Bird’s Nest In Your Hair

Chapter Thirteen

It was a strange time to be joining the church, to say the least. The catechumens were filled with the usual questions, or at least questions that Martha, the priests and the rest of the parish staff had been used to fielding over the years, but there were naturally questions about the latest crisis as well. In one of the neighboring parishes a priest had been removed without explanation, and suspicions had naturally been aroused. Several of the catechumens were there because they intended to marry Catholics. Could they trust their children with priests? What was the role of celibacy in the lives of priests, anyway? What was the purpose? Even if it was an ideal, was it an ideal that any man could reasonably be expected to live up to? Or did it serve as a beacon for those troubled by their own sexual feelings? How could it not? And wouldn’t this lead to problems sooner or later, the very problems which now threatened the well being of the young and most vulnerable?

As it happened, the church that Diana went to every Wednesday and Sunday was Saint John Bosco, and this particular Wednesday, January 31st, happened to be his feast day. Born Giovanni Melchior Bosco on August 16th, 1816 in a village near Piedmont, Italy, he spent his boyhood as a shepherd and knew from a young age that he wanted to be a priest. As a young priest it was declared to him in a dream that ‘not with blows, but with charity and gentleness must you draw these friends to the path of virtue.’

By ‘these friends’ was meant (or St. Bosco took it to mean) the boys who had begun gathering together with him for instruction. Bosco had himself been a shepherd when he was younger, and it was to delinquents growing up in difficult circumstances that he devoted much of his life. He had experienced many of these same difficulties himself as a boy: poverty, hunger, physical privation of all kinds, and just the pains the boys enjoy inflicting on each other. Bosco was considered something of a nuisance at various times in this life, and was once almost committed to an insane asylum, probably as much because of the character and mischief of his students as for anything he himself had done.

The curriculum he provided began with sports and games and was centered on music. He considered play essential to the development of the person, and so was an important part of the daily life at the school. He was also known as an interpreter of dreams, and it was by listening to his students recite their dreams that he identified their sins and then urged them towards a more virtuous path. Some of these students went on to join the Salesian society, which had been started in 1874 by a group of his followers in the name of Bosco’s own favorite saint, Frances de Sales.

Father Adamowicz, originally from Chicago and himself a Salesian, had once explained all this to a group of Inquirers one Wednesday night. Diana had wondered if it was intended as a kind of pep talk. Not an apology, but a statement of the best that the church represented. Had it really been such a different church, on a different continent in a different age? Some things were different, but so much was the same.

Even the typical parish in our own time has elements of this curriculum; not that they are based on the work of St. Bosco himself, of course, but because the program itself is universal in character. After all, who, Catholic or otherwise, would want to deprive children of recess time or at least the rudiments of an education in music? And of course children naturally seek these things out for themselves, which might mean that Bosco merely recognized that what was natural for children is often good, and therefore ought to be promoted as much as possible. The difference, assuming there is a difference, probably has more to do with the manner in which these expectations were met or with the character of Bosco himself.

The elementary schools attached to parishes the world over are certainly thriving, filled to capacity, and have a long waiting list for parents who want their kids to have a Catholic education. Whatever problems there might be for the clergy, whatever problems reside within the seminaries and the clergy itself, Catholic schools must still be thought of highly enough for parents to keep enrolling their children.

Diana followed the conversation as best she could, though of course she wasn’t a product of parochial schools herself. Adults who’d grown up in Catholic schools were often involved in the church, but she couldn’t help but think they took it for granted in a way that she never could. For example, she had one friend with children herself now, who had remained involved with the church only to guarantee her children a place in the parish school. Even if she sometimes complained about her own upbringing and education, she still thought it was the best around. Actually, the complaints so often aired about nuns and priests had for a long time sounded more and more hackneyed, as if these tired litanies were one more tradition inherited with all the others: everyone continued telling the jokes and making their comments as if according to script.

What seemed remarkable to Diana was that even their complaints, which on the whole were well reasoned and articulate, seemed infused with a greater sense of reality than those made by most non-Catholics about their non-Catholic lives. The victims of abuse by priests must surely be the most horribly abused people of all. Concerning this as well as lesser crimes, the Church was certainly culpable, but the Church could also provide the moral clarity by which this culpability was determined. Sadly, too often it had not. When it came to the average Catholic upbringing, Diana was convinced that some sort of religious upbringing had to be beneficial, although she couldn’t speak to speak to such things as rote prayer, uniforms, and the legions of angry, sadistic nuns that seemed to fill these schools, eternally bent on twisting the good will of all normal students enrolled by parents either too oblivious to know better, or, more likely, perverted at these same hands themselves. Their complaints might well be justified, but often seemed to be voiced by remarkably well-adjusted adults.

