[SeMissourian.com] Fair ~ 68°F  
High: 79°F ~ Low: 61°F
Sunday, Sep. 14, 2014

Then and Now

Monday, August 30, 2004

A heathen's well-wishes for St. Mary's School

I was pleased to read the little article "St. Mary's school begins 100th year of classes" in the Aug.18 Daily Mail, but historically appalled at the blooper (or perhaps, to be kinder, oversight) perpetrated in the first two-line paragraph.

There was no "St. Mary's School" for at least half of the hundred years. Certainly no "St. Mary's dedicated its first campus in 1905." It was St. Joseph's School. When the Church obtained the new name-stone from our firm, my father (an alumnus) growled, "What was wrong with the old name? Surely Mary and Joseph belong side by side." The story stirred other reflections on church and school in this self-confessed heathen ("one who worships on the heath," and perhaps sometimes mulls the cynical old saying, "The nearer the church, the farther from God.") What follows is all well-meant, some of it simply as amusement. The Church will find no firmer friend than this heathen. I just might have made a good priest. Unfortunately Paul's road-to-Damascus lightning bolt has yet to hit me, and lacking childhood church memories I have even no devotional emotions to hang a faith on.

My father, son of a lukewarm Catholic, naturally was sent to St. Joseph's. He was even an altarboy. The late writer Betty Sterett has left us many warm tales and memories of Church and school in earlier days, for which we're grateful. Tales of the pious type, often cloyingly so. My father, J. Pat Brophy, experienced the selfsame Church and school from the inside, just as did Betty's informants. But he experienced something very different indeed.

Thanks be St. Mary's School (and Church too, I suspect) clearly are better places than in my father's time. In those days, he said, the priests and nuns (the teachers of course being then all nuns) were not notable for learning, or even intelligence. (As was also true of many public schoolteachers, even in my later day. I'll never forget Lizzie Mae Jones teaching us fifth grade geography by trying to convince us there was a continent at the North Pole called "Arctica"! At the same time, those secular maidens devoted their lives as nobly as the nuns.) The point is, an intelligent child instantly spots an ignoramus in a position of authority; and, if a boy, goes into opposition and obstruction. My father said only one nun ever showed the ability or the liking for him to benefit him, and she spoiled it all by making it too easy for him. When he went on to public high school, he was ruined for all schooling.

In those days (rather the opposite of ours) the "incorrigibles" were summarily kicked out of the public schools, and taken in by the Catholic school. The consequence tended to be classroom chaos. One favorite trick, when the nun's back was turned, was for a boy to toss a handful of bullets into the blazing coal-stove. Minutes later, Armageddonlike blasts, iron clanging on iron, the clueless nun doubtless doing a mimic of a decapitated chicken. The priest would arrive and mete out mass punishment with vicious ruler-smacks on the boys' palms.

As an altarboy, my father said, they taught him the Latin, but never bothered to teach him what it meant. He began to wonder if even the priests knew, or cared.

At an undersized age 17, he fled home, school, and church for the Kansas wheat harvest, which was what rebel boys did in those days. He came home, but never back to the others. They had soured him on school and on religion. A reader, he rather educated himself, but he died at 87 still convinced all religion was what he'd been subjected to at a tender age.

My mother came of mainline, generally Calvinistic Protestantism, but the individuals of the family were all "seekers." My mother said her own mother had dragged her through enough churches, revivals, seances, etc., to last her forever after. She was a churchless "believer" of my own present sort, obviously subscribing to the cynical old saw cited above.

So I missed out on religion. Sunday was a day of rest, in the literal sense. Worshipping my father as I did, I drank in his sophomoric militant unbelief, and didn't outgrow it till age 30. On trips with him, late in his life, I'd argue that there are other kinds of religion than what he'd suffered. I'd try to describe them. "If you'd said that in my day," he'd snort, "they'd have burnt you at the stake if they could, or the nearest to it they could come." My own experience of St. Joseph's came via my soulmate cousin. While I was at Bryan learning about the continent of "Arctica," she was learning (she told me), "In hell you burn forever, yet you're never all burnt up. And worms eat on you forever, yet you're never all eaten up." I was appalled. Even studying "Arctica" beat the likes of that! Yes, I'm sure catechism has been toned down since the 1940s. Though I hope not toned down to emptiness. This heathen's Credo is: Christianity is the bedrock of Western civilization.

If it fails, we'll either become a soulless social mechanism or succumb to nitwit fundamentalism of the Islamic ilk. The old "mainline" denominations, in my eyes, have become political parties. They strain for an ethics, but no longer have a theology, on which alone an ethics can be founded. The evangelicals and fundamentalists have "heart" (emotion), even a theology, but it's a theology unpalatable to the intelligent. Which was the secret of Christianity's past success. It had "heart" for the simple, yet at the same time a "head" (reason) for the intelligent.

Thus this heath-worshipper pins much of his hope on the Catholic Church, and its likes, and prays it be delivered from another Vatican II after John Paul. (Clearly the Latin mass had a liturgical power lost in translation. The difference showed in the two Kennedy funerals, JFK's in Latin, Robert's in English. And as mythologist Joseph Campbell noted, "The priest facing the 'meetin' (people) over the table, not the altar (God), might as well be Julia Child whipping up a recipe.") Pull a few bricks from a mighty edifice and it can only collapse.

And we all should pray for St. Mary's School and the other religious and secular private schools. Churches, too, are (in one way) "soulless bureaucracies"; yet not as horrible and inept ones as government. I'd say, the two kinds of education have traded places!

Now it's often the public schools with the "incorrigibles," figurative bullets in the figurative stove, hellfire and worms as the curriculum, and almighty arrogant ignorance at the helm. Without taking a look, I feel sure things are better at St. Mary's and its ilk. Even if an occasional "Arctica" creeps in! So congratulations on the "jubilee." (Meaning, I gather, an "ecclesiastical jubilee," proclaimable by the pope at any 25-year interval, not a common or garden jubilee, which can be only a silver (25th anniversary) or a golden (50th anniversary).

I'll even forgive the historical slap at old St. Joe. Ave Maria!