CHAPTER III: A Long Way to Go
Our next installment toward being priests was the study of theology in Washington where Holy Cross College located because when in the 1890's Catholic University was young, it invited religious bodies to be its constituent colleges. I had not been well and was old and grubby to be starting a new four-year course of studies in anything. But I expected newness and freshness and hope in theology. As take-off from Moreau we went to the chapel to say "Itinerary" prayers designed for going on a journey. Until that moment we thought we would luxuriate in "sleepers" and take the customary route by Niagara Falls. But kneeling with us, our boss said sadly:
"I must say you are going to travel as very small potatoes." We found out that we were not to see Niagara Falls because the preceding year some seminarian travelers, with no Prohibition in Canada, had for one happy hour invaded that commonwealth, and we were punished for their bottle of beer.
With our belongings on our backs we had walked to Moreau in the first place and now were shipped out in a cattle truck, our boss going twenty miles with us; although he felt hurt at what he thought an unfair deal, we were unconcerned and did not raise the question of the Dreyfus case. We boarded the Pennsylvania which at that time -- it got worse -- made little speed and gave little service. Soon we were stalled and heard the saying of the day: "Come on, fellows, we have to get the cows out of the corn." It was a long and hungry trip, eased considerably by the nonsense we carried on; as we encountered Crossline, Ohio, my namesake, Leo L. Ward, a master of whimsy, said we met a man named "Crestlin," and for at least a year we talked about this mysterious man. At last we lumbered onto the Capitol Street car in D.C., carried shabby grips across Catholic University campus, and, completely exhausted, made it alive through Washington's deadly September heat up a long stair-step hill to our new home.
There the people greeted us; even those we had thought remote and sanctimonious called us by our first names; we had forgotten we had first names; people sang songs and got us to singing their favorite, supposedly echoing "Yo-ho, Yo-ho!" from West Virginia mountains where our hosts had been on vacation. They had prepared an evening lunch, a thing then unheard of at Moreau Seminary.
All the same, we were to have a stern and stingy life in Washington. Seminarians went by twos to see the city, each given a nickel; they walked the three miles one way. I was not troubled by this Spartan regime and the memorable day we climbed Washington Monument -- isn't it 520 steps high? -- I walked both ways.
That was in 1923 and our crew was billeted in D.C. until 1927. Perhaps it was a good thing that we did not know what was going on; at any rate, nescience of news and views was customary in seminaries. We did not know what a disgrace President Harding was or the party that nominated him. We did not know in a realistic way that America was becoming motorized and living and dying on the highway, that business was booming or that farmers, then a fourth of the people, had been suffering, or most important of all, that the temper of the times, The Modern Temper as Joseph Krutch was to call it, was pessimistic: think how little constructive and positive direction there is in Mencken, Sherwood Anderson, Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis and George Jean Nathan, among the spokesmen for those times, their attitude epitomized in Dreiser's prayer?
Yet I ask, and ask, and ask. I pray -- by God -- On my knees. I lift up my hands to know. Yet you do not answer.
In Washington as at Notre Dame, our teachers and ourselves were spared those depressing matters. We had not suffered whatever the events of the decade, and could not have spoken aptly of them. The Catholic Church in America, whatever must be said of the Jewish community or Southern Baptists, then lived as if outside history and had been notably ghettoized partly by choice end partly in order to be the Catholic Church and to survive: the words of the first American Catholic Bishop, John Carroll of Baltimore still had relevance; he said (in 1790) that Catholics lived in America at their own risk and suffered great restrictions on freedom. The Catholic Church would remain much isolated until the days of John F. Kennedy. Students and teachers were inarticulate regarding that condition and scarcely appreciated the advantages and disadvantages of the American atmosphere or their own isolation from it.
A young man wants to become a priest, he thinks he has and others say he has a "vocation" and he does not want to lose his vocation, something very much his own. But to become a priest, to be a priest -- what did that mean to forty seminarians and their professors shut up in Washington, D.C.? Undoubtedly we often heard, it was read to us while we ate, that Christ is the eternal High Priest. What did that mean? What did we know about "The High Priest?" Did any of us grasp the idea? It would never occur to us to reject that idea, but between rejection and lived acceptance there is considerable space, and that is where most of us stood and where we lived our somewhat somber lives. If someone had presented the High Priest idea to us, someone who had lived it and studied it in its original and present day setting, he might have "shook us up" and been our benefactor. That a priest is celibate was taken for granted and not discussed. Ages when some priests married, rites in which Catholic priests marry -- those were assumed to be below par. We took as a joke St. Paul's saying to Timothy that if a man desires to be a bishop he desires a good work, but we dwelt little if at all on the next verse: a bishop should have only one wife. St. Paul did not favor polygamy among bishops.
