It was all an accident. My mother was not born Catholic, but Lutheran, Missouri Synod. When it came time to decide which tradition I would be raised in, my parents decided that it was in everyone’s best interests for me to get the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from a Catholic priest. That’s what my paternal grandmother—devout Irish Catholic that she was—would want, they reasoned. No one dared to rouse her secret temper. So Catholic I would be. As my mom and grandma were washing dishes after my baptism party, the Catholic turned to the Lutheran and asked, “Honey, why did you have Grant baptized Catholic? You’re the one who goes to church.”
Apparently my mom took that comment to heart, because when it came time for me to go off to school, my parents sent me to a Lutheran preschool, and then for kindergarten to another Lutheran school. It was called Our Savior, and my child mind reckoned that was the place you sent your kids after you had saved up enough money. I was still working on my soteriology.
Of all my school supplies, I was proudest of my Popeye folder. It was no mere paper-holder. A comic strip was printed on its front and back covers. Every day, I smuggled a comic book disguised as folder—into school, school. About a week after I started kindergarten, my teacher noticed that I could read. I was rewarded by being dragged before the first-graders, plopped down in a too-tall chair, and, made to read to them, accompanied only by the silent metronomes of my swinging legs. Doubtless the highlight of their academic year. Eventually my teacher suggested to my parents that I transfer to the local Catholic school, St. Paul of the Cross, where she thought I’d receive a better education.
They took that advice to heart too. So off I went to St. Paul’s—just a few years after Peter Steinfels darkened its doors, I might add. It was a convivial place. First graders fortunate to have Miss Sullivan (Ms. hadn’t quite come into wide use in Chicagoland), and speedy enough to finish their Friday book reports early, were granted exclusive access to the carpeted play area in the front of the classroom. There were puzzles. Books. And the only thing anyone really cared about: a huge bucket of popsicle sticks. Dave and Eric and I tended to be the the speediest students in the room. One Friday morning, we burned through our book reports, grabbed the bin of popsicle sticks, and went to work on a modest work of art. On the dark brown carpeting, we arranged dozens of beige popsicle sticks in the shape of a mermaid. An anatomically correct mermaid. Miss Sullivan was amused, but not pleased. No more popsicle sticks for us, for at least a week.
By Monday, our shame had worn off. Dave and Eric and the rest of my classmates resumed their usual a.m. banter. Sunday Mass. Where did you sit? Do your parents sing real loud? Fr. Kinane is the best because his homilies are short. Or at least that’s what I heard. I couldn’t really add anything to the conversation because my family didn’t go to Mass. As the Monday-morning Mass post mortems piled up, I realized I had to take action. If I was going to participate in these pow-wows, I would have to get my butt in a pew. So I asked my mom if we could start attending Mass. We did. And in no time I had my own two cents to add to the Monday-morning liturgy critiques. A few years later my mom would be received into the Catholic Church. Kinane, the pastor, really did give good homilies.
Of course I became an altar boy. Boy. When it became clear to us altar boys that girls were about to muscle into our turf, we were not pleased. They were taller. And some, we had to admit, were stronger. They could wield the cross and candles more ably. It was offensive. Plus, allowing girls into the guild posed a genuine threat to our financial position. If they diluted the pool of available altar servers, all of us would lose out when it came time to work funerals. They paid. How else were we supposed to fund our Donkey Kong habits? Quarters don’t grow on trees.
I was going to Catholic high school, all boys. By that point, I had no choice. My dad had started returning to Mass (cancer will do that to you). But college? It wasn’t a sure thing. I felt like I had had my fill of Catholic education. A secular school sounded interesting. Cross-free classrooms. No class Masses. It would be new. Plus girls. Non-Catholic girls.
