Igrew up in seemingly the last moment of intact Catholic culture in the United States: the late 1950s and early 1960s in Baltimore, one of the most Catholic cities in the country.
There were lots of places like this – Boston, surely; large parts of New York and Philadelphia; Chicago and Milwaukee and St Louis. Still, there was something distinctive about Catholic Baltimore in those days. American Catholics past and present are notoriously ignorant of the history of the Church in the United States. In Baltimore, we were very much aware that we were living in the first of American dioceses, with the first bishop and the first cathedral – and, of course, the Baltimore Catechism, which was used in those days from sea to shining sea.
Catholic Baltimore was different from other parts of America’s urban Catholic culture in degree, not in kind. We didn’t divide the world into “Baltimore Catholicism” and “Milwaukee Catholicism” or whatever. We quite naturally and unselfconsciously divided the world into “Catholics”, people we recognised by a kind of instinct, and “nonCatholics”. That instinct wasn’t a matter of prejudice. It was the product of a unique experience, and you instinctively recognised people who’d been formed by the same experience.
How were we different? To begin with, we had a singular way of describing ourselves. When someone asked us where we were from, we didn’t say South Baltimore or Highlandtown or Towson or Catonsville. We’d say “I’m from Star of the Sea” (or St Elizabeth’s or Immaculate Conception or St Agnes, or, in my case, the New Cathedral). Baltimore was (and is) a city of neighbourhoods, but in hindsight it seems instructive that we identified ourselves first by parish rather than geographic area. Some might call this “tribal,” and there were certainly elements of the tribal (especially ethnic tribal) in this distinctive way of telling a stranger who you were. It was a different kind of tribalism, though, a Catholic tribalism that fostered fierce rivalries and even fiercer loyalties: rivalries among parishes and schools and teams and youth groups, but beyond and through all those rivalries, an intense sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves, something beyond ourselves that somehow lived inside us, too. All of which was a first inkling of “catholicity” and its relationship to particularity.
We used a different vocabulary in the Catholic world in which I grew up. The only American kids between the ages of 10 and 18 who regularly used words like vocation, monstrance, missal, crucifer, biretta, chasuble, surplice, cibonum, and paten were Catholics.
We also pronounced words differendy: nonCatholics said “Saint AWgus-teen,” but we knew it was “Saint Uh-GUS-tin.” Then there was our sense of identification with local heroes. Other kids could recite the relevant batting and pitching statistics of their sports idols, but hadn’t a clue about their religious affiliation. We were stat crazy, too, but we also knew who the Catholics were and what parish they belonged to.
With our Catholic school uniforms, we looked different and if those uniforms saved our parents a lot of clothes money (which they did), they also reinforced a sense of belonging to something distinctive. So did the fact that we were taught by religious sisters (whom we mistakenly called “nuns,” ignorant of the canonical technicality that nuns are, by definition, cloistered). Some were magnificent: my first grade teacher, Sister Mary Moira, SSND, understood “phonics” a generation ahead of time and could teach a stone to read. Others were, to put it gently, less than adequate: my 70-something fifth grade teacher, Sister Maurelia, still insisted that the sun orbited the earth. Yet even the bad teachers commanded respect, and through the combined effects of their personal discipline, austerity, and devotional lives were teaching us something important about life and its purposes. (And yes, there were occasional Ingrid Bergman/Going My Way moments: Sister Maurelia’s devotion to the Ptolemaic universe coexisted with an impressive capacity to clobber a misbehaving boy with a well-aimed chalkboard eraser at 20 paces. Anyone who described such behaviour as “abusive” would have been considered insane.) Our calendar, and the habits it bred into us, also marked us out as distinctive. “Holy days” were days off from school a source of envy among other kids. In that innocent era, before Christian terminology in state schools was deemed a danger to the Republic, everybody had “Christmas vacation”. But we had “Easter vacation” while everybody else had “spring break.” Meatless Fridays set us apart from our non-Catholic friends and neighbours: no one else we knew took peanut butter and jelly (or tuna fish or Swiss cheese on rye) sandwiches to school in their lunch bags (or lunch boxes, among the smaller fry). Our parents couldn’t eat meat at breakfast and lunch on the weekdays of Lent, and everyone fasted for three hours before going to church on Sunday morning. First Communion (in the second grade) and Confirmation (in the fourth grade) were major landmarks in our uniquely Catholic life cycle.
Our Protestant friends knew their Bible a lot better than we did, but we knew our catechism. Looking back, I see that the memorisation of its answers was not only the basic structure of our early religious instruction – it was a first hint that Catholicism is deeply, even passionately, invested in ideas, even ideas boiled down into single-sentence formulas. (Little did we know the titanic struggles that had gone into creating those precise formulations over the centuries.) We had a ritual life that also set us apart. Most of us went to Mass every Sunday (plus those blessed, schoolfree holy days), and the idea of a churchless Sunday struck us as somehow odd. The Mass was, of course, celebrated in Latin (with the Gospel read in English before the sermon). Catholic boys memorised the responses in Latin in order to serve at the altar. From constant repetition during Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and from the weekly Lenten devotion known as the Stations of the Cross, boys and girls alike learned a few Latin hymns (“Tantum ergo,” “O salutaris hostia,” “Stabat mater”). And for some reason, perhaps best understood by religious anthropologists, it didn’t strike us as the least bit peculiar that we prayed and sang in an ancient language that few of us knew — until, that is, Latin was drummed into us, declension by declension and conjugation by conjugation, when we hit high school.
