My Personal Journey from Ethnocentrism towards World Centrism (8th in series on critical thinking)

 

worldcentrism

[In this series, I’ve been describing my personal development as a critical thinker. I’ve been using the matrix supplied by Ken Wilber who understands human growth as advance through the stages of egocentrism to ethnocentrism and (for some) to world centrism and even cosmic centrism. Each one of these stages, I’ve been arguing, recognizes its own set of “alternative facts.”]

My ethnocentrism grew alongside the first stage in personal development described here last week as “egocentrism.” Ethnocentrism meant that I was fiercely Catholic. For me, that was my primary group identification, my tribe. At this stage, in terms of critical thinking, no other denomination, and certainly no other religion had anything to do with truth that really mattered. All Protestants were simply wrong and destined for hell. For me, that was a fact.

Such conviction stuck with me and grew after I entered St. Columban’s Minor Seminary in Silver Creek, New York (40 miles west of Buffalo) at the age of 14. The seminary belonged to the Society of St. Columban – a missionary group founded in Ireland in 1918 as the Maynooth Mission to China. Its calling involved converting Chinese “pagans” who without our ministries, we all believed, would themselves be bound for hell – another fact.

At this stage, my second ethnocentric form of allegiance was to my country. I remember being confused during a “day of recollection” that our entire seminary (about 100 students) attended at a corresponding institution run by the Passionist Fathers in nearby Dunkirk, New York. That was around 1955, only 10 years after the conclusion of World War II. A rather elderly priest from the host seminary gave some kind of keynote talk. In its course, he described the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as “the most immoral acts in history.” I was shocked and entirely confused. Was this man a communist or what?

My suspicions were aroused by the fact that missionaries on leave from assignments in the “Far East” often regaled us with stories of the evil communists who had by then driven our men and other foreigners from China following Mao Tse-Tung’s revolution in 1949. Communist Marxists hated the Blessed Virgin, we were told. That was enough for me. Communists were evil incarnate.

Similarly, those who opposed them at home were correspondingly virtuous. One evening in 1957 during study hall, one of my most admired professors who was proctoring the session, passed by my desk and whispered, “A great man died today.” He was referring to Senator Joseph McCarthy who died on May 2nd of that year.

In 1964, at the age of 24 I cast my first ballot for president. I voted for Barry Goldwater. That shows how ethnocentric I was. In terms of critical thinking, my proud and sincere guideline was “My country right or wrong.” My facts were those of Mr. Goldwater, the Catholic Church, Joseph McCarthy, and J. Edgar Hoover.

World Centrism Emerges

My horizons started broadening in 1962. It was then that I began accepting “alternative facts” soon after Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65).  

That represented the thin end of a wedge that would gradually change forever what I considered true. The Second Vatican Council seemed to call my most cherished beliefs into question. It recognized that Protestants were “Separated Brethren” rather than enemies surely destined for hell. The notion of priesthood was widened to include their notion of priesthood of the faithful. Council theologians also problematized conceptions of church as the “perfect society” as well as papal infallibility. That in turn led to conclusions about an “ecclesia semper reformanda” (i.e. a church in need of continual reformation). Mandatory celibacy was criticized as an impediment to personal growth among the clergy. Seminary curricula like the one I was following in St. Columban’s Major Seminary were disparaged for their narrowness and tendencies to indoctrinate rather than educate.

Initially I resisted all of that in the name of my faith and tradition. But my ethnocentrism was under assault.

Rome

My resistance though couldn’t last. Following ordination, I was sent to Rome to secure my doctoral degree in moral theology. So I left the seminary hot house, where I had spent my formative teen age and early adult years. Suddenly, I found myself in an international atmosphere that in every dimension was so much more sophisticated than anything I had previously experienced. Rome’s context was still electric in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II. And the Council’s spirit was reflected in the courses I took at the Athenaeum Anselmianum and Academia Alfonsiana. In their light, my secure notions of theological truth underwent continual challenge.

Gradually I found it all quite liberating.

However, on the political front, it was shocking and embarrassing. Remember, these were the late ‘60s. The anti-war movement was in full swing, along with the struggle for Civil Rights and women’s liberation. It was the era of “Troubles” in Ireland. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were both assassinated in 1968. My last year in Rome (1972), George Wallace was shot, and the Palestinian group, Black September, terrorized the Olympic games in Munich.

