Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholicby Matthew Lickona
Meet Matthew Lickona, a thirty-something wine columnist, sometime cartoonist, avid moviegoer, fan of alternative rock, and wonderfully talented writer. He is also a devoutly religious young man (“I am a Roman Catholic, baptized as an infant and raised in the faith, a faith which holds the exemplary and redemptive suffering of Jesus Christ at its core.”
Meet Matthew Lickona, a thirty-something wine columnist, sometime cartoonist, avid moviegoer, fan of alternative rock, and wonderfully talented writer. He is also a devoutly religious young man (“I am a Roman Catholic, baptized as an infant and raised in the faith, a faith which holds the exemplary and redemptive suffering of Jesus Christ at its core.” ) who fasts during Lent, leads his family in prayer every day, and wears a scapular—a medieval amulet said to protect the wearer from harm.
In Lickona’s “true confessions,” we are introduced to a unique and singular voice, but one that is emblematic of a new generation of believers who combine a premodern faith with a postmodern sensibility. Swimming with Scapulars is a modern-day, Catholic, coming-of-age story that takes its author from the austere Catholicism of his Irish-French family in upstate New York to the exotic spiritual tapestry of
Southern California. It is the story of the formation of an ardent young believer who is painfully honest about his spiritual shortcomings (“In times of suffering, I look first to myself. God is the backup, to be called upon when I find myself insufficient.”), yet who finds consuming joy in receiving the Eucharist and embracing “the ancient treasures of the faith.”
Lickona doesn’t mind that many of his secular friends and acquaintances regard him as a religious fanatic. As he writes, “Perhaps, coming from a fanatic, the message of God’s love will regain some of its wonderful outrageousness. ‘Listen. I have a secret. I eat God, and I have his life in me. It’s the best thing in the world.’”
- Loyola Press
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- First Edition
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Read an Excerpt
Christmas Eve of 1992 found me just off the coast of Florida, getting pounded silly by the early morning waves. I was nineteen, and I enjoyed throwing myself against the six-footers as they broke. I enjoyed the roaring violence of it: the way my body’s motion was suddenly halted and reversed; the way I was thrown down by the surrounding water, spun around, and held under so that I lost my sense of direction; the way I had to fight my way back above water, sometimes against a sucking riptide. But after one particularly disorienting collision, and a riptide that gripped me long enough to engender that moment of thrilling terror—will I make it up?—I gained the surface and found I had lost my scapular.
“Whosoever dies wearing this scapular shall not suffer eternal fire.” Tradition holds this to be the promise given by the Blessed Virgin Mary upon the garment’s presentation to the Carmelite Prior St.-Simon Stock in 1251. Though I had been enrolled in the scapular—two small squares of brown wool connected by strings and worn around the neck—for the better part of a year, I didn’t understand how it “worked.” Surely an article of clothing could not guarantee salvation? The promise sounded almost dangerous, a temptation to presume upon God’s mercy.
But then, I supposed, if you were not one of the elect, then God would see to it that you were not wearing your scapular at the time of your death. I imagined an adulterous husband, rushing home from an illicit interlude and losing control of his car on a rain-slick road. He slams into a tree, and as he sails through the windshield and heads for the pavement at seventy miles an hour, the last thing he sees is his scapular, dangling from a shard of broken glass. God is not mocked.
As I felt the bare patch of skin on my chest where the wool square used to be, I thought of my own soul, itself weighted with sin. Was God finished being merciful with me? Was He preparing to take my life and subject me to judgment, now that I was out from under Our Lady’s promise? I panicked, and thrashed my way to shore.
What was I thinking, fighting riptides with serious sin—and the consequent threat of hell—on my soul? I once heard it said that if Christians really believed that Christ was in the tabernacle, they would never leave the church. Similarly, if I really believed my eternal fate was in jeopardy, why wasn’t I curled up on a priest’s doorstep, begging him to hear my confession?
I don’t really have an answer, except to say that growing up with God and the devil, heaven and hell, Jesus and Mary, sin and salvation, and all the rest of it had made them familiar to me, perhaps too familiar. It was easy to overlook their significance, easy to ignore the urgency and import of their existence. At nineteen, death and what came after felt very far away. That last riptide, combined with my lost scapular, brought them a little bit nearer.
