The Church, the Draft Board, and Me (2) — The Church, Part 1: The Call

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The Church, the Draft Board, and Me (Installment 2 of 12)

The Church, Part 1: The Call

Until the possibility of conscription for war illuminated the Church’s contradictions, I had been an unquestioning and pious Catholic. During my freshman and senior years of high school, I was a candidate for the priesthood in boarding seminaries, and I came close to trying it a third time after high school. My motivation for those repeated attempts can be traced to experiences I had during grade school.

My parents were sober and industrious, but we were not financially well-off. During my eight years in Catholic grade school, we lived in a working-class area characterized by ignorance, intolerance, and occasional violence. Education beyond high school was seen as neither attainable nor necessary: a man who got a secure job in a unionized craft was considered to have done very well. From my perspective, the future looked bleak: I wanted as much education as I could get, and I didn’t want to pass most of my life performing rote tasks inside a noisy factory. One day, I stood in the school athletic field across the street from our home, looked around slowly at the tract houses that enclosed it, and vowed aloud, “This will not be my life.” I would find a way out.

I didn’t have far to look. The Catholic Church offered to lift a boy out of the blue-collar blind alley and into the most respected and important position a man could hold: the priesthood. Like many other devout Catholic boys, I was already considering that offer by the sixth grade. Then, in the latter years of grade school, I was befriended by two popular priests at our parish. Each of them singled me out for conversation, arranged for me to serve him as an altar boy, took me for ice cream and visits to churches in his impressive new car, and gave me gifts. They even addressed me by name in the confessional booth, as if in recognition that one day I should be sitting on the priest’s side of the screen.

If that looks today like grooming for abuse, that’s because, for one of them at least, it was. But that priest, Robert Hopkins, left me alone after the rectory housekeeper blocked his attempt to take me to his bedroom. We had just returned from an afternoon outing, and Father Hopkins said that he wanted to show me something in his room. He looked surprised when the housekeeper called to him from a doorway and asked where we were going. When he replied, “Upstairs,” she asked to speak with him privately. He was gone briefly, and he returned visibly angry. “She says we can’t go up there,” he said. “Go home.” I guessed that she must not have cleaned his room yet, but I was disappointed by his anger at her and hurt by his curt dismissal. I would attribute his subsequent coldness to embarrassment over that display of anger. Many years later, Hopkins would admit that he had sexually abused boys for decades. I then understood that I would have been among his victims had that brave woman not intervened.

The other priest, whose sermons occasionally included condemnation of women who wore shorts and halter tops across the street from the rectory,2 was soon transferred. One of the last times I saw him was when he gave us eighth-grade boys “the talk,” during which he told us that sex, which we must not experience until marriage, was effective at relieving tension. I would speak with him once after grade school, visiting him at the rectory after we moved into his new parish in 1965. During that brief audience, he would offer not even the hint of a smile for his former favorite. And he would say very little, other than to ask, “Do you have any sexual problems?” — and when I said that I didn’t, to dismiss me with, “I’m very busy.” Some time later, I would hear that he’d been sent somewhere for health treatment before being transferred again.

At the time of the grooming, I was a naïve boy who revered priests as alter Christi, “other Christs.” I interpreted the priests’ attentions to mean that two holy men saw something special in me: a calling from God, a “vocation,” to the priesthood. My desire to become a priest seemed confirmed as divinely inspired.

Wanting to learn more about priestly life, I consulted the classic recruiting digest, The Guidepost: Religious Vocation Manual for Young Men. I found that there are two basic forms of the Catholic priesthood: the religious and the secular (also called diocesan). I would need to choose between them. And if I opted for the religious priesthood, I would then need to choose a particular type of religious life from the variety catalogued in The Guidepost, which listed more than 130 distinct groups.

One might assume that all priests should be called “religious,” but in the Catholic Church the term “religious,” often used as a noun, refers to people who have professed vows (such as poverty, chastity, and obedience) as members of an officially approved religious institute. Ideally, religious priests live in communities called monasteries or friaries. Often, the communities are mixed: although all members make the vows, some are not, nor will ever become, priests. In theory, all members of such communities are brothers to each other. However (and despite Jesus’ explicit proscription: see Mt. 23:9), priests receive the title of “Father,” while members who are not priests are addressed as “Brother.”

A Carthusian brother passes a meal into a monk’s cell.

