Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 16, 2024

Finding humor and humanity in the Catholic Church

By VERONICA REARDON | April 13, 2017

My family is deeply religious. My father’s side is wholly Irish Catholic. My mother’s side is not Irish, but my grandparents on her side were sure as hell Catholic, and, of course, so is she. I believe we may have some Baptists in the family somewhere but I have not heard much about that.

Sitting in church is one of my earliest memories. My siblings and I would crawl around on the old red carpet as much as we were allowed to, scorning the pews until we were too old to go unnoticed. We would do this, and afterward we would go to Parish School of Religion.

My years there went as follows: in second grade, I learned such classics as the Nicene Creed, the Hail Mary and one particularly creative (or unfortunate) boy named Christian’s “Washing Machine Song.” If you don’t know the song, it goes like this: “Washing machine, the washing machine, I hope my mom doesn’t put me in the dryer” sung over and over until you have been hit rather hard, probably in the face.

In seventh grade, I witnessed a boy named Jesse bite another boy on the shoulder for no discernible reason. In retrospect, he was probably possessed, but be fair, you don’t learn exorcisms until eighth grade in normal Catholic curriculums, so we couldn’t have done anything about it. He moved to Arizona soon after that, or so I heard.

In ninth grade, during Confirmation Class, I was taught to summon the Holy Spirit with my fingers in a triangle in front of my face intoning “Come, Holy Spirit.” I never managed to do it long enough without laughing to actually summon the Holy Spirit, but according to our teacher it was very effective when you did it right.

After teaching us this, she then said with a straight face that she did not see how anyone could call the Catholic Church a cult. She later showed us a video about all the rusty tools people always use to do abortions.

These things and the many other parts of PSR and the Church played an integral part in forming my first framework for understanding the world. Religion was a part of my life; My siblings and I lived within it, did all the silly things kids do all the time in that world, knew a community of people and still have shared memories from it.

Eventually I graduated from Confirmation Class, smiling and shaking the hand of a bishop who not much later had to resign after a child pornography scandal.

Church changed for me once I was done with PSR. Instead of the prelude to an occasionally disturbing and much more often deathly boring hour and a half, it was the main show. I began almost enjoying it. It was pleasant to be awake early in the morning, and quiet time in Mass was the perfect time to reflect. At that time we were also fortunate enough to have a priest who was extremely articulate, funny and well spoken, which made sermons usually pretty decent to listen to.

The parish moved to a bigger church, paid for by what must have been a 15-year capital campaign along with an anonymous donor, by the time I was 16. This was strange, almost like moving houses, and we had a new and very strict music director, but we still had our old organist. She was a very sweet woman who wore gargantuan hats and had a voice like a set of damp bagpipes that could only make one very high sound.

Her organ playing was fine, despite a very erratic concept of rhythm, but she would always use a microphone to sing into, despite the fact that her voice carried unfortunately well no matter how little magnification she provided it with. The music director saw this as a personal affront. He would always try to hide the microphones from her.

My brother and I complained, but this woman was truly the highlight of the mass — with the notable exception of Dennis. Dennis was, and almost certainly still is, a short man who usually wore denim and who perpetually had a cold. He drove a tractor most places — I’d seen him drive it on the highway before — and lived with his mother until her death at 90-something. He is extremely friendly and kind and always insisted on shaking everyone’s hands.

Unfortunately, my dad has a horror of germs akin to many people’s fear of spiders or snakes. The look on his face when Dennis would sneeze or cough into his hand and then happily shake my dad’s was absolutely priceless. And it would happen every single week, without fail.

“Dr. Reardon!” Dennis would always begin. Cough cough, shake shake, sneeze cough wheeze shake, “So good to see you!”

Of course because Dennis was so nice Dad had to stand there and chat with him, all the while resisting the urge to grab the hand sanitizer my mom carried in her purse. You would never have known how bothered my dad was unless you knew him well, thank goodness. Dennis would always shake my hand as well, but I didn’t mind. (I didn’t learn to fear germs until I lived in AMR II).

The gist of all these anecdotes is that, at one time, it felt like half of my life was church. I was brought up to be conservative, and did not figure out that I had other options until I was in high school. Certainly many of the defining moments in my family life were in some way related to the Church, be they moments my siblings and I shared in PSR or memories like my dad singing hymns very badly in the car on the way to church, or saying Grace all together as fast as we could before dinner and then having our parents make us say it again, “Slowly this time!”

Even when I agreed with everything that was said there, I found our parish irritating at best and embarrassing at worst. Now, my experiences there are the common ground I share with siblings who are growing up and changing more and more every day, especially as we literally no longer share common ground now that my family has moved.

We have forsaken our beautiful childhood land of rolling hills, tawny tufted grass and ancient lightning-struck oaks for new territories, and we now must find a way to hold ourselves together without it.

My parents live in Oregon now instead of Missouri, so it is still quite beautiful. Some would even say that it is more beautiful there. Naturally, one of the first things they did was settle into the local church scene. I went with them over break.

The first mass we went to was extremely promising. A short, bald man who looked like an elf gave a comically slow reading. Then came the sermon.

“FIve! There are five things to do to resist the devil!” The priest waved one hand wildly around, fingers outstretched. “One, the Rosary.” He now brandished only one finger, pointed accusingly at the ceiling. “Now, you may be wondering why there are feasts. Do I have to go to church during the festivals? And I say, it is not a day of obligation... Always say the rosary! Always say it. There are five things to do to resist the devil! One, the Rosary. Two, the Bible. Now, once I was in the grocery store…”

I looked over at one my brothers and we smiled. Fewer of us may live in the same place now, and those of us that do are now in an Oregon neighborhood instead of Missouri pastures, but, by God, there will always be the unintentional humor of the Catholic Church in its many, many forms. For an institution that is supposed to be something of God’s, it is awfully human.


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