When I was about 10 years old, I wanted to be a Catholic priest. The desire was short lived. So short, that I never even told anyone about it. I did, however, admit it on a form I was asked to fill out by an educator and priest from Kenrick Seminary. He was tasked with conveying the joys of the vocational life to the fifth graders at St. John the Baptist Elementary school in South St. Louis.
In the 1970s, Seminary admissions were down, sparking fears of priest shortages in the decades to come. In response, the St. Louis Archdiocese, in true post-Vatican II form, decided that the problem could be solved with a little modern-day marketing. All they had to do was send out likable priests to sell the joys of the collar and the problem would fix itself.
For my classmates and I that priest was Father Moriarty, a strapping 40-something man with thick, black-framed glasses who told corny jokes to try to win us over. They were unnecessary. What won us over was his complaining — he complained about cranky old people at 6am Mass, about parishioners who acted guilty when he entered a room, he even complained about how inconvenient it was to say noon mass on Sunday when the football Cardinals had a 12:05 kickoff.
After a succession of puns and groaners unfit for a Bazooka wrapper, and a few stories about serving Communion to old ladies with bad breath, Father Moriarty tried to close the deal.
“Gentlemen, the church needs you. The faithful need you. And believe me when I tell you, there is no greater reward than giving yourself in service to others.
“Imagine your birthday, and Christmas morning, and breakfast at World’s Fair Donuts all on the same day. That’s what it feels like to serve the Lord. If you feel like you have received a call from God to join the priesthood — whether that be in the form of a vague desire to wear the collar, or a dream in which God asks you take up his burden — take that call seriously, gentlemen. It means something.
“Jesus, weeps when young men like you fail to heed his call.”
He ended by giving us each a questionnaire to fill out before we left the church hall. On it, were questions like, Do you feel that Jesus has called you to a life in the church? Do you like the idea of helping others find the way? Would you like to be a priest some day?
Unlike some of my Catholic friends who are just a few years older than me, I never took a ruler over the knuckles, I wasn’t brow-beaten into good behavior, nor was I belittled for my sins. Which is not to say my education was entirely without prudishness. I was warned about the dangers of cavorting with the non-Catholics at Long School, the public elementary school up the street, the evils of pre-marital sex, and the wearing of tight-fitting jeans. But we sang Bob Dylan songs in church. They were edited, embarrassingly, to deliver a less subversive message:
The answer my friend, is living in all men
The answer is living in all men
It didn’t matter, though, we didn’t always sing stuffy old church hymns. It was a bold new age of acoustic guitars, renegade priests, and Communist nuns. It was an age of outreach, understanding, and openness. I had no reason to hate the Roman Catholic church. For a budding young mystic like me, the church was naturally seductive. The sound of a pipe organ, of somber chanting, the smell of incense, can awaken feelings of awe and wonder in the most rational of hearts. The effect on me was transcendent. I was an uncouth kid who normally couldn’t talk above grunting and shrugging his shoulders. And yet, through the mysteries of the church, I could, on occasion, touch the eternal.
So, being a priest — pourer of incense, master of incantations, bell ringer, candle-lighter, dispenser of blessings — held a certain appeal for me. I was drawn to the certainty of being a priest. Even at the age of 10, I craved a life in which there was no guesswork, there were no options, no regrets. A priest knew what he was doing now and what he would be doing 40 years from now. He would never have to worry about making a living, raising children, or mowing the lawn. The mother church would envelop him and nurture him through life.
There would also be no sex. Ever. Granted, I only had an inkling of what sex was at that age, but girls were starting to seem special — one might even say, magical. They were occupying my thoughts at odd times, especially as I drifted off to sleep, or as I lie newly awake in bed. I loved to daydream about the older ones. Mrs. Kretchmar, the teacher across the hall with the flowing blond hair and shiny high heels, or Michelle, the bookwormish 8th grader who babysat our class when the teacher stepped out. I understood enough to know that, as a priest, my life could never include the closeness of girls. I would never come home to a shoeless Mrs. Kretchmar of my own to make me dinner and watch Batman reruns with me.
That was why, when Father Moriarty called to follow up with the one boy at Providence who admitted to having received the call, he was greeted with grunting and shoulder shrugging.
“Well, Kyle, if you ever change your mind and decide you do want to join us, I’ll be here. Remember my name and call me here at Kenrick. Your parents can help you find the number. Ok?”
The closest I would ever get to donning a collar would come a few years later when I got to serve as an altar boy. To be an altar boy, one had to be 13 years old, confirmed, and a penis-bearing member of the species. If you met those qualifications, and you were willing to wake up at 5am and occasionally miss televised sporting events, you got to wear a white and gold robe and do priestly things. After all, it was an altar boy’s job to prep the church before the priest arrived. It was an altar boy’s job to make sure there were hosts in the paten, wine in the chalice, and the candles were all lit. It was also an altar boy’s job to alert the congregation when one of the greatest mysteries of faith occurred — to ring bells at the exact moment the priest turned the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.