The lives of religious are structured according to written rules, with set times for prayer, work, meals, and sleep.3 In addition to its rule of life, each institute has its traditions, spiritual practices, and written constitution. Those things determine the relationship of a religious to the outside world — in broad terms, where his or her institute falls on the spectrum between “active” and “contemplative” lifestyles. Active institutes require extensive interaction with the wider world; contemplative institutes allow little or none. An example of the former is the Dominican Order, whose friars preach and teach (and were major figures in the Inquisition); perhaps the most extreme example of the latter is the Carthusian Order, whose monks remain cloistered (enclosed within the monastery), praying together periodically but spending much of their time, and even taking meals, alone in their cells (private living spaces). Some institutes attempt to blend the two elements.

My primary exposure to institutional religious life was through the nuns, members of the active institute called the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who taught us in grade school. When I served as altar boy in their convent, I thought that it must be lovely to live in such an orderly, peaceful, and sacred atmosphere. I also became acquainted with life in a men’s religious institute by participating in retreats at a Capuchin Franciscan seminary, a boarding school for candidates for the priesthood, in western Pennsylvania. (“Capuchin” refers to the long hood, or capuche, worn by members of that branch of the Franciscan Order.4) The atmosphere there was like that of the convent, although on a much larger scale. In addition, I read books on monastic life by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, pored over The Guidepost, and corresponded with vocation directors (recruiters) for a number of religious institutes.

I didn’t need to research the other type of priestly life: the priests I’d known at my parish were all members of the secular clergy, so I was already familiar with that. Secular priests are said to live “in the world but not of it.” They make promises of chastity and obedience to the bishop. They do not, however, promise poverty; they may have possessions and even wealth. They may share a residence with other priests, but they are not bound by a rule of life; their days can be relatively unstructured.

Weighing those two basic options, I decided to join a religious institute. The nuns and the Capuchin friars had seemed at peace; our parish priests, however, seemed somewhat unsettled. There was an aura of loneliness and even ennui about those men; somehow, priesthood alone seemed not to fulfill them. That, I think, is what led me to seek a regulated community: I wanted the fraternal support, structured life, and routine asceticism that such a community would provide.

Accordingly, at the age of thirteen I began high school at the Carmelite Junior Seminary in Hamilton, Massachusetts, which I had selected from The Guidepost. The Carmelite Order’s Rule of Life offered a combination of prayer and active ministry. “Each one must remain in his cell or near it,” it states, “meditating day and night on the law of the Lord and keeping vigil in prayer, unless occupied with other lawful duties.” That seemed to prioritize contemplation while providing for active ministry as well. It was, I thought, an ideal way of life.

And in many ways, the Carmelite seminary was an ideal place for me. The friars in Hamilton encouraged art, music, and the life of the intellect — within, of course, strict limits. (For example, I found a book of critical Bible analysis in our library, but the friar in charge of study hall took it from me, saying, “You’re too young for this. I’ll return it for you.”) Our freshman prefect, Father John Vianney Kelly, was a kind and generous man who understood and cared about young people. He took us to art galleries, helped us learn to draw and paint, and encouraged my interest in classical music. (I have written more about him in “For Father John.”) And the consistent daily schedule, with regular times for study, physical exercise, and prayer, fostered my development.

But it was a lonely place, too. Hamilton was more than 400 miles distant from my home, and I was homesick. Further, although I was one of more than thirty freshmen living together, I had no close friendships. That was part of the program: “particular friendships” between classmates were not permitted; as a result, peer relationships were superficial.

In addition, association with students outside of one’s class year was forbidden. For a few weeks, I enjoyed conversations with a senior named Ray, who shared with me inspirational letters he had received from Father Dominic, a Carmelite friar in Washington, D.C. (Dominic, who had written of having a “manly love” for Christ, would later lose his position at a boys’ high school after admitting to sexual relationships with minors, some of them his students.) But those conversations stopped suddenly and inexplicably, leaving me to wonder what I’d done to cause Ray to avoid me. Eventually, he slipped around a corner and, glancing in fear over his shoulder, told me that he’d been ordered to stay away from me. He risked speaking to me that one last time because he wanted me to know what had happened. (During the ensuing summer vacation, Ray and I corresponded by mail. I later learned that he left the Carmelites after a year of college, and that his subsequent request for readmission was turned down. That was the last news I had of him.)

