We are an extraordinarily intolerant people. We take pride in our intolerance, though we don’t call it by that name.
The tolerant person sees something bad and, for reasons of prudence or clemency, he bears with it. He sees his cousin drinking too much at a party; he ascertains that the cousin will not be driving home, and then he says no more. He sees somebody wearing shorts to Mass on a hot summer day; he says, “It’s very hot, and maybe he’s going somewhere right after Mass.” He’s at work in a slate quarry and some of the men use salty language; he reminds himself that the work is hard and bruising and filthy, and that men among men are often rough.
Even serious sins can admit of tolerance. Your neighbor’s daughter, still in high school, is pregnant. She is rightly ashamed, and she will bear the child. There will be a quiet wedding and a small reception at the house. You ask your neighbor if there’s anything you can do in preparation. Your neighbor’s son has been arrested for speeding and has lost his license. You offer to drive him to work. You say to yourself, “I was no saint either when I was young, and I’m no saint now.”
The tolerant man takes no offense when none is intended, and even sometimes when it is. The intolerant man is quick to take offense. The tolerant man has several extra layers of skin. The intolerant man is touchy and flinches at the brush of a hair. The tolerant man makes allowances for age, sex, class, and upbringing. The intolerant man demands that everyone hew to his standards as if they were eternal verities, when in fact they are usually only the values instilled in him by age, sex, class, and upbringing.
The tolerant man hears someone saying bad things about him, and though he is hurt, the main thing he asks is whether there’s any truth to them. The intolerant man hears someone saying bad things about him, or insufficiently good things about him, and instead of asking whether they are true, he attributes evil motives to the speaker. He revels in the attribution.
The intolerant man never forgets a slight. The tolerant man takes no notice of a slight, and manages to put out of mind many things that are much worse.
The intolerant man tears down statues of people who did good or brave things, because in some regard they were not perfect, or because they did a few bad things too. And here I’d like to glance at the history of my childhood parish.
In the early decades of the 20th century, the pastor ruled that parish with an iron hand. He was called, half in jest, the last example of an absolute monarch in Christendom. He once posted a policeman on the steps of the church to arrest anybody who left Mass early. He was a temperance man, and in that hard-drinking Irish coal-mining town he made sure there was a chapter of the Knights of Father Mathew. I see in my mind’s eye a photograph of Main Street. It’s the middle of November, 1918, and Fr. Comerford is leading a mile-long parade to celebrate the armistice. No one else in town would do.
Welsh settlers came to our county first, but when top-quality anthracite coal was discovered there, the Irish came flooding in. The Irish built my town. They dug the mines, laid the railroad tracks, paved the roads, and built the church. They did not paint the interior of the church, because they were Irish. They hired an Italian to do that – an Italian who had done work on the Capitol rotunda in Washington.
When Italians came to our town in large numbers, escaping the poverty of Calabria just as the Irish had escaped the miseries of famine and British mastery, they were sometimes not welcome. They too worked down in the mines, and I don’t doubt that the Irish worried that their presence would depress the workman’s wages. The boys did their share of fighting. And Father Comerford told my grandmother that she should not go to Mass in town. She could go to Mass at the Italian church next door – three miles away next door. I don’t know whether he knew that the Italians in that neighboring town came from a wholly different part of Italy, speaking a different dialect altogether. I don’t know whether he would have cared.
Father Comerford was a builder, though, and I’ll always be grateful for one of the things he built. He was concerned to see the miners going off to taverns after work, because there was no other place for relaxation and recreation. So he built a parish hall, not with parish funds, but with his own family’s money. It was – and is – a handsome three-story building. The top floor was a basketball court that could also serve as an auditorium, with a stage for plays. On the other floors were meeting rooms, a library, a billiards room, and a small café.
Some years after Father Comerford died, the parish turned that hall into a grade school, which in my time was run by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. When I went to school there, we had between 45 and 51 pupils in the classroom, and order usually prevailed. By then, we had Irish kids, Italians, Polish, Russian, German; most of the ethnic animosity was gone, though not all. My sister recalls an Irish nun scorning her for her dark Italian complexion. My father, with some justice, called hard drinkers in town and housewives who dumped their kitchen slops into the river the “Shanty Irish.”
Marriage took care of things. My grandparents were all Italian. Their children married spouses who were Polish, English, Polish, Italian-Spanish, Italian, Italian, Polish, Irish, Russian, Irish, Polish, Irish, Welsh, Polish, and Russian. You will find from those combinations in my town many a dark-eyed and well-tanned blond, or an Italian-looking person with fair skin and green eyes.
But what are we to do with a Father Comerford? I doubt very much that he thought that Italians were stupid or filthy: he had plenty of stupid and filthy Irishmen to deal with. He was a well-read Catholic priest, which meant that he regularly encountered the works of highly learned Italians, including such titanic popes as Leo XIII and Pius X. Perhaps he thought the Italians would thrive better at the other church. Perhaps he thought that ethnic solidarity was a very good thing. Perhaps he was buying time, waiting for the tensions to settle down. Perhaps he just didn’t like the Calabrese. I have no idea.
We don’t have a statue of Father Comerford. If we had one, I’d be the last man to want to tear it down. We commemorate people for their achievements, not for their failures. Grant has a monumental tomb in New York City not because he was a poor to middling president, but because he was the one man most responsible for winning the Civil War. Father Comerford did things that redounded to the benefit of thousands of people – even thousands of children such as I was – many years after his death.
I don’t know that he was a saint. Saints are rare, so I expect he was not. But I’m not, either.
I said that the building is still there, but the school isn’t. That’s another story, and it involves a much nicer man: a friend of my family and the celebrant at my father’s funeral. He was responsible – not by malice but by the bad taste that was prevalent – for some of the destruction of art in the church. When the school was dwindling in enrollment, he had no vision for its recovery. He sold Father Comerford’s building off. It now serves as the borough offices, and I believe that the third story has been converted into a lockup for drunks and delinquents. I don’t know for certain. I haven’t been inside it in more than thirty years.
“With what measure ye measure,” Jesus warns us, “so shall it be measured out to you.” When we turn ordinary sinners, and even pretty good people who do not in some regard rise above the general moral tenor of their time and place, into monsters, we instruct those who come after us to do likewise. They will at least have this excuse. They will be condemning a generation who prided themselves on their tolerance, when they were the least tolerant of all.
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