The years since then have served to wipe away still more of the tarnish brought on by familiarity, to allow me a clearer look at the tradition I have inherited. And even by Christmas of 1992, I was taking my spiritual life more seriously than I had just a few years before. Already, I had begun poking around amid the more ancient treasures of the faith, full of wonder (if not perfect understanding) at what I beheld. Already, I had become one of those people who go swimming with scapulars.
The Janitor Prophet
The night my wife, Deirdre, went into labor with our fourth child, we put the older three to bed, then settled in to watch The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. By film’s end, the contractions were coming a little over five minutes apart. We replayed Richard Burton’s final speech, the one that laid bare the moral loathing he felt for his own spy’s-life amorality. We hashed out the machinations that had brought the film to its less-than-cheerful end. We kept timing the contractions. Around midnight, we called a friend to come sit with the kids and headed for the hospital.
Elijah Timothy Lickona was born into the San Diego night ninety minutes later—not as fast as Olivia, our third (seventy-five minutes from the time the contractions woke Deirdre from sleep), but much faster than our first two. Ninety minutes is not a long time as hard labor goes, but mind-blowing pain has a way of stretching time out, so it didn’t feel all that short to Deirdre.
My wife has delivered all four of our children without medication. She does this for a number of reasons, not least of which is her belief in St. Paul’s claim that “in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24). She offers the pain of her labor to God for the health of her baby and for her mother’s return to the Catholic Church. The catch is that, when things get really bad—when the low growl she makes when bearing down through the contraction gives way to a wavering cry, endlessly rising in pitch and volume—she cannot pray. She cannot even think. When I look at Deirdre in these moments, her eyes squeezed shut and her tiny mouth wide open, it seems to me she is not there. My wife, my pillar of strength and stability, is lost in a miasma of pain.
So I pray for her—not for her relief, but on her behalf. I lean over her and speak in low tones at a steady clip, “Lord Jesus, accept this suffering as an offering for the salvation of Deirdre’s mother, for her return to the church, and for the health of the baby. Lord, give her strength to bear this suffering.” I try not to imagine what the attendant nurses must be thinking. This woman is screaming in agony, and her husband, instead of offering comfort, instead of speaking words of worshipful praise about how great she is doing and how we’re almost there and everything’s going to be okay, is talking to God. He is not asking for deliverance, not asking the baby to be born sooner than later. He is asking for acceptance—easy for him to ask. What kind of coldhearted man is this? What kind of coldhearted God is receiving his prayers? What kind of coldhearted religion would inspire such behavior?
I am a Roman Catholic, baptized as an infant and raised in the faith, a faith that holds the redemptive and exemplary suffering of Jesus Christ at its core. I believe that faith to be both gift and habit, though the gift may sometimes feel like a cross to be borne and the habit may slip from the well-grooved action of virtue to the mindless repetition of routine.
In fact, it might be more accurate to say that my faith began as cross and repetition, the unpleasant childhood fact of What You Do on Sunday. How sad I was at age four when our family stopped attending Mass at the Newman Center at Cortland State, the upstate New York university where my father teaches, and began filling a pew at St. Mary’s, a gray stone Gothic at the far end of Main Street. The Newman Center had an actual jungle gym in its basement where the very young could play while their parents worshipped. St. Mary’s had a basement but no jungle gym, and I had to stay with my parents and my older brother Mark. Great was my relief in those days when we reached the Profession of Faith; it meant we were halfway through.
When did it become more than routine? What was the first intimation that religion was something other than a place our family went on Sunday mornings, something besides an altogether ordinary part of our lives? I remember my second year of CCD classes, the religious education program for Catholic kids who didn’t attend St. Mary’s parochial school. There, at seven, I won the big set of thin-tipped markers for being the first in my class to memorize and recite the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Apostle’s Creed. It was no great achievement; I had been saying the first two for years, and was good at memorizing. But those thin tips were very adult, and winning carried its usual thrill. In that instance, however, religion was something you did to get something else, much as my own children stay quiet during Mass so that they will get a donut afterwards. I was no prodigy of piety. I feared eternity, even in heaven. “I think there should be a time when my spirit dies out,” I once told my father as he tucked me into bed. “Mom says that when my spirit leaves my body, it will still feel like me, but I don’t think it will.”
I was, however, naturally curious about this all-powerful, eternal God. By age five, I was peppering Dad with questions.
“Dad, which is more powerful, nature or God?”
“Which do you think is more powerful?”
I went with my experience. “Nature, because nature makes storms, and storms are more powerful than God.”
Three weeks later: “Dad, does God make tornadoes?’