All of us had a sense that it was a great thing to be a priest. This sense was what kept the house alive. Not that we thought we would be great, but that Christ and the Church are great and to be their priest is a great responsibility. We laughed at the words of a pompous, pre-pudgy one of ours: "Have some respect for me! I am a Holy Cross seminarian!" If we had it in the back of our heads to be social or political climbers in the priesthood, we were unaware of the fact.
That my life should almost be worship was my most commanding conviction. This conviction tended to overpower me in my years as farmer and rural teacher. Puritanic and narrow-souled as I was, it still was clear to me that man, any man at all, is to go marching and countermarching like Abraham and Moses with God. Some seminarians went to Rome to study theology, and I envied them because denied this unction. One wrote expatiating on how out of "the world" were some monks the seminarians had visited. He divorced these men from "the world" and made them a new breed of men, and I hated the idea of a monk and priest species on the one hand and "the people" on the other. I was not thinking of ecumenism, which was later to commandeer me.
Our teachers at Holy Cross College were approachable, all of them plain democratic except one man who put on airs and at whose expense a seminarian good at mimicry often entertained us. The one teacher who later became distinguished was Father Michael A. Mathis. Dr. Mat-these, as his teacher, Dr. Schumacher, called him, had done a fine study of "Faith" according to St. Paul. But he was immersed in action, at that moment promoting foreign missions as co-founder with Dr. Anna Dengel of the Medical Missionaries; this creative and invincible man lacked the patience needed for a life of scholarship. One day when all were being sent at Father Mathis' request to mail "Little Flowers" to mission donors, I told the superior that to do this was an imposition on people's faith and good will, and he told me to stay home and say nothing.
Circumstances obliged our teachers to use textbooks. They themselves had studied thoroughly dead manuals, and their teachers before them had learned and taught in that way. Ages before our teachers' grandparents were born, unidentifiable people had killed theology. It was not being resuscitated in our house in our time, and the better students sensed that a dead hand had been laid on what should have been our life. I had expected theology to be revealing and provocative, not stiff and corpse like. Aggravating my heavy feeling was the fact that we were housed too closely too long, rarely met anyone except each other, and, insulated from "the world" our life was lived in a ghetto. I now marvel at our endurance and also at our professors' admirable endurance.
We got a half hour break at mid-morning, and on an autumn day. as I walked in our lovely woods with Philip S. Moore, who after several years was to become a disciplined and zealous scholar, we were swearing that in spite of everything we would acquire some theology; and twenty years later he and I and others encountered at Notre Dame University the same type of problem, and, each working in his own way, had to swear that in spite of everything we would work to establish a university.
For four years, we went on humdrumming our way through the Tanquerey and Noldin texts, we and the subject growing duller. Then I glimpsed why a few years before we had seen ten ordinandi, men ready to be ordained, return to Notre Dame low-geared in relation to studies. Tanquerey and Noldin were encyclopedists; and as a happy go lucky lay professor then at Catholic University said, "An encyclopedia is like the flat bottom boat: it will get you there, but in the bargain it will break your back!"
A problem was the people the teachers had to teach; some dull, many indifferent to studies, two or three cocky and censorious; in general, with ideals far from lofty in regard to learning. Leo L. Ward, a poet born, a man full of understanding and compassion as well as charm, described us well when he said that, filled with orneriness and cussedness as we were, to try to make theologians and scholars out of us was like trying to drive square pegs into round holes.
One professor was an exceedingly good teacher. True, he dutifully followed the book, but mastered far more than the book. He was sometimes punctilious on useless topics. For instance, a priest was to say "the office," which in the age of individualism was called his office and my office, mainly a compendium of passages from the Bible. The subtle question had sometime arisen about what a priest was to do if he happened to "say" some "hour" twice: might he skip some other "hour"? Our faithful teacher had canvassed experts and found two opinions on this problem. One said yes and was based on the premise "officium pro officio," which meant that one "hour" could be substituted for another. But the second held to the view that any "hour" was very much itself and nothing could substitute for it.
