In December Commonweal published a collection of personal essays under the heading “Why We Came, Why We Left, Why We Stay.” The response was favorable: readers asked for more such essays; writers offered to write them. The following essay is the first in what we expect to be a continuing series.
Mine was the last generation to grow to adulthood in the pre–Vatican II Catholic Church. My family went to Mass on First Fridays as well as every morning during Lent. It was a given that we ate fish on Fridays, fasted before receiving the Eucharist. Irish Catholics, we attended many wakes, were familiar with corpses, the rituals surrounding them, the ordinariness of death. The parochial schools were in full swing, but my siblings and I went to the public schools instead. Our father had his own ideas about things. He seemed quite unworried about “dangers to the faith”—reading books on the Index, for instance, or going to movies pronounced forbidden by the Legion of Decency. Once a year, on the Sunday when the entire congregation rose to its feet to repeat a pledge to the Legion, our father, to our mortal embarrassment, kept his seat. “An exercise for children,” he replied when we asked why.
Holy Week was drama of the highest order: on Holy Thursday, little girls dropped rose petals from baskets; the Eucharist was removed to a side altar banked with flowers. In the afternoon we visited seven neighboring churches. On Friday morning the central altar was stripped, the Gospel was sung, Christ’s deep, mournful voice easily distinguishable from the others. The lights were extinguished one by one until the church was darkened. From noon until three, we listened to a homily on each of the Seven Last Words. Then Saturday morning, at the first Vigil Mass of Easter, we waited for the Gloria to be sung—the first time in forty days—the signal for a prolonged riotous ringing of every bell in the church that brought down the purple shrouds on all of the statues at once. In the belfry one altar boy leapt to catch the legs of another altar boy, the bell ringer, as he disappeared at one end of a rope.
Through it all the central mysterious figure of Christ himself appeared and disappeared and reappeared, washing the feet of his friends, bidding them do likewise, standing silent when accused, despairing in the Garden alone and abandoned, denied by Peter. He was the riveting center of everything, a man of sorrows, praying that his tormentors be forgiven, assuring the good thief that he’d be with him that very day in Paradise. It wasn’t the fact that Christ had died that made the crucial difference. It was that he died the way he did.