Meanwhile, I was living in the Columban residence on Corso Trieste with about 15 other young priests all pursuing graduate work. Two of us were American. The others came from Ireland, England, Scotland, and Australia. Our conversations over meals revealed to me my narrowness of perspective. All my colleagues were better informed than me. They even had a superior grasp of U.S. history.

I resolved to remedy that and gave myself a crash course in current events courtesy of Time Magazine. I even ended up winning our small community’s annual political literacy contest. However, that sort of knowledge turned out to be quite superficial.

Gradually, especially because of my theological studies, I was drifting more and more leftward.  In the field of theology, I frequently challenged my colleagues about the humanity of Jesus, the faults of the church, and the whole idea of trying to convert “pagans” from Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam to Christianity.

None of that sat well with superiors in the Society of St. Columban. Towards the end of my stay in Rome, I was informed that plans had changed. Whereas the whole purpose of sending me to Rome had been to prepare me to teach in our major seminary, I was now considered too “dangerous” for that. I would be sent to Mindanao in the Philippines instead.

For the first time, I considered leaving the priesthood.

Politically, I became similarly alienated. It stemmed from my thought that if what I had been taught about God, the Church and even Jesus were untrue, if I could question the pope, whom I had always considered infallible, why not the U.S. government? Daniel Ellsberg’s publication of The Pentagon Papers in 1971 sealed the deal. Now I strongly opposed the War in Vietnam. I became a McGovern Democrat.

My journey towards world-centrism advanced. In terms of my evolving criteria for critical thought, I could already see that leaving ethnocentrism behind would mean expecting challenge.

Waking Up To the Real Nature of the Bible (Personal Reflections Pt. X)

Merk

I don’t exactly remember what I thought about the Bible before beginning its formal study the year after receiving my B.A. in Philosophy (1961),

Ironically, although I had been in the seminary all those years (since 1954) the formal study of “religion” hadn’t at all been central in. the curriculum.

Yes, we attended Mass every day (and twice on Sundays). And there were all those daily chapel activities and devotions: morning and evening prayer, afternoon rosary, “visits” to the Blessed Sacrament before and after meals, nightly Benediction, conferences by the seminary spiritual director, etc. There were also those inspirational readings I mentioned accompanying breakfast and lunch in the “refectory.”

But formal study pretty much concentrated on languages (Latin, Greek, and French) and normal secular studies associated with high school, on the one hand, and on the other, college courses associated with a Philosophy Major.

So by the time I began the formal four year (and post-grad) theological curriculum (1962) my understanding of such matters, including the Bible was fairly uninformed. I’m sure I thought the Bible was the very word of God valid for all time.

That began to change with exposure to the teachings of Fathers Eamonn O’Doherty and Jack Moriarity, both of whom introduced us to modern scripture scholarship which emphasized the history behind the Hebrew and Christian Testaments. They introduced us to form criticism and redaction criticism as well.

Form criticism made us aware that the Bible is filled with various kinds of literature. Literary forms found there include myth, legend, debate, fiction, poetry, miracle stories, birth accounts, letters, apocalypse, annals of kings, law, riddles, jokes, parables, allegories, etc.  None of that, really, is history as we understand it. And if we read poetry, for instance, as if it were history we’ll commit huge interpretational errors.

Just realizing that can change one’s entire approach to the Bible. It did mine.

I remember sitting each day for classes in “Old” and “New” Testament in our aula maxima on the second floor or our Major Seminary on 1200 Brush Hill Road in Milton, MA. The entire student body – those about to be ordained, and the three classes behind them – took those classes together. There were probably sixty of us. So I found myself edified (and intimidated) by the good students among my elders whose questions and observations always seemed so sage, perceptive, and sometimes daring.

For a long time, I pretty much kept quiet. But the wheels were whirring at top speed inside my head. For a biblical literalist like me, it was all hard to swallow

For instance, I recall the day during our study of the Gospel of Luke that the penny dropped for me that the Three Wise Men never existed. It was all a “midrash,” we were told, on the part of the gospel’s author (whose real identity remains unknown). Midrashim, it turns out, are usually fictional stories meant to elucidate particular biblical texts or beliefs.

“Say what?” I thought. “The next thing you’ll be telling me is that the resurrection never happened.”