These minutiae should have been too much for anyone, and as they were spun out, a seminarian gave a painful sigh which said that so far as he was concerned casuistry had hung itself. I was in agreement with his groan; some days earlier he had told me he was suffering from what might be called unreality. A man of soaring high ideals, he wanted priests and the Church to be doing magnificent things and could not stand to have them bogged down over where to turn next in "the office." That every fine point that ever did or could arise must be handled falls within the theory which was common then in Catholic schools of theology and philosophy, the Theory of Complete Coverage: the product of Catholic schools has immediately on hand every moral and doctrinal answer. With another professor we encountered the question of the last ounce of food allowed on fast days. The medieval rule was invoked that liquids such as wines do not break the fast; the fact that this rule could be said in nice Latin -- Potus jejunium non frangit -- seemed an adequate explanation. How does one know that liquids do not break the fast? Because the formula says they don't. Then a delicate problem arose; if a person took allowable liquids straight and on an empty stomach, evil effects might ensue. Whereupon someone along the endless line had invented a formula to meet this contingency; the person fasting and nevertheless drinking might take a crumb or cracker for his stomach's sake. The formula reads, Ne potus noceat: lest the liquor would hurt him. This same problem arose in our examination -- think of spinning it out and spinning it back! -- and I translated the formula "To break the fall." My words offended a professor who re-spun in class how irreverent some student had been.
A second intelligible reason why professors trying to make something out of us used deadly manuals was that besides being a depth study, theology is so vast and complicated that it needs a race of giants to master it; it keeps developing and can never be mastered. It presupposes the use of many dead languages, and Americans are schizoid even in relation to living languages, and a command of philosophy, comparative religions, much history, anthropology, archeology and psychology. To know the science of divine knowledge is to be like God and to know all things. Our teachers were naturally inadequate to the task, and we were small town guys more or less carping at them as well as crabby within ourselves.
For us though scarcely for them it was a notable event to take a trip on the Potomac, to see Mount Vernon, see the Senate or House or Supreme Court in action -- I recall the sharpness of Judge Brandeis' questions -- to see a World Series game: the Pirates vs. the Senators in the days of Walter Johnson; to see Lincoln's Memorial, and when I grew straggly patches of beard, wasn't I called Honest Abe! We walked in Rock Creek Park, picked up golf balls and built a dog-patch course of our own. Each summer we seminarians camped on the Shenandoah, every night we enjoyed banter, and during a round of this the other Ward was christened the "Cantankerous Kid"; we sang our "Yo-ho, Yo-ho!" against Blue Ridge Mountains and took two-day hitchhiking trips up and down the Shenandoah Valley.
We knew our out of bounds and "the rules" and observed them, yet I think for most there was a sense of considerable permissiveness. On occasion, we were free to go to the University Library or the City Library and the Congressional and I often did go, and I recall reading Alexander's Space, Time and Deity, Morgan's Emergent Evolution, and Smuts' Holism. At the University, I discovered poems -- in Harper's, I think -- by A. A. Milne a man then new to me, but a favorite now for fifty years. On winter nights I re-read several of Shakespeare's plays which contained more poetry and drama than was evident in our theology; and re-read
The world is too much with this, Getting and spending. . . Great God, I'd rather be a pagan Suckled in a creed outworn.
Holy Cross seminarians got a break when our permissive and culture-minded U.S.A. boss (called "the Provincial") said we might attend an opera downtown and at night! Suppose we did look like a flock of crows. I took no account of how we looked and never troubled my head with how the other frequenters looked: I saw and heard only "Lucia" and the orchestra and heard only Del Monti, and saw no one, not even Del Monti. Until that night, "opera" was a word to me: and ever since it means Del Monti in Lucia. An anonymous seminarian made that joy possible for me; a boy had to pay his own way, and I did not have the money.
The other Ward had a gift for poetry and drama, and it was my good luck to be his companion in going downtown to see famous plays. We saw Walter Hampden in "Cyrano," saw John Barrymore play "Hamlet" when he was outplayed by the Ophelia, we saw "School for Scandal," and after enjoying Ethel Barrymore in "The Second Mrs. Tanquerey" we came away completely crushed. Leo L. Ward and I experimented with writing sketches and stories and I recommended to him a magazine called The Midland, edited by Professors Frederick and Mott of Iowa University, and thereby began a long and wonderful friendship between John T. Frederick and many Notre Dame people and most of all, Leo L. Ward.
