by Bill Vernon
This red brick church, St. Rose, was a fortress, a stony outcropping on the northern apex of a steep hill. Dwellings on the side below it and beyond in the lower lands seemed to kneel there under its protection. To its southeast, businesses lined up along the state route atop the ridge it was on as if begging for guidance, and homes clung to the ridge sides and the hills farther away as toddlers might hang onto their mother’s apron. Bells periodically rang through the heavens.
Such was my sense of the place as a child. Inside this church, Father Donovan fed me a wafer that tasted so awful I gagged and almost threw up. As coached though, I closed my eyes, said a Hail Mary, and swallowed it. Within seconds, such energy swelled through me, I wanted to scream, laugh and run around in circles. I felt holy. God was inside me. It was a miracle. They’d said it could happen, and it did.
“They” were my elders. I was seven years old, in the second grade, and more naïve than the pigeons soaring onto and off the roofs of the church and the school. Saint Rose had taught me to be pious, and I became so. My mother’s family was that way, practicing Catholic rituals both at and away from church. The relatives who entered religious orders and became priests or nuns were our leaders, our sacrificing models, our thinkers. In other words, religious and social conditioning entered me as subtly as the air that I breathed.
Children learned to genuflect entering and leaving a pew. To bow their head when saying or hearing the name Jesus, even when expressed in anger as an obscenity. Dipping fingertips in holy water, making the sign of the cross, memorizing prayers: I learned these but not their meaning. Teaching respect, of course, was the stated intent. The unstated lessons were learning to obey without thought and its corollary, conforming to what everyone else did.
Now St. Rose Church seems small, I think, because it loomed so large in my early years. It grounded me, as people say, provided comfort and stability by linking the world in which I lived to a hidden spiritual presence. It answered questions before I could think to ask them.
I visit the St. Rose building midmorning with sunbeams flowing inside through the stained-glass windows onto pews and floor as if with divine purpose. Walking down the middle aisle toward the altar is like moving along the inside of a revolving kaleidoscope. The brightness makes me squint to identify the biblical scenes depicted in the colored glass.
The word Bible used generically refers to the book’s many manifestations, though the word is often used for a specific edition. Likewise, Father is the most common title for a priest: devout, calling upon the whole human history of fatherhood, but also cozy, calling up feelings, predominantly positive, for one’s own father. Father, as in leader, father knows best, authority, upright person, dignified, a model of how to live.
If I remember correctly, there was some controversy about having a funeral mass in the St. Rose Church for my father. He was liked, and I think loved among his in-laws, but he was never a Catechumen, a person receiving instruction in Catholicism prior to baptism, nor even a Candidate, a person baptized in another Christian religion. Despite pressure from my mother’s clan to adopt the Catholic faith, he held an agnostic point of view. He was non-Catholic, a term The Church can use as pejoratively as Jews might use goy.
Among Mom’s relatives, Dad liked asking about Catholic beliefs when they came up in conversations, as often happened. I don’t remember the issues—I was too young—but I do remember the heat rising in many such discussions, usually with my mother asking Dad to stop. His polite questions upset her family, implying, Aren’t those just opinions that you’ve chosen to believe are factual, not real facts? Dad based his reasoning on the truth of facts, especially his own experience. Neither side gave in, but antagonism occurred.
To avoid increasing the believers’ anger from Dad’s unflappable logic, to return these gatherings to their usual pleasantry, women would intervene with decks of playing cards, focusing attention onto Hearts or Euchre. The men brought tubs of beer bottles in ice to the table, and as play proceeded, so the noise increased. During responses to each others’ play, they, though seldom Dad, loudly expressed displeasure with their opponents, displacing emotion from a preceding religious disagreement into gibes that were tongue in cheek and good natured, like Cousin Marg: “Damn you, Jack. It’s a sin giving the queen of spades to your older sister like that!” Jack being John the priest.
Until just before he died, Dad belonged to no institutionalized religion and refused religious instruction. Though respectfully tolerant of his in-laws’ creed, he never quite fit in with them. A kind of bullying was going on, and The Church started this tendency, making him sign a prenuptial promise to raise his children in The Church. He kept this promise and went far past its requirement: sending his children to Catholic schools, my brother and me to an expensive high school in a city 25 miles from our home, ordering our attendance in church affairs, even voluntarily selling raffle tickets and working in other money-making projects of our new parish.
