My Father's Catholicism


My paternal grandparents were the scandal of the old country. She was a devout Irish Catholic, he a godless Sottish Protestant. Somehow the Devil intervened and the two of them ran off to America rather than face the wrath of two families.

He turned out to be a poor choice. He drank like a fish, had a job during the Depression, yet neverproduced so much as a quart of milk for his family all the while fathering 13 children. That prompted Nana to remark that “he only came home for one thing.”

Nana referred to her husband as well as all non-Catholics as “pagans.” She seemed serious and was a hard woman. My father took to calling them “pagans” also yet he said so with a wink in his eye and a bit of a smile. He was an easy-going, lighthearted man. He was permissive. We could stay out all hours, take the bus to the big city unescorted, do anything we wanted. Just do so within the context of Catholicism.

Everything in my childhood household revolved around Catholicism. My father never cautioned us against association with non-Catholics. He cautioned us against association with “Sunday morning Catholics,” those Catholics who only fulfilled their minimal obligations.

Never kiss a Protestant but kiss all the Catholic girls you could. Do everything you wanted to do but stop to pray along the way. We would go on vacations like anybody else, to the beaches or the mountains. My father knew churches along the way. We’d stop in, admire the stained-glass windows, say a prayer, leave a donation then go bowling.

It took me many years to understand my father’s fanatic devotion the Catholicism. It stemmed from childhood trauma so severe as to render the man mad. When my father was seven years old he was put in charge of the baby tram for his three-year-old sister. As a seven-year-old he thought it fun to race the tram. He ran faster and faster and faster.

He ran so fast he hit a bump in the road. The baby fell out and hit her head. The family didn’t seek medical care. They prayed. The baby died. My father had killed his baby sister.

 The family were steerage-poor immigrants. It was 1925 and there was little medical care available anyway. Yet me father needed immediate mental health counseling but got only more prayer. He never stopped praying. He began going to church every day, falling on his knees every night. He continued that pace for the rest of his life. Every day he went to church, every night he fell on his knees til the day he died.

When my father was thirteen years-old he entered a seminary to become a Catholic clergyman. He stayed there til he was twenty-one-years-old. In those days the church had plenty of recruits. Though my father was studious and serious he failed to make the cut.

He was too religious or something. The order, a teaching order, sent him home. He was devastated. This was yet another desperate failure. My father fell into a deep depression. He became outwardly hard- working and jovial but would mentally collapse into tears over no obvious cause. He went into and out of mental institutions for the rest of his life. He underwent the worst of the era's treatments, repeated electro shock treatments, etc.

He had other physical problems. He and I had unexplained chest pains. I acted quickly, was found to have collapsed arteries, was fitted with stents and have been pain-free for ten years. My father sucked it up and prayed, only to die young of heart failure.

I have Parkinson’s Disease. I follow the guidelines for Parkinson’s patients, exercise daily, remain mentally busy, take my meds. My practitioners all say I respond extremely well, as well as any Parkinson’s patient they ever see.

I look back at my father and see the symptoms of Parkinson’s clearly in him. Yet he never sought medical treatment. He just prayed.

I recall when Nana lay dying. Hers was a slow-going. She was in the hospital for what seemed like weeks. Every day after work my father would visit her in the hospital, stop by the church and come home for a late dinner.

On the day she seemed poised to take her last breath my father was given a Mason jar of holy water. He took it to his mother and fed it to her sip by sip until she finished it all. Then, in defiance of expectation she revived. She came to alertness from a coma-like state. Uncles were summoned. Ice cream was

brought in. She laughed and joked, gobbled down the ice cream, lay down and died. My father was convinced he had witnessed and participated in a miracle. A doctor came along and muttered something about hydration. Probably a pagan.

I don’t know hydration, I’m not a doctor. I don’t know miracles, I’m not a priest. But I knew my father and I loved him. So “Amen,” Dad.


The Best Possible Film

A few weeks ago a local high school teacher asked me if there was anything appropriate to teenage special needs students. She wanted to organize an end-of-school-year field trip. As it happens we had the best possible film lined up. THE RIDER is about a young man who is on his way to rodeo stardom. 

He is barely out of his teens yet is entering manhood confident and strong. He looks to a future full of promise. Then a terrible tragedy befalls hm: he is badly injured in a horse accident. His injuries are so severe that he is left in a state that defines special needs.

He begins to question his manhood. He doubts he has the will to continue living. The Rider is so well done as to have been singled out at Cannes for a special award. The film has been praised internationally by the critics. 

There are other peculiar aspects of the film. The director cast the man’s father and younger sister in roles that mimic their real lives. The story is true.

But no matter: the teacher can’t touch it. This cowboy speaks in curses, foul language, swears. Some of his friends smoke pot. Thus the film is rated R. The teacher would lose her job if she took these kids to an R-rated movie.

I have sympathy for the teacher. There was no point in belaboring any social issues yet the film is about a man just beyond boyhood who becomes special needs. 

Perhaps the film will find some of them in a home version a few months down the road. I certainly don’t want a teacher to lose her job.