Well, that day never came – from the actual teachings of my Scripture Profs. But it sure did for me. So I remember one day screwing up the courage to ask Father Eamonn about it in class. I asked, “Is it possible, Father, that gospel stories about what’s called the ‘resurrection’ of Jesus were also simply creations of the early Christian community to reflect their gradually dawning consciousness that Jesus’ words were true: ‘Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me’ and ‘Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst?’ In other words, might the resurrection, like the tale of the Three Wise Men also be a midrash?”

I awaited Father O’Doherty’s answer with bated breath. Perhaps my question wasn’t clear enough, I feared.

Well, the question was clear enough. Father O’Doherty paused a few moments. Then he responded: “No,” he said. And that was the end of it! He moved on.

Now that might give you the impression that Father Eamonn wasn’t a good teacher. Quite the contrary. I’m confident in saying that nearly all of my peers recall him as their most influential Prof during our four years of theological training. I agree with them. Eamonn imparted to us not only essential facts about the Bible, but an entire approach that stuck with us all.

In my case, his classes provided me better than any other a firm basis for what I would learn in Rome during my doctoral studies there (1967-’72). – and for what I internalized subsequently as I continued my studies with liberation theologians in Brazil, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and elsewhere in the  developing world. Of course, I’ll have more to say about that later.

But for now, I must tell you about Father O’Doherty’s teaching method. Again, it proved extremely effective. However, it’s not the sort of thing you’ll find in the best treatises on pedagogy.

The other day, I was looking at the basic primary source text we used in his New Testament classes.  It’s Augustinus Merk’s Novum Testamentum Graece Et Latine (pictured above). It’s the entire New Testament in its original language, Greek on one side of the page and Latin on the other. Originally published in 1948, its footnotes are filled with scholarly critical apparati. – mostly pointing up and evaluating variant readings of the Greek texts. I[n itself, that’s interesting. We were actually dealing with texts very close to the originals (none of which, it turns out, have survived. Instead all we have are copies of copies of bad copies. But that’s another story.)]

Besides the text itself, what was even more interesting to me were my notes in the margins of each page. Each was jam-packed with cursive scribblings in my smallest possible handwriting – so small, in fact, that I needed a magnifying glass to review some of them last week.

And that was evidence of Father O’Doherty’s teaching method. It involved (1) his lecturing to us each day reading mostly from his notes, (2) our transcribing notes as fast as we could, pausing occasionally for someone to ask questions, (3) Our transferring those notes into the margins of the relevant texts during out study periods, and (4) Recopying those detailed marginal notes onto exam papers in response to our teacher’s exam questions.

To me, in retrospect, that sounds pretty much like what the great Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, excoriated as “Banking Education” – where teachers make deposits into the “accounts” of students who subsequently make withdrawals at exam time to purchase good grades.

But here’s the funny part: it worked! Father Eamonn wasn’t a particularly dynamic teacher. But what he taught us was so interesting and well-organized that we learned important lessons from a process that seems like pure regurgitation. Put that in your pedagogical pipe and smoke it!

Ask any of my peers. All of us love Eamonn. And we remain grateful to him to this day.

(Next Week: a full account of what I learned about the Bible over the years – in two dozen points)

Vatican II: My Alarm Clock Rings (Personal Reflections IX)

Vatican II

These weeks I’ve been trying to trace the origins of my own awakening to the necessity and power of critical thought.  I’m doing so even though the reaction of many kind enough to read my blog might be “Who cares?” From them, I beg indulgence.

However when the “who cares” thought occurs to me, I think, “I’m writing especially for my children (Maggie, Brendan, and Patrick) who might some day care – even if not now. I’m writing for some students at Berea College (where I taught for 40 years) and whose tuning into this blog suggests they might still be interested. Same goes for the hundreds of Evangelical college and university students whom I ended up teaching in the Latin American Studies Program (LASP) in Costa Rica where I worked off and on (as “Don Mike”) for more than 20 years.

So allow me to continue.

I was saying that insofar as any “awakening” has occurred in my life, it has happened in a world that I’ve gradually discovered to be mostly the opposite of what I’ve been taught by well-meaning parents, teachers and public figures in the United States. I don’t hesitate to say that in very important ways, most of what they taught me as “right” turns out to be wrong. Most of their “truths” I’ve come to see as falsehoods. And I’m referring to some of the most important aspects of life – women (yes, I list them first on purpose!), God, religion, history, and politics.