Only, I could never remember exactly when to ring the bells, and I often rang them at the wrong times.
On Friday, December 12, 1975, I met Hoople McHenry. The crossing of our trajectories was the most significant event of my adolescence. I’ll never forget her, I’ll always love her, and I’ll never see her again. That’s the story I’ve endeavored to tell here. It’s no exaggeration to say that my meteoric ride with the girl with three names made me who I am. And it all began, rudely, at 5:00am on a cold, wintry morning at week’s end.
I had to serve 6am Mass that day. I awoke to my clock/radio alarm, smoked a cigarette furtively in the bathroom before brushing my teeth, ate a piece of toast, grabbed a joint from the stash under my mattress and began the three-block walk to the church — all without waking my parents.
While the city was on the verge of waking, the magic of the night was still present. From the time I learned that the world still exists overnight, I’ve been drawn to the wee hours. Something about the desolate feel of the pre-dawn streets — the darkened shops, the flashing traffic signals, the solitary cars inching along to God knows where. At 5:30am, Delor St. was an empty, eternal dream.
I ducked into an alley and lit up the joint. There was scattered snow on the ground left over from a storm earlier in the week. My exhalations were thick and foggy in the cold. I took about 4 hits and then stamped the joint out on a telephone poll. I waited a few minutes to feel the familiar singing of THC in my brain.
My reverie was broken by a familiar sound; an early morning bus was making its way up the street. As I stepped out of the alley to investigate it squeaked to a stop, air brakes hissing. The weed was working its magic. The bus was a living creature; a trained animal waiting for tourists to climb on for a ride. A man in a fedora and overcoat climbed up and took a seat on the friendly beast. The door closed, the man sat down, and the bus scooted off happily. I took great delight in the sight as I crossed the street and walked around to the back of the church.
The church was never locked in those days. Even the back door, which opened directly into the dressing area, could be opened at any time. The thought of an intruder never crossed anyone’s mind. I flipped the light on and grabbed a large robe from the rack. I checked the schedule to see who I was serving with that morning.
Servers: Johnstone, Grobic.
Bobby Johnstone. He was rock solid, a good guy, but not someone you could joke around with easily.
I pulled out a little box of hosts from a cabinet in the corner and plopped them down on the counter by the sink. I grabbed a handful and munched on them as I worked. It was 5:48. Fr. Aleto would arrive around 5:55 and start the service 3 or 4 minutes late. Bobby, on the other hand, was never late. I would have expected him to arrive before me.
I grabbed another handful of hosts and threw them into the paten, which I then took out to the alter. I went back to the dressing area to fill the chalice with wine. I pulled an open bottle out of the fridge, unscrewed the cap and took a long drink straight from the bottle, then filled the chalice half-way with what was left.
After taking the chalice out to the altar I went back to wait on Bobby and Fr. Aleto.
We all liked Bobby, but he wasn’t like the rest of us. He was thoughtful and intelligent, but he always looked worried. He alone was from a broken family, a scandalous distinction at a parochial school. He lived with his mother and older sister in an apartment above a tavern. The nuns in the administrative office wanted to afford Bobby’s mother the opportunity to give her children a Catholic education, but that generosity came at a price. The nuns never hesitated to raise an eyebrow at Mrs. Johnstone’s lifestyle. Bobby never seemed troubled by their judgments; his worries were private. I think he only attended Catholic grade school to please his mother. Despite donning the robe of an altar boy, Bobby was already an atheist at 13.
He had to carry the weight of adult responsibility way too early. His sister was sweet but had no will of her own. His mother was, by turns, either blackout drunk or insufferably pious. She alternated like a rotating beacon between the two. After a harsh bender she would beg forgiveness from God and her family, then insist that her troubles, her family’s troubles — indeed, the world’s troubles — were caused by a lack of discipline. Unyielding self-punishment was her only hope of salvation. She would insist on family prayers and bible readings that could last hours. She would perform a ritual purging of food or drink that could be considered sinfully self-indulgent, and she insisted that everyone attend daily Mass.
The outer door opened, and Father Aleto walked in. He stomped the snow from his shoes and hung up his black coat and fedora on a rack near the door.
“Grobic! Good morning.” He looked around, puzzled.
“Who’s your partner this morning?”
“Bobby Johnstone is on the schedule, Father, but I don’t know where he is.”
“Hmm. That’s odd. Not like him at all. Well, we’ll have to worry about that later.” He sized me up and asked, “So, what do you think, Grobic? Ready to fly solo this morning? If we don’t get out there soon those old biddies will have our asses for it.”