“That’s a hard question. God does make nature, and nature operates according to certain laws, and sometimes those laws produce a tornado.”
“I still think nature is more powerful than God.”
I wondered about the outcome of a battle between Jesus and the devil in hell. On earth, it seemed, the fight was going to Satan. My father once had to sit me down for several pre-Christmas scoldings, asking me, “If God were sitting right here, what would you tell him you’re going to try to do to prepare your heart for Jesus’ coming this Christmas?”
“It’s no use Dad. I’m just always getting into trouble. I’m going to have to run away.”
“You mean . . . in trouble with Mom and me?”
“Yes. I’m always getting into trouble. I’m going to run away, really. I’m just tired of all this trouble.”
“Well, look,” my father said. “What do you think we could do about all this trouble?”
“We can’t do anything, because the devil is too strong. I think he’s the strongest thing there is—we can’t beat him.”
Still, by the time I won those markers, faith had begun to take hold. Our family watched the ballyhooed PBS series Cosmos. The host, Carl Sagan, was a professed nonbeliever who equated religious belief with a prescientific worldview. Sagan concluded one long, awestruck tribute to the wonders of the universe with the phrase, “. . . the star stuff that we are made of.” I narrowed my eyes at the screen and pronounced, “Wrong! We’re made of God !”
But faith is not the formal practice of religion. I remember trying to think up sins to confess at my first reconciliation, though I don’t recall the actual event. Nor do I recall my first communion. I do remember my grandmother giving me a rosary afterwards, just before we entered the local Holiday Inn for a celebratory brunch. These twenty-three years later—I am thirty-one now—I still have the rosary. The silver chain between the black wood beads has been repaired once or twice, and when the flimsy silver crucifix at the rosary’s base broke off, I replaced it with a much more beautiful one, found in a California antique shop.
The new one is thick, substantial: silver inlaid with black wood. The crucified Christ, though rubbed smooth in a few places, is still detailed enough to reveal the woven crown of thorns; the folds of the loincloth; the gaunt, mournful face. Tiny nails pierce the hands and pin Christ to the wood of the cross. Another supports the base beneath His feet, and a fourth tacks up the scroll bearing His title. I am not embarrassed to talk of one crucifix being more beautiful than another; I am embarrassed to admit that I have never, with any regularity, taken the twenty minutes a day to say the prayers associated with the beads. The sense of faith didn’t start there.
A better possibility would be sixth-grade CCD. In sixth grade, our teacher was Phil Evangelista. He was not like other men. In our staid, largely Irish parish, he was a spirited, thick-trunked Italian, somehow in our midst instead of across town at St. Anthony’s. He wore shirts open at the collar, with wide lapels that splayed out over the front of his suit jacket. He wore a great gold crucifix on the outside of his suit. And he had religion; he burned for Jesus.
I don’t know how Mr. Evangelista ended up teaching CCD. He was older, maybe retired, but still vital. He had a workshop in the church basement. In later days, I sometimes imagined he used the room to store the remnants of our gorgeous church’s pre–Vatican II past: the marble communion rail, the throne-like wooden priests’ chairs, the gold door of the reredos’s walled-up tabernacle. He was the building’s janitor, repairing the pews, mopping the floor, polishing the ponderous gold candlesticks that flanked the lower altar until they were replaced with simpler, humbler, more modern versions made of wood and black iron.
What he taught is mostly lost to me, except for his claim that God instituted only two sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist, while man created the other five. What I remember is the man: his gleaming white hair swept back against his head; his powerful features and barking, strangely accented voice; his hands. Mr. Evangelista had the biggest knuckles I had ever seen, but that wasn’t the first thing you noticed about his hands, or at least the right hand. The first thing was that he was missing one finger entirely, and another above the middle. He told us he had lost all four fingers in a machine accident, and had then picked them up and marched to the hospital, where he sat, fingers in hand, waiting for them to be reattached. The surgery was not entirely successful; besides the segments that had to be removed, he had no feeling in any of what remained. To demonstrate, he would smash his fingers against the tabletop, backhanding those big knuckles into the wood with alarming force.
Why did he do that? Why did he tell us that story with such vehemence? I always thought he was trying to get our attention, but I don’t think it was just a parlor trick. I think what he did had something to do with what he wanted to tell us, something terribly important connected to his maimed and senseless hand. His talk was full of disappointment and dismay at the state of the world. When he contrasted the old days—days when Sunday reception of communion required you to start fasting at midnight on Saturday—with the current policy of a mere one-hour fast, a policy that allowed people to receive “with the smell of alcohol still on their breath,” his rage was palpable. He was laid open, vulnerable and raw with emotion. It was strange coming from so powerful a man. It made me uncomfortable.
