IT IS MY FIRST day at St. Meinrad Archabbey and College Seminary. More than 500 men live here, and through the window of my tiny, musty room it looks like most of them are outside, moving beneath the evergreens that seem to reach toward some final stillness.
Some have lived here for a few days, some for most of their lives. Just now, they are taking advantage of the waning daylight that is mocked by the dry-weather lightning flashing in the distance.
I am 22. It is 1976. I have come here to Indiana to become a priest and then I want to go back home to Birmingham, Ala., and live the rest of my life christening babies, hearing confessions, burying the dead. For me the Roman Catholic priesthood not only promises to fulfill my spiritual hopes, but it also means freedom -- it can raise me socially and loosen the bonds that accompany being black.
Three of the four beds in the room have already been claimed by my roommates, whom I have not met. One will regularly offer his arguments on the inferiority of the black race, one will have frequent recurring nightmares, causing him to wake up in the middle of the night screaming about "sloppy seconds" in Louisiana and the other will seem to believe that God is his only rival in attaining ecclesiastical prominence.
For now, the sun has almost set as I sit on the windowsill: alone, depressed, scared and wondering if coming here was a bad decision after all.
I watch men walking toward the campus lake with towels on their shoulders. Just yesterday I quit my job in Birmingham as a lifeguard at the neighborhood pool in East Thomas Park. Here, at least, is something I know I can do, a place to fit in. I find my Speedo swim suit, goggles and towel. I run barefoot down the stairs and past the moss-covered cemetery to the lake. A dozen or so young men are playing a game they call "greased-watermelon" football. I stand on the shore with mud squishing between my toes, watching two teams try to score goals with a Vaselined melon. I get asked to play. I am delighted.
My troubles and acute home-sickness vanish as we tussle for control. Then the melon squirts out in my direction, all mine, a chance to score one for the team and pick up a few points with the guys. I dash for the goal, the opposition converges on me -- but so does my own team. They are dunking me up and down, and laughing. Suddenly, I can feel hands reaching for my crotch. Surely this is an accident or some kind of hazing. Then the truth is unmistakable and I am struggling to break their hold.
I push the red and green pieces of broken melon away, but they ignore it -- it's me they're after. Now they're holding me under, way longer than is reasonable. I'm choking. I force my way to the top, throwing punches and missing with all of them. Grabbing my towel and goggles, I run off into the woods.
I stay in the woods as dark comes on, shivering. Under the trees, I think back on my brother warning me against setting out on this path to the priesthood.
The rest of my family was Baptist, and my mother sang in the choir. I had converted to Catholicism when I was in high school. My conversion was easy. I found the statues, the smell of incense from the thurible and the Latin chants most attractive. The girls in the Catholic church seemed prettier, with their light, even-toned skin and long, flowing hair. In my family's church, the young girls who were unfortunate enough to get pregnant out of wedlock were forced to come before the congregation and apologize for their transgressions. (The boys in question were free of the humiliation.) Not so with the Catholics. And the Catholics didn't pass the collection plate for the third, fourth and often fifth time as the Baptists did.
I was also becoming part of what I saw as an elite circle.
The lighter-skinned and better educated blacks who went to my Catholic church were richer and better-connected socially than the parishioners in the church I left behind. The white priest's social circle consisted of whites from other parts of the city. Those closest to him in the congregation were included in that circle. That was where I wanted to be.
For me, along with many of my Catholic friends, the church was a means of escape.
As time progressed I often attended the sacrifice of the mass daily. My role in my home parish, Our Lady Queen of the Universe, encompassed spending weekends trimming the hedges, mowing the lawn, polishing the floors of the sanctuary and making certain that all was in order for the the Sunday mass. I did not seek to be applauded for my efforts by the congregation. This was my outward expression of love and devotion to a God and church I placed above everything. To serve God for the measure of my days was my only desire, my focus, my all.
In the months that followed the incident in the lake I would ask myself over and over: "Why was I sent here?" And I would come to the realization that seminary was a means of escape for some of my fellow seminarians as well -- the homosexuals, the drinkers, the emotionally unstable. But by then it would be too late. Had I been better prepared as to what to expect in seminary, it is very possible this story would have a happy ending. One day I was hanging out with my lifelong friends who happened to be black and the next I was thrust into a seminary's isolated society composed of mostly well-to-do men of whom three were black.
I was naive to the point of believing that all the men in this holy place had made a commitment to serve God with all their heart, soul and might and that their lives would be a reflection of that inner sanctity.
Not long after my encounter at the lake, my spiritual adviser would listen most attentively to my account of what had happened. He seemed curious to know what I had done to entice my fellow seminarians. He concluded that "boys will be boys" and recommended that I invoke the help of the Virgin Mary through prayer and contemplation.
The sexual advances continued. They were unmistakable. At the card catalog in the library late one night I felt a hand reach under my arm from behind and caress my chest. At first I was startled, then decided to put an end to this foolishness once and for all. As the robed monk's hand began to descend, I decided to turn and hit him. Then another brother discreetly coughed and the monk behind me hurried off through the wooden doors leading to the cloisters.
The homosexuality led to anger among the heterosexual students, who would sometimes arm themselves with sticks and baseball bats and go out on what they called "queer beatings." They didn't actually attack the gays in the school, just made an effort to scare the hell out of them.
There was little refuge or comfort outside the seminary grounds. In Jasper, Ind., a city of 25,000 about 18 miles from the seminary, many of the adults had never set eyes on a non-white before, I was told. Once, in the supermarket, a little kid came over to me and began licking his hand and rubbing it on my arm. He was trying to see if my black color washed off.
