Prima Pars: Prophecy
I was raised Roman Catholic because my older brother didn’t know how to fistfight. That’s basically how it was explained to me, in so many words. According to my mother, Artie frequently got himself beat up in the Cleveland Public School system, which is why she looked into parochial schools for me. I was the “baby” of the family – about 15 years younger than my assertive and self-confident Sis, who would not be able to protect me from bullies as she had for my brother – who is a year older than she.
My family was not Catholic, except for my dad, who was lapsus – he had not darkened the doorway of a church since... well, I don’t remember him ever going to church, unless someone was getting married and, even then, it had to be someone very close. My mom, when asked, described herself as Protestant; I think her church was United Methodist, but I don’t know what she was before the United Methodist church was founded in 1968, two years before I was born. She hardly attended church services either. For the both of them, faith seemed a private matter.
But there are scads of Catholic schools in Cleveland and, still in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, they had all started accepting non-Catholic students. So, for a family like mine, looking for a private school, it was a fairly easy choice. Kindergarten at St. Benedict’s, 1st grade at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and 2nd-8th at Our Lady of Peace. I’m not sure why so many; I think the Diocese of Cleveland had been closing and consolidating parishes. The tuition bill was footed by my gramma D. She belonged to Eastern Star, the sister sorority of the Freemasons. This was somewhat ironic, because a Catholic can get himself excommunicated for affiliating himself with the Freemasons.
By 2nd grade, Our Lady of Peace (OLP) was the most gorgeous church I had ever seen. It had a baldaquin atop marble pillars. Beneath that was a bronze tabernacle, upon which sat two angel figures face to face, like the Ark of the Covenant. A realistic crucifix seemed to float in air between baldaquin and tabernacle, a grim reminder of the sacrifice required to expiate mankind's sinful nature. Its apse contained a vaulted ceiling on which a mosaic depicted angels dancing around a throne where sat the Madonna and Child in a field of azure strewn with stars. It was beautiful to behold, and for a seven-year-old like me, it fixed the imagination upon the transcendent.
In 2nd grade, most Catholic kids were making their first communion. The boys who made their first communion would eventually be allowed to serve as altar boys. These boys would partake in the strange and mystical rituals of the Catholic Mass beneath that azure vault. Garbed in scarlet cassock and white surplice, they would perform the mysterious tasks of the liturgical rites. The pomp, the circumstance, the occasional magic word in Latin thrown in for good measure. I was jealous, and I wanted in; and that meant, I would have to become a Roman Catholic.
After speaking with my parents, the pastor, Fr. Zepp, was uncertain if a Methodist baptism was valid. At least that’s what he said. So, he performed a special Mass to cover both my baptism and first communion. All for me, and me alone. I remember quite a number of parishioners showing up for this event, which would have been done during the course of a regular Sunday Mass. So, I was the star of the show, the center of all that pageantry. And, with the Blessed Virgin staring down as a witness, the first step of my plan to become an altar boy was completed.
I had learned a couple of things about that day much later in life. First of all, a Methodist baptism meets the requirements for what the Catholic Church would regard as a valid baptism. Consequently, I had been baptized twice, and had two sets of godparents. I can’t see how Fr. Zepp didn’t know this; I had learned it by high school. I suspect he didn't want to be certain I had a proper baptism so much as he wanted to make a show of me: come one, come all, see the amazing son of apostates return to the One True Faith! Religions love to parade their converts about, don’t they?
I didn’t learn the other thing about that day until I was in college. I was going to Borromeo, a now defunct seminary college. I was still in love with the Catholic rites, the mysteries of faith, and the eye-appealing architecture, and my plan was to carry that love to its logical conclusion: the Catholic priesthood. That’s when someone, I forget who, had told me about the “prophecy”. Apparently the nuns of OLP, the ones who witnessed the spectacle of my conversion (if a seven-year-old can be said to have a conversion), regarded it as an omen. They regarded it a miracle that someone so young would embrace the Mother Church, the one true body of Christ on Earth. Such a miracle betokened one of two things: either I would die in childhood, or I would grow up and become a priest.
Whoever told me about this prophecy seemed to believe in it, and was excited that it would come true since, although I failed to die young, I was in the seminary studying to be a priest. She seemed quite happy that prophecies could come true. However, I was quite disturbed. For some reason, I resented that the nuns should say such a thing; I resented that they thought God had such a narrow path set out for me. I had never thought about the implications of prophecy before. But if prophecies come true, can there be such a thing as free will? I wasn’t sure, but I felt like I had to prove the nuns, if not God himself, wrong. From that moment I knew that I most emphatically would not, could not, become a priest.