d endlessly ridiculed “liberals” and even (as I recall) Pope John XXIII’s social encyclical, Mater and Magister (“Mother and Teacher,” 1961). The encyclical’s title referred to the roles of the “Holy Mother Church” in the pursuit of social justice. In that connection, I remember Fr. Feld’s reading an excerpt from Buckley’s critical National Review article called, “Mater Si, Magister No!”
In fact, Norbie’s only “philosophical” utterance that sticks with me was his observation about Rene Descartes (1596-1650) – one of the great heroes of the Scientific Revolution. Norbie said Descartes “didn’t know his head from his elbow.” That shows you what Catholics even in the ‘60s thought about the “modern world.”
Despite all of that and in some strange way, Father Feld played a role in awakening me to the importance of politics. His right wing harangues did something to convince me that Barry Goldwater deserved my first vote for president. Still even at this late stage (21 or 22) I found myself content to slumber. I didn’t really see what all the fuss was about.
Even my theological studies those last four years in the major seminary didn’t make much impact at first. They were dry as dust and for me represented just one more hurdle blocking my way to the goal I wanted more than anything else – to become a priest.
Then Pope John called the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and everything changed.
Suddenly, the Eucharist was celebrated entirely in English. The seminary chapel was remodeled with the altar facing the congregation. The tabernacle (no longer located on the “Eucharistic Table”) now found its place off to the side quite distant from the altar. Instead of a small golden cask, it became a huge wooden treasure chest meant to resemble the Ark of the Covenant. It was designed by a Jewish artist. (I remember engaging in heated debate about its appropriateness. “How could someone who did not even share the Catholic tradition,” I argued, “make a meaningful artistic statement about the Eucharist?”
Guitars now replaced organ music. We were singing songs that sounded like the Kingston Trio or Peter Paul and Mary.
Even more importantly, we left aside those dusty theological manuals that had been the basis of our boring studies. We were now reading protestant theologians. And all of a sudden theology was interesting – even exciting. We were also reading the works of Edward Schilebeeckx’s (Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God )as well as works by Hans Kung, Ives Congar, Teilhard de Chardin and other contemporary (mostly European) theologians.
We who had been cooped up in the seminary for so long were now allowed to travel at night together to the Paulist Fathers Lecture Series in Boylston Square. There we listened to scholars like Andrew Greely and Barnabas Ahern.
Ahern’s lecture about “The Human Jesus” impressed me tremendously. It changed the way I thought about Jesus. The talk’s central image was a “what if” analogy between Jesus and Pope John XXIII. “What if by night Pope John stole out of the Vatican precincts and in disguise travelled across the Tiber into Trastevere to consort with and teach the poor there as one of them?” Jesus did something like that, Ahern argued – using his powerful grasp of modern scripture scholarship to make the point.
I was so impressed that the next day I sat down at my Olympus typewriter and wrote out the whole talk virtually verbatim from memory. Subsequently, I used it again and again to share Ahern’s insights with congregations I served. It was the best lecture I had ever heard.
However it’s not that I was yet completely comfortable with all the new things I was hearing. Ahern’s words were one thing, but I was uncomfortable with questioning issues I had thought long since resolved — papal infallibility and even mandatory priestly celibacy. We were now having constant though informal debates about those things. I remember once writing a “learned” essay in defense of Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. My classmates and others thought it too medieval and out-of-date. I loved the book and defended as if it were the Bible itself
But then, even the Bible, I found out, needed thoughtful critique. My most influential professor in the Major Seminary taught me that. And the evidence shook me to my foundations. (More one that topic next week)
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.
A good friend of mine responded to last week’s “Personal Reflections” by observing that my studies in the minor seminary from 1954-’58 hardly sounded like what I described as “a standard high school curriculum.” To begin with, there was all that emphasis on classical languages. And then there was the rigor and regularly of the study regime in the absence of television, newspapers, and the distractions of girls and the accompanying social life.
So on second thought, I think my friend might be right. You be the judge.
However, the point here is not to convey information about my youth. It is rather to explain the foundation for my growth in consciousness towards those “crazy ideas” my kids complain about. I’m trying to get at how I grew from American nationalism and Catholic exclusivism to what I’d call a Cosmo-centric Mysticism that centralizes a “preferential option for the poor.” Surprisingly, all of that got its start in the high school seminary I wrote about last week.
Let me say a few more things about that experience and what it taught me. A lot had to do with discipline, survival, and introduction to the spiritual life.
As far as I can recall, our days at the minor seminary in Silver Creek, New York (and throughout my seminary years with suitable variations as we got older) were structured like this: We got up each morning at 6:30 (7:00 on Sundays). We were in chapel at 7:00 for Morning Prayer followed by Mass and time for prayers of thanksgiving afterwards. Except on special occasions, meals were taken in silence, while we all listened to one of us read from Sacred Scripture, the lives of the saints, or some inspirational book. After breakfast (8:00-8:30) we had “free time” to make our beds and get ready for class at 9:00. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays we had three classes in the morning and one in the afternoon. Wednesdays and Saturdays there was no afternoon class; it was replaced by extended recreation periods during which we engaged in organized sports or outdoor work projects.