Nor could I find solace in the rituals. I had to harness my emotional impulses. I had long been aware that the approved atmosphere in church derived from white, not black culture. That much had been demonstrated at home by the fact that while the altar boys were all black and the 300 families in the church were all black, the priest was always white. The parishioners didn't seem to mind but elevated themselves above black Protestant churches for this reason. Most black Catholic churches also vehemently opposed incorporating anything in their ritual that remotely resembled the liturgy of black Protestantism.
If black Catholics in Birmingham had looked down on Protestant enthusiasm, they had nothing on my fellow seminarians. During services in the chapel I would sometimes respond to the sermon with a mild amen, only to be ridiculed later. My Negro spiritual solos during the mass were only a parenthesis amid a ritual that lacked luster and feeling.
When my mother and grandmother arrived for parents' weekend in October, I decided not to tell them about the troubles I was encountering for fear of worrying them needlessly. My family and friends had already worried for years that my soul would be lost if I adopted a faith that needed a man to mediate between lay people and God. They figured they could pray for their needs without the priest handling the transaction. After one of the monks dressed in full habit had to be helped from the campus pub when he got drunk, they urged me to leave, but I figured there had to be some order to all this madness.
It was the most important commitment of my life, not just religiously but racially and politically. Initially my parents had been unhappy with my idea of becoming a priest. But they gradually shed their objections. They would start attending the mass as I assisted at the altar, and they would hold me in high esteem for my dedication and loyalty to the faith. They sometimes talked about possibly coming to the Catholic faith themselves.
There were no black priests or nuns in my diocese in Birmingham. I would have been the first. I had no desire to be a pioneer, but it was hard to ignore that back in 1976, there were roughly 69,000 Catholic priests in the United States, of whom only 300 were black, according to the National Office of Black Catholics. In the Birmingham diocese there were nearly 3,000 black Catholics, mostly converts, making up 10 parishes. Having had it drilled into our heads that priesthood vocations are of God's will, we blacks could only deduce from such a disparity that God preferred an enormous number of white males to do his will.
To scream racism was an impetuous move for blacks in Birmingham then. To be discriminated against was as common as breathing. So I didn't find it unusual when my parents were never contacted by the diocese, or told what I would be doing in the coming years, or invited to a banquet given in honor of the new inductees: there were eight of us, six whites, one Vietnamese and me.
At the seminary I became more and more isolated. On several occasions after finding strange objects in my food and finally having one student clear his nostrils in my unattended plate, I decided to follow the advice of the monsignor in my home parish and prepare my own food in my room. My complaints became more frequent. With each meeting one faculty member became more incensed. In our last conference he became enraged to the point of telling me to stop my "bitching, bitching, bitching," then threw me out of his office.
I asked why I should do anything that would not ultimately bring me salvation. As I watched my fellow seminarians in long white cassocks assist in the distribution of the body and blood of the Savior, I thought: "If they expect me to believe in their God, then they must act more godly; if I'm to believe in the Christ, then they must act more Christ-like."
I began studying the scriptures obsessively. It seemed to me that the scriptures spoke clearly against the emptiness of repetitious prayer and for the sincerity of spontaneous utterances of the heart. The majority of prayers during the mass are recited in unison year after year from the leaflet missal. In most Catholic churches, there is no place for spontaneous worship, the sort of worship that had marked the Protestant churches of my youth. I asked which was more important, my growth as a good Catholic or my development as a Christian.
But all this was moot, finally, when I was told I could no longer study at the seminary or represent the Birmingham diocese. Halfway through my second year as a seminarian, I was summoned to the academic dean's office and informed that I needed to fulfill a Latin requirement before going on to theology. It would be at least a year or two before the course would be offered again. The dean suggested that I return to the University of Alabama in Birmingham and enroll in the Latin course there for one quarter, which would satisfy the requirement.
A faculty member called the diocese of Birmingham and all were in agreement. I was back home by week's end. After registering for the needed course at the university, and taking the bill to the chancery office, I was informed that I would not be returning to the seminary for the summer session as agreed. All parties denied even discussing the plan. My evaluation read that I was dismissed due to "a vocation crisis" and that I had left the school following a run-in with one of the instructors.
Little could compare to the pain and embarrassment that followed being stripped of my religious responsibilities. For four more years I would take courses and make countless efforts to enter other seminaries unaffiliated with a diocese, but it invariably required a recommendation from my home diocese, a recommendation I would never receive. There was a sigh of relief from family and friends after they learned of my demise as a priesthood candidate. Most of those close to me couldn't see that becomimg a good priest wasn't just important to me, it meant everything to me.
On the other hand, while I wanted to be a priest, I knew I couldn't become one in the system as I saw it. I became angry that my ambitions, for all that they lingered, could not be realized. I carried my rosary, the one with which I said my "Hail Marys" and "Our Fathers" and left on the nightstand with my Bible every night, until Christmas. Then, driving along Interstate 65, I tossed the rosary out the window in a moment of frustration.
One moment I was a seminarian, and the next I was breaking stones in the brickyards of Alabama. My file would conclude that I left the seminary without cause, without provocation. In time I would abandon Catholicism and my enduring faith in God. Fallen-away Catholics have said that "many a priest has become an atheist in Rome." For me, the unraveling of a beautiful dream into an ugly reality began that day at the lake.
It went on for years -- I would go on to study theology at Catholic University, in hopes that all would be forgiven and forgotten on both sides and possibly my sojourn towards receiving the holy orders would resume. But it's gone now, and Catholism and the priesthood are just relics of a past that has no appreciable value for me.
Len Cooper is a Washington writer and a pressman at The Washington Post.