I was twelve, on the verge of becoming a teenager and wary of emotional self-exposure. But he was impossible for me to dismiss, even if I didn’t understand him. Looking back, I think he was telling us that something was wrong and that we needed to pay attention if we were to figure out what it was. Then maybe we would understand his talk about Jesus. He was a signalman. I couldn’t read the signal, but I knew it meant something.
Are You Still Having Sex?
As adolescence gathered on the horizon, I got my first intimations that being Catholic meant being Other in ways besides Mass on Sundays and fish on Fridays. I was not raised in an environment that spent time distinguishing between the faithful and those outside the fold, so I had never given much thought to the faith of my friends. As far as I knew, none of them were Catholic, but the knowledge was neither pleasant nor bothersome. We never discussed religion; we were too busy arguing over who shot who first when we played war.
Then came sex.
A bunch of us sixth graders played Truth or Dare after school under a low canopy of pine trees in Cortland’s Beaudry Park. Everybody was nervous, so nobody demanded anything too extreme, lest they be subjected to the same request. The furthest that things went was some boy being commanded to moon the group, or a boy and a girl to French kiss. I stuck to Truth and was generally left alone, which was how I wanted it. I didn’t go to the pine trees to drop my pants or practice kissing. I went because it was exciting just to be close to anything even vaguely sexual. But I knew that was as far as I’d go—close to it.
It’s hard to say how much of that conviction was religious and how much was the Irish propriety I absorbed from my mother. By seventh grade, however, when the couples started pairing off and “going down,” as we called it, there was a definite religious element to my holding back. I remember being consulted by a thirteen-year-old fellow Catholic about exactly how far he could go. He wanted me to make the careful distinctions that would allow him to stay right with God and still get action. Somehow, I hit upon the notion that everything was basically okay except intercourse (save sex for marriage!), a judgment he received happily enough.
But I held myself to a different standard. I had resolved never to “do more than kiss a girl.” I did this not because I possessed some secret understanding of sin in general or lust in particular, not because I had an especial fear of hell, but because that was the limit my brother had told me he employed. In those days, if Mark said it, it was pretty much Gospel.
Mark is five and a half years older than I am. My mother is fond of pointing out that in nearly every photo in which I am a baby and Mark is present, I am looking at him. That fascination grew into a deep devotion, of which my brother was wonderfully tolerant. After I admired the wooden handgun he had made in wood shop—we were living in Boston at the time, and he and his friends played war in the hotel parking garage across the street—he made one for me. For my Christmas present that year, he fashioned and painted a wooden Spider-Man doll, complete with movable arms and dowel joints at the hips and knees.
Even when he turned moody at age thirteen, he put up with me. Graciously, he allowed me to share his enthusiasms: I listened to his old-time radio recordings of “The Shadow” and “Jack Benny,” read his prized X-Men and Daredevil comic books, and even sat in while he and his eighth-grade buddies played Dungeons & Dragons. As I made my way through high school and he through college, we developed a shared sense of humor, a delight in rewriting pop songs and poking fun at the culture in general. (Mom thought us cynical and blamed our collections of Mad Magazine and Peanuts. “Of course the dog is the cynic,” she said of Snoopy. Only later, when I discovered that “cynic” also meant “of or pertaining to the Dog Star,” did I understand her understanding of Peanuts. Though by then, I had learned that even the funnies could be deeply tied up with a particular view of God and humanity.) When Mark married in 1991, I wept, fearing a weakening of the bond between us. He had to take a moment to console me before leaving his wedding reception: “It’s not like I’m dead, Matt.”
I needn’t have feared. As the years passed, we became more like peers, and we grew closer still, though differences began to show. Mark, who went on to get his master’s in theology, was more cerebral than I, more inclined to identify ideas with persons. After I started college, we began to argue about theology, a running debate that culminated in his dissatisfaction with my senior thesis, a defense of St. Thomas Aquinas’s fourth proof for the existence of God. He feared that I had reduced Thomas to a Christian glosser of Aristotle, that I failed to appreciate the difference that being a Christian makes, even (perhaps especially) in matters of intellect. He feared that our unity—as brothers and friends—had been compromised by my intellectual formation.