Except on Wednesdays and Saturdays, afternoon recreation ran from 12:30 till 2:00. Afternoon class would occupy us till just before 3:00. Then we’d have supervised study hall till 4:30 followed by a half-hour of spiritual reading. (The study hall priest-supervisor would patrol the long lines of desks making sure we weren’t reading novels on the sly.) After that, there was Rosary and Vespers at 5:00, then supper at 5:30. This was followed by a period for chores and recreation till 7:00. Study hall would resume then and run till 8:30, when we’d be allowed a half hour for recreational reading of approved novels. Night prayer began at 9:00. Lights-out came at 10:00. The Great Silence reigned from night prayer till after breakfast the following morning.
Sundays we’d have a second Mass. And then there’d be intra-mural sports in the morning and extended free time in the afternoon. That’s when we could go on hikes to a nearby Howard Johnsons or somewhere for milkshakes or sundaes. Late Sunday afternoons we had a letter-writing period from 4:00-5:00 to keep us in touch with our families (no phone calls were allowed). Sunday evenings we’d have meetings of the Literary, Scientific, and Debating Society one week and of the Catholic Students’ Mission Crusade the next. We all took turns delivering papers at those meetings and serving as club officers. On special occasions, there’d be a movie. And on really special feasts (like St. Columban’s Day) we’d perform dramatic or comic plays (which, of course, required lots of rehearsals). Most of us got used to being on stage. Much later, in the major seminary (at the age of 24 and 25), I actually had the lead roles in Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,” and in “Brother Orchid.”
Of course, not everyone responded to seminary discipline in the same way. Early on I saw that there were three seminarian types. There were those who “jacked around” (That’s what we called it) as much as they could. They took everything with a grain of salt and were always in trouble with the authorities. They fooled around in study hall. They habitually broke the Great Silence. Eventually all those Jackers got bounced.
Then there were those who were mildly serious about the whole seminary routine; most of the survivors fell into that category. Psychologically they were probably the healthiest of any of us.
Finally there were the “saints.” They never jacked around, or broke the Great Silence. They practiced “custody of the eyes,” and always kept the rules. Almost invariably they were good athletes and smart students. I quickly decided to become like them.
I was “rewarded” (although it didn’t feel like that) by being made senior of my class mid-way through the first term of my freshman year at the Creek. That meant I was the liaison between my 31 classmates and the dean and rector of the seminary. That put me in line to be the Senior of the House (student body president) during my fourth year. That sort of thing happened to me throughout my 13 years of seminary training — mostly because I was a pious, obedient rule-keeper. My guides were a behavior manual called The Young Seminarian along with Thomas a Kempis’ classic The Imitation of Christ.
It also helped that I was trying hard to be a straight-A student. However I never quite made it into that category in the high school seminary. That would come later. Intellectually, I was a late bloomer and in high school had to settle for “Second Honors,” as they called it. My status in the eyes of seminary authorities was also helped by the fact that I liked sports and was good at them. That was important as well in the seminary pecking order among my peers.
While at the Creek, I used to hear our dean, John Healey, repeat, “You can take a boy out of Silver Creek, but you can’t take Silver Creek out of a boy.” I believe he was right. So much of Silver Creek remains part of who I am.
But what exactly has remained from the unusual training I received there. How did it contribute to my crazy ideas? After all, I’ve forgotten the rules for Latin ablative absolutes and how to form the conditional tense of irregular verbs ending in ere. I can no longer even pronounce Greek texts, much less translate them. When I look at pictures from those days gone by, I can’t, of course, remember everyone’s name.
Yet many lessons remain valid for me. They come largely from the spiritual seeds that were planted so long ago by our unquestionably caring professors. They also come from living in community with boys like me who were the first in their families to aspire to post-secondary education. My peers were the sons of policemen, firemen, delivery truck drivers, and construction workers. (I don’t remember a single one referring to parents who attended college.) I remember all of my companions as clever, high-spirited, and often comically gifted. Many of them remain good friends – among the best I’ve ever had, even though these days we rarely connect directly.
Here are a few of the lasting lessons we learned together from living together, from our professors and from The Rule. Despite appearances, none of them are intended as clichés. I treasure these learnings:
- There is a fundamental opposition between “the world” and its values and what Jesus called “the Kingdom of God.”
- The values of “the world” are deceptive, illusory and not worth the effort. They promise happiness as the result of pursuing power, pleasure, profit and prestige. None of those things are what life and happiness are really about.
- Instead, life is about what I identify as “working-class values:” family, hard work, cooperation, shared common property, and hospitality as opposed getting ahead and accumulating differentiating wealth. (Later on, I’ll share the theory about this – i.e. how the poor actually know much more about life than the rich.)
- I don’t need much to be content – and I don’t believe anyone does. Shared community, nourishing food, a roof over one’s head, decent clothes (in the major seminary we wore the same outer garments every day) and stimulating ideas (education) are enough. Simple is better than complex.
- One’s interior life is far more important than exterior comfort. In the end, life and “salvation” are about waking up to the illusions foisted upon us by “the world” and replacing them with the simplicity of the working class values just mentioned.
Personally, it would be many years before I would realize that I learned those things in Silver Creek and later in the major seminary and novitiate. In so many ways, when I left Silver Creek I was still asleep and would remain so for many years. To a great extent I’m still shaking the drowsiness from my head.
“The World” is seductive.
(More about seminary life and its painful lessons next week)