I RECOGNIZE the Catholic school world they recall. Our pope then was Pius the XII; the language of mass was Latin; the faith was protected within the questions and answers of The Baltimore Catechism; and from the green-walled classroom -- a crucifix hanging over the clock -- the "non-Catholic" world seemed very far away.
After grammar school, Mary Gilligan and Paul Hendrickson did not enter nearby Catholic high schools. Instead, they each left their home towns, parted from the familiar by an impulse to religious life. Hendrickson entered a seminary in Alabama run by the Trintarians, missionary priests. Mary Gilligan's convent was run by the Sisters of Blessing. He lasted seven years; she 12. By the time they left, the Catholic Church has started its reformation. By the time they left, each had a nervous stomach disorder.
They live in our city now -- the secular city.Both are married. Mary Gilligan Wong is a clinical psychologist in San Diego. Henrickson lives in Washington where he works as a staff writer for The Washington Post. Both admit to visiting Catholic churches irregularly. They have written comparable books.
Of the two, Hendrickson is easily the better writer. Seminary is an elegant sort of book. Mary Gilligan Wong's Nun, by comparison, is graceless -- yet fascinating, as a very bad books can sometimes be. Writing with almost no sense of delicate irony, she tells us plainly what she thinks and feels.
In her preface, Wong credits "psychoterapy and human potential training such as est" with helping her come to terms with her past. And indeed her book dishes out the recognizable influence of a kind of California jingo-credo: "I'm OK." She is not confessional in the classical religious sense, as Augustine is a confessional writer. She does not admit guilt or seek forgiveness from a divine Other. Rather Nun is confessional in the modern psychoanalytic mode. It is a book written for self-approval, self-dispensed.
The book is largely a hymn of complaint against others, whining its one note. It never is clear why Wong entered the convent -- or stayed. It is only clear why she left. Very early she tells us that the idea of becoming a nun seemed to her in grammar school a way of becoming "the parish's angel." Beyond that bratty ambition there is little indication of motive. She describes the experience of driving with her family to the convent for the first time -- and being left there. In the distance, we hear the car door close.
Months pass and years pass. She complains about the regulations, the praying and working; she despises her clothing -- the way she is being separated from her body. Vacations come as some relief. But summer's end finds her back in the convent, feeling "like a terminal cancer patient." Yes, there are consolidations described, consolations common to boarding-school life; inter-class rivalries settled on the basketball court; particular friendships; passing seasons noticed from within the obvious window. But as she advances and regulations grow more severe, life becomes, in her rendering, almost Dickensian. There are cruelties, tears, prohibitions against intimacy with other girls, and always the hawk-eyed superiors, "birds . . . disgruntled souls whose spirits seem to have died somewhere along the way."
She takes her first vows. She becomes a teacher. There is in one place an old nun who refers to her black students as "niggers"; in another place there is a lecherous pastor. . . .
Reading such stories of parish life, I kept thinking to myself what marvelous material it would seem to a writer like J. F. Powers. Great Catholic writers like Powers of Graham Greene or Flannery O'Connor are united by their sense of man's sinful nature; each would suspect the unblended motive. One might expect from any of them a story about a lecherous pastor, the chalice of comic martyrdom held aloft by virtue of some ironic potholder. For what informs their work is a belief in a redeeming God who makes men and women -- especially lecherous pastors -- more than they deserve to be.
Mary Gilligan Wong writes with no apparent sense of the deep and abiding comic irony of Catholicism. She sees only a convent that is corrupt, only the lecherous priest. God does not redeem the failings of religious life for her. There are, in fact, few references to God throughout her 300-page memoir -- occasional instances where she refers to Him rather as though she was thinking on Mother Nature.
There is a smiliar silence about God in Paul Hendrickson's memoir. I am not sure whether to consider Hendrickson an agnostic; it is enough perhaps to say that the "search" of his subtitle does not find God. Rather than attempt a spiritual autobiography, he succeeds, succeeds splendidly, at much less: he has written journalism. His title, Seminary, is well-chosen, for finally his book is the story of an institution, not the story of a single soul.
Seminary divides almost evenly. The first half concerns the workings of his seminary -- St. Joseph's Preparatory -- and the routine Hendrickson's life assumed there. Like Mary Gilligan Wong, Hendrickson is vague about his initial attraction to the religious life. He says he felt the need for a protective cocoon after the trauma of witnessing his mother's near-fatal miscarriage when he was a boy. More important, though he does not say it, would seem to be the influence of his brother who preceded him into the seminary and left five years before him.
There are dark memories in this book too. Hendrickson is a more reasoned, more wondering guide through the exoticism and eccentricities of religious training. His teachers are individualized, humorous, humane. His classmates seem no more unusual than the classmates one expects to find in the dormitories of boarding schools.
If there is a criticism Hendrickson makes of his education, it is this and it is sound: the seminary too early separated young boys from routine and necessary life experiences. Hendrickson belonged to what he calls "the kiddie ministry." He went to school at a time when Catholic grammar school nuns and priests would search out and encourage students who expressed the slightest interest in a religious vocation. And so it was that 14-year-old boys and girls would find their way to seminaries and convents. So it was too that Hendrickson left the seminary at approximately the same emotional age as he entered it: "When I cam out I was twenty-one years old, a virgin, scared stiff. I had never met a Jew; I had never been on a date; most of my cultural heroes had "Saint" affixed on their names."
There may have been good reason for an older Catholic Church to begin seminary education very early. For boys, many from peasant homes (think of Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black), siminary schooling became a means of sophistication, contact with the "real" world. In today's middle-class America, high school seminaries are not required for that purpose. I suspect that the Church in the future will be better served by nuns and priests who seek the religious life after contact with everyday experiences rather than before.In retrospect, it should not be very suprising that at 14 Paul Hendrickson and Mary Gilligan were unclear about their reasons for leaving home.
Hendrickson, finally is not clear either about why he left the seminary. In the second half of his book he interviews classmates, most of whom also abandoned their plans to enter the priesthood. He finds them in Arizona, in San Franciso: there is a Medal of Honor winner, home from Vietnam; there is a poet, recently a publicly declared homosexual; there is a career army officer; a community organizer. . . . These portraits are good, though the talk rarely extends to specific reasons for leaving. The male voices seem uneasy talking about their belief or unbelief in God. Hendrickson cannot find the strain that will knot the various defections, including his own. He is left with a tangle of theories; the impact of Vatican II; the anti-authoritarian '60s; the allure of the civil rights movement; the birth control issue. . . .
Among his fellow classmates, Hendrickson talks to one -- the one who remained. This is a priest in Eastern Kentucky, a remarkably plain and unassuming man, Father Bertin. He works among the poor in Bible-belt mountain country. His ambitions are modest. Yet he survives. His calm confounds Hendrickson, who nevertheless confeses with wonderful candor: "There are times when I wish to hell he would get out of the priesthood. That would box it up, so to speak."
Father Bertin suggests the kind of priest Georges Gernanos would imagine: the common man, in a common place, in an ordinary time. Father Bertin suggests to me too that this invisible net that Catholics name "a calling" may be much rarer than we guessed.
It is Father Betin's story I longed for as I finished these books. In fact, I immediately began to reread Bernanos' The Diary of a Country Priest. Mary Gilligan Wong and Paul Hendrickson live in my world now. It is Father Bertin who could tell me a story from a perspective not mine. That is what the priest has always to tell us.