I was amazed to learn this. I saw his point—ideas can certainly drive people apart, and ideas about theology, the preeminent science, mattered more than most. But theology didn’t go to the heart of me the way it did with Mark. We were pulling our own version of The School of Athens—Mark as Plato, pointing heavenward to indicate the supreme importance of ideas, me as Aristotle, hand held low to emphasize our fraternal relation. In the end, we mended the rift (if not the disagreement) over a night’s talk and a few shared rounds of bourbon at a restaurant bar.
But that was later. At twelve, Mark was still the standard. He left for Notre Dame just as I was entering junior high. I am certain I repeated many of his adolescent missteps, and I know I took a fair number that were all my own. But there were others I avoided, thanks to his various counsels, particularly in matters sexual. So if high school was not exactly a great spiritual awakening—I don’t think I went to confession during those years—neither was it a corrupting wallow in the irreligious muck. I was no champion of purity, but I muddled through without breaking my resolution: I fell in love, but I never did more than kiss a girl. And if you’ve never tasted the forbidden fruit of sex, it’s easier to contemplate never tasting it at all. By senior year, I was thinking of becoming a priest.
There was some adolescent absolutism about my desire. I was eager to spend my life in the service of Christ. (I didn’t care so much for the name “Jesus” back then—too soft.) How best to serve? The only thing to do is the best thing, the priesthood is the best thing, QED. There was also some hero-worship and romanticism. G. K. Chesterton’s little book on St. Francis, read before I made my mid-senior-year journey to Rome and Assisi, charmed me utterly with its depiction of a love of creation born from a wholehearted, even impassioned love of the Creator. There was a desire to give better sermons than I was used to hearing. And I hope there was some genuine piety in the mix. But I think that mainly, there was a desire to step out of the mainstream.
Like a lot of adolescents, I placed a great value on nonconformity. I had always enjoyed being the odd man out in a group—the catcher in baseball, the goalie in hockey, the only tuba in the band. In high school, that list grew to include the Catholic who stayed a virgin, who didn’t decide that the faith was all a crock or that it simply wasn’t worth thinking about. I had my difficulties: shortly before receiving the sacrament of Confirmation, a sacrament I neither particularly desired nor understood, I told my father that I wasn’t sure I believed in God. He took my doubts seriously, and sought out a series of videos entitled Jesus: Then and Now, which we watched and discussed. By the end, my faith was bolstered; I concentrated on the Incarnation, and found I could believe. But I never took my adolescent doubt as a sign that I should necessarily reject my Catholicism. I was almost certainly too young to experience a dark night of the soul, but I knew that great saints had suffered them. They had felt cut off from God, unable to find Him anywhere, and had persevered.
Whatever the quality of my faith, I continued to practice my religion and adhere to its teachings, and that was enough to brand me in the public eye. When some friends nicknamed me Captain Catholic, it was irritating, but was there not also some secret pleasure in being singled out? I’m the rebel; I’m the nonconformist. When I wrote an angry teenage poem about truth and sheep and death and lies, a friend assumed I was expressing disgust with thoughtless followers of the Good Shepherd. Nothing so subtle or close to home: I was going after my classmates. The mainstream, as I saw it, was choked with a sludge of alcohol and sex. (I didn’t avoid the former as well as I did the latter, but neither did I make a habit of it.)
Besides my brother’s influence, I had my father’s learned reasoning to back me up on this. He was a developmental psychologist who specialized in the moral formation of children—our two-year stay in Boston gave him time to work with Lawrence Kohlberg, a giant in the field. Carefully and calmly, through argument and example, he had convinced me that premarital sex was the wrongful use of another person for self-gratification.
My own experience corroborated his teaching. Perhaps because I lacked a predatory air, I ended up being friends with a number of girls, and I got to see up close the effects of at least one postcoital breakup. I saw that sex could do damage. Athletic locker rooms gave me a chance to compare that girl’s misery to the cheerful rut-talk of guys amongst themselves. (Not that the rut-talk didn’t grip my ears. There’s a reason we’re asked to reject the glamour of sin when we renew our baptismal vows.) I swallowed a lot of dirty water, and by the end of high school, I was ready to inhabit some purer medium.
So when I started telling people during my senior year that I was planning on becoming a priest, it was partly out of mischief—not a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, folks, but a priest, something this town hasn’t produced in a generation—partly for the reasons I have mentioned, and partly out of a simple distaste for sex. The idea of sex still had tremendous appeal: I liked girls fine—I had even loved one—and I had my share of imaginary trysts with fantastic sirens. But I balked at even the thought of actual sex with an actual person. Too damaging—to both of us.