I was left with two half-inarticulate questions and the two tended to merge. What is this -- to be a priest, and how is the theology part of a priest's training to be done? I thought that pre-priest trainees should be looking at the ways and doings of great priests in earlier times and some in our century, and not only at Catholic priests, but at Hindu, Moslem, Jewish and Protestant priests. What kind of man was Newman, Brownson, John Wesley, Haecker, De Smet, Mohammed, Isaias, John the Baptist, St. Paul? What did the man do and what procedures did he employ? How could he communicate with men in a pre-printing age, a pre-radio age? Into what kind of spirit-starved, indigent or proud and affluent society did he come? In what terms did he challenge it? Why did it respond? Why did it love him or hate and persecute him? Was the religious leader and prophet outside the reigning religions, a deviant?
What kind of world did Jesus enter and what did He do with it? Can we enter into that world now with the help of historical science? Was He revolutionary, conservative, liberal, non-conformist? Or did He fall in and go along? Was He a teacher of theology? If He did teach, could His teachings be summarized in two or three or a dozen points? How would the formalized theologies of the twelfth or sixteenth or twentieth century look to Him? If He came on earth now, would He throw out theologies or acclaim some of them? What is a "prophet"?
Was Billy Sunday in a proper sense a prophet? Mormons call some of their members "Apostles." What does this mean? Jonathan Edwards kept announcing doom: was he nevertheless a prophet? Was Newman a prophet? Cardinal Gibbons worked quietly whereas Archbishop Ireland's work was accompanied by a big drum. Was each of them nevertheless a prophet?
It could scarcely be expected that each professor would have expert knowledge on all of these men. But a man like Michael Mathis might have introduced us to living models or we might have borrowed talent an evening or two a month from Catholic University, men such as Edward A. Pace, Thomas Verner Moore, John M. Cooper and John O'Grady; we might have discussed with them and among ourselves what was the nature and urgency of the apostolate then in America. We not only remained uninspired, but also rather uninformed about religion and the Catholic and Baptist and Jewish Church in America and the modern world.
American Catholic priests are well educated in many senses; said Thomas Huxley: "The Catholic priest is trained to know his business and to do it effectually." Yet priests are not always prepared to meet the given world. In important ways, they have been too much educated, too nearly related, education-wise, to a now dead classicism, too filled with ready-made answers, often, up to nearly the present day, given to Latin formulas; up until a generation ago in this country they used to invoke medieval civilization and "The Thirteenth, the greatest of Centuries," without knowing much about any century. We Holy Cross seminarians and our professors with a university schooling back of us were more open to learning than students and professors at some religious houses, but we bored little into either historical or twentieth century knowledge. Newman was a good name to us, but only a name, Blondel a bad name, and none who taught us in the 1920's knew that a generation earlier Blondel had launched a revolution in regard to Christian philosophy. Mercier was a good name, as was Leo XIII, and Pius X a holy name, Isaac Haecker and Orestes Brownson were hardly more than names. How the leaders from modern and contemporary times and also ancient and medieval times could be put together to suggest an up-dating of Christian theology was a question that, it seems to me now, did not reach the conscious level among us.
We had reading at meals, in Lent at all three meals. The Rules said so. The other day I asked a priest of a later edition what books were publicly read in his four years; he said he was opposed to the idea and did not recall a single book. At meals we read the rousing autobiography of James Kent Stone (1840-1921), a Harvard man, president of an Ohio college, himself Episcopalian and I think a clergyman. He left his family, became a priest and monk, at dead of night pushed into the sea a bag full of trinkets from his earlier life, went as Fidelis of the Cross to Argentina, Mexico and Cuba, kept up an interest in current poetry, kept writing verse and recalling Latin versification he did in his father-clergyman's library when first out of college, and on a trip to California visited one of his daughters without revealing more of his identity than the fact that he was a veteran missionary.
Suppose that we had received a genuine introduction to our father Abraham, Isaias or St. John: to how he fit or did not fit into his time or our time, to what he asked himself to do and what he did. Ditto for St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, St. Thomas or St. Bonaventure; any great reformer-prophet such as Calvin; and to religious leaders of China, India or the Moslem world. Students might fall in love with men like Isaias, St. Paul, St. Athanasius or St. Augustine, but scarcely with Tanquerey and Noldin.
