Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Jenny and the CCD teacher: our Sacred Heart reunion

Reprinted on Spero News and RenewAmerica.
We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone else to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again...Christ did not take upon himself the glory of becoming a high priest, but God said to Him, 'You are my Son; today I have become your Father.' --Hebrews 5:11-12,5
We're talking away
I don't know what I'm to say
I'll say it anyway...

Take on me
Take me on
I'll be gone... --from the song "Take On Me" by A-Ha
While I often hung out after class to hit with my students, tonight I was finishing up teaching my Thursday tennis class as quickly as possible, for due to the urging of an old friend, I had volunteered my time that evening at nearby Sacred Heart Parish. The event was called Germanfest, a carnival/food and beverage extravaganza that was not only the parish's chief fundraiser, but the town's primary mid-summer get-together for nearly a half century, and I was headed for perhaps its chief source of revenue, the beer tent.

"Sign in, then get yourself a wristband and a name tag," barked Mike Brzezinski, my aforementioned friend and head of all beer tent operations. Being a little late for my shift, I was a little apprehensive at first, but as it turned out, there was little to worry about. For, after a quick glance around the Fest, it was quickly apparent that Mike had recruited five times as many volunteers as any other post. And, after a grueling half-an-hour shift, it was also soon apparent there was another reason that folks volunteered at this part of the Fest besides the fact that Mike was a most gracious host.

"Whatcha drinkin'?" asked Mike, and when he applauded my choice of Warsteiner as fitting for the theme of the celebration, we settled down for a few minutes, before he had to go off and check on supplies, to talk about old times. I had known Mike for more than twenty-five years, back when we were both still single and he was my boss at the park district. Still, the days we shared at the parks notwithstanding, Sacred Heart was the perfect spot to relive our "glory days," for it was the site of many trials and triumphs on our tumultuous faith journeys. After suffering his share of life's disappointments and Church disillusionments, Mike married but abandoned not only Catholicism but religion altogether, only to later return to the Church when, with a little help from his friends, God guided his family through his wife's sickness and recovery. While Mike is still more likely to attend a happy hour than a holy hour, he now takes his faith very seriously (I was the godfather at the baptism of one of his then grade-school-aged daughters) even to the point of allowing me to talk about the sacraments and the saints at times once exclusively reserved for the Bears, Hawks and the Sox.

And, as if Sacred Heart (and beer with a dear friend) wasn't nostalgic enough, Sixteen Candles, the band hired to entertain that night, was playing all '80s songs, both the decade my friendship with Mike began (and, both being single, still hung out every weekend) as well as the years Jeanette and I were members of the parish. We moved into the parish after our marriage, and I immediately became involved, first volunteering as a CCD teacher for the Sacred Heart 8th-grade Confirmation class, then securing a job as the Sacred Heart youth minister. To call it "the best of times and the worst of times" would be an understatement; although I immediately clicked with the Confirmation class and brought orthodoxy back to SH youth ministry, my unorthodox style (I often let kids veer from the textbook and ask any question they had about the faith, and I promoted Mass and Bible study over amusement parks and water slides) clashed with the old pastor, and I was let go after just one year and just before the birth of our first child...

Mike had wandered away to attend to some business, and so when the cover band began it's rendition of Eddie Money's "Take Me Home Tonight," my mind was free to relive those bittersweet memories--or so I thought.

"Do you remember me?" asked the blond, jarring me from my daydream.

Indeed, the woman (who somehow also seemed a girl) looked vaguely familiar, but five long seconds of searching my brain through thirty years of coaching, teaching and writing had still not produced an answer when she volunteered another clue. "You were my CCD teacher!" she said hopefully, and, although Mike (who had just wandered back) said her name first, I knew it was Jenny.

Besides her inquiring eyes, there were a couple of things that stood out about this former student. One was her absolute hunger for truth, and her fierce defense of anyone she found truthful. The other was her mother.

"How are your folks doing?" I asked her after dabbling in some small talk.

"Fine," replied Jenny. "I just saw them--"

"Are they still...together?"

"Yes," she said, recalling the days when her mom (who had Jenny when still a teen herself) and dad were rarely together or on the same page, "they've really turned things around."

I became involved with their soap opera when her mom, through Jenny, invited me over to their house, on the pretense of talking about how Jenny was doing in CCD. However, it soon became apparent that her mom had questions of her own...

"What do you think about Father X's sex scandal?" Jenny's mom asked the recently-married youth minister about a then-recent fallen Father.

"It's certainly not good, but the actions of an unfaithful priest does not cause me to lose faith in the teachings of the Church," I replied.

"Okay, but don't you think there would be a lot less problems, and a lot more priests, if the Church would just allow them to marry?"

"Because it's too hard to remain celibate?" I replied, answering her thoughts. "To me, it's no more difficult for a priest to remain celibate than for a married man to stay faithful to one woman--his wife."

"Good point," she replied knowingly.

