Jumping ahead a few years from where I left off in the first part of my personal story, at the age of eleven I found myself envying my churchgoing peers, as I felt increasingly ashamed of my family’s lack of religion and increasingly frustrated by my mother’s insistence that religion not “get ahold of my mind.” (My father was completely indifferent to religion; it simply did not even appear on his radar.)
A kind of miracle
So it struck me as a miracle of God that, one day in the spring of 1969, my mother decided that we should all become Catholics. Although I have since realized that her true motive was to get us kids into parochial school and thus avoid the chaos being caused by forced racial integration in Louisiana public schools, I nonetheless recognize this as a miracle, one in which my mother participated without intending or realizing it. Thus it happened that I attended my first Catholic Mass on Easter of that year and the following September, after a few rounds of hasty after-school instruction by one of the nuns at Cabrini school, I was baptized along with my siblings one Saturday afternoon in the priest’s sacristy of St Francis Cabrini Church. (Our parents had been baptized the previous Saturday.) The next day we all attended Mass together as a family for the first — and almost the last — time. My mother soon dropped all pretense of belief, but she made my father continue to attend Mass with us for some time, in order to convince the nuns who ran the school that our parents were serious about raising us as Catholics (a lie, as it turned out).
As it happened, only my younger brother and sister actually got to attend the parochial school. The school simply did not have openings in the grades my older brother and I had just begun, so we remained in the public system. Thus, immediately after my baptism, I began sixth grade CCD Confirmation class. We were taught by Sister Ignatius, an Irish nun whose textbook was the Baltimore Catechism. She enforced a strict discipline that made us realize being confirmed was a big deal that required serious attention. For instance, even though our class met on Saturday morning, we were not allowed to wear play clothes, but were expected to dress as if it were an ordinary school day: girls in dresses or skirts, boys in decent pants and shirts — no jeans, sneakers, or T-shirts. This may sound antediluvian to readers today, when kids are allowed to wear almost anything to school and to learn next to nothing while they are there, but I believe it was a sound strategy that impressed on us the seriousness of the enterprise. We even got report cards, so that our parents would know whether we had been slacking off in our religious instruction.
I applied myself to my lessons with great fervor and I’m glad now that I did, because it would be a long time before I got another opportunity to learn the faith. The winds of change were blowing in the Church and, by the time I reached eighth grade, CCD classes had degenerated into touchy-feelly gab sessions that barely mentioned God but focused instead on how we felt about “relevant” problems in teen life. So I thank God for Sister Ignatius and the Baltimore Catechism because they taught me that:
- I had an immortal soul whose care was my primary responsibility before God;
- that I had been created so that I could know God, love Him and serve Him in this world, and enjoy Him forever in the next.
I also learned other important things:
- about sin and the need for redemption;
- about Jesus, the Lamb of God, the self-sacrificing Redeemer who saves us from sin;
- about “mysteries,” i.e., truths that we can believe even if we can’t understand them; and
- about the necessity of the Church and her Sacraments.
These are lessons that stayed with me and sank deep into my soul, where they would hibernate during my teenage years of confusion and emerge again in the springtime of my adulthood.
My life’s purpose
When the Bishop of Alexandria, Charles P. Greco, confirmed me in the spring of 1970, he told me that I was now a Soldier of Christ and that my mission was to combat sin and error so that Christ’s light would shine in the world and overcome the darkness. That is another thing that I have never forgotten, even though there have been plenty of people — inside the Church as well as outside — who would sneer at such an idea. But that idea, that my life had a God-given purpose was what kept me going for a long time, especially when everything and everyone around me seemed bent on proving it wrong.
My Confirmation, at the age of not-quite-twelve marked what would be for many years the high point of my spiritual youth. Of course, no one lives in the heights for long — life is a journey and from the height, there is nowhere else to go but down into the next valley. But those depths if we keep moving forward, even in the darkness, when we look up we will see another mountain height beckoning. In the next installment of this spiritual autobiography, I’ll describe the series of dark valleys and modest heights that I traveled through my teens and early twenties, and how I climbed out of that period of my life with a hunger and thirst to “learn God” in a more intimate and personal way.