Back in the early '60s, when Pope John XXIII was raising what many in the hierarchy deemed the devil with the Roman Catholic faith and folk such as Hans Kung were wearing dog collars but speaking nonetheless quite sharply about certain elements of the doctrine, my father grew quite agitated.
My father, John, was not Boston Irish, though you would have been hard pressed to believe that if you had seen him or heard him. He got two academic degrees from Boston College, and his accent was so thick that a friend of mine, visiting from St. Louis, could not understand my father on the phone. He had, in fact, some difficulty understanding John when they were face to face. I suppose what John was was two-toilet Irish, and at least as far as I was concerned, there was nothing wrong with that because he was very good to me.
John was a devout Catholic when I was growing up -- and, for that matter, after I had gotten large enough so that there was a presumption that I had grown up, even if I hadn't. Which I probably had not. Oh, he didn't make novenas, but he did make triduums, those three-day exercises conducted by visiting missionaries who first exhorted the ladies of the parish to turn out in such numbers that the men, when their turn came, would never manage to excel them. Then the men, of course, were challenged to equal the sterling performance of the ladies, while all were beaten about the head and ears for contributions to the missions, and made them, too. The haranguing that all underwent with cheerful hearts was something fierce, and considering the value of the dollar back in those recent days, the amounts they coughed up were utterly astonishing.
Each year on Holy Thursday, my father fired up the blue-and-gray DeSoto, or the two-tone green Olds, or the dark blue Olds, made in 1950, and we made The Seven Churches. It did not matter which seven Catholic Churches you visited on Holy Thursday, so long as you visited seven of them, the crucifixes above the altars draped in purple mourning, the altars bare and the vigil lights extinguished. In each of them you made the Stations of the Cross. For this you received a plenary indulgence, which was remission of all temporal punishments due to sin, and for those of you who matured in lamentable ignorance of the contents of the Baltimore Catechism and the curriculum of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, that meant you would not get singed in Purgatory for not drinking your orange juice, or giving some lip to your mother. This was serious business.
On Good Friday night, my father left the house and went over to St. Colman's in Brockton, where the Holy Name Societies of the various parishes conducted a vigil until midnight on Saturday. The door of the tabernacle was open. The tabernacle was empty. The cross remained draped. All night long, in shifts of one or two hours each, the adult men expressed their faith, the Reader on the Left and the Reader on the right alternating in their readings from the Vulgate translation of the Bible.
My father, of course, brought his accent along with him, having very little choice in the matter. When I got old enough, he brought me along with him; I had very little choice as well, and indeed I never wished for one. We knelt and we prayed in the wee small hours of the morning, when all the world was fast asleep, and the Five Sorrowful Mysteries were muttered through St. Colman's in those Boston accents so thick that the Lord must have wondered, tuning in, if somehow He had inadvertently caught a spring training Boston Red Sox game. Everybody, without in the slightest intending to do so, and without even being conscious of it, sounded like Richard Cardinal Cushing: "Hawly Mairee, Mothuh of Gawd, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst wimmin, and blessed is the fruit of thy, womb, Jesus."
I suppose I ought to pause here for an instant and insist that I am not making fun of any of what I did with my father. It was very important to him and it was very important to me because it was important to him. I can still sing "Holy God, we praise Thy Name," and outroar anybody else in the congregation (and I have witnesses to prove that I know all the words). What we are discussing here is something that went into my marrow when I was very young, and it stayed there, too. The church today is probably no more exasperated by my behavior than I am by the behavior of its officials, but there are more of them than there is of me so I do not care to be misunderstood.
What happened was that the church changed, and it changed -- in my father's view, at least -- cataclysmically. He was not a theologian, although he had read a whole lot more of the Summa Theologica than I had, and with considerably more enjoyment (and he read it in the Latin text. John Higgins, that good and decent man, was devastated when the mass was delivered in the vernacular. When the priests stopped saying "Ego te absolvo" and started granting absolution in English; when the priests stopped saying "Domine, non sum dignus," and started saying to the Lord that they were not worthy to receive Him: Those developments upset my father terribly. He said that it it was not right.
I am abashed to say that I had the common discourtesy to make sport of him for this. In mitigation may be cited the fact of my age at the time, but that is not a very good excuse, and I recognize its lameness. In explanation, perhaps, is the persisting view that the priests who served the church did not afford my father the measure of humane respect that he certainly deserved.
John Higgins was an educated man. He was able to acquire that education because he was highly intelligent. He was most likely smarter, and knew more, than most of the clergy who condescended to him. He considered that he, as much as they, knew what the Roman Catholic Church was all about, and rebellious as he always said I was, I think he was probably right. I perceive now that he was quite correct in his reaction to the Mass in the vernacular -- it wasn't right, and it isn't right. "Tantum Ergo" in English sounds stupid; that's not the way it's supposed to be. John said that the church should not be fooling around in politics, when Joe McCarthy was driving everybody nuts, and he said the same thing when John F. Kennedy's religion inflamed the faithful. John Higgins said he didn't see why his failure to enclose his monthly collection donation in the envelope should preclude his kid from attending parochial school; his opinion was that he did not like envelopes, but if that was the way they felt, they could take their school and do the best they could with it. He was right about that, too.
I realize that Pope John Paul II presided over the Church in Poland, where their problems are more convoluted than our own. There the government disapproves of such heinous acts as attendance at mass and the baptism of infants. It is also my pondered opinion that Pope John Paul II does not enjoy the most promising of legacies from his predecessors, most notably Pope Pius XII and Pope Paul VI.
In May of last year, I finally reached St. Peter's Basilica, perhaps to the consternation of the dessicated saints displayed therein. Like every other tourist, I essayed to visit the Sistine Chapel, so as to see for myself what the dickens Charlton Heston had spent all that time doing to the ceiling. The Sistine Chapel was closed.
The Sistine Chapel has been closed too many times, for far too long. John Higgins never got there, but it was closed to him as surely as it was closed to his kid. If Pope John Paul II accomplishes anything on this journey, it will be to let us all back into our church. I think it is nice of him to visit.