In that context, as I attempted to show last week in the case of my English professor, Father James Griffin, I experienced many caring people (especially Sisters of St. Joseph and professors within the Society of St. Columban) who while not necessarily exemplifying critical thought in the political sphere, encouraged me to think critically about poetry, literature, and the Bible at a time when the term “critical thinking” had not yet come into vogue.

Certainly, all of them were critical in a small but important aspect of the wider sphere because they were operating within the context of the Catholic Church. In the United states of  the ‘40s,‘50s and ‘60s the Church still found itself on the defensive before a population still prejudiced against it. So while the Church was trying desperately to fit in as Super American, it did so while defending its religious beliefs against hostility directed towards “Papists.” It was important for us to root for Notre Dame on fall Saturday afternoons. It was an act of cultural resistance.

My journey towards genuine critical thinking took giant strides when after finishing my undergraduate degree in philosophy, I entered the major seminary. “The Major’s” six-year curriculum comprised the final two years of undergraduate work in philosophy and was completed by four years of post-grad theological studies culminating with my ordination to the priesthood at the age of 26 in Milton, Massachusetts. (Thereafter, as you’ll see, I was sent to Rome for five more years of work towards my doctoral degree in theology.)

Actually, I don’t remember benefiting much from my philosophy major. However (paradoxically as I show here) one of my most memorable and in some ways influential professors was Fr. Norbert Feld. He taught us metaphysics and cosmology. Turns out that way back then in the early ‘60s Norbie was a precursor of today’s right wing Republicans. He was a fan of William Buckley and The National Review. He’d endlessly ridiculed “liberals” and even (as I recall) Pope John XXIII’s social encyclical, Mater and Magister (“Mother and Teacher,” 1961).  The encyclical’s title referred to the roles of the “Holy Mother Church” in the pursuit of social justice. In that connection, I remember Fr. Feld’s reading an excerpt from Buckley’s critical National Review article called, “Mater Si, Magister No!”

In fact, Norbie’s only “philosophical” utterance that sticks with me was his observation about Rene Descartes (1596-1650) – one of the great heroes of the Scientific Revolution. Norbie said Descartes “didn’t know his head from his elbow.” That shows you what Catholics even in the ‘60s thought about the “modern world.”

Despite all of that and in some strange way, Father Feld played a role in awakening me to the importance of politics. His right wing harangues did something to convince me that Barry Goldwater deserved my first vote for president. Still even at this late stage (21 or 22) I found myself content to slumber. I didn’t really see what all the fuss was about.

Even my theological studies those last four years in the major seminary didn’t make much impact at first. They were dry as dust and for me represented just one more hurdle blocking my way to the goal I wanted more than anything else –  to become a priest.

Then Pope John called the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and everything changed.

Suddenly, the Eucharist was celebrated entirely in English.  The seminary chapel was remodeled with the altar facing the congregation. The tabernacle (no longer located on the “Eucharistic Table”) now found its place off to the side quite distant from the altar.  Instead of a small golden cask, it became a huge wooden treasure chest meant to resemble the Ark of the Covenant. It was designed by a Jewish artist. (I remember engaging in heated debate about its appropriateness. “How could someone who did not even share the Catholic tradition,” I argued, “make a meaningful artistic statement about the Eucharist?”

Guitars now replaced organ music. We were singing songs that sounded like the Kingston Trio or Peter Paul and Mary.

Even more importantly, we left aside those dusty theological manuals that had been the basis of our boring studies. We were now reading protestant theologians. And all of a sudden theology was interesting – even exciting.  We were also reading the works of Edward Schilebeeckx’s  (Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God )as well as works by Hans Kung, Ives Congar, Teilhard de Chardin and other contemporary (mostly European) theologians.

We who had been cooped up in the seminary for so long were now allowed to travel at night together to the Paulist Fathers Lecture Series in Boylston Square. There we listened to scholars like Andrew Greely and Barnabas Ahern.

Ahern’s lecture about “The Human Jesus” impressed me tremendously. It changed the way I thought about Jesus. The talk’s central image was a “what if” analogy between Jesus and Pope John XXIII. “What if by night Pope John stole out of the Vatican precincts and in disguise travelled across the Tiber into Trastevere to consort with and teach the poor there as one of them?”  Jesus did something like that, Ahern argued – using his powerful grasp of modern scripture scholarship to make the point.

