Catholic Guilt

by Steve Slavin

Maureen was a Dubuquer born and bred. She and her younger sister Rosemary, grew up in this friendly Mississippi River city, but neither of them had any intention of living there any longer than they had to.

Their dad died of a heart attack while still in his forties, when Maureen was just a first-grader and Rosemary was getting ready to start kindergarten. Barely one month later their mother was stricken with polio, and would need iron leg braces and iron crutches to get around for the rest of her life.

A fiercely determined woman, she learned to drive a hand-controlled car, worked full-time as a school secretary, and was voted Mother of the Year multiple times by her fellow Dubuquers. What made her proudest was her family’s regular attendance not just at Mass, but its participation in many of the activities of their church.

Since its establishment more than three hundred-fifty years ago, Dubuque has been a Catholic stronghold. It is said that there is hardly even one degree of separation among Dubuquers, and that’s was no exaggeration. Everyone in the city knows Mrs. Sullivan, or knows someone who knows her. If you stood on a street corner in downtown Dubuque and asked passersby if they knew who she was, probably each one of them would reply, “You betcha!”

Maureen and Rosemary attended parochial schools from kindergarten through high school, where they were both star pupils. Their mother was puzzled that neither daughter was content enrolling in either of the city’s fine Catholic colleges – Loras College and Clarke University. Instead, they insisted on enrolling at the U of I in Iowa City – which was called Sin City by most Dubuquers. Still, with their scholarship money and low in-state tuition, both daughters were able to make the case that it would cost less at the U or I than would living at home and attending either Clarke or Loras.  

When Maureen moved to New York after college, Mrs. Sullivan buttoned her lip and never uttered a discouraging word. She had always been fully supportive of her daughters’ wishes whether or not she actually approved. They knew what she thought, but once they were out from under her roof, they were completely free to make their own decisions and live their own lives.

There was really just one thing she did ask of them, but was truly just a wish – not a demand. It was really so little to expect in the scheme of things. She knew they led busy lives, but was it really too much to ask that just once a week, they attend Mass?

Now, to be perfectly clear, this was not a direct order. Far from it! It was merely an appeal to conscience. She was fully aware of how grateful her daughters were for all her sacrifices. But now that they had left Dubuque, they would not always be surrounded by the same wholesome influences. Still, was this too much for a mother to ask?

Every Sunday afternoon Mrs. Sullivan would call her daughters, hoping to hear how much they enjoyed Mass. Then she would regal them with tidbits about friends and neighbors, and, of course, all the doings at their church.

If the girls—now in their early fifties—didn’t mention anything about having gone to Mass, then Mrs. Sullivan would be forced to ask them outright if they had attended that morning. She could not help asking, even though she already knew their answers.

Maureen, although still a devout Catholic, had grown somewhat lax in recent years. She attributed much of her missing Mass to her poor sleep habits, and occasionally to a faulty alarm clock. But Mrs. Sullivan knew that deep in her heart her daughter felt considerable guilt, and would surely try harder.

She often gave thanks to God for giving her two daughters who, no matter what, would never lie to their mother. Indeed, she readily conceded that their truthfulness — not to mention their fundamental goodness — was even more important than whether or not they were as devout as she would have hoped. Still, it was just such a small think that she asked of them.

One Sunday afternoon, when I was visiting, Maureen put her mom on speaker-phone. They chatted for a while, but Maureen hadn’t said anything about attending Mass. So finally, her mother needed to ask: “Maureen, were you able to get up in time to go to Mass this morning?”

“No, I didn’t, Mom. The alarm went off, and I thought I put it on snooze, but I must have turned off the alarm.”

“Honey, I know how hard it is for you to get up in the morning, but you really should try a little harder. I know how important it is to you to attend.”

“Yes, Mom. I’m going to look for another clock. Maybe, if I have two clocks, I won’t have this problem.”

The funny thing about Maureen was that she was truly devout. And her church, which was just a short walk from her apartment, was indeed quite an impressive place. St. James was the headquarters of the Bishop of Brooklyn — actually one of the most important church posts in the United States. Mrs. Sullivan was quite proud that her daughter was an active member.  

I happened to be dating a woman who sang in the choir of a nearby Catholic church. Surprisingly, Maureen had never gone there, even though it was actually a break-away from St. James.

