It’s still there, the unspoken something. It will always be there. It cannot be removed. It is eternal. It is the reason I’m a priest.
I have been retired over a year, and thoughts as to why I did this would not, I don’t imagine, be uncommon. As we near the end of something, we have more of the past to reflect upon. The young are mostly future, the old are mostly past. We share the present from different points of view.
I can’t think of any overt major influences that led me in the direction of the priesthood of Jesus in His Church. The bulk of the vocation talks I have heard have included the request of us to think of the priest, or priests, who influenced us to be priests ourselves. I have never been able to think of one. We had only a few priests pass through our parish during my time there, and it never occurred to me to see one as a model I wanted to emulate. I don’t remember any vocation talks. We had just gone through the post-war boom in kids and priests, the seminaries had plenty of young men in them, and, as is the common mode of thought, no one I know of saw any reason why things shouldn’t continue as they were.
Why doesn’t it occur to us that things don’t continue as they are? Then again, how could we think otherwise since the future is a complete unknown. We normally don’t shift through possible developments and consider what we would do in each case. I think businesses do that, but the Church doesn’t.
No, our current concern in the Church today about the lack of priests was not a concern in my day. Though things weren’t as laissez-faire as all that. I know that priests were trying to identify vocations to the priesthood in their parishes and that I was so identified. My evidence is direct and still fresh in my memory.
Our pastor said to me one day after daily Mass toward the end of my eighth-grade year in our parish school, “John, I guess you’ll be going to seminary next year.” I answered him with one word. “No.” He had caught me by surprise, and I must have surprised him. He shocked me into a deviance I didn’t often display. The source of the shock was his seeming to take for granted that I had the seminary in mind for my future. What I had in mind for the future was playing basketball for the same high school in St. Louis as had my old brother and from which he was graduating that same year. I had no idea that he, or my parents, or teachers, were thinking about me in terms of being a priest. I remember the force behind that “No.”
As I remember those years in rural Missouri south of St. Louis, it is silence that dominates. There was always something unspoken in the air. I sensed that whatever those things were, I sensed that they were dangerous. A latent forbidenness moved through the air. It was also a silence that took many things for granted, that didn’t bring anything potentially confusing or unpleasant into the open.
Of course, there were many things yet to arrive openly into the world in which we lived. The Civil Rights Movement was very much open to us, the anti-Vietnam War protests were soon to come, but there was no talk of homosexuality, there was only one understanding of marriage, and transgenderism and critical race theory were simply unthinkable.
There was something else unspoken in the air, however, and it nourished us.
We were taught the basic truths of the Faith. We used the Baltimore Catechism. As a pastor I have thought of bringing back the Baltimore Catechism for our PSR classes even though it wasn’t on the Diocesan approved list for religious education texts.
There are times I long for a return to such simple, ordered times, but such a return is not possible; it never is. We had priests and religious sisters; the yearly Christmas play in the church basement and fish fries and bingo in the same place; we had an agricultural view of life where social life centered around the parish—the only good thing about the city was Busch Stadium; the shopping mall was yet to be invented—and we took it all for granted. There was no felt need to talk about its possibly passing away. But it did by the time I graduated from high school in 1970.
I moved with the times and wouldn’t enter Kendrick Seminary in St. Louis until 1982. The Cardinals won the World Series that year.
No one can foresee the future, not even the short-term future. Looking back at that world, it’s easy to see that the causes of its passing had been there for many years. There were national, even global, currents that had marked the end of that way of life for generations. The end comes quickly but the buildup takes a long time. There was a boom after the War which was perhaps the shortest boom ever to have happened in a country. We thrived never thinking that we should talk about why we were thriving; we thrived unaware that currents of thought and morality had been planted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that irrupted into WWI that was the death knell of Christendom. Few heard the tolling of that bell.
There was an often-unspoken code. Parents knew their responsibilities for the religious and moral upbringing of their children. Children knew their own duty to respect and honor their parents. There wasn’t a need to talk about it. It just happened. Parents could send their children to the parish school believing that they had done what they had to do.
Most of us knew that when we were going to act contrary to the code, we would keep it hidden; until we didn’t have to any longer. The adults hid their things, and we hid ours; like sneaking off into the ravine to smoke cigarettes. What we didn’t suspect was that the adults knew what we were doing. One of my brothers and his best friend used to go out to property Dad and Mom owned in a township called Cedar Hill in order to cut wood that they would load into a VW van and sell in St. Louis. They were in high school and when they took a break from cutting wood, they drank beer. In our living room, years later, they were both in the military then, they told Dad about the beer drinking. They thought they were revealing one of the secrets as adult friends do with each other. They thought it was funny, and it was. Dad said, “I found the beer cans.” But he had said nothing. There was a graceful, unspoken kindness in our life.
There was in my childhood the unspoken code, the norms and customs taken for granted. It was easier to let the system work on automatic pilot. We’re like water in those things; we’ll take the path of least resistance; if there’s a barrier, we’ll go around it until the barrier becomes a damn that stops the water’s flow altogether. We won’t know who built the damn and is therefore able to control the water.
There is, nonetheless, something else that is unspoken; the unspoken something; unspoken because it can’t be said directly, it is only one thing and only able to be expressed in art and theology. There isn’t a catechism for it. It is what makes a catechism, Baltimore or CCC, possible.
What was it that made the Church in the first place—The Church of the apostles, the Church of the catacombs, the Church that made Western Civilization? No one can say what it is. It is not open to codification. It is only one Word. We may say that that Word is Jesus Christ; we may say that the Word is the Holy Spirit. I think that it’s the air that they breathe into us. It is the Word spoken in the beginning, the beginning before any other beginning. The Word before the beginning and after the end. It is the only word common to all times, places, and cultures. Without it there are no times, places, or cultures. Without it there isn’t a humanity.
It had made my childhood possible breathing underneath the calls at bingo, the Friday night fish fries, the dull Sunday sermons, the incense at the Tuesday night Benedictions, and the Lenten Friday’s Stations of the Cross.
That unspoken something that builds worlds is what I listen to now. I listened first in childhood and that something is always there. It is here now in this world. It is what Jesus meant us to hear when he said, “Let him who has ears, hear.” For those who stay faithful come what may, they are listening as that child in rural Missouri listened even though he wouldn’t have been able to say what he was listening to or even that he was listening. There are things that can’t be said which may sound strange to a world that needs to be always talking and listening to the talk. There is a world to come. It may move by horse and buggy; it may have cars that fly. Who knows? Who cares? It will be a stable, ordered world for it will come from the unspoken something, and that is what matters.