In 1962, I entered a friary to train to be a Capuchin. There was sort of hullabaloo about it for the year prior to my departure. My father seemed sort of proud of the thought of me going into religious life, but my mother was not as keen on it. First, I was not going to be a priest, but rather a brother. Second, my dowry would be a couple of hundred dollars which I agreed to pay out of my savings from my paper route. Third, this meant I was not going to be around to take care of things. My parents would go from two kids still at home to zero in a year. It would leave them with my aging and ailing grandfather, a man so silent and sedentary he could scare you when you entered a room you thought was empty. Fourth, postulants in the friary did not go to an accredited high school. My parents were both concerned that I would not receive a valid diploma.
Finally, my parents’ discord about me leaving home to become a friar stemmed from a realization that they could not overtly complain about my choices. Yesterday in One Whole Life, my friend Tom noted a few ways in which church dominated his family’s lives. He got me thinking of this domination in my own. When I left for the friary, the church won. No one could argue with the church. It was the bully with nice clothes. The thug with nice music. [Tom and I are both writing about religion this week. Though about 25 years apart in age, our journeys have a lot of similarities.]
To understand my decision at age 13 to leave home forever, one needs to consider the context of that decision. I have describe it this way: My choices were to work in a factory as a time-keeper or foreman, steal cars, or become a priest. These options were not so much the aspirations of my neighbors, as they were their realities. The men, women, and young adults of both sexes who walked home after work each day were exhausted, dirty, and sad looking. In many households there were two, three, or four people working, the 18 year olds paying rent to their parents out of their jobs in hard labor or as clerks.
Even as my family was upwardly mobile, my dad worked eight to ten hour days in a factory – often six days a week if we were “lucky” – my mother eight or 9 in a bank. My oldest sister was a store clerk, as was my older brother. Although my father had trained to be an accountant and did tax preparation for some neighbors and extended family members, he would never actually practice in that field. My oldest sister was valedictorian of her high school and would go on to own her own prosperous business, but never once had a thought of college. In fact, I had never even seen a college until I took a bus to the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee one Saturday morning to take a placement test.
Starting in fifth or sixth grade, Catholic boys like me were given the opportunity to attend vocational retreats. We were dropped off in northern Illinois and other places in Wisconsin to learn about being priests and to consider becoming one. While some of these retreats were quiet, most involved talking to each other, being interviewed by handsome young priests, and playing sports or games. We were told about college and the decade it would take to graduate and become part of a religious community. The unspoken message for me was also that religious life would give me stability, calm, and a sexual tension that could be channeled into a longing for Jesus.
I elected the Capuchin Order because I was familiar with poverty and thought, even at age 13, that embracing it would be better in the long run than pretending it wasn’t there. I also decided to be a brother because I felt unworthy to be a priest. This wasn’t a moral decision based on being a sinner, but rather a class decision: In my view, priesthood was reserved for the middle class. It was for people who spoke better or were more proper than me. I recall at age five singing along with a little red record about being anything we wanted to be. My mother nixed being a doctor or priest because those were for rich people.
In the friary I again found a sense of order in the routine and the silence. My parents’ worry about receiving a diploma was resolved with a decision that I would go to a nearby seminary for academic work and live in the friary. This made achieving a sense of community fairly tricky. I belonged in both places and in neither. That might be why I didn’t notice the sexual abuse going on in the seminary. Decades later I got a phone call from an old classmate, then living in Chicago. He wanted to know how I felt about a recent expose of the scandal. I hadn’t received the news, had not been contacted by authorities. That is how off the radar I was in a place in which my every moment was monitored.
Pope John XXIII’s reforms gradually took hold while I was in the friary. Nuns and priest were leaving their religious orders in droves, electing to marry or explore a wider range of options. It was as if changing from Latin to English revealed the absurdity of our practices. I realized during that time that I had not come to this vocation, but rather had left my family home and neighborhood. In so doing, I fairly successfully weathered a tricky part of adolescence, developed a life of the mind, and grew to see a future – one that included college and a profession. In seminary classes, I took six years of Latin, two of Spanish, chemistry, physics — the works. Except for physics, I aced all of my academic work. Theology class, however, was my nemesis. I got Bs and Cs, because of the tight logic that I saw as based on a shaky premise. While in the friary I also developed a life of the body. I became a runner, an activity that I soon stopped for more than a decade, but took up again for the past 35 years. My life of the body also involved my first real full-out, in-your-face-crush, and sex with another friar my age.
I was unsure of the profession I would select, but I was confident I would not be a priest or brother. It was also becoming increasingly clear I would not be a Catholic, either.