Faith is a fleeting thing for me. There have been times that I have totally given up on the whole religion thing. This was especially true during the period when all the sex abuse cases were coming to the surface. I felt the Church was revealed to be nothing more than an institution that had forgotten its mission. Rather than trying to heal the injured, the Church practiced damage control. It was at this time that I wondered if I really believed anymore. But then I realized that it was never the Church that made me a believer in the first place.
When I see tele-evangelists I guess my southern bias comes out and I see these Goobers as characters right out of Mayberry RFD. I had the occasion to watch a bit more of them recently on vacation and I found myself asking how anyone could fall for their crap. I mean, when someone closes his eyes and prays that the Holy Spirit inspires you to cough up twenty dollars for this sure fire guide to Heaven…Really??? Come on! the guys on the corner playing three card monty are more legit. Well, this got me thinking about what I believe and why.
I attended Catholic grammar school, Catholic high school. I went to a Catholic university. I got my masters at a Catholic University and I went to a Catholic law school. You would think this would be sufficient to establish my faith in Catholicism. No, that was just the effect, not the cause of my faith.
Unlike the preacher on TV who touches the head of a seeker of the lord and causes the penitent to pass out, my faith had a far less dramatic origin. My faith started by observing one individual and has been reinforced over these last sixty or so years by observing other individuals. Nobody in my list of faith-givers ever had beatific smiles, over sprayed hair, or said alleluia after every sentence. They were just saints, is all.
The list starts with my parents who taught me years before I ever went to school. They taught me about God. They taught me what a family was. They taught me about the Yankees and Lionel trains and how to play. They lived a life of faith and expected me to do the same. They did this by living not by preaching. Then I went to school.
School was not always the place where faith was nurtured. There were times when fear was more common than faith. We had nuns and priests that scared the hell out of me and I am sure that if this had been my only experience there is little doubt I would wind up being the heathen my mother was always worried that I would be. However, around the fifth and sixth grades two new priests came to Blessed Sacrament and my faith would be set on a new course.
Father Dolan was an amazing priest but he wasn’t always so amazing. When he first came to Blessed Sacrament he was a bit out of control. He would run over us while playing football and if anyone dared to do anything to tick him off he would suffer the consequences. Father Dolan was not opposed to corporal punishment. But then something happened to resurrect him, Father Gorman.
Father Gorman came to Blessed Sacrament the year after Father Dolan. Father Gorman was as calm and even tempered as Father Dolan was out of control. But then Father Dolan was transformed and I was able to see his saintliness. Now, Blessed Sacrament had two saints to guide us and guide us they did.
Between Father Dolan and Father Gorman the children of Blessed Sacrament were provided the opportunity to see faith, to hear faith, and, if you were really paying attention, to feel faith. They strengthened my faith with the words they said in their sermons ( I think this is what I miss most about the both of them) but it was how they dealt with people that inspired me most. Father Dolan always had a smile and there was not a kid in the neighborhood who failed to respond to that smile. Father Gorman also had this effect on us. You always went out of your way to reach out to him with a “Hey Father” as they walked down Gleason Avenue. A few times I would do my Jimmy Cagney, “Hey Fadder, Whadya hear, Whadya say?”
They were the Dynamic Duo of priests and now when I am dealing with a crisis of faith I ask, “What would Marty do, what would Vinny do?”Between the two of them, the faith that was given me by my parents was solidified and got me through high school and college still believing and practicing my faith.
It wasn’t cool to go to church during the 60’s so I went on Sunday nights when no one was looking. Honestly, I am not sure if I was going to church because I was so devout or because of my mother. I was going to anti war protests, getting mail from the SDS, and listening to the Woodstock soundtrack but there was no question about missing mass on Sundays. It was around this time that I met Eileen.
Now, at the time when we first met there was no way that I would have recognized this little, Irish cherub as a woman of faith. To be quite honest, faith was the last thing I had on my mind when I looked into those eyes. It would be years later that I would learn to appreciate the fire and conviction and intelligence that she possessed. The trouble when you fall in love is that you are so overwhelmed with being in love that you don’t always have a deep vision of what’s before you. It has been my good fortune to learn that the beauty that appeared on the surface was supported by a deep faith and understanding of what the future would hold.
We knew on our second date that we were beginning the journey of a lifetime. It may not have been our first fight but we did quarrel early on about the name of our first son. I wanted it to be Joseph William in honor of Joe Willie Namath, but she would not have it. The point is, we knew there would be a first son.
Since that time in 1971, Eileen has kept me believing just by the way she has lived her career, raised our children, and taken care of me through all sorts or traumas.
Not too long after Eileen and I were married my life of faith took a beautiful and life changing detour. For what turned out to be an all too short time I entered the world of Saint Veto’s. It was here that my faith was forever fortified and where I met such extraordinary people of faith.
The two most incredible and inspiring nuns I ever met were Sister Joan and Sister Barbara. I learned so much from them. You just felt good being in their presence. From the moment I started working with them I was part of the family. The teachers that I worked with also made me part of the family (even though one of them continues to make fun of my polyester suit that I wore on my first day.) I knew I was ‘home’ when we had a party on the first Friday. It was at this party that I first talked to Father Peter.
Father Peter and I talked for a while and learned that we both were from Blessed Sacrament. He grew up on White Plains Road and actually knew Eileen. Later he noticed a bumper sticker on my Vega which proclaimed “HAPPY DAYS IN HAMPTON BAYS” and he had a twinkle in his eye that was explained later. I don’t think anyone gave a better sermon than Father Peter.
I was still teaching at St Vito’s when my son Sean was born. Sean was born on a Friday and I went to mass on Sunday and Father Peter was the priest saying the mass. Peter saw me in the congregation and adlibbed Sean’s birth into his sermon. Like Marty Dolan and Vinny Gorman, Peter just has this aura of saintliness about him that continues to affect me and inspire me.
When I think about the heathens who run our Church who failed to protect children from abuse and thought only of the institution I get so angry and I question the validity of the Church. I mean how could they let the hands of priests, who desecrated those poor kids all those years, to continue to consecrate the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ? These church leaders must not believe in their own mysteries, they must not have faith! Why then should I continue to believe?
For a long time I didn’t believe.
But then, I thought of Lizzie and Mickey, Father Dolan and Vinny Gorman, Eileen, Joan and Barbara and Father Peter. They all believe and they are better people than I am. They are the reason that I can fight through the anger, overcome my doubts, and feel my faith restored.
Eileen had been after me for years to read The Five People You Meet In Heaven. I finally did and it was a great book. But, it is The Eight People I Met In Life that has most deeply affected me in my quest for truth and understanding. It is this group that has taught me that faith is not a ghostly apparition that possesses you. Faith is simply recognizing the Divine that is in all of us. For me, this Gang of Eight, has allowed me to see the Divine in my children, in my siblings, in my in-laws, in my nieces and nephews and grand nieces and grand nephews and I think I even have a great grand niece.
I am also blessed to see the Divine in all my friends who care for me and worry about me and who stand behind me through every ordeal and who are at the ready to hoist a beverage or two in celebration of the Divine they see in me.
I continue to struggle but I do believe and while it would be easy to abandon my Catholicism I will not because smarter and better people than I have believed and continue to believe.