It is the mid-1950s and our family is traveling to Florida in our Ford station wagon to visit my grandparents. It’s our second day on the road and we are in Georgia and have stopped at a country store to buy our lunch. My father and I go in and purchase baloney, a jug of apple cider, and a carton of frozen strawberries. Once back in the car, we start looking for a spot to pull over so my mother can make the sandwiches.
This is the old US 1, full of Burma Shave signs and strange trees with wispy beards. We pass a creek and on the bridge over the water I see a Negro man and boy fishing with long poles. A little ways down the road, we find a place to pull over. My brothers pile out of the car when my father pulls down the tailgate, and my mother passes him the baby so she can make the sandwiches. She pulls out our purchases, looks, and wails, “Oh, no, Paul. Baloney. It’s Friday!” My mother is a convert to Catholicism and follows all the rules. We can’t eat meat. Not on a Friday, not even on vacation.
I imagine my father scowling. Next, my mother says, “And why did you buy vinegar?” The jug, grabbed in haste, had a big photo of an apple on the label. Remembering my father now, he probably laughed. We’ll just have to keep going and find another store. But the meat will spoil and we don’t need vinegar, so my father says, “Let’s give these away to the man we saw on the bridge.”
I was the oldest and my father’s pal so I followed along. We walked back to the bridge and when we got close to the man and boy my father yelled out, “Hello there!” Holding out our purchases, he said, “Excuse us, but we bought this meat and vinegar in the store down the way by mistake. Would you like it?” The Negro man and the little boy looked at us. Then they ran. I learned two things that day: God didn’t take vacations, not even on Fridays, and Black people were afraid of white people.
I am the product of 16 years of Catholic education from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. I left the Roman Catholic Church while in my junior year at a Catholic college run by Franciscan nuns who were, I must say, as good as you can get. During those years, the country had a Catholic president who was later assassinated. Freedom busses were being burned in the American South, and a war in Vietnam was heating up. The only good thing about the Catholic Church then was John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council that he convened, but the windows he’d flung open weren’t budging in the institutional church in the North America I knew. The church that I knew was largely silent not only on liturgical change, but on the larger issues of poverty, war, and social justice. There was only one Catholic organization that I was aware of that had the Gospel message I believed in, and that was the Catholic Worker in New York City. When I left college, I joined them, and I’m still a card-carrying member.
When I’m asked today if I belong to a particular religious denomination, I say, “I’m a Catholic Worker.” But that pronouncement, made now in my 78th year, is a new admission. In the past I would just say, “I’m nondenominational.” Why the shift? I think it can be traced to the title of this essay: “I’m as good a Catholic as you’re gonna get.”
Why did so many of my generation leave the Roman Catholic Church? Why are there hardly any new vocations to religious orders now, whether for men or for women? The issue for men has been, I’m sure, accelerated by numerous lawsuits due to clerical sexual predation and cover-ups by hierarchy. For women, we can’t discount the long-held belief that they are meant to serve and not to lead in the church. Given this evidence, what could I possibly want or miss because I am not a bona fide believer or practitioner in the Roman Catholic Church? I answer by way of another story.
It’s 1964. I have been working on Chrystie Street at the Catholic Worker for almost a year. I cook meals. I work in the clothing room. I take folks up to Bellevue Hospital. I go to peace demonstrations. I write for the paper. I am 22 years old and I am now standing in front of Dorothy Day, the formidable, for me, and legendary co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. She has answered my knock on her tenement apartment door that’s next to the apartment that the Worker rents for volunteers. I need some money this morning because I am going down to the Essex Street Market to the butcher for chicken feet and hamburger.
Dorothy invites me in while Miss Bee, who also shares the apartment, is retrieving the money and the list. Dorothy is now asking me if I first want to join them for Mass. They are going to go over to Old Saint Patrick’s on Mulberry Street a few blocks away. I decline. She then asks me if I receive the sacraments. I say no. She then says, “You’ll never be able to continue this work if you do not.” Miss Bee arrives and gives me the envelope with the list of items, including a few of those “little cans of mandarin oranges.” I leave. Outraged. I do the work. I have been doing it and living here for almost a whole year. Old biddy. What does she know? But I am older now than Dorothy Day was when she said those emphatic words to me, and, you know what, I think she was right.
Now if I have occasion to receive the Holy Eucharist, I do. I do because I am “as good a Catholic as you’re gonna get” in today’s world. The only time that I have consciously declined is when the Eucharist is offered and I know a “non-Catholic” is in attendance who has been asked not to partake of communion—something I doubt Jesus himself would do if he were preaching at the altar.
I have in my possession a copy of the 1949 version of the Baltimore Catechism No. 3. It is not the 1941 edition that I remember from my grammar school days with its soft blue cover and illustrations depicting my soul as a milk bottle either pure white or filled with tiny black dots—or, worse, as a totally black bottle—all to illustrate my soul’s holiness or sin. The Baltimore Catechism No. 3 does not have that illustration, but it does contain the rather ominous warning that this particular iteration is the product of “more extensive doctrinal explanations and . . . several years of study and compilation by a committee of competent theologians and catechists.” Buyer beware. Every sin is drawn and quartered.
We have now entered the season of Lent that has doubled as a season of pandemic. We are in the wilderness. What better time to ponder the effects of sacramental life in our material world? According to the Baltimore Catechism No. 3, the sacraments always give grace to recipients if received with the right disposition. I’m working on my “disposition.” There are six more sacraments to carefully consider, and I have what remains of 40 days.
Nicole d’Entremont is a writer and teacher with deep ancestral roots in French Canada. She holds a master’s degree in adult education from the University of Southern Maine. For the past 30 years she has taught writing to students from Maine to California. She lives on Peaks Island, Maine, and Nova Scotia. A Generation of Leaves is her latest novel.