Mark used to tease me that when married couples came to me for priestly counsel, I would ask, “Are you still having sex?”
“Well, then, there’s your problem.”
An unhealthy attitude (and an un-Catholic one), born of too much time spent in an unhealthy clime. College was my saving grace here. I attended Thomas Aquinas College, a lay-founded Catholic liberal arts school with a curriculum built around the Great Books. The women I met and fell in love with there were not mousy prudes. To me, they were vivacious and fascinating, by turns sophisticated, bawdy, and sweet—women who drank and smoked and exuded life. They were also Catholics who regarded chastity as a virtue. Sex, the pleasure and intimacy of it, wasn’t the problem; sex torn out of the context of marriage and family was the problem. Even the pious girls in chapel veils who went on rosary walks with boys around the campus ponds (an admittedly extraordinary sight in 1991) didn’t strike me as repressed. They loved something—someone—and so sought to please Him with their behavior. Many girls carried a book into the chapel entitled This Tremendous Lover. It took me a while to figure out that the lover was Christ and not some paperback romance Casanova.
Before I fell in love—and it only took a few weeks after my arrival—I expressed my priestly intentions to the college chaplain, Father Steckler. Father was a lean, ropy, white-haired Jesuit who tromped about campus in a black cassock but wore shorts for his goatlike ascents into the surrounding mountains. He liked Bombay Sapphire gin and cigars, and he was fond of cooking fine meals for small groups of students in the priests’ residence. I liked him immediately: the orderly workings of his mind, the staccato rasp of his voice, the cheerful scorn—sharpened by age and experience—that he heaped upon the enemies of the church. When I said I wanted to be a priest, Father told me to wait until the end of junior year, and if I was still interested, to come and see him about it again.
A visiting priest from the Legionaries of Christ got to me some time before that. I knew him a little, and my mother and I had attended his ordination in Rome. He gave me a talk about “giving God the first shot”—entering the seminary to “test my vocation” before contemplating marriage. That’s what he had done, and he had left a girl behind to do it. It broke his heart, he told me, but he decided he had to give God the first shot. Now, here he was, a priest of God and no regrets.
I didn’t know how to answer him, but I balked at following his counsel. I was a great one for fulfilling the duties imposed by religion, but my vocation seemed outside the realm of obligation. I had first considered the priesthood based on the leanings of my heart. Now, my heart was leading me elsewhere. I was in love with a woman, and the idea of rejecting that love to make way for another seemed strange. If I had a vocation to the priesthood, I thought, shouldn’t I want to be a priest? Shouldn’t there be a nagging, inescapable force at work on my will, a sense that I was not where I ought to be? I prayed about his advice, but not too hard. I was afraid at the force of his argument, but I no longer felt the priesthood’s tug on my soul. What I felt was earthly love for a good woman. By the end of junior year—the time Father Steckler had set for me to talk to him about the priesthood—I had met the woman who would become my wife.
Now I have sons of my own, three of them. I would love to see one or more of them on the altar one day, ordained priests saying the Mass. Getting them there will not be easy. I still believe that personal desire plays a part in discerning one’s vocation. But it does seem to me that God’s call to the priesthood is coming as a still, small voice these days, one easily drowned out by the whirlwinds and earthquakes of the world. My boys will need help to hear it. Once, the vocations director for the San Diego diocese gave a sermon at our parish. His talk was squishy, walk-with-Jesus stuff—squishy because everyone is called to walk with Jesus. You don’t have to be a priest to do that.
I could have stood something stronger, especially given the atmosphere surrounding the priesthood in the wake of the abuse scandal. Who would want to become a priest today, unless he understood that sacrifice was essential to the calling, and that the world’s hatred (or at least its scorn) was par for the course? Celibacy is regarded by some as stifling at best, deeply damaging at worst. I could have stood some of the old Church Militant talk—we need soldiers for Christ, men who will lay down their lives so that others may live in the grace of our Lord (though Lord knows, I never heard it put this way when I was growing up). The job of the church is to lead souls to heaven. The sacraments are the food for that journey, and we need priests for the sacraments. Confession, the Mass, the Eucharist—these are the things unique to priests. These are the reasons we need them.