My dad compiled a list of schools, including a place called Fordham. I didn’t realize it was Jesuit, and he carefully avoided mentioning it. We visited. I noticed the IHS’s everywhere. I expected to hate it. But the campus cast a spell on me. The trees, Eddie’s Parade, neo-gothic cathedrals to the liberal arts. And money. They offered me a bunch of money. My parents didn’t press me too hard, even though cash was tight. I came around on my own. The Bronx was sufficiently far from them. And in New York. Which was not Chicago, but close enough. I brushed aside the offer from a state school, and decided to give Fordham the old college try.
I ended up in the honors program. Thought I would be a journalism major. During my visit to Fordham’s campus, no one bothered to tell me that Fordham didn’t have a journalism major. Turns out I wouldn’t need one. Because at the start of the second semester of my senior year, a message went out to all the honors students: Commonweal has two internships available. If you’d like to apply, call 212-662-4200. I did. Sent a resume. It contained the important information: Chicago. St. Paul of the Cross. Went to lunch. Got hired. Chicago is a cult. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But it’s a good cult. If you have to be in a cult. And I do.
I was shy. Everyone at Commonweal was smarter, and more liberal. My father, whose political views I aped, had raised me to be a Reagan Republican. The first magazine I ever subscribed to was the National Review. When I was a senior in high school I attended the Illinois GOP election-night party at the Chicago Hilton and Towers. (Clinton won.) The first president I voted for: Bob Dole. Peggy Steinfels knew none of this. Neither did anyone else at the magazine. Although they may have suspected something when, after reading a New York Times article on a new supermax prison with a TV in every cell, I suggested its inmates didn’t deserve such a luxury. An editor upbraided me immediately. “Do you think you know what it’s like to live in prison?” That was when I started to reevaluate my assumptions.
That was when I started becoming a Commonweal Catholic. When I started asking better questions. About politics. About the church. About myself. Commonweal helped me realize I wanted to study theology. So off I went to graduate school. The University of Chicago. But I couldn’t stay away. The summer between my first and second year of the master’s program, I came back for another tour as an intern. (It helped that my girlfriend lived in New York.) And when I accepted a PhD offer from the U of C but felt that I needed to take a year off from academia, Peggy Steinfels suggested I return “for the year.” I’d be an editorial assistant. For a year.
That was fifteen years ago. I never looked back, much. At Commonweal, I was able to keep a foot in the scholarly game. To edit theologians I admired. To write about theology. To write about politics, secular and ecclesial. To sharpen my own questions. To learn when a sentence needed editing, excising. To write better. To question premises, especially my own. To think more clearly. To argue. To hope.
This is my final post as an associate editor of Commonweal. The day I told my wonderful colleagues that I had accepted a job with the Archdiocese of Chicago, there was much drinking. I ended up at a bar in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Watching my social-media feeds fill with absurdly generous comments about my work at the magazine, feeling my eyes fill with tears. Martinis on an empty stomach will do that do you. I thumbed this into my Facebook app:
I don't know how to thank all of you who offered too-generous words of support for the work I've done, and encouragement for the work I'm about to do. I've been lucky to work for a project I believed in, will always believe in, with colleagues who helped me grow intellectually, professionally, spiritually. I don't know who I'd be without Commonweal. I don't want to know. I only want to say thank you to God and everybody. I'm sure I didn't deserve it. But then who does?
Veritas and all that. But leaving Commonweal will be like losing a limb. The friendships I’ve made. The jokes we’ve shared—the amazingly unprofessional jokes. The readers. The readers. I tell friends in the business, you don’t know. You don’t know what it’s like to have truly engaged readers until you work at Commonweal. It has been a genuine pleasure working for you. I’m grateful for all you have taught me. For your forbearance when I got prickly. (Rarely, right?) For your commitment to the project. For helping us all pull on what we hope is the right end of the rope.
Sometimes I marvel at how I ended up at Commonweal. I was almost baptized Lutheran. I almost went to a state school. I almost ended up a theologian. But I didn’t. I came here. And thanks to the patient ministrations of my talented colleagues, the ones who took a chance hiring me—and not firing me—I learned how to be a Commonweal editor. Or at least I tried. It was all an accident. Or maybe it wasn’t.