It is hard to believe, but the 50th anniversary of my reception into the Franciscan Order passed on Friday, June 29. There was an event at our Provincial Headquarters in New York this week, and I recognized three of my old classmates in the press photo; a fourth was unable to attend. The reason the anniversary did not instantly or emotionally register with me was the way the friars date such events. “Joining the Order” canonically or legally takes place with profession of simple vows, i.e., poverty, chastity, and obedience for a three-year period with the option later to extend simple vows or seek permission to take perpetual vows. Simple vows are professed at the completion of the novitiate year. In my case, simple vows occurred at the completion of seven years of Franciscan formation—six years on Aroma Hill and one year of intense formation to religious life in a secluded friary in north Jersey. I had the feeling I had been with the friars forever at the time of simple vows.
The anniversaries with the bigger impact on my psyche—the ones I do observe annually, at least internally—are entering the seminary [57 years ago], solemn vows [47 years ago], ordination to the priesthood [45 years ago] and formally leaving the Order [30 years ago] and the priesthood [25 years ago]. In fact, I remember my final public Mass very well, also in June, on the Feast of the Sacred Heart. I offered the Friday morning Mass in a parish in Lakeland, Florida. The Irish pastor, a good friend, asked me to cover for him so he could get an early start to Orlando to watch Ireland in the World Cup Soccer Tournament of 1994. The things you remember.
Seeing three classmates celebrate the half-century milestone does brings home how most of us [over 90, by my reckoning] who called Callicoon home for some period of our lives elected not to continue the path we had started. My class, which began high school at St. Joe’s in 1962 with at least 65 candidates, probably saw about 100 candidates pass through its ranks over the years in pursuit of a priestly life. There were still at least 25 “lifers” who entered novitiate in 1968 plus the brothers’ candidates who joined us in novitiate, which brought us to a grand total of 43; by that point the priests’ and brothers’ Franciscan formation programs were combined as they had not been previously.
Leaving Callicoon—or any of the houses of formation--was not always the choice of the candidate. I recently had a long talk with a successful priest in good standing who was asked to leave Callicoon after one year of high school; he told me what a bitter blow it had been, and given his subsequent successful ministerial career in another ecclesiastical setting, one can question the criteria of those days for discharging candidates. A fair number of “induced” departures were probably accounted for by academic difficulties. Some of my friends came from locales with backward school systems, and each day in Callicoon was hell for them. Others were wrestling with emotional issues—which often manifest themselves as conduct problems per today’s diagnostic manuals. It is safe to say, though, that in the 1960’s there was still much bias against psychiatry and mental health considerations in society, and clerical life was no exception. Years later after I was ordained, I had several drinks with my old seminary rector from the hill, and he let slip a marker of the times. He had just lost an election to ecclesiastical office to another friar, and he said to me, “And I lost to a guy seeing a psychiatrist, no less.”
The seminary in Callicoon was no better or no worse than much of society on delicate matters of human services, developmental psychology, or the like in the 1960’s and probably long before. I address these words in particular to any one of my generation who set out for the seminary with high hopes and had them dashed because of circumstances that few, if any, of the 400 seminaries then in existence in the United States were equipped to manage.
Did guys choose to leave the seminary because of girls they knew back home? I’m sure it happened, but my impression is that the social isolation and somewhat austere atmosphere of Callicoon led some of my friends to return simply to normal teenaged living, which would include dating. For my class, the challenges of female interaction were much more pronounced in the later years in Washington. Since we moved discussion of this blog stream over to the “St. Joe’s Reunion” Facebook page, some of the contributors have discussed this aspect of seminary life in greater deal. I have been fascinated by the posts of the St. Joe’s alumni after my class graduated in 1968, when the rules were somewhat relaxed and the opportunities for social engagement with the local gentry seem to have been, if not exactly encouraged, tolerated.
[I would very much welcome any St. Joe’s alumni who would like to “take the console” for a day on this blog stream to share reflections or assessments. A few have suggested I have been a little hard on St. Joe’s, and I concede that.]
Did any of my classmates leave Callicoon because they were gay? I can safely say that some members of my class in our early high school years had difficulty with social engagement and lived at the periphery of the social herd. By today’s lights I would guess that some were wrestling with issues of orientation and gender, which usually facilitate stress and even depression. The early 1960’s were different, and there was no language available for such students to articulate or name their pain. The seminary rule book, read every Friday, stated specifically that “particular friendships were forbidden,” a reflection of ecclesiastical paranoia more than real life, where we never obeyed it. The friendships I made back on the hill—several which have endured for half a century—shaped the man I am today and probably made me a better husband in the process.
I think that most everyone understood the “particular friendship rule” for what it was, a statement of sorts about homosexuality. Coupled with that is an undeniable fact: the social cohort of my class was primarily blue-collar middle America. Our locker room talk could be peppered with mocks about being a “homo” or a “queer” as well as ethnic shorthand that today would have gotten us all into sensitivity training. Did that wound vulnerable classmates or other seminarians, including those of color? I would be a fool to think otherwise.
Did anyone leave due to bullying? Again, sad to say, I believe so. High school students can be collectively cruel and thoughtless; in my sophomore year a classmate regarded as something of a “contrarian” was the object of a particularly humiliating prank witnessed by most of my class in the open dormitory in the middle of the night. When the student woke up and realized what was happening, he burst into tears, and he cried audibly for some time as we tried to get back to sleep. I was “only” a witness, but I consider the situation my worst moral lapse in my six years at St. Joe’s.
