Church Reporter: Life as a Jesuit novice in 1950
Five of us took the New York Central from Chicago to Cincinnati in August, 1950, arriving with hours to spare before our 6 p.m. novitiate-arrival deadline. Our destination was suburban Milford, 15 miles east of the city. Killing time, we cabbed it at one point. One of us wanted to buy a fielder’s glove. We asked the cabbie where we could find a sporting goods place. He picked up on the sporting part and was about to suggest a brothel. We cut him short smilingly. Athletic goods, yes. Sexual athletics, no.
Milford was a village of a few thousand souls, on the Little Miami River. Across the river was the novitiate, a three-story brick institutional structure on 99 acres. Showing up with minutes to spare, smelling slightly of beer, we entered a sort of frat house existence, minus amenities, including beer. No more of that for four years.
We each arrived after a year of college, all but one of us destined to remain through priestly ordination, all but one of those to leave the order and the ministry. We brought the total of new men to 22 or so. Another 25 came a few weeks later, making a first-year novice class of close to 50 — from Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Cleveland, and elsewhere in five states including Indiana and Kentucky.
Those were palmy days for Jesuits, as for seminaries all over, what with 90-man novitiates and two-hundred-man “houses,” counting Latin and Greek classics students on the other side of the big brick building, in their third and fourth years at Milford, plus brothers, faculty, and retirees. Catholics were not second-guessing themselves as they would 15 years later, especially seminarians, priests, and nuns. Among Milford novices, for instance, objections were personal, not institutional.
We missed “beer and babes,” as one novice said — a sprightly fellow from downstate Illinois who would have been a barrel of fun in a bar. Some missed the lost ability to become fathers, which hadn’t occurred to me and wouldn’t, until I became one. Others, including me, missed the freedom to hang on the corner and watch the girls go by.
Not all of us missed girls, it turned out. The point did not arise, except in advice against forming “particular friendship,” which in any case was presented more as an offense against community spirit than sexual carrying on.
THE FIRST DAYS
We became nine-to-fivers, to bed at nine and up at five, sleeping on cots in six-man dormitories, each in a curtained cubicle. Entering in early August, we met ferocious Ohio Valley heat and humidity. Curtains were drawn, six ceiling-high windows were thrown open. Next to each window was a desk where we would kneel for the daily hour of meditation, 5:30 to 6:30.
Not in the first few days. We had to learn how to meditate, which was more than saying a Hail Mary. The novitiate was to be our introduction to a life of reflection. Ours was to be an examined life.
A second-year novice from downstate Illinois, our “spiritual father,” gave us a motto of sorts: You succeed at prayer by trying. It’s a prescription for mediocrity but recognized the difficulty and gave us a sort of pep-talk incentive. What did we know? He’d been doing prayer for a year.
The prayer was meditation and not the petition I had made routinely during the war at bedtime, praying for peace and my brothers overseas or in preparation for an intramural boxing match. For a fight I used a saying of St. Ignatius that I had picked up somewhere and have since found it’s as Jewish as it is Christian, not to mention Catholic: Pray as if everything depends on God, act as if everything depends on you. So I trained and got to bed early and in nightly prayer put my fate in God’s hands. It was not a bad exercise. Indeed, I entered the Jesuits with precisely that purpose.
I ran into a local bully boy at Austin and Madison and told him I was joining the Jesuits. “Why on earth would you want to do that?” he asked, stunned. No less incredulous was friend George, who wondered the same thing. I told him I wanted to do something that gave me full guarantee of doing God’s will. He heard me out respectfully. Friend Brad across the alley, who at one point considered joining the Trappists, resonated with my intention. We both had the habit of daily Mass and communion at our parish church a few blocks from our houses.
Such a tidal wave of piety is worth noting. It came from inside the families, but also from school. In senior year at Fenwick High, in Oak Park, a Dominican school, we had a religion teacher who pushed the envelope for us with a taking-Scripture-seriously approach. Even friend Bill, skeptical toward the Church in ways I was not, found this teacher, Father James Regan, O.P., worth the entire $150 annual tuition, so engaging were his classes, which he taught half from Scripture and tradition, half from Time Magazine and other news outlets.
For instance, discussing Jesus’ saying that the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light, Father Regan brought up Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigning hatless in the rain in an open car, trying harder to gain his earthly crown than we to gain our heavenly, to use the language of that day’s piety. Such an argument struck home for the adolescent listener with half an interest in discovering the meaning of life. It was the sort of thing that got Brad and me off to church on weekdays.
More specifically, Father Regan asked repeatedly in daily quizzes until it had sunk in to his satisfaction: What’s priceless within easy reach every day? Holy Communion, of course. For the believing 17-year-old, it made perfect sense, especially for me who as a grade-schooler had gone to daily Mass with my parents during the war, praying for the return of my brothers. It was a matter of home-fires burning with relentless piety, including nightly family rosary. Combine such home and family experience with formal instruction in a school atmosphere that drove home Catholic viewpoints and exuded faith and prayer, and you had a formula for encouraging the religious bent.
(to be continued)
By Jim Bowman
He was religion editor for The Chicago Daily News, 1968 to its closing in 1978, and since then has written many books and articles, including his Bending the Rules: What American Priests Tell American Catholics (Crossroad, 1994). He blogs athttp://blithespirit.wordpress.com/ and elsewhere. www.jimbowman.com has the links.