Most of that occurred at a distance from St. Rose. Moving three hours away by car the summer after my first communion was traumatic, but worse was my father’s dying about five years later.
Our new location, however, is also where we met Father Krusling. He was rugged, larger than life, an Army padre among the first US troops to enter one of the A-bombed Japanese cities, about which he would say no more than “Horrible.” He was human and humane. He hunted rabbits and took me along. He trained my brother John and me as altar boys and took us fishing. We and he joked about his addiction to stinky cigars. He stayed awake until the midnight end of every Lent to light up and enjoy at least one, which he would smoke down to the last ash. He and my father became good friends and frequently talked about religion.
I remember one of their discussions. During a meal with us, violent lightning, thunder, and heavy rain unexpectedly occurred. The storm startled even the priest seated in our home. Jokingly, he said to remember that God promised not to destroy the world by water.
Dad said, “Is that in the Bible?”
“Yes, Genesis. It’s the covenant God made with Noah. Never to ‘destroy the earth’ and ‘all living creatures’ with water.”
Dad, an insurance agent, thought a second, then said, “Well, you know people and animals drown and property is damaged by water all the time.”
“Pete, please,” Mom said.
Father Krusling said, “It’s okay, Ruth. God gave us a head to think with and not just grow hair. We’re supposed to try to figure things out.” He looked at Dad. “You’re right, Pete.”
After decades of considering this exchange, I think Dad meant that the Bible’s God offered this promise as consolation, but it gave very little. From today’s vantage point, with climate change’s increasingly destructive and frequent natural disasters, including floods, God’s covenant with Noah has even greater irony. God’s not causing them; human beings are.
Father Krusling would have understood. Though transferred out of town to another parish, he ministered daily to Dad in the hospital, where Mom especially depended on the priest. She was distraught. Dad’s leukemia was incurable, and she had three children at home to raise.
The oldest at 14, I finally visited Dad a week after his hospitalization. Mom met me in the hallway outside his room and said, “Something wonderful’s happening and I wanted you to see it. Your father’s becoming a Catholic. Father Krusling’s in there now preparing him.”
Maybe this meant he was better. “Can I talk to Dad?”
“Sure, after the sacrament. Just be natural. He always asks what you boys are doing.”
Father Krusling met us in the hallway, shook my hand, and with an arm over my shoulders took me around the bed to Dad. “Look who’s here, Pete.”
I held Dad’s nearer hand, leaned down, kissed a stubbly cheek, saw blood crusted in a nostril, some on the white sheets, smelled blood, stepped away and leaned against Mom.
The ritual that followed, I was familiar with, having served as altar boy at many baptisms. After it, Mom and I left the room while Father knelt near Dad to hear his confession. So much was happening to Dad so quickly, I was surprised. We returned and witnessed his first communion. Dad responded to prayers in a low, cracking voice, and Father Krusling had to prompt him several times. Mom put ice wrapped in gauze to his lips.
“One more thing,” Father Krusling said. “Anointing the sick.” And he blessed Dad several times, anointing him with oil and saying prayers, reading some from a book.
I recognized this rite also: Extreme Unction. Only then did I know the truth. Dad was so thin, so weak, I should have guessed. One thing more I knew: He had converted for Mom. He’d agreed to baptism to please and help her feel better. Of course, Father Krusling must have encouraged Dad’s decision. But clearly to me this was a death-bed conversion for love.
The next two days, she and my father had daily communion from Father Krusling. Around midnight on the second day, Dad was gone. Although not assigned to our church, Father Krusling led the funeral mass there. Then we took Dad to St. Rose for burial.
I’ve learned that the process of recovering from trauma may never really end. Psychic scars remain and have to be accommodated. I learned how to live with mine from relatives and friends. People actually caring for others modeled and thus taught the virtues, as my father and Father Krusling did. Their lessons were obvious without explanation.
