Why I Couldn’t Embrace the Catholic Church

Creative Nonfiction by Michael McQuillan

Why I Couldn’t Embrace the Catholic Church

Childhood trauma and immoral exemplars in teen years pushed me from the Catholicism that meant much to my mother. The above-altar crucifix with blood dripping from the tortured body of Christ at the Church of Saints Philip and James in the Bronx where I often spent Sundays lies vivid in memory. So too my four-year-old thought that a parish priest singled me out as a sinner, my innate sense of wonder shattered by shame.

The below portrait dates from that time. The centered stance anchored me in hindsight for facing an early adulthood’s dilemmas. The wind-blown open coat seems a hero’s cape, implying that I'll grow resourceful, insightful and strong. Those traits will guide my older self through trials of faith and family, prompting a social justice career that culminates in a religious conversion.

Childhood Sundays meant boarding the soon elevated Broadway subway at Manhattan’s West 96th Street toward its terminal point in the Bronx. The longer the trip, the better it was, as I in the first car on tiptoes could peer at the tracks through a portal to pretend I was driving the train. Reaching the Gun Hill Road station meant arrival at a sacred sanctuary now known as warmly diverse but in 1957 homogeneous, Irish, austere. Mom and I there sat through services among cousins, uncles and aunts, always in back pews far from the preaching, communion or candle lighting for when kids got restless.

Intrigued by the ornate setting but too small to see its proceedings, I once climbed on the leather hassock to peer over parishioners rather than kneeling on it to pray. The presiding priest’s concurrent pointing for the congregation to sit was, I assumed, to address my wrongdoing. Sheepish, I hid my face in Mom’s shoulder, pressed back in the pew, felt myself in a spotlight. Of course, no one noticed.

Shame consumed me through the afternoon meal at Uncle Dave and Aunt Ruth’s apartment, where parents dressed to the nines dispersed to separate rooms after coffee, the conversational voices of women lost to shouts of men watching replays of Notre Dame football.

The men's strength impressed and the women’s communal sharing appealed, but I kept to myself in silence, assigned to a playroom as I sought adult comfort in vain – and with religion a fraught topic at home, where Dad’s atheism vetoed Mom's yearnings, there would be no balm in Gilead.

Father Robert Rappelyea, a probationary priest from the Bronx, declared himself a Knicks fan when Mom began calling him to family dinner dates Dad resisted, but our guest found my adolescent “meaning of life” questions vexing. My parents, often in conflict, were also an unwilling audience. For answers I perused Classics Illustrated comics, along with One Hundred Years of New York Times Front Pages and Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln series, among Dad's hardbound volumes.

At seventeen on the eve of Mom and Dad’s violent divorce, I called Father Rappelyea's own rectory office for an appointment to see him downtown, where he had become at Holy Cross Church a prominent Reverend Monsignor. Its website posthumously lauds him as “a charter member of the Mayor’s Midtown Citizens Council, founder of the Holy Cross Civic Association, Chaplain of the Port Authority Police,” and (along with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) “a catalyst” at cleaning up and improving Times Square.

Weighing to which parent I should entrust custody of my ten-year-old sister by signing legal papers before my college term launched in St. Louis, I to no avail sought Rappelyea’s pastoral wisdom and solace. It was my decision, he couldn’t step in, was all he said from his massive oak desk's other side. The ensuing silence made clear we were done. Accustomed to making decisions, I solved my dilemma, convinced that God shared my disdain. I believed in a caring Creator with clergy to serve in that spirit.

Catholicism assumed life and death aspects as I neared the age eighteen demand for draft registration. Bronx Science high school classmates and I had already chartered a school bus on our own to join the half million crowd at the November 1969 Vietnam Moratorium on the Washington Monument grounds, Cary Frumess’ piercing ocarina rendition of “The William Tell Overture” announcing our long delayed departure.

The daunting prospects of emigrating to Canada or going to jail for refusing an army induction were beyond what I could fathom, but I’d resolved at heart that I'd never wage war.

“Soldiers of Christ, fight on for total victory,” Francis Cardinal Spellman had in 1966 urged US troops in Vietnam. Many died for a discredited cause as he flew to safe haven at New York's St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Spellman, as he had in the Fifties in South Korea, sprinkled holy water on B-52 bombers' wings to bless missions for what he called “my country right or wrong.” That trumpet call to arms flowed freely for a man who lived in luxury, immune from battle in a fighting year that killed 6,350 Americans, countless Vietnamese.