Getting back to the chronology of farewells, the end of high school was a major point of discernment in both directions. Strangely, there was little or no open discussion about the critical juncture of high school graduation, at least that I remember. We never had class discussions or guidance as to what kinds of plans to make if we were not returning to St. Joe’s for our college years, a guidance service routinely provided in today’s Catholic high schools. [Someone raised that point on Facebook, too.] There was one meeting with our registrar about application for New York State Regents college scholarships --and possibly New Jersey state scholarships-- being directed to our seminary, but the public administrative assumption was: if you are here, we expect you will continue here. [New York State paid my full tuition to St. Joe’s during my two college years.]
However, most of us had registered for the draft or would do so very shortly, and the Viet Nam War was escalating dramatically in our senior year (from 180,000 to 430,000 troops.) While registering for any college meant a deferment, registering as a clergyman or student of a divinity school, as we did, provided a 4-D exemption. Seminaries were a draft haven in those troubled times, and over the years I have looked back and wondered how much our 4-D exemptions impacted our decisions about staying or leaving. At the very least, I remember counting my blessings. By the time I personally entertained serious consideration about continuing in the seminary in the 1970’s, the United States was withdrawing from Viet Nam in Richard Nixon’s presidency, and a draft lottery was in place.
I can’t remember how many of my classmates departed before the fall 1966 college semester—not too many--but we did have an influx of new faces, as high school graduates—many from our Franciscan high schools in the Buffalo area—decided to pursue the friars’ way of life. Some new members of my class had finished their college degrees and joining us to acquire facility in Latin, Greek, and religion; they were collectively known as “PG’s” or post-graduates. The next two years had quite a vitality to them, and as collegians we were forming deeper and more mature friendships. This made the next life juncture harder to take, because having completed everything Aroma Hill had to offer, our next venture was taking the habit, at the novitiate in Lafayette, N.J. In the months prior to June 1968, several of my close confreres decided to leave the formation program.
This came as a surprise to me and jolted me out of my complacency. Talking about leaving the seminary with your friends was a little dicey, because if the faculty learned of it, the student might lose control of his destiny, i.e., his choice to stay or leave. [This was particularly true closer to ordination, sad to say.] There was some gamesmanship in progressing through the seminary; my Dutch professor of ecclesiology in grad school, admitted this candidly during my deacon year. Those of us who stayed for the long haul were selective, in varying degrees, with what we shared about ourselves to superiors and faculty members who voted on our progression twice yearly. Like savvy football players, we never checked in with the trainer about our injuries.
The sad truth is that from here on out, there were not many true “good-byes.” Classmates kind of disappeared at various junctures. In 1972 I was packing for my solemn vow retreat when a ten-year classmate and good friend came to my room. He sat down and said to me, “Are you really going to go through with this?” David was a true philosopher, a brilliant individual. I thought he might be speaking metaphorically. Perhaps after a decade of clerical caution I was not attuned to the idea that he was asking me, personally, if and why I was making solemn vows. Or more to the point, that my answer was important to him. I was not up to the task that night, and I rambled on about the good, the true, and the beautiful without any true examination of conscience.
The next morning David was not on the bus bound for Rye Beach, New Hampshire. He went on to become a physician and he died prematurely some years ago. I remained, only to have a very ragged parting later that in no way looked like a fraternal good-bye.
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I may have been the last of the 1962 Aroma Hill Gang to leave the Order and the priesthood. I am not quite sure. My disaffiliation occurred in stages: I left the Order in February 1989 and incardinated or joined the Diocese of Orlando for another five years before leaving the priesthood altogether in 1994. The physical departure from the friars occurred in the Provincial’s Manhattan Office and marked the end of a month of angry correspondence and phone calls.
It was certainly not the good-bye one would hope for. I remember flying back to Florida that night fighting tears, to the point that the businessman asked me if I was OK. I said, “Well, I’ve just severed 27 years with my company.” I think he bought me a drink, which fortunately would prove to be one of my last. With a clearer head and some solid counseling, I got on with life as I have described it in a lot of my posts here at the Café site.
In 2001 my wife and I suffered the loss of her son to a drunk driver. It was, as you can imagine, a very difficult time. I had not had formal contact with my Province in 13 years, but I knew I still had some folks in the Order who might remember me, so I took the chance and sent a message to the Province’s office of communications. I was comforted to see that a request for prayers had been published and included in the Province’s weekly newsletter [now delivered on e-mail]. Included with the request was my email address.
How fortuitous was the posting of my address! For I soon received contact from three of my closest but long-lost friends dating back to that September Saturday in 1962. Since 2001 we have exchanged almost daily missives, punctuated with occasional and all-too-brief home visits as we introduced our wives into our collective madness. It is a mix of the zany old Callicoon days tempered by the wisdom of age and the fine wine of friendship; it would not be possible without the mysterious summons to Callicoon so long ago.
And about that “non good-bye” from the friars: in this century I received a hand-written letter from a later provincial—an old friend from Aroma Hill days—who acknowledged that the circumstances of my departure years earlier were unfortunate, and he wished me the best. That was plenty enough for me, and I in turn think often today of the friars who remained into seniority, like my classmates celebrating their golden jubilees. “The Boys from Aroma Hill” was jumpstarted last September when we gathered in Callicoon for reunion. This will be my final post on this stream, as I need to attend to the other six, but I will leave it open as long as there are guys who wish to reconnect with their youth…and their brothers-in-arms.
On My Mind