The craziness my children see in me isn’t simply knee-jerk. It was a long time in coming and accompanied by a lot of internal resistance.
In fact, I’m the product of an extremely conservative upbringing. True: I come from a working class family where my dad (a truck driver) was a member of the Teamsters Union. And my parents both claimed to be “Independents” who voted for “the man not for the party.” However, deep in their hearts, they were, I believe, Republicans. Nonetheless, politics wasn’t a big concern in our family. As a result, I grew up without clear ideas about differences between Democrats and Republicans.
And then my formal education took over. It occurred entirely within the Roman Catholic Church, one of the most reactionary forces in the world. That meant Catholic grammar school from K thru 8, then 12 years of seminary training, followed by 5 years of graduate school in Rome, where I received a doctorate in moral theology in 1972. All that time I don’t remember a single teacher who wasn’t either a nun (for the first 9 years) or priest (for the rest). The intense 26 years of indoctrination didn’t end till I was 32.
The process was entirely apolitical even though virulently anti-communist. Throughout high school and the first years of college, we weren’t allowed to read newspapers or watch television. Luckily we had Christmas and summer vacations at home, where I lived with my family and worked with ordinary people (for me at a Sinclair gas station and later with the grounds-keeping crew on a golf course). I was suspicious of the Civil Rights Movement and of anti-war protestors. Throughout our years of training, missionary members of my order, the Society of St. Columban returned from China, Burma, the Philippines, and Korea with tales of communist atrocities. Communism, we were told, was the world’s worst evil. (I remember the day Joseph McCarthy died. One of my seminary professors told me, “A great man died today.”
No wonder I ended up being a Republican myself. I cast my first vote for Barry Goldwater.
In the seminary I wasn’t a great student until my freshman year in college. I tried hard. But I remained pretty much a high “B” student. I did well in languages – especially Latin, which was extremely important in those days, but also in Greek and French.
Outside of class, I was obedient and pious, so I always ended up being the equivalent of “the head boy,” which we called “Class Senior,” and eventually “Senior of the House.” Till college (and long afterwards) my real interests were basketball, baseball, running, ice hockey, and (to some extent) football. If it hadn’t been for sports, I don’t think I would have survived the seminary.
Then as a freshman in college I met Fr. Jim Griffin, the most important teacher in my life. He finally awakened my inner student in a serious way. Father Griffin was tough: unmerciful in his criticism of our writing, and unsympathetic about excuses of any kind. He was a worldly, Renaissance man who loved poetry, classical music – and golf. Father Griffin enkindled in me a love for the kind of music I had always resisted, for art, drama and for poetry which till then I thought of as somehow unmanly. Most significantly he exposed me to what is now called “critical thinking” and to the art of literary criticism. (The latter joined with exposure to modern scripture scholarship subsequently gave me courage to trust my own analysis of biblical texts.) I am forever indebted to Jimmy G. who died about 15 years ago. I remember him every day in my prayers.
That was the other important element of my education – I mean exposure to modern scripture scholarship. Here I must mention my second most important teacher, Eamonn O’Doherty. Over our four years of State-side post-grad theological studies (for which we received no additional degree) Eamonn helped us understand text criticism and form criticism. To this day that orientation remains the firm foundation of what I’ve learned since from the Jesus Seminar and liberation theologians (more about that later).
As for politics, a turning point came for me in Rome where I finally escaped the seminary hothouse. My real education began there as I was exposed to new thought and ways of looking at the world I had never considered before. It was all so new to me after all those years cooped-up in the seminary. During two summers I traveled on my Vespa through Italy, Yugoslavia, Austria, Germany, Poland, France, Spain, England, Scotland, Ireland. I also studied German for two sessions at the University of Vienna. In 1970 and ’71, I spent two one-month periods in Ireland, where I was a delegate at the “Chapter” of my order which was rewriting its constitution. Two of my summers I returned to the U.S. and worked as a priest in St. Augustine’s parish in Culver City CA. From the day I arrived in Rome, I began seeing the world in an entirely new perspective.
In “the Holy City,” it didn’t take me long to discover that the dozen or so young priests I was living with (from Ireland, England, Australia, New Zealand) at Corso Trieste 57 were much more advanced than I was in their understanding of the world – and of theology. I remember feeling embarrassed about that and determining to catch up. I became a voracious reader.
That was 1967, right after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council which had ended two years earlier. The city, the church and its theological universities were still electric with the new ideas the Council represented. Everything was up for grabs. Everyone was calling the unquestionable into question: the church, the priesthood, mandatory celibacy. My student colleagues (mostly priests at the Atheneum Anselmianum and Academia Alfonsiana) were generally quite critical of the United States. They came from all over the world – Europe, Africa, Latin America, Australia, the Middle East . . . I was playing basketball for a minor league affiliate of the Roman pro team (Stella Azzurra) — scrimmaging the pros, interacting with my Italian teammates, fans, and officials. It was all so very exciting. I found myself reading all the important books, rethinking everything, and debating my friends endlessly.
It was the sixties! Back home the Civil Rights and anti-war movements were in full swing. Even from Rome I felt the influence of the Democratic Convention in 1968, the secret bombing of Laos and Cambodia, Jane Fonda’s visit to Vietnam. . . . Martin King was shot, then George Wallace, and Bobby Kennedy. “What kind of country do you come from?” my friends asked. “What’s wrong with America?” Like other Americans, I was wondering that myself.
There is so much to tell. But I’ll cut to the chase. . .
A year or so before leaving Rome, I had already nearly decided to leave the priesthood. But before doing so, I requested from my sponsoring missionary group, the Society of St. Columban, a year of discernment. I had changed so much that I was suddenly perceived as too radical. I was no longer pious obedient Mike. So my superiors decided not to assign me to seminary teaching as they had originally planned. Instead, they wanted me to take up missionary work in the Philippines. However since that would involve even more (language) schooling, I asked to be given a more immediately pastoral assignment. After all, at 32 years of age and six years into my priesthood, I still didn’t really know what it meant to work full-time as a pastor.
My request was granted. I was assigned to work with the Christian Appalachian Project (CAP) in Kentucky.
(Part Three: next Tuesday)