That Spellman’s sanction profaned God seemed crystal clear. I didn’t need to don a cassock or biretta to know the institutional Church should never stand for violence. Spellman even shed his vestments after leading troops in prayer to wear army fatigues while touring their base with an escort. Jesus never wore such clothes. Christ’s Sermon on the Mount honored peacemaking, reconciliation and mercy.

“The cold brutality of the deeds of war is left undisguised,” Simone Weil’s 1940 pamphlet The Poem of Force declared of Homer’s Iliad, “neither victors nor vanquished are admired, scorned or hated, …. The use of force dehumanizes.”

Spellman’s fierce pro-war and anti-abortion stands disturbed me. Hearing that New York's Archbishop also opposed the inclusive English Mass and the other liberal decrees of Pope John XXIII’S Second Vatican Council made me wonder what, if anything, Cardinal Spellman was for. A religion that anointed him a leader was not where I belonged.

My cousin Martin, an army sharpshooter in Vietnam, fell at nineteen. In shock at his funeral until tears erupted at Taps, I found only tragic loss in his sacrifice.

“The American scene was no longer a good scene,” Daniel Berrigan then observed. “It was, in fact, an immoral scene, corrupted by a useless, wasting war abroad and a growing, petrifying racism at home.” The Jesuit Father Dan with his brother Philip led the Catonsville Nine at pouring homemade napalm on and burning draft records in Maryland. Their courage in confronting the war issue at the cost of arrest, conviction and prison confinement inspired. The event cut through a complacent church like lightning. It challenged me to clarify my own ethics.

Shocked by materialism and waste once home from the Peace Corps where I trained special education teachers while internalizing Korean humility, I rented a room uptown in Inwood, sat cross-legged on a thrift store mattress under a wall-nailed India bedspread and McGovern poster, drank cheap wine and indulged utopian daydreams as I read late at night. A community organizer by day, I canvassed house-to-house in low-income sections of Queens to raise a supermarket boycott and campaigns for summer jobs plus traffic lights near school crossings. Coffee and pizza fueled evening strategy sessions, purple mimeograph machine ink staining hands as I coaxed flyers from it to advertise living room or church basement meetings.

“In emptiness, forms are born,” said a Zen tenet I found while seeking life's purpose. “When one becomes empty of the assumptions, inferences and judgments he has acquired over the years, he comes close to his original nature and is capable of conceiving original ideas and acting freshly.”

I immersed myself in Dan Berrigan's No Bars to Manhood and The Dark Night of Resistance from lower Broadway’s Strand Bookstore, crossing the city to where the Village Voice, WIN Magazine or lamppost flyers announced he would preach. Spotting him in a Manhattan sidewalk crowd near Mom's apartment on the Upper West Side, I was ready when Dan, after I hailed him, asked what I’d read that was interesting. A pale face, gray turtleneck, gray hair and brown cap made him easy for others to miss, but he shined like a diamond for me.

A lane between his civil disobedience and Spellman’s banal evil beckoned when my wife joined the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue choir, “our merry band of music makers,” its local press ad said. I dressed well for a concert to support Sharon’s venture, surprised to find myself at a religious service where I felt warmly welcomed. There Tikkun Olam and Tzedakah, Jewish concepts of “repairing the world” and “charitable giving as a moral obligation toward social justice,” resonated with my conscience values. We made friends, became congregational members and I began chanting the prayers. “I saw your lips moving,” Sharon's Dad whispered when he and her Mom once worshipped with us.

Having dropped out of an introductory Judaic course that emotionally overwhelmed me, I tossed aside conversion thoughts until midnight on a fateful Rosh Hashanah, the start of High Holy Days and the Jewish New Year. While reading Rabbi Irving Greenberg’s The Seasons of the Jewish Year to prepare for the morrow’s observance, my mind burst with clarity. “Open the Talmud, turn to any page, and you will find a friend,” Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel had lectured in Manhattan at the 92nd Street Y with Sharon and me in his presence. Recalling that provoked knowledge that each year-by-year step I’d made in the synagogue – attendance, study, membership, sharing life cycle events, leading lay services, serving on a social justice committee – had enriched me beyond expectation, conversion’s certitude dawning with the sudden softness of snow.

About the Author

Michael McQuillan

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Michael McQuillan, former US Senate aide and Peace Corps Volunteer, taught history, coordinated the Crown Heights Coalition and chaired the NYPD Training Advisory Council's Race Subcommittee. He writes for Harlem World, the History News Network, and blog.