I don’t think we’re going to see an end to the rule of celibacy. I do think this is a moment of crisis for the priesthood in this country. So many gray heads on the altar. Around my hometown of Cortland, there is talk of a cluster of parishes: many parishes served by one priest, saying Mass here one Sunday, there the next.
Priests come from families. The families of those who oppose celibacy—and hesitate over obedience in general—will likely not produce many priests to replace the current ranks. Those families that support and revere the priesthood as it is defined by the church, those parents who can encourage their sons to listen for a call that requires the sacrifice of marital love, will likely produce more. Hope springs eternal.
Too Much Kissing with Father Dave
In 1993, I got my first whiff of the priestly sexual abuse scandal; I started hearing people talk about Jason Berry’s Lead Us Not into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children. The problem, astonishing as it seemed to pious ears, was apparently widespread. But my particular experience of the scandal came years earlier. When I was about fourteen years old, I was kissed by a priest: Father Dave.
The act did not have the character of an assault, but of a line crossed; he was affectionate with lots of youngsters—from kids to teenagers—in ways that few people thought inappropriate. He was every kid’s favorite, the young-at-heart associate pastor who paid attention to us.
“You have a musical head. Did you know that?” he liked to ask the small ones.
“What do you mean, Father?”
“Listen.” He squeezed your forehead and puffed out his lips with air so that a tiny squeak escaped, to your delight. “See? A musical head.” Then he tucked his hands under your arms and tossed you into the air. After you landed, he hugged you close and said, “You’re a BP—a beautiful person. Who loves you?”
“You do, Father.”
“Do you know who else loves you? Jesus loves you.” Then he kissed your forehead. All this was after Mass, Father still in his vestments, filling up those frustrating minutes after church when parents milled about on the sidewalk, chatting and laughing and not going to the car.
None of this affection felt creepy at the time. It felt wonderful, and it made Father Dave very attractive. He preached one of the only sermons I can remember from my childhood. It had the character of an old chestnut. Father described a world where people carried their hearts in their hands. One man sought to keep his heart perfect and unsullied, and kept it protected in a glass box. Another man was forever exchanging pieces of his heart with others. His heart became lumpy and ugly to look upon—none of the pieces fit just so. But he was happy. Old chestnut or no, love made me listen and remember.
When we got to be teenagers, Father took us on “Blood Baths”—visits to the college racquetball courts, where he excelled despite his paunch. If there were four of us, we played basketball afterwards; often, we went swimming in the college’s indoor pool. The only oddity—and it only occasionally felt like an oddity—was the way he gently insisted on everybody showering afterwards in the locker room. Then we all went to Friendly’s restaurant for ice cream sundaes. Going on a Blood Bath was cool, a kind of honor. Even non-Catholics joined in. I loved Blood Baths, and was happy when Father Dave continued to come back for them even after he was transferred to another parish.
It was during one of these later outings, one that involved just the two of us, that he kissed me. It was not strange for him to hug me between points, to tell me he loved me and that I was a beautiful person. He had been doing that for years. But this time, his hug grew tighter, so that I could feel the hard strength in his arms. His kisses moved from my forehead to my lips, where tiny pecks gave way to one long pressing of his mouth to mine. If my memory serves, I froze, went rigid, and said nothing. The moment passed, and we resumed our game. The freezing feeling remained. My father recalls that after I got home and he asked me how the game went, I replied rather coolly, “Too much hugging and kissing.”
“Kissing? What kind of kissing—you mean, on the lips?”
“How many times?”
“Fifteen to twenty.”
My father immediately went into his study and began writing a letter to Father Dave. It took him several days to finish. In the letter, he said he didn’t want to believe that the event betrayed a more serious problem. But when it came time to send it, my father realized that he had a responsibility to bring the matter before the bishop. So he made an appointment and presented the letter. My father could see the pain in the bishop’s face as he read. The bishop said he was very sorry for what had happened. He said that he had had complaints from other parishioners about Father Dave’s “excessive” displays of affection toward children. He said that he would meet with Father Dave and show him the letter, which he did. Shortly thereafter, Father was moved into chaplain work with the elderly.
A few years after that, and soon after the installation of a new bishop, the diocese was sued because Father Dave had molested two other boys, ages ten and eleven. (This had happened before his encounter with me, while he was at the other parish. The case was settled out of court. As part of the settlement, the diocese agreed to provide a letter from the new bishop, reading, “Please accept this letter as an apology for any unfortunate happenings which you feel may have happened to you and your family stemming from your participating in church activities.”)