Of course this wasn’t the majority of the adults in whose company Diana was presently sitting. The spouses of her fellow catechumens may have had a few stories to tell, but by and large they were thankful for the tradition in which they had been raised and wished to pass it on to their own children. It was really only Jim and George, the older catechumens, who would have been old enough to have nuns for teachers, and since they hadn’t been Catholic neither one of them had gone to Catholic schools. Kate, Mike’s wife, was roughly Diana’s age, and even when she had attended the St. Bosco elementary school there had only been two or three nuns on the entire faculty. Kate now had two children enrolled in the school, and was at that moment talking about how religious education was losing its religion.

“But I’m very happy with the faculty at St John Bosco, and I’m not sure if it would be a whole lot better if there were more nuns that taught there. Right now there’s only Sister Frances, and she’s fantastic, so I guess if they were all nuns like her . . . but I think that the teachers they have now really are great.”

Diana looked at Kate and wondered how she had ever had two children. She was quite small, and extremely fit. On her slender hips she wore the same type of jeans that were popular among teenage girls now, with a low-cut midriff and bell-bottoms that swept the ground as she walked. Diana had a similar pair herself, but she didn’t wear them as well as Kate, even without children. She also noticed Kate’s eyes as she spoke, which wore the same bright expression she encountered in many of the woman who came into the bar for lunch. It was obvious that that Kate was well attuned to the very best available, whatever it may be (in this case it was an education for her children), so that even her conversation betrayed a kind of efficiency that seemed slightly at odds with the more beleaguered tone carried by some members of the catechumenate. Or so it seemed to Diana.

Jim weighed in as well. “Of course they aren’t all like Sister Frances, of course. If Sarah were here she’d tell you stories . . . oh yeah, you bet, she would tell you stories. Welts on her arm . . .” He rubbed his own forearms as he spoke. They were pretty hairy, and through the thicket she noticed the green blob of a tattoo from another era. She tried to guess his age, and figured that he was too young for World War II. Vietnam? Or Korea? She found herself wondering how he and Pete would get along. Probably pretty well, she considered, and found herself liking Jim just because of this one stray thought.

“But I think that she was happy for the most part, wasn’t she, Jim?” asked Martha

“Well, for the most part, but that’s a very different thing than to be happy with this particular nun. She did well in school and still has friends today that she made when she was in school, but that’s due more to her toughness than anything especially spiritual that she picked up from the nuns. In fact, correct me if I’m wrong, but to a certain degree one was supposed to understand that suffering was good, and therefore ought to be tolerated.”

“I suppose that in the minds of some, suffering can lead to a kind of moral purification…”

“Moral putrification, it seems to me. Especially in some of these crazy nuns, trying to make more crazy nuns out of those girls.” He certainly wasn’t backing down.

“I do think it’s important to respect suffering as the result of moral courage. The martyrs, Christ himself…” said Martha, faltering.

“Of course we don’t want to make martyrs out of our children,” interrupted Jim.

“Yes, I’m sure that some nuns and priests took the discipline too far.” Martha was throwing in the towel on this one; Diana noticed she was actually turning her face away from Jim in solicitation of someone else’s comments. Anyone’s.

Kate chimed in for Sister Frances again. “I’ve heard horror stories, naturally, but when I went to school we thought the nuns were just a little silly. Other times we wanted to feel sort of sorry for them, but they wouldn’t let us. So I grew up with a lot of respect for their calling, even if I didn’t consider it for myself. Unless I could fly! But Frances was like another grandma. Of course now it hardly matters, as there’s only the one, and when she’s gone I don’t think there’s anyone to take her place. And once that tradition is gone, I wonder what will happen. If they were all like the one Sarah had, I guess it wouldn’t matter, but they weren’t, and I think it’s a real loss.”

Martha smiled approvingly, nodding her head in agreement. Jim started to say something, but Martha said, “I have another hand-out for you,” and began passing a stack of papers to Mike and Keith, on her left and right, respectively.

“Why am I here?” wondered Diana.

Comments

  1. Rufus McCain says

    Interesting parallel between Tom’s “I can’t believe I’m here with her daughter” and Diana’s “Why am I here?”.

  2. Rufus McCain says

    I like the John Bosco stuff you’ve added since the earlier draft. And the Catholic schools pep talk stuff.

    I’m wondering how much of a crisis is represented by Diana’s “Why am I here” thought. Just a momentary venting or the hint of a real crisis? Why is she there?

  3. Quin Finnegan says

    From Chapter 8 (in case you missed it): “This, she realized, was the reason she was joining the church. Was it the only reason? she asked herself. Maybe. Was it enough? She clung to those sections of the catechism as the survivor of a shipwreck holds onto a life preserver. And of course, however officious the language of the document was, that’s what it was meant for. “

  4. Rufus McCain says

    Hadn’t gotten there yet, but I’ll read it right now. This is new since the first draft I read, right? (I never did get around to reading the second draft.)

  5. Anonymous says

    Well written. I liked the Bosco bits.

    I don't think you need 'sadistic' as well as angry for nuns. Better implicit.

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