CATECHISM CATACLYSM – A Tough Time – Optimum Outcome
Reader’s Note: This essay (with a few minor changes) first appeared in Chapter 15 of SCOOT ACROSS THE USA, my account of a 1960 zig- zag trek across much of the US on a Lambretta Motor Scooter. It appears in the blog section of my website: www.rosano.org
The dreaded black-robed nun, Sister Catherine was pissed at me, and it was all about Catechism. For those who do not know the word catechism, it can be defined simply as an elementary book of the principles of the church, in question and answer form (in this case, the church being the Roman Catholic church). As part of our “religious education” in public elementary school, we traveled to our respective churches for this instruction. Sister Catherine presided over this class of 30 or 40 kids. Part of our assignment (as good Catholic kids) was to memorize the Catechism, word for word, question by question, answer by answer, and chapter by chapter. Before going any farther, let me mention that by age nine, I was a pretty good reader, and would read anything and lots of it. Able to read the Reader’s Digest, which I often did, the New York Times occasionally, the encyclopedia constantly and anything that happened into my vision … the jacket of a long-play record or bag-changing instructions for the vacuum cleaner. Now, here comes The Catechism which, of course, God himself wants us to know backward and forward, and if we don’t … uh oh. God wanting us to know this was incentive enough, but Sister Catherine, the Holy Witch, was enforcing God’s wishes. We were all given a new copy of the First Volume and told to ‘know by heart’ and ‘know with your heart’ the first twenty questions (almost two full lessons) before next week’s religious education class. OK, not so bad, we had to memorize various things in ‘regular’ school … state capitals, multiplication tables, Pledge of Allegiance, etc. In church we memorized the Our Father, of course, and other prayers. In addition, as an altar boy, I had memorized all the Latin necessary to serve Mass. We could repeat all the sounds without really a thought as to their meanings, but no big deal. Now, here was The Catechism, which I took home with the intention to study diligently. After supper, I began to read this new book. I read the first twenty questions and answers and began to … began to what? This seemed a little bit dumb to me. Two things bothered me: One, if it’s in the book why memorize it … this is not just a short prayer, it’s a whole book. Two, the questions and answers really made little sense, so that logic wouldn’t help to remember anything. OK, look ahead, at more advanced questions and answers. Question: Does God see us? Answer: God sees us and watches over us with loving care. At age nine, I was familiar with enough of WWII to know that God totally missed watching over about 9 or 10 million people in Europe alone. Question: What do we mean by the Blessed Trinity? Answer: This answer and subsequent answers were convoluted doozies, I decided, and made no sense whatsoever … The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost were all separate and all equal and yet they were all the same person (later in my youth I referred to them as Daddy-O, JC, & The Spook).
Here’s what happened: After long deliberation (at least for a nine year old), I decided I would not spend my effort memorizing this nonsense. Instead I would try to just fake it, slide by, and hope the whole catastrophe would pass over my head and leave me untouched. So I was a reasonably happy kid until the following Wednesday afternoon when the formidable Sister Catherine uncovered my plot on one of the first and easiest questions, which I had not even bothered to look at. Tried to fake some answer, obviously not even close to what was needed. Sister Catherine said she knew I hadn’t studied and that the following week I was to know the lessons perfectly or something terrible beyond my imagination would occur. That was Week One. Week Two was a week of misery for me. Studying this was not going to happen, that I knew, and something terrible beyond my imagination would happen, that I also knew. So Wednesday of Week Two, the Steaming Sister Catherine latched onto this skinny, pathetic, little Italian kid, like a spider with a fly, with instructions to start reciting all the questions and answers of the Catechism lessons. Of course, I couldn’t even begin and just stood there, not speaking. She asked four or five questions of me and I stood mute. The kids in the class were silent and scared and so was I. Finally, she asked loudly, “Right now, in front of Jesus On The Cross, will you promise to study for next week?” I shook my head, finally saying “No, Sister.” Silence. She reached into some hidden compartment of her black habit (that’s what nuns used to wear) and, as a magician might, produced a pad and pencil and furiously wrote something. Handing it to me, she said (for all the class to hear, of course) “This is a note to your mother. She needs to answer this note and you WILL return with her answer next week. For now, you can stand in shame, over there.” This could have been a bad move by the good Sister … I knew a dozen ways to completely distract a classroom of kids by just standing still. She lucked out (God must have been watching over her with loving care) because I was genuinely frightened of her, and would not do any of my little, devious, clown things. The following Saturday (note that I waited a few days), I gave the written note to my mother. Naturally, my mother blew her cork and went on and on, almost ending with “How embarrassing!” and actually ending with “Now just sit down now and study this!” And I said “No, it’s ridiculous. I won’t study it.” So this was a big crisis for me, and it really tested my mother for a day or two, but I would not even pretend to study. Not often as a kid, but occasionally, I would get unmovingly stubborn about something, and ‘all the King’s horses and all the King’s men’ could not get me to budge from my position. This was one of those times. My mother tried eleven different ways to get me to change my mind and I would not. Finally, she spoke to my father, maybe on the Monday or Tuesday night before her answer was due. I was in an adjacent room, but heard them talking, half in English and half in Italian. Pretending to be engrossed in something else, I seemingly paid no attention to them at all. My father evidently asked to see this catechism because my mother handed it to him. Understand that my father had only one year of school, first grade, in Italy, had taught himself to read in Italian and English, though quite slowly, and semi-aloud and with that Italian accent he never lost despite his many years in America. He could, however, read and understand a real estate contract, for example, or read and understand a complex political article in the newspaper. So it took some time for him to sample these catechism teachings. After a long, long time, he called out “Annie.” (I won’t try to type out this whole conversation in an Italian accent, so readers will have to do their best to ‘hear’ this as it was spoken. Well, I’ll help a little.) My mother came in from the kitchen and said “What do you think?” My father said, “That kid is right. It’s too stupid to waste anybody’s time.” My mother asked, “Well, what am I going to say to the nun?” My father laughed and said “you say you husband trewa damn ting away and I pay for ita, but no wanna nudder one-a.” Wednesday morning, before I went to school, my mother gave me a sealed envelope for delivery to Sister Catherine that afternoon. She made me promise not to open it. And it was delivered unopened to the Wicked Witch of the West, who opened and read the note silently in front of the class. She told me softly to sit down and I never heard another word about catechism directed to me. Ever. While a very big stress for me, a normally happy kid, the outcome couldn’t have been better.