Later in the year, I was befriended by a young nun, a member of a Carmelite community that had come from Italy to work in the seminary’s kitchen. She would teach me basic Italian phrases while I helped her wash windows in the refectory. That friendship, too, lasted only weeks. One day when I arrived to help her, she told me apologetically that she’d been forbidden to spend time with me. My disappointment must have been obvious; I was close to tears. Although I was unable to acknowledge the implications, our brief friendship had assuaged a deep need for feminine companionship.

Reflexively, I turned to the Blessed Mother, reciting the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary during my free time each day. Often, I would kneel before a white stone statue of Mary on the grounds and talk to her. I found some comfort in the relationship I imagined I had with Mary through those rituals. It didn’t occur to me that anyone would notice my extra devotions, but someone did: after a while I was told that, while prayer was important, my superiors wanted my free time used for recreation or study instead. When I knelt before the statue to tell Mary that I couldn’t visit regularly, I saw as if for the first time that the statue’s eyes were unrealistically carved. Mary was no longer there for me.

As the year went on, I tried to make a virtue of loneliness in other ways, even writing a series of short stories about a hermit. Tellingly, however, my hermit had extensive contact with other people, including women, in every episode — not unlike, I would later learn, my literary mentor Thomas Merton, who lived in a hermitage but corresponded with hundreds and had many visitors.5

Merton’s books, which I had continued to read while in Hamilton, also factored into my unhappiness there. Despite the promise of the Carmelite Rule, in practice it was “other lawful duties,” rather than meditation and prayer, that occupied much of the friars’ time. It seemed to me that the Carmelites fell short of the contemplative ideal extolled by Merton, a seemingly heroic life to which I wanted to believe God was calling me. During my first summer vacation from Hamilton, after Ray and I had talked it over by mail, I decided to postpone seminary while my discernment process continued. I needed a respite from the loneliness of seminary life. I hoped that a few more years’ maturity would make that life easier.

My parents enrolled me at Archbishop Curley High School, a Baltimore day school operated by Conventual Franciscan friars. At the time, I expected that I would graduate from Curley, but I spent only my sophomore and junior years there. It was during those years, as the more obvious manifestations of puberty appeared, that symptoms of chronic depression began to emerge.

The author, 2nd from left (wearing a borrowed jacket), with classmates and Fr. Fergus Lickteig, O. Carm., in Hamilton in 1963 or ’64.

Next: The Church, Part 2: “The Habit Covers a Multitude of Sins”
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[2]. The priest wasn’t far behind the times: just under two decades earlier, in 1945, a woman had been fined for wearing such an ensemble in Central Park. See http://blog.fidmmuseum.org/museum/2011/12/top-five-posts-of-2011-louella-ballerino-crop-top-1946.html. I recall my mother asking, though, “Why is a priest looking out the window at women?”

[3]. The requirements of communal life, along with some of the rigid distinctions between priests and brothers, seem to have been relaxed in many institutes after the Second Vatican Council.

[4]. After Francis of Assisi stepped down from leadership, his followers, who would be known as Franciscans, became factious. Of the various groups they split into over time, four major orders were eventually allowed by Rome. They are the Order of Friars Minor (known simply as Franciscans), the Order of Friars Minor Conventual (said to be so named because they lived in convents, or friaries, instead of in hermitages or, as had the original brothers, anywhere someone provided shelter), the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin (named, as noted above, for the long hood they wear), and various institutes of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis (originally, members of Francis’s secular [lay], or third, order who were permitted to take vows).

[5]. Michael Mott relates a revealing anecdote involving Merton, his abbot, and a psychoanalyst who knew Merton. “[The psychoanalyst] Zilboorg went on repeating in a level voice what he had said before about [Merton’s] hermitage idea being pathological: ‘You want a hermitage in Times Square with a large sign over it saying HERMIT’ … . [Merton] sat with tears streaming down his face … .” (Michael Mott, The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, Houghton Mifflin, 1986, p. 297.) Despite that, the abbot eventually permitted Merton to live apart from the community in a hermitage about a mile from the main monastery buildings. Within a year, Merton, then 53, would have an affair with a 19 year old woman.

2 thoughts on “The Church, the Draft Board, and Me (2) — The Church, Part 1: The Call

  1. George, I greatly admire your intellect, humor, and transparency. Thank you for this autobiography. My experiences have been far less dramatic but none the less transforming. You are a good writer and a remarkable thinker. Thank you for sharing this

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