In later years I have been happy to have escaped the task of re-writing plans of life and studies for seminarians. I am sure the problem should be approached from instances of how results are or are not obtained, through a search for paradigms, not perfectionist models, but effective patterns. For instance, how do Mormons select and train their religious workers? They do seem to get results! How do Jehovah Witnesses select and train their missionaries -- is everything up to the Holy Spirit? Are priests to be too well fed, too affluent, to cater as do the Witnesses to common people? What have we to learn from Dorothy Day and Mother Terese of Calcutta? Could charistmatics or Jesus people teach the teachers? What are Lutherans doing at their Concordia pre-seminaries? How do Jewish schools prepare a man to become a rabbi?
My gripe was not, at least consciously, against confinement, rules and the legal side of our life. In the 1960's a demand arose for more freedom and democracy and this demand invading monasteries, convents and seminaries was long overdue. Some lines of verse express what in seminary days was my feeling toward freedom and law, permissiveness and rules:
Freedom, considered, seems to be Only another boundary, And liberty a picket fence With one small gate of common sense.
A woman who was state librarian in a large state has asked: "Do seminarians and nuns and priests complaining about restrictions and laws suppose that industrial workers and the military and state employees are subject to no restrictions? They had just better try one of these jobs for a while!" Man is free within worlds that bind him to hour by hour non-freedoms, and the supposition of "freedom unbound" in beliefs or action is unrealistic. Nature sets bounds, society perpetually sets bounds, too, though where man-set bounds should be limited is a question that individuals and groups must examine, and it is to this issue that the axiom speaks: "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."
During my many years in seminaries, I suffered more from lack of intellectual life than from "the rules" and the legalistic. But because I was congenitally averse to playing up to power and authority, a priest teacher divined where I stood: and it was not where he stood; he accordingly took me for a dubious "candidate" and "vocation." He and I were determined not to get along; I am not much good on forms or structures, am more fond of stuff than style, of content than form, and for him even the idea of experimenting in order to create a new game of solitary was like a crime. He would say, "That's not the rule." To make him more unhappy with my opting for new life in theology, each of two seminarians who in those years had wanted a stepped-up interest in Biblical, sociological and anthropological studies was a dried-up geezer much like me, and each had been difficult to manage.
Class discussions were uncommon. We were too busy covering textbooks and reviewing notes, so as to pass the next examination. We had oral quizzes once a month or so; each ranged from tract so and so to tract so and so; they were searching and thorough; the professors sat in front, their minds already made up as to whom to try with which questions; they meant business. For days in advance, groups met in the house we had built in "The Dell" which was the lovely woods I have mentioned; there we threshed out the likely questions; not discussing or dialoguing, but repeating what the books and professors had said.
Were any of us ever skeptical, ever hesitate to accept what was said or written? Some may have felt doubts, but before the books and professors we were tame. We were insulated from hypothesis and inquiry, our attitude a legacy from many syllabi of errors. Theology as an investigative science and teaching as dialogue were a long way from what later they became and from the open window recommendations of John XXIII.
I had endured a sort of pioneer life on the farm where nature was beautiful but demanding and ungenerous; and in the seminary. and novitiate years I had built up, at least as a facade, a sort of military and Ignatian idea of monk-hood and priesthood. For us, that life was good in at least two radical senses. Looking forward together and enduring together, we more and more formed community. Also our life was democratic, one man as good as another; don't the Irish say that democracy means that one man is as good as another and maybe a damned sight better? Little if any high-fallutin stuff, all Indians, rarely if ever a chief. The pioneer-frontier, democratic life had left a precipitate on us. I am far outside political sagacity, but the Great Commoner, and Al Smith, Harry Truman and Adlai Stevenson, and the then Senators Norris and Jim Reed spoke directly to me. After Jim Reed's address at Catholic University, I recall a seminarian's words, "He is on our side, isn't he?" That meant the sectarian Catholic side and I hated it: a Machiavellian judgment on what the man would do for us. That is a definite instance of my wanting to break uncatholic bounds and reach out to mankind. What do you mean by "our side"?
There often comes back to me words spoken by a Lincolnesque farmer in my home community: "Almighty God expects every man to suffer something." Perhaps we all learned something from what I call seminary suffering, from work, hope, fear and endurance, and if God wants priests, rabbis, preachers and prophets, it may be that He is willing that they should suffer something. Henry Adams was ill at ease and crotchety. That was the way he learned and as someone said, Adams was a congenital aristocrat trying to adjust himself to democracy and by turns growing very cranky and very wise. Part of that statement might be applicable to us who kept trying to adjust to the more or less foreign life of the seminary.
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