I was so impressed that the next day I sat down at my Olympus typewriter and wrote out the whole talk virtually verbatim from memory. Subsequently, I used it again and again to share Ahern’s insights with congregations I served. It was the best lecture I had ever heard.

However it’s not that I was yet completely comfortable with all the new things I was hearing. Ahern’s words were one thing, but I was uncomfortable with questioning issues I had thought long since resolved — papal infallibility and even mandatory priestly celibacy. We were now having constant though informal debates about those things. I remember once writing a “learned” essay in defense of Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. My classmates and others thought it too medieval and out-of-date. I loved the book and defended as if it were the Bible itself

But then, even the Bible, I found out, needed thoughtful critique. My most influential professor in the Major Seminary taught me that. And the evidence shook me to my foundations. (More one that topic next week)

Fr. James Griffin: My Best College Professor (Personal Reflections Pt. VII)

Einstein

Last week I got a bit side tracked in my efforts to explain my growth in consciousness writing perhaps with excessive detail about the minutia of life in the minor (high school) seminary. “TMI,” my wife counselled.  So I dropped plans to share further episodes from the minor seminary.

Instead, let me get back on track this week by referring to an experience that directly helped me wake up from my culturally narrow stupor. (That, after all, is the purpose of these stories to my children.)

His name was Fr. James Griffin and he was indeed an experience.

Father Griffin was my English Professor each semester during my freshman and sophomore years in St. Columban’s College Seminary in Milton Massachusetts. He came from Ireland and was perhaps 50 years old at the time.

Father Griffin was a tough and merciless critic. He would review our papers in class, demanding that we stand up individually beside our desks while he ridiculed our errors, naiveties, and superficialities before our peers.

On one occasion, he got me on my feet for such purpose. He looked me in the eye, looked down at my paper, returned his gaze to mine, and then crumpled my essay into a ball and threw it in the wastebasket. “Sit down, Mr. Seul, he growled without comment. That was it.

Those first months as a freshman, I was terrified and dreaded English classes. I actually prayed that our professor would be sick and not show up. His health was delicate; so my petitions were often answered.

However, Father Griffin taught me how to write. “Keep your sentences short,” he demanded: subject/verb/ object – SVO. Keep that in mind.  I don’t want to read anything longer than that!”

He also gave me an appreciation of poetry, art, and classical music. He was our choir director.  He called all of us “Philistines” because he found us so uncouth and without a shred of culture. “You’re only interested in ‘shooting hoops’ (Isn’t that what you call it?)” he sneered.

Nonetheless, Father Griffin would bring his Wollensack tape recorder to choir practice and play German lieders for us.  He once sat with us through a televised concert by Pablo Casals.  His main text was Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of Poetry. By the end of my sophomore year, all of our copies were in tatters.

That’s because Father Griffin required us to read and re-read the Renaissance and Metaphysical poets keeping a journal of successive “encounters with the text” – always required to find something new. We assessed again and again the love poems of John Donne and Robert Herrick. Fr. Griffin enjoyed repeating Herrick’s lines.

WHENAS in silks my Julia goes
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.
Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free;          5
Oh how that glittering taketh me!

 

With the conclusion of that last line, he would invariably break out in a broad smile that revealed the pronounced gap between his two front teeth. He was great.

Yes, I came to treasure Father Griffin. He once astounded my puritanical sensibilities by talking of the love affairs of poets and artists. He remarked with a smile that they’re guided by exceptional moral standards beyond our ken. “Don’t blame them,” he advised.

Principally, Father Griffin helped me become a critical reader sensitive to images, symbols, metaphors and similes. He defined images as literary devices that “capture, contain, and communicate what they symbolize.”

I’ve since thought a great deal about that in the context of Catholic faith and what Protestants traditionally see as Catholics’ infamous devotion to “images” and our belief in the “Real Presence” of Jesus in the “Blessed Sacrament.”

Critics insist that the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper are “just symbols.” And to a large extent they have a point.