St. Boniface was housed in what had been an abandoned Protestant church that had been rebuilt by a dozen or so younger couples who, for one reason or another, had not felt comfortable at St. James. They held much less ornate and formal Masses, and one might even say that the place kind of rocked.

So, I made Maureen an offer that she could not refuse. I, a card-carrying Jew, would accompany her to Mass at St. Boniface. She made a counteroffer. Since she would feel guilty not going to St James – and since they started an hour earlier than St Boniface – why not attend both?

And so we did. St. James was huge. It’s vaulted ceiling must have been more than eighty feet high. I was especially taken by the striking colors of the stained-glass windows. Everything about it was formal. Interestingly, there were no more than a few dozen worshipers. Perhaps many other parishioners had faulty alarm clocks.

Well before the Mass was over, we crept out and walked over to St. Boniface. As we entered, Maureen’s expression was beyond priceless. She was literally wide-eyed, staring at all these people having such a great time. This was not the religion she had grown up with. This was actually fun!

Afterwards, Carol introduced Maureen to her friends in the chorus and to the assistant priest.

“So, Maureen, first time here?”

“Yes, Father.”

“You can call me Jimmy. And I can tell you,” he said, giving her a wink, “I’ve been called a lot worse.”

“So, Jimmy — or maybe I should address you as ‘a lot worse’ — everybody here seems to be having a great time.”

“And you’re wondering, Maureen, where’s the guilt?”

“Indeed.”

“Perhaps an even better question might be, where does the joy come from? Now, I see you are with your friends. Perhaps we can continue our conversation another time.”

After brunch, the three of us went back to Maureen’s apartment. At two p.m. sharp, the phone rang. Maureen put the call on speaker-phone.

Her mother’s voice sounded rather frail and tentative. But she quickly picked up on Maureen’s good mood.

“Mom, see if you can guess what I bought last week?”

“Don’t tell me you bought a new alarm clock.”

“Mom, you must be a mind-reader!”

“Maureen, that’s wonderful!”

“Thanks, mom!”

There was a long pause.

“So dear, does the new clock work well?”

“Maybe you should sit down while I tell you what happened.”

“I am sitting.”

“I actually I woke up at seven-thirty this morning!”

“That is such good news!”

“And Mom, I invited my neighbor, Harvey, to come to St. James with me.”

“Yes, Harvey is that nice Jewish boy who lives in your building?”

“Mom, that nice Jewish boy is fifty-two years old.”

“Oh, I knew that, but if he were a Catholic in Dubuque, he’d be among our most eligible bachelors.”

“I suppose that would be true. Anyway, Harvey wanted to introduce me to his new girlfriend, Carol. So, we had made arrangements to meet her after Mass for brunch.”

“How nice!”

“Are you ready for this, Mom? We actually got to Mass before it began!”

“Now I know why you wanted me to sit down. Maureen, all kidding aside, I am so glad to hear that. I know how hard it must be for you living so far away – and in such a big city. And, quite frankly, I was beginning to get a little worried about how all the distractions may have sometimes … well, let’s not go there.”

“Well mother, I have still more news!”

“I’m all ears.”

“Are you still sitting down?”

“Yes dear, I am.”

“Harvey’s friend, Carol, sings in the choir at St. Boniface.”

“Yes! You told me two or three years ago so about them. They broke away from St. James.”

“So, Mom, Harvey and I left St. James a little early and walked over to St. Boniface. It’s much smaller than St. James, and the music is wonderful!”

“It must have been so nice to hear the choir.”

“Yes, it was.”

“So Maureen, I am so happy you’ve been having such a good time today. You see how well things turn out when you place yourself in the Lord’s hands?”

She paused for a few seconds. It was the meaningful pause she employed when she wanted to make a special point.

“Maureen? Now I want you to understand how happy you’ve made me today. But then I was thinking?”

“Yes, Mom?”

Maureen, waited. But there was just silence.

“Maureen?”

“Yes, Mom!”

“Maureen, don’t you think going to two Masses in one day might be overdoing it just a bit?”


A recovering economics professor, Steve Slavin earns a living writing math and economics books. Five volumes of his short stories have been published over the last six years, but he expects that the pace will slow.

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