Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A few childhood memories

I grew up in southern California in the 1950's and '60's, and so had my elementary-school education in the last years of the "old" Catholic Church, that is, the Church before Vatican II. Of course, what you experience in childhood profoundly affects your entire life's outlook, and so my impression of what the Church is and should be was formed in an environment light-years distant from the predicament the Church finds itself in today. Whereas today's Catholic Church in the U.S. is timid, left-leaning, and weak, the Church of my youth was strong, conservative, and vibrantly confident of its role in the nation and the world.

My little parish in Fullerton, California was blessed with a beautiful little mission-style church with ten or twelve magnificent stained-glass windows. I loved being up in the little choir loft. A pair of driveways, parallel to the right side of the sanctuary, led into the courtyard behind, and were separated from each other by a narrow strip of lawn with neat boxwood hedges, with a small shrine to the Virgin Mary at the far end and a flagpole at which the 8th-grade students raised the flag every morning during the Pledge of Allegiance.

Across the driveways was the two-story school building, built in the 20's, with tall windows and hardwood floors. The first floor housed the classrooms for the 5th though 8th grades, the library, the tiny school office, and a closet-sized "store" where you could buy pencils, paper, and other essentials. The second floor housed an auditorium -- home to many a school play and science fair -- and a kitchen. The driveways entered the grounds through an arched colonnade that ran from the school building to the sanctuary. Everything was roofed in red Spanish tile.

Behind the sanctuary was the rectory, home to three priests during my time there -- Frs. Siebert, O'Brien, and O'Malley. (Today, a parish in the L.A. area is lucky to have even one priest it can call its own). Across the courtyard, behind the big school building, were the lunch benches. In the courtyard, beside the rectory, and facing toward the lunch benches as if to bless us while we sat there, was another statue of the Virgin -- donated by a family whose daughter had been killed in a playground accident. Behind the courtyard was a low, cinder-block building, put up in the late '40's, that housed grades 1 through 4. And behind it, finally, was the playground.

That was then.

I knew that the lovely parish church burned to the ground around 1970, a victim either of arson or a misbehaving devotional candle. The warm, homey, mission-like church where I had my first Holy Communion, where I had studied the stained glass for hours, and where I gone to Mass every First Friday with the whole school, was replaced with the sort of "modern" church that was popular back then -- cold and sterile, as much like a warehouse as a church.

I went back there earlier this year, just to see how my old parish and its school had otherwise changed. The new church was still there -- more's the pity. The old two-story school building, with its big windows and hardwood floors, where I had answered Fr. O'Brien's acerbic questions in Confirmation class and been taught by the unflappably sweet-tempered Sister Genevieve Marie, had been torn down, replaced by an ugly, nondescript thing. The pretty lawn, with its shrine to the Virgin and its flagpole, was gone too, removed to make the driveways wider, and the colonnade had been demolished, too. The rectory had been replaced with a concrete-block affair that played host to the priest who came by on Sundays and Wednesdays -- no one really lived there anymore.

The overall impression: shrunken, tawdry, and depressing.

Quite a bit like what the Church in America has become, overall. The physical uglification of the place where I did so much of my growing up is mirrored in the vulgarization of the Church that was so strong and confident.

And that should help to explain a bit further why the imagery of Dover Beach seems to me so vivid and apt:

The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-winds, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.