I tried my stoned best to reassure him I was up to the task.
He nodded in uncertain agreement. “Ok, son. That’s good. Now, here’s what I want you to do. Worry the most about Communion. That’s our top priority. It’s the only part of this whole shit show that’s worth getting up this early for anyway. Just pick one job or the other and I’ll fill in for what you don’t do. We’ll get through this. Ok?”
“Now, sometimes you’re a little off with those bells, Kyle. Do you think you have it straight?”
I nodded. It was a lie. I never should have smoked that joint.
The 6am weekday Mass was almost exclusively for the aging. The only attendees below the age of 80 were the occasional nuns from the convent who liked to begin their day with Holy Communion, and a few exceedingly devout singles who enjoyed the self-punishment of rising at 5:30 in the morning. As a group, they thrived on regularity. Even something as seemingly insignificant as one altar boy instead of two could throw them off for the entire day. As Father Aleto and I stepped out onto the altar I could hear a woman, obviously too old to know better, declare, “Why, there’s only one!” This was met with an angry “Shhh” from a companion only too familiar with such outbursts.
As Father Aleto moved through the greeting, I sat to the side on one of two chairs reserved for Altar boys. I sat when it was time to sit, stood when it was time to stand, and knelt on the little kneeler when it was time to kneel. I either ran on automatic pilot or by simply following the ruffling of the parishioners as they shifted in their pews. All the while I was lost in a cloudy, THC-filled reverie.
All around me were effigies of the Biblical — sweaty, anguished men with hands imploring the heavens. For what, I didn’t know. Intercession perhaps? Forgiveness? Looking down from one side of the altar stood the namesake of the church, St. John The Baptist. Bearded and draped in a skimpy loin cloth, his ribs rippled his plaster flesh. He held a wooden staff in his left hand, his right lifted above the congregation in high drama. Behind him a lamb lay docile, a premonition of the Christ to come. Every statue in and around the altar was either bloody or carried the threat of bleeding. On a far wall hung a painting of a heart engulfed in flames, wrapped tightly in a thorny vine. I would learn later in life that a preoccupation with the visceral is a decidedly Catholic fixation.
I knew these were depictions of an ancient past that was neither celluloid nor two-dimensional. This was the history of Mediterranean breezes, of evening wines and bread baskets. Peter, James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, earned their living as fishermen, the bright sun glistening off their beards. Mathew, the tax collector, dropped weighted coins onto a scale. And Judas was a treasurer, thief, and the required betrayer of the Son of Man. We still curse his name two thousand years later. But shouldn’t we admire him, I wondered. For the anguish he suffered? What would the story be had he not sold out his master? Would Jesus have been crucified at all? Would he have lived a long life and retired in old age? Where would that leave us?
Presiding over all, centered high above the altar, his muscular body beaten and pierced, was the Lamb of God; he who takes away the sins of the world. Streaks of blood dripped down his face from the crown of thorns, his tortured face turned heavenward.
“My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?”
These musings on the church statues got me through the Liturgy of the Word. It was with some trepidation that I assumed my post beside the altar for Communion. Servers kneel through the entire Liturgy of the Eucharist. The bells — four clapper bells attached in a square formation with a handle in the center — is always available on the steps where the servers kneel. A good altar boy will conceal the bells to his left, away from the congregation in order to create the illusion that the heavens themselves are raining down approval on the rite — and not just some 8th grade boy in a ceremonial robe and tennis shoes.
Father Aleto began the Sanctus. I kept my eyes on Jesus. Even his hands looked tortured and bloodied.
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.
Now. Three times. One. Two. Three.
Father Aleto, continued without so much as flinching. I turned my gaze back to Jesus and wondered what Aramaic sounded like. In various languages his name is pronounced differently. Hey-zu, Hey-zeuss. What did it sound like in his native tongue? What did his mother call out the front door when she wanted him home for supper? What is the joke that will guarantee you a place in hell? “But you have to cross your legs, I only have three nails!” I looked toward the back of the church. The choir loft was empty and there was no organist. There are no extras at 6am Mass.
The words of my Altar Boy Study Guide suddenly rang in my head as clear as if they were being read aloud.
During the Hanc igitur the celebrant places his hands over the oblations and the bell is rung once.
I turned my gaze back to Jesus. That’s two for two, how could I turn my back on him? A betrayal isn’t required of me, it was only required of Judas. I must never think of that joke again!
After pronouncing the words of consecration, the celebrant genuflects.
Then the celebrant picks up the sacred species as the host or the precious blood, and he elevates it, and the bell is rung as he reaches his apex.
The priest puts the sacred species back onto the corporal and genuflects again.
Father Aleto glanced over at me and winked.
Fuck me, I did it! I glanced up at Jesus, my heart open with joy and relief. I mouthed a heartfelt “Thank you.”