My faith was not shaken by my encounter—or at least, if it was, I wasn’t aware of it. Father Dave was not the church. Father Dave was a poor sinner, like the rest of us. The truth the church proclaims, and my docility to that church, would not be altered even if it came out that the pope himself was a molester—though in that case, I think my heart would break. I didn’t dwell on Father’s advances, and I continued to think about becoming a priest myself.
In recent times, as news of priestly wrongdoing has burst into the headlines (and continued to ooze out in a fetid trickle), I have not been driven into a helpless, strangled rage. I didn’t really suffer from my encounter with an abusive priest, not the way others have suffered. Once, soon after my encounter with Father Dave, I broke down in sobs at the dining-room table, but the tears came and went and didn’t come back. It was easy for me to forgive Father Dave; easy to feel nothing but pity and sorrow when I heard that he had left the priesthood and later died of AIDS; easy to think of his sin as a terrible weakness, rather than an evil habit that caused incredible damage to young lives.
What upsets me is the hierarchy’s reaction. I can understand wayward flesh, even wayward flesh that violates the young. But when the response from the pastors of that wayward flesh is defensive, and gives the impression of one episcopal eye being cast toward the courtroom—can’t admit too much, lest it be used in a lawsuit—I have a harder time forgiving. It seems a more spiritual failing on the part of our spiritual leaders. It looks to me like men abandoning their posts as shepherds of souls and turning into politicians. I read where a spokesman for the U.S. Bishops’ Conference said, “This is not Watergate; it’s Whitewater.” He was claiming that the problem was not as bad as it was being depicted, but the political analogy struck me as both telling and in bad taste. Though the scandals have a political character, they stem from intimate, personal events. The damage is also personal, devastatingly so.
When I heard the early claims from the hierarchy that the media was distorting the issue, or that things are better now than they were, or that the trouble stemmed from too much trust in therapy, I thought of Clinton’s televised semi-apology during the Lewinsky scandal. Instead of a simple, “I’m sorry I lied,” we got a reminder that his lie had come during a deposition for a case that never went to court. Both Clinton and the bishops may have been telling the truth. But people were not satisfied with Clinton’s dodge, and he eventually broke down and gushed his mea culpas. Similarly, many victims I read about hungered for genuine contrition, not explanation, from their bishops. (Eventually, in some cases, it came.)
I wanted to protest. I wanted to stop giving money to my diocese. I was ready to see the diocese of Boston go bankrupt as a result of the lawsuits brought against it. However sobering it was to think that such an event might mean the closing of schools, hospitals, and charitable services, I was ready to sacrifice them all if bankruptcy would shock the bishops into serious action. Sin has consequences, I said to myself. It’s folly to pretend otherwise.
Outrage makes it easier to hold such extreme opinions. Outrage is wearying, however, and difficult to maintain. Now, I would rather see the church limp along, doing what good it can, than watch it collapse under the weight of its own failings. But if it is difficult to maintain outrage, it can also be difficult to maintain faith in those responsible.
I have heard that the present age has been called “the hour of the laity.” I think the idea is that the laity have been called upon to act as full members of the Body of Christ, to do His work and spread His gospel and not simply look to priests and religious to transform the world. If outrage gives way to despair in our leaders’ ability to lead us on the path to Christ, it could become a different sort of “hour of the laity.” One in which priests are valued only insofar as they dispense the sacraments, and bishops are valued not at all. Such an hour would, I think, be a dark one for the church.
I take comfort in the thought that the church has had dark hours before. So many brief accounts of the saints seem to mention that the blessed soul, while still on earth, “worked for the reform of the church.” Thanks to the persistence of sin, the edifice has been crumbling since it was first built, and again and again, God has brought good out of evil. My brother, echoing my own hopes, puts it bluntly: “To be a priest now is to live under a cloud of scandal. Men who enter the priesthood today will need to be men of true faith, who know that following Christ means sharing in His crucifixion.”
Meet the Author
Matthew Lickona is a staff writer and sometime cartoonist for the San Diego Reader, a weekly newspaper. Born and raised in upstate New York, he attended Thomas Aquinas College in California. He lives in La Mesa, California, with his wife Deirdre and their four children.
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A must-read for young Catholics everywhere. The author paints a picture of modern Catholics who are trying to be good witnesses to the world of what it means to be Catholic through service, love and prayer. He's honest, educated and refreshing.