Late spring and summer become, with age, times of commemoration. Class reunions, anniversaries of one graduation or another and, for many, a visit to the town where we grew up.
Some move from a small town to the city, but I went from Minneapolis — which, together with St. Paul and the swarming suburbs, makes up a considerable metropolitan area — to South Bend, nobody’s idea of a big town. Returning to Minneapolis and being swept into the intricate system of cross-towns, freeways, interchanges and the like, are as hair rising as a trip to Chicago for the small town driver I have become. The geography is the same — Minnehaha Creek and the chain of lakes it connects from the Minnetonka to the falls would be difficult to alter — but downtown I recognize the Foshay Tower and little else. The University of Minnesota does not seem to be the same school in which I began graduate work; and Nazareth Hall, the preparatory seminary of the archdiocese in a better time, has for years now been a bible college. The one thing that remains fundamentally the same beneath the changes is my home parish, St. Helena’s in south Minneapolis.
Fr. Owen J. Rowan founded the parish when Archbishop John Ireland was the ordinary, and I was raised under his stern tutelage. Not only did he come to the parish school to hear us recite our catechism, he came to read aloud and individually the report cards of every grade. The victim’s name was called, he or she stood, and every grade on the card was read, followed by appropriate praise or scolding. It was an ordeal for us, but it must have been a nuisance for him. Yet he never entrusted the task to one of the two assistants. What he insisted they do was “take the census.” Every family in the parish was visited by one of the three priests in the course of the year. No one spoke of parish teams or the spirit of the parish, but St. Helena’s, like most parishes, made up a very distinctive community.
Of course, I could go on and on, and on another occasion might. But my topic is not my memories but everyone’s. Specifically, memories of the parish and neighborhood in which we grew up. I have acquired the habit of speaking of those pre-conciliar years as a golden age of the Church in America, if only to counter the mendacious myth that they were the bad old days. I remember bible history classes. I remember the pastor’s lengthy sermons at the eleven o’clock Mass devoted to church history. But mainly I remember the catechism.
Memorizing the Baltimore Catechism was the single most important task that was given us in those days. To have one’s mind indelibly furnished with those questions and answers gave one the beginnings of a Catholic sensibility and outlook for which no substitute can be found in the fugitive feelings induced by liturgical extravaganzas. Our balloons lift up, our thoughts remain below unarticulated; hot air never to heaven goes. Catholics my age can still recite their catechism. Are they automatically the better for it? Of course not. But one is automatically worse off when deprived of such ingrained knowledge of the rudiments of faith.
The recent extraordinary Synod called for a new universal catechism, and Pope John Paul II applauded the idea. That I should applaud it too adds no luster to it, but it seems right to me. I won’t say it sounds pre-conciliar, however much it recalls the days of my youth, because it was put forward as in the spirit of Vatican II. But I want to see again kids knowing what a sacrament is and how many there are; what the gifts of the Holy Spirit are. And it would be nice if they know why God made them.
Not that such things have been neglected in St. Helena’s. Father Rowan would have liked his successor, Father Villano. When I am home, I attend the eight o’clock Mass with my brother. There are three or four-dozen parishioners there — and always Eloise McDonald — and the pastor’s sermons are well prepared, pithy, and effective. Need I add that Father Villano is a reader of this journal?
When the present church was abuilding, we watched Father Rowan scrambling up and down the scaffolding, urging the workers on. He was a deservedly proud man when the church was opened. It seemed pardonable elation when, in one of his first sermons in the new church, Father Rowan predicted that the day would come when pilgrims would come from Europe and elsewhere to see this lovely church. I smiled at the time. I smile now. But after the incredible changes of these past decades, who can be sure he was wrong?