In this series, I’ve been trying to explain (mainly to my children) the origin of their father’s “crazy ideas.” And, looking back, I can see that they’ve been shaped by at first unconsciously and later consciously looking at the world through the eyes of non-Americans. In retrospect I see that I’ve been an internationalist most of my life.
It all started at the age of 5 or 6, when I thought I wanted to be a priest. I guess I admired Fr. Burke and wanted to be like him. (When my Aunt Marge heard or my aspirations, she remarked something like, “Yeah, right. Wait till he discovers girls!”)
A little later I started a subscription to Fields Afar magazine published by the Maryknoll Mission Society. I was thinking of becoming a Maryknoll missionary. But then in my 7th or 8th grade, Fr. Stan Walzac of the Society of St. Columban visited our classroom at St. Viator’s. He told us of the Columbans – a group of about 1000 missionary priests – mostly Irish. The organization had been founded in Ireland in 1918 as the Maynooth Mission to China. “Maynooth” was the name of the Irish national seminary. After 1949, when the Chinese communists expelled foreign missionaries, the Columbans moved their focus to the Philippines, Korea, Japan, Burma and eventually to Latin America, and Pakistan.
I filled out a card-of-interest. Fr. Walzac was soon in our living room giving us his pitch. Next thing I knew, I was preparing to enter the high school seminary in Silver Creek, New York. That was 1954; I had just turned 14.
“The Creek” was a big medieval-looking building (pictured above) on a 50 acre campus on the shores of Lake Erie. It had everything you’d expect: dormitories, classrooms, library, chapel, gym, a beautiful cloister with a pond at its center with big gold carp swimming in it. We had a football field, baseball diamond, tennis courts, and outdoor Stations of the Cross placed on a bluff overlooking the lake. Everyone was required to play intra-mural sports in season – baseball, football, and basketball. I loved all of that, so I was happy. I felt sorry for the friends who had no interest, but were still required to play.
My four years at Silver Creek seemed never-ending. We were in the Buffalo snow-belt and the winters were hard. The food wasn’t great. We spent so much time shoveling snow that accumulated by the ton. My freshman class had 32 members; four of us from Chicago. Three of those Chicagoans persevered till ordination in 1966. We (and a classmate from Iowa) were the only ones from the original group who made it that far. Of course, others joined us along the 13 year journey to our goal. My ordination class had 10 members.
Studies at Silver Creek were demanding. It was the usual high school curriculum. But there was a lot of emphasis on languages – Latin, Greek, and French. Failure to “get” Latin caused so many students to fail out. Others were “bounced” (that’s what we called it) for disciplinary reasons, still others because in their cases, my Aunt Marge’s prediction came true.
And speaking of “bouncing,” I remember once when three of my classmates hot-wired one of faculty’s cars and drove to Buffalo for a night on the town. All three were gone within a couple of days.
The language emphasis at the Creek and being taught by those Irishmen played strong (though completely unconscious) roles in making me the internationalist I referenced earlier. As everyone says, language study does something to one’s mind – causes thinking from other perspectives – especially if the languages are studied on site.
So while French, Latin, Greek (and later, Hebrew) were studied on U.S. soil, my other languages – Italian, German, Portuguese, and Spanish were studied abroad. I picked up Italian in Rome, and then studied German for two summers at the University of Vienna, Portuguese came in Brazil, and Spanish in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to speak more than one of those tongues at a time. Right now, for instance, all my efforts are directed towards Spanish. So if I try to speak Italian, I become tongue-tied. I hate that.
The reading ability however remains. That’s enabled me to think outside the dominant culture here. For many years I found myself reading almost nothing but Portuguese and Spanish – the languages of liberation theology which over the last 40 years has influenced me so profoundly. Besides theology, I concentrated on history and economics. Those perspectives, I found, were far different from what we take for granted in the U.S.
None of this is to say that in my early years I didn’t think of myself as “American.” As a matter of fact, growing up with the Irish like that made me feel like an outsider and all the more American. It seemed that all of my classmates had parents from the Old Sod. Many were more Irish than the Irish. Some of them could step-dance, knew all the Irish songs, and wore genuine shamrocks on St. Patrick’s Day. Meanwhile (as far as I knew) I had not a drop of Irish blood in my veins. As I said, I felt a bit of an outsider in those respects – and all the more “American.”
That Americanism was deeply offended when I was perhaps a freshman or sophomore at Silver Creek. For some reason our whole student body (about 100 of us) traveled to another seminary in nearby Dunkirk for a day of recollection or something. I remember an elderly priest (he might have been 60!) gave us a talk after lunch. And in its course he spoke about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. (Remember this was just 10 years or so after the event.) The priest referred to bombing as “the worst international crime in the history of the world.” The remark took my breath away. I wondered, how could a priest say such a thing?
I took me many years to answer that question. But I mark the event as the beginning of my critical political consciousness – which was very slow in developing. . .
Next Week: More on this story . . .