I however would add that such images are SYMBOLS. That is, in Father Griffin’s words, they “capture, contain, and communicate what they symbolize” – viz. the Real Presence of the saints and especially of Jesus. In fact, all language about God (and life) is symbolic. Our theologies can’t get us much closer to divine reality than that.

More generally, Father Griffin taught me that words are powerful. They transform; they shift shapes, perceptions and therefore reality itself. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword. Once a new understanding has been internalized, the world can never be the same. Absolutes become relativized; certainties crumble.

With such instruction, Father Griffin prepared me for my subsequent scripture studies in the major seminary. It helped me approach biblical texts with the confidence that I could read them without excessive dependence on what the “experts” had to say. It also eventually helped me approach the text of my own life with similar self-confidence. I can unpack and understand it without undue regard for what others say.

Father Griffin was also a golfer. Once in Ireland after ordination while I attending a “Chapter” (i.e. a leadership conference) of the Society of St. Columban I played a round with him. We had a great time. And I had the chance to tell him how important he was in my own development.

He seemed surprised, but clearly appreciated that.

Later I heard that Jim was also surprised about my leaving the priesthood. He thought I’d be the least likely of all to leave the Society of St. Columban. He didn’t know, of course, that what he taught me about critical thinking played such a role in moving me out.

Thank you, Jim. I remember you every day in my prayers.

Life in the High School Seminary and What I Learned: Personal Reflections (Pt. VI)

Vocation

A good friend of mine responded to last week’s “Personal Reflections” by observing that my studies in the minor seminary from 1954-’58 hardly sounded  like what I described as “a standard high school curriculum.” To begin with, there was all that emphasis on classical languages. And then there was the rigor and regularly of the study regime in the absence of television, newspapers, and the distractions of girls and the accompanying social life.

So on second thought, I think my friend might be right. You be the judge.

However, the point here is not to convey information about my youth. It is rather to explain the foundation for my growth in consciousness towards those “crazy ideas” my kids complain about. I’m trying to get at how I grew from American nationalism and Catholic exclusivism to what I’d call a Cosmo-centric Mysticism that centralizes a “preferential option for the poor.” Surprisingly, all of that got its start in the high school seminary I wrote about last week.

Let me say a few more things about that experience and what it taught me. A lot had to do with discipline, survival, and introduction to the spiritual life.

As far as I can recall, our days at the minor seminary in Silver Creek, New York (and throughout my seminary years with suitable variations as we got older) were structured like this:  We got up each morning at 6:30 (7:00 on Sundays). We were in chapel at 7:00 for Morning Prayer followed by Mass and time for prayers of thanksgiving afterwards. Except on special occasions, meals were taken in silence, while we all listened to one of us read from Sacred Scripture, the lives of the saints, or some inspirational book. After breakfast (8:00-8:30) we had “free time” to make our beds and get ready for class at 9:00. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays we had three classes in the morning and one in the afternoon. Wednesdays and Saturdays there was no afternoon class; it was replaced by extended recreation periods during which we engaged in organized sports or outdoor work projects.

Except on Wednesdays and Saturdays, afternoon recreation ran from 12:30 till 2:00. Afternoon class would occupy us till just before 3:00. Then we’d have supervised study hall till 4:30 followed by a half-hour of spiritual reading. (The study hall priest-supervisor would patrol the long lines of desks making sure we weren’t reading novels on the sly.) After that, there was Rosary and Vespers at 5:00, then supper at 5:30. This was followed by a period for chores and recreation till 7:00. Study hall would resume then and run till 8:30, when we’d be allowed a half hour for recreational reading of approved novels.  Night prayer began at 9:00. Lights-out came at 10:00. The Great Silence reigned from night prayer till after breakfast the following morning.

Sundays we’d have a second Mass. And then there’d be intra-mural sports in the morning and extended free time in the afternoon. That’s when we could go on hikes to a nearby Howard Johnsons or somewhere for milkshakes or sundaes. Late Sunday afternoons we had a letter-writing period from 4:00-5:00 to keep us in touch with our families (no phone calls were allowed). Sunday evenings we’d have meetings of the Literary, Scientific, and Debating Society one week and of the Catholic Students’ Mission Crusade the next. We all took turns delivering papers at those meetings and serving as club officers. On special occasions, there’d be a movie. And on really special feasts (like St. Columban’s Day) we’d perform dramatic or comic plays (which, of course, required lots of rehearsals). Most of us got used to being on stage. Much later, in the major seminary (at the age of 24 and 25), I actually had the lead roles in Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,” and in “Brother Orchid.”