Back at Germanfest, Jenny was updating me and Mike (who also knew her as a youth from the park district softball league) on her life, and it sounded a lot like a person who felt the cup half-empty trying to portray it as half-full. Despite several long relationships, Jenny had never married, and as the fourteen-year-old we once knew talked about turning forty, she not only felt her prospects for marriage, but for having children (something she had always wanted), were slipping away.

"Of course, most of my friends [after which she cited several casualties of matrimony] say I was damn lucky never to get married!" Jenny said with a flourish.

"But our marriage is great," I suddenly blurted out, "and Jeanette is the best person I ever met."

"I thought I was!" quipped Mike, feigning disappointment.

"Well, you were certainly my best boss...and by far the best beer tent manager!" I countered.

Jenny laughed at our levity, but I slowly but surely began to feel "the call." I felt the Lord was directing Money's words, "I don't want to let you go 'til you see the light," toward me and Jenny; that I shouldn't let her go until she saw "the Light," aka Christ. But for whatever reason, it was when the band began playing A-Ha's haunting words that I became convinced that, after all these years, and not knowing "what to say," I should "say it anyway."

"Well Jenny, I bet you know what I'm going to ask now. Do you still believe?"

"In God?" she answered, finishing my question. "Yes, Tom, I still believe in God...but not..."

"The Church?"

"If I went back, it would have to be to a different church...I mean...all those sex scandals! Wouldn't it just be better if they let the priests marry?" Jenny now paused, puzzled as to why her serious answer had suddenly made me smile.

"Because your mom made that exact same argument to me about twenty-five years ago," I replied, and then gave her the same answer, with this addition. "Jenny, besides stories of Faith, I now also write articles on national websites exposing abusive priests. I often get hate mail from these exposés, but it's all worth it to me if I can save these victims from further harm. And yet, even after seeing all this incredible evil up close, I still love the Church."

"But why?" asked Jenny, more puzzled than ever.

"Because Christ or His Church never taught this behavior was right. It was only these priests making an un-Christian choice--"

"But the cover-ups!"

"Those were not good choices either," I paused, searching for the right words. "Jenny, G.K. Chesterton once stated that the best argument against Christianity is Christians."

"I agree with that."

"But he also pointed out what the Church really taught, as well as the inspiring lives of all the saints who truly followed the Church's teachings." But before we could continue, Mike was back from the beer wars, bringing us back to the fact it was a quarter after eleven and the Fest was closing.

"You guys wanna help me clean up?" asked Mike.

"I have to work at eight tomorrow," said Jenny, shaking her head. "Hey, Mike, do you think you could find me a girls softball team to coach?"

"We'll talk about it when I walk you to your car," Mike said, escorting her.

"You could help me with kids tennis," I offered. Softball was Jenny's first love, but as Mike was no longer with the park district, my offer was more realistic.

"I may take you up on that," she answered, but it seemed the words were now those that one spoke at a party, words rarely fulfilled. "I'll be gone..." the words of the song rang through my head, and I knew this was my last chance to say something...real...

"Jenny, do you at least see the Truth in what I was talking about?"

"I do...bye, Tom!"

I guess in "chance" encounters such as the one between me and Jenny, it's always natural to feel you wish there was more time, or that you could have come up with something more convincing to say. But true conversion is more than a four-minute love song (especially an '80s song!) and to believe a reversion to the Church will occur after you have given a soul the first whiff of orthodoxy it has had in possibly a quarter century may be admirable but it is unrealistic. Still, there was something cool in the fact that Jenny called me "teacher" after all these years, and, while she wasn't exactly ready to follow me into Confession the following Saturday, part of her seemed pleased that Tom (unlike so many others) hadn't turned cynical or liberal in the interim. If Fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom, perhaps courage with a (devout) CCD teacher is the beginning of Catholicism, at least for Jenny. And, whether I see Jenny next at tennis or in eternity, calling me her CCD teacher should still serve her well. For if nothing else, Jenny now knows for certain that to "Take on me" also means to take on Him.

5 comments :

JimAroo said...

An ode to friendship....to values held true...to faithfulness to spouse and to our Savior... and an ode to hope in a dark desolate world.

I think that deserves a toast. Make mine Guinness!

JimAroo said...

That was a moving piece - something about that story made me want to cry... some nostalgia..some sadness for poor Jennie who maybe never had much of a chance but who still
comes to the parish beerfest - perhaps looking.. wanting to believe.

That was great writing.

Tom O'Toole said...

Thanks Jim ... and thanks again! You are perhaps one of the few readers who can appreciate the many layers in this piece and the depth beneath the surface of this article. I hope others at least pray for Jenny cause with a few guardian angels cooperating with the Holy Spirit, you just never know.

God's grace & Mary's prayers,
Tom

P.S. I wish they HAD Guinness at Germanfest!

Queen Mary Aroo said...

"To take on me .....is to take on Him."

I hope and pray that line can be said of my life.

There was a sad note of time gone by...battles won and battles lost.

We don't always win....we don't even pray for victory but for fsithfulness. Then the victory will he His.

Tom O'Toole said...

Well played, Queen Mary, well played.