Volume 73, Number 38 | January 21 - 27, 2004

Notebook


I survived reporting on Catholic school. Amen…

By Ed Gold

Without mitigating in any way the sins of the fathers and their superiors in the devastating sex scandals that were long part of a cover-up, there remains the human, if not always attractive, face of the Catholic Church as seen in the day-to-day activities of its clerics.

My brush with the men of cloth over the years has led to a wide variety of experiences, some inspiring, some irritating, some touching and a few humorous.

I probably was involved with more priests than anywhere else as a fledgling journalist in mid-century in Gallup, N.M., then a town of 11,000 with a huge Catholic majority.

Many of my contacts with churchmen were connected to sports activities, the most exciting occurrences in our small town — with the possible exception of the bar fights.

An incident was kicked off when the public high school built a gym with a state-of-the-art basketball court. Gallup of course had a parochial school as well, appropriately called Cathedral, which was attended by a minority of the Catholic students. Gallup was the diocesan seat in the county and the bishop lived in town. He was doctrinaire, hardheaded and had a quick temper. He announced that the new gym belonged to the Catholic school on equal terms with the public school.

I wrote a column for our paper noting the constitutional tradition separating church and state and suggested the bishop might accept a gracious offer from the public school to permit Cathedral to use the gym if it would pay a modest maintenance fee.

The bishop fumed that his Catholics paid taxes like everyone else and, as a matter of principle, would not pay any fee at all to the public high school. He never relented and Cathedral continued to play on its broken-down court, which continually invited injury to its players.

Basketball also played a role in another painful conflict involving the church. One Saturday, the Cathedral basketball team headed towards Utah for an evening game. They traveled through mostly Mormon country in private cars, usually driven by alumni members. There were very few Catholic churches in that part of the state. When the team returned home on late Sunday, the school principal, a grim young man who never smiled, asked where they had stopped for Mass. One car had skipped Mass and four of the team’s star players rode in that car. The principal assured those who had missed Mass that they would be punished.

All the players suited up for the next basketball game and participated in the pre-game warm-up. When the game began, the principal ordered the no-Mass quartet to the bench where they sat for the entire game.

This procedure was followed in the next game as well, provoking the school’s alumni, a group of whom visited the newspaper office and confronted me. They insisted I write a column against what they considered an overkill punishment. While I was fully in sympathy with them, I made a hasty retreat. “This is strictly a church matter,” I contended, “and we can’t get involved in it.” They left, upset by my attitude. The punishment lasted for four games. Cathedral lost all of them by whopping margins.

A very different church experience occurred as I traveled with the Cathedral football team on a bus driven by a teacher-priest. On our way to Albuquerque, the priest suddenly asked the footballers: “Who can tell me who Mary Magdalene was?” Dead silence from team members, so I volunteered an answer. The priest was pleased. “Where did you study your catechism?” he asked. I said I was Jewish. He stopped the bus, turned to the ballplayers and chided them: “This man is not even Christian and knows more about your religion than you do!”

The following Monday four of the largest football players visited me. They wanted me to take instruction that did not exactly fit into my plans. I begged off on the grounds I had committed too many sins and was not going to sully their church, and they begrudgingly bought my excuse.

I covered all kinds of news events in the community and at one point reviewed a minstrel show put on by Cathedral High School. While I said mostly nice things about the performers, I noted that I was bothered by the repeated reference to “coons” in the dialogue.

The priest in charge of the production, who was music director at the school, phoned and asked me to visit him in his apartment, which I did. He was very apologetic, insisting he never meant to offend, had no prejudices, and that he had simply followed the standard minstrel show script given to him. Then he said he’d like to play a record for me and gently placed a 78 on the turntable. He asked that I not mention the record to anyone. It was Paul Robeson singing opera.

Probably the priest with the widest audience I have known was Father George Ford, who was advisor to Catholic students at Columbia University when I entered in the early ’40s. Ford was easily the most popular religious figure on campus but he had a serious problem. He was a Jesuit, very independent, very outspoken and very liberal. He refused, for example, to support Franco’s victory in Spain. His superiors sent him back to his Midtown Manhattan parish during my sophomore year. But he continued to show up on campus to enthusiastic audiences as guest of the Interfaith Council, and I would write him up for the college newspaper.

Ahead of his time, he told us how he had dealt with a racial problem just a few years earlier, and in our city. A group of priests in street clothes had gone for lunch to a Childs restaurant, part of a well-known chain in the city. The waiter had told them he couldn’t serve them because one of the group was black.

Ford asked to see the manager to whom he spoke softly but firmly: “We are all priests,” he said. “If you don’t serve all of us, we will put on our collars and be back tomorrow and picket your place.” The manager relented.

After one of his appearances on campus, Ford approached me and asked if I would do him a favor. Would I introduce him to a gathering of Jews and Protestants at one of the dorms where he would explain his faith? When I agreed, he said: “O.K., let’s go in and talk to the heathens.” When I told him I was one of them, he laughed heartily: “Well, it’s a good thing you’re here so you can hear what I have to say.”

Years later, he came back to campus to address a large alumni audience about John the 23rd. “Thank God,” he began, “that I lived to see my pope!”

Father Bob Lott in Greenwich Village had a lot in common with Ford. Both believed that good works on earth played an important role in defining their faith. Lott had helped found the Caring Community, had led the fight to save the Village Nursing Home and had been unrelenting in his advocacy of decent housing for the poor.

Lott and I had been friends for years when, in 1979, he invited me and other non-Catholics to a celebration of St. Joseph Church’s 150th anniversary. Cardinal Cooke, a gentle and humane man, was delivering the homily when a man rose in the balcony and shouted: “John Kennedy’s body has risen to heaven!”

Church members and priests rose in embarrassment, but Cooke waved them to sit down. “It’s alright,” he said, smiling. “You expect interesting things to happen in Greenwich Village.”

A reception was held following the services. Lott introduced me to the cardinal and we exchanged pleasantries.

Some months later, I was invited as a member of the city’s Branch Library Council to visit Manhattan libraries in minority areas. A bus was provided at the main library at 42nd St., and as I got on the bus I noticed Cardinal Cooke, who was a trustee of the New York Public Libraries.

He spotted me, grabbed me by the arm and introduced me to one of his colleagues as “one of the outstanding Catholic laymen in Greenwich Village.”


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