Of course, not everyone responded to seminary discipline in the same way. Early on I saw that there were three seminarian types. There were those who “jacked around” (That’s what we called it) as much as they could. They took everything with a grain of salt and were always in trouble with the authorities. They fooled around in study hall. They habitually broke the Great Silence.  Eventually all those Jackers got bounced.

Then there were those who were mildly serious about the whole seminary routine; most of the survivors fell into that category. Psychologically they were probably the healthiest of any of us.

Finally there were the “saints.” They never jacked around, or broke the Great Silence. They practiced “custody of the eyes,” and always kept the rules. Almost invariably they were good athletes and smart students. I quickly decided to become like them.

I was “rewarded” (although it didn’t feel like that) by being made senior of my class mid-way through the first term of my freshman year at the Creek. That meant I was the liaison between my 31 classmates and the dean and rector of the seminary. That put me in line to be the Senior of the House (student body president) during my fourth year. That sort of thing happened to me throughout my 13 years of seminary training — mostly because I was a pious, obedient rule-keeper. My guides were a behavior manual called The Young Seminarian along with Thomas a Kempis’ classic The Imitation of Christ.

It also helped that I was trying hard to be a straight-A student. However I never quite made it into that category in the high school seminary. That would come later. Intellectually, I was a late bloomer and in high school had to settle for “Second Honors,” as they called it. My status in the eyes of seminary authorities was also helped by the fact that I liked sports and was good at them. That was important as well in the seminary pecking order among my peers.

While at the Creek, I used to hear our dean, John Healey, repeat, “You can take a boy out of Silver Creek, but you can’t take Silver Creek out of a boy.” I believe he was right. So much of Silver Creek remains part of who I am.

But what exactly has remained from the unusual training I received there. How did it contribute to my crazy ideas? After all, I’ve forgotten the rules for Latin ablative absolutes and how to form the conditional tense of irregular verbs ending in ere. I can no longer even pronounce Greek texts, much less translate them.  When I look at pictures from those days gone by, I can’t, of course, remember everyone’s name.

Yet many lessons remain valid for me. They come largely from the spiritual seeds that were planted so long ago by our unquestionably caring professors. They also come from living in community with boys like me who were the first in their families to aspire to post-secondary education. My peers were the sons of policemen, firemen, delivery truck drivers, and construction workers. (I don’t remember a single one referring to parents who attended college.) I remember all of my companions as clever, high-spirited, and often comically gifted. Many of them remain good friends – among the best I’ve ever had, even though these days we rarely connect directly.

Here are a few of the lasting lessons we learned together from living together, from our professors and from The Rule. Despite appearances, none of them are intended as clichés. I treasure these learnings:

  • There is a fundamental opposition between “the world” and its values and what Jesus called “the Kingdom of God.”
  • The values of “the world” are deceptive, illusory and not worth the effort. They promise happiness as the result of pursuing power, pleasure, profit and prestige. None of those things are what life and happiness are really about.
  • Instead, life is about what I identify as “working-class values:” family, hard work, cooperation, shared common property, and hospitality as opposed getting ahead and accumulating differentiating wealth. (Later on, I’ll share the theory about this – i.e. how the poor actually know much more about life than the rich.)
  • I don’t need much to be content – and I don’t believe anyone does. Shared community, nourishing food, a roof over one’s head, decent clothes (in the major seminary we wore the same outer garments every day) and stimulating ideas (education) are enough. Simple is better than complex.
  • One’s interior life is far more important than exterior comfort. In the end, life and “salvation” are about waking up to the illusions foisted upon us by “the world” and replacing them with the simplicity of the working class values just mentioned.

Personally, it would be many years before I would realize that I learned those things in Silver Creek and later in the major seminary and novitiate. In so many ways, when I left Silver Creek I was still asleep and would remain so for many years. To a great extent I’m still shaking the drowsiness from my head.

“The World” is seductive.

(More about seminary life and its painful lessons next week)

My First Steps towards Internationalism (Personal Reflections Pt. V)

Silver Creek

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 . . .

How I Became I Child of the Sixties – Thank God! (Personal Reflections Pt. II)

Hippie Art 

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)