Some of the things we did raised the eyebrows of our more assertively Protestant neighbours. Our piety had a distinctly Marian flavour, unintelligible and perhaps vaguely blasphemous to non-Catholics. Catholic families were encouraged to say the rosary together, and the annual May procession was a great event on the school and parish calendar. What truly marked us off as different, though (in the eyes of some, perversely different), was what everyone in those days called “going to confession”.
Making one’s first confession was a prerequisite to First Communion. So, at age seven or eight we learned an etiquette of selfexamination and self-accusation that our Protestant friends (when they got up the nerve to ask) found incomprehensible. Mythologies notwithstanding, going to confession wasn’t a terrifying or morbid experience: at least once a month we were taken to church from the parochial school and lined up outside the confessional to do our penitential duty, about which, insofar as I can recall, no one complained.
All of this (examining conscience, making a firm purpose of amendment, describing our peccadilloes, receiving and saying a brief penance) was simply what we did because of who we were. If other people didn’t do such things, they were the odd ducks, not us.
Then there were our international connections, which seemed more richly textured than our neighbours’. American Christians have always been mission conscious. Still, I don’t recall hearing my Protestant friends talk about “ransoming pagan babies,” which was something we did during Lent throughout my early years in elementary school.
In those days, when a quarter was a lot of money, the idea was to put your pennies and nickels in a small cardboard collection box you kept at home. Over the 40 days of Lent the goal was to collect a total of five dollars which required another form of self-discipline: not raiding the collection box too often. This five dollars would be given to a mission, usually in Africa, and in return, the donor was allowed to give the “pagan baby” its Christian name at its baptism (if memory serves, we got a certificate noting that “James” or “Mary” had been baptised because of our generosity).
I never quite figured out how this worked at the other end, unless all our “pagan babies” were orphans without parents to name them. The point, however, was not the logistics, but the sense of being part of a worldwide body. Mission talks were a regular feature of Catholic schools, and the Catholic periodical literature of the day (even for children) was chock-full of stories from the missions, some bloodcurdling. The Jesuits and the Religious of the Sacred Heart may have been the up-market religious orders when I was growing up, but the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America – Maryknoll – was where the adventure was. Few Catholic youngsters didn’t dream, at least briefly, of becoming a missionary, and even a missionary martyr.
We were also aware of belonging to a worldwide Church that was under serious persecution in various places. The idea of a “Christian\Marxist dialogue” was buried in the womb of the future. What we knew about communism was that communists had killed Yugoslavia’s Cardinal Stepinac, tortured Hungary’s Cardinal Mindszenty, and locked up the gentle Bishop James Edward Walsh of Maryknoll. Some of this storytelling had an effect on me that I couldn’t imagine at the time.
A lot of my writing over the past 25 years has had to do with Poland, and I can’t help but think that the seeds of my Polish passion were planted early in the third grade, to be precise. In early 1959, the principal of the Old Cathedral School in downtown Baltimore, Sister Euphemia, announced that each class in the school would be assigned a communist dictator for whose conversion we were to pray during Lent. Everybody wanted Nikita Khrushchev, of course, because he was the only communist dictator most of us had ever heard of. So there was great disappointment in the third grade when, by the luck of the draw, we got the chief Polish communist, Wladyslaw Gomulka. More than 30 years later I would write a book that chronicled Gomulka’s complex role in Polish Church-state relations; you can’t tell me there isn’t a connection, somehow, to the third grade experience.
The other great international linkage that made us different was, of course, the link to what an earlier generation of anti-Catholic bigots (in our grandparents’ time) had called a “foreign potentate” – the pope. The sense of connection to “Rome” and to the pope himself was strong. Pius XII, the pope of my boyhood, was an ethereal figure; yet every Catholic I knew seemed to feel a personal attachment to him, and I well remember the tears shed when he died in October 1958. I was in the second grade and, along with all eight grades of the Old Cathedral School, marched across Mulberry Street into the Cathedral of the Assumption, where one of the young priests on the cathedral staff led us in five decades of the rosary. Our elders for the next few days said that “there would never be another pope like Pius XII” (a good call, if not for the reasons they imagined).
When a portly, 77-yearold Italian named Roncalli was elected and took what sounded like a bizarre name, “John XXIII,” those same elders sagely noted that things just weren’t the same (they got that right, too). This emotional and spiritual connection to the bishop of Rome never seemed to us odd, much less un American, and the antiCatholic agitation of the 1960 presidential campaign struck us as weird rather than threatening. We knew we were Catholic and Americans, and if someone had a problem with that, well, that was, as we used to say, their problem. It certainly wasn’t ours.
So we were different, and we knew ourselves to be different, yet without experiencing ourselves as strangers in a strange land.
Garry Wills had it exactly right in an elegiac essay written in the early 1970s, when he said that our generation of Catholics in America had grown up in a ghetto – just as he was right when he also wrote that it wasn’t such a bad ghetto in which to grow up. Indeed, the most ghettoised people of all, I’ve come to learn, are those who don’t know they grew up in a particular time and place and culture, and who think they can get to universal truths outside of particular realities and commitments. The real question is not whether you grow up in a ghetto, but whether the ideas and customs and rhythms of your particular ghetto prepare you to engage other ideas and life experiences without losing touch with your roots.
Long before Alex Haley successfully marketed the idea, the importance of “roots” was drummed into us because without roots there’s no growth, only dryness and decay.
George Weigel: Letters to a Young Catholic is published by Gracewing, price £9.99