Memories of a Catholic Boyhood

By Kenneth L. Woodward

In 1971, I looked back on that Catholic parallel culture and tried to capture for the readers of Newsweek the contours of a world that was already by then receding into history:

There was a time, not so long ago, when Roman Catholics were very different from other Americans. They belonged not to public school districts, but to parishes named after foreign saints, and each morning parochial-school children would preface their Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag with a prayer for Holy Mother the Church. When they went to Mass—never just a “Sunday service”—they prayed silently with rosaries or read along in Latin as if those ancient syllables were the language Jesus himself spoke. Blood-red vigil candles fluttered under statues and, on special occasions, incense floated heavily about the pews. Kneeling at the altar rail, their mouths pinched dry from fasting, the clean of soul were rewarded with the taste of God on their tongues—mysterious, doughy, and difficult to swallow. “Don’t chew the Baby Jesus,” they were warned as children, and few—even in old age—ever did.

The Catholic Church was a family, then, and if there were few brothers in it, there were lots of sisters—women with milk-white faces of ambiguous age, peering out of long veils and stiff wimples that made the feminine contours of their bodies ambiguous too. Alternately sweet and sour, they glided across polished classroom floors as if on silent rubber wheels, virginal “brides of Christ” who often found a schoolroom of thirty students entrusted to their care. At home, “Sister says” was a sure way to win points in any household argument.

Even so, in both church and home, it was the “fathers” who wielded ultimate authority. First, there was the Holy Father in Rome: aloof, infallible, in touch with God. Then there were the bishops, who condemned movies and sometimes communism; once a year, with a rub from a bishop’s anointing thumb, young men blossomed into priests and Catholic children of twelve became “soldiers of Jesus Christ.” But it was in the confessional box on gloomy Saturday nights that the powers of the paternal hierarchy pressed most closely on the soul. “Bless me Father for I have sinned” the penitent would say, and in that somber intimacy, sins would surface and be forgiven.

There were sins that only Catholics could commit, like eating meat on Friday or missing Sunday Mass. But mostly the priests were there to pardon common failings of the flesh, which the timid liked to list under the general heading of “impure” thoughts, desires, and action. Adolescent boys dreamed of marriage when it would be okay by God and the fathers to “go all the way.” But their parents knew full well that birth control was not included in such freedom. Birth control was against God’s law, all the fathers said, and God’s law—like Holy Mother the Church—could never change.

The church, of course, did change, which is why it is worth recalling what it was like before the reforms of Vatican Council II took hold.

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