At the same time, I sensed a falseness in the institution of The Church. The dictum of loving seems contrary to The Church’s grandiosity of appearance and possessions, exaggerated formality, and deliberate religiosity, particularly in teaching piety. The last few decades have revealed that piety in The Church disabled common sense and victimized church members. Piety’s definitions suggest this is possible: “The quality of being religious or reverent” versus “A belief or point of view that is accepted with unthinking… reverence.” Actions speak louder than priests posing: as if absorbed in a reality not visibly present, eyes staring aloft or closed, hands together, praying. Oceans have passed under the bridge since I was a child, much of it dirty.
My grieving and recovering process also included experience with a priest whose practiced piety let him refuse to give my mother a ride home from the church where she’d worked all afternoon, cleaning and decorating. He explained that being together in a car in the dusk might make others think the two of them were closer than parishioner and priest. So she walked the mile home in a chilly rain. Telling me and others what the priest said, my mother would laugh, misunderstanding his insinuation as an implied compliment that she was attractive.
However, piety did allow this priest to take four of us altar boys swimming naked with him, once at an athletic club and once in a pond at a seminary. He also liked, after mass, benediction, or other ritual, to massage the backs and stomachs under his altar boys’ clothing. He’d leave his vestry and appear in the servers’ room when only one of us was still there, hanging up our cassock and surplice. Experts might call this behavior “Grooming.” Sensing something wrong, I told my mother. She said that Father was a bit odd, but also a holy priest. Though we boys never discussed these things, I wonder now if his abuse went further with some of them.
Though I was confused, blind trust let me explain away my negative reactions: mother is adult, oddness of personality explains the massages, and boys swimming naked in a creek is legendary in America—Norman Rockwell’s 1921 “No Swimming” was and still is popular even though sexual abuse today is more openly understood, faced, and countered.
Many friends, relatives, and members of The Church helped me grieve and recover from Dad’s passing. The funeral visitation for him seemed torturous. I lurked in an isolated corner, walked around outside the funeral home several times, and stayed in the restroom so much my mother asked if I was sick. I didn’t want to talk with anyone.
The next day, seated in the church’s front pew, I avoided looking at the closed casket holding Dad in the central aisle beside us. I was vaguely aware of muffled talk and people shuffling into church behind me, but I didn’t want to face anyone. I hated going through another sorrowful event with more such events scheduled in the days ahead.
I’d forgotten the church arrangements, and so was surprised when Father Krusling and two other priests appeared on the altar. Facing the pews, he nodded in my direction before blessing, circling the casket, praying loudly in Latin. I noticed all the altar candles burning and two friends serving as altar boys. This was to be, I remembered then, a Solemn High Mass.
This church was smaller than St. Rose, incapable of seating any more than 100 people. So small, our tiny choir could be heard without amplification. When the organ began playing, it seemed different, more vigorous than usual. When the singing burst forth, the voices were deep and resonant, subduing the organ’s notes and rhythm into an undercurrent. I’d never heard such booming voices in the church before. Who was in the choir loft?
I twisted around enough to look in back above the pews. The dim lights there revealed men in black suits and ties over white shirts. Jammed around the organ were brothers and priests, Marists or Marianists, from the Society of Mary, about 15 teachers from my high school. They were almost all total strangers, yet they’d traveled 25 miles and given up at least half a day to help me and my family.
Their music and caring surged through me. I looked below them in the pews behind my family. People filled every seat. Others stood in the vestibule and down both aisles against the walls. I’d noticed at the funeral home visitation Dad’s many friends who loved and would miss him. Now I recognized that my mother, my sister, brothers and I had many friends too. My tears poured uncontrollably. I faced front and almost blindly, the rest of the ceremony imitated my mother, kneeling, sitting, standing, muttering noises as the worshippers responded to the priest.
It was a long ritual with many songs. I’ve forgotten them all except Panis Angelicus, which occurred near the end. I knew it was a prayer put to music and meant “Bread of Angels.” The priests on the altar sang it, the people in the pews sang, and above all those voices the men who were teaching me sang. Tears that had stopped began again, but I also hummed the tune, not knowing the words or their meaning. Now I imagine that the church walls and ceiling vibrated as our voices reached outward and upward. I may have imagined then, as I do now, that cars stopped outside on Orchard Avenue and Mechanic Street to listen. I felt better already. I felt hope.
Bill Vernon has studied and taught English literature. He enjoys exercising outdoors and doing international folk dances. His poetry, fiction and nonfiction occasionally appear in journals and anthologies, and he is the author of the novel Old Town.