If you go back far enough, you can find Catholic ancestors in just about every Christian family. In my family, I only have to go back to my mom. My mom became Catholic as a 12-year-old girl in Hawaii. Her dad was a Protestant, and her mom was a Buddhist who later became a Protestant, though neither practiced their respective religions.
One Sunday, my mom went to Mass with her older sister, who attended the local Catholic school because it was a good school. My mom was hooked from the very beginning. She loved everything about it. The beautiful cathedral, the hymns, the candles, the incense, the bells...everything. She felt drawn to this new Faith, and wanted to learn more. My mom joined some of her sister’s friends in a catechism class, and one year later, on Holy Saturday, March 31, 1945, my mom was received into the Holy Catholic Church. Eventually my mom became a nurse, came to the mainland with three friends from nursing school, and got a job at St. Vincent Hospital in Los Angeles.
My dad grew up in Alabama. Not too many Catholics down Alabama way, and my dad wasn’t the exception. My dad was raised Presbyterian, and joined the Marines after high school. In 1955, my dad played chauffeur for an out-of-town Marine buddy’s pregnant wife and her Hawaiian wahine nurse friends, which included my mom, in Los Angeles for a week. And that’s how my dad Bob met my mom May.
They began dating, and when he and my mom decided to get married on St. Valentine’s Day at Sacred Heart Church in Honolulu in 1956, he agreed to let my mom raise the children Catholic. Some people think it’s intrusive and domineering of the Church to require that, but I thank God they did, not only for my sake, but also for the sake of my sister.
My parents’ first child, Catherine Anne, was born on May 31, 1957, and died on July 20, 1957 at the age of not yet two months. I cannot even imagine how devastated my parents must have been. But thank goodness for the wisdom of the Church. Catherine had been baptized. So now I know for a fact that she’s in Heaven, and will be praying for her parents, her brothers, her sisters and all her nieces and nephews until we join her.
And notice I didn’t say she’s an angel. People who die and go to Heaven don’t become angels. People who die are still people. People and angels are entirely different creatures. So while I can appreciate the sentiments of someone who says their dearly departed is now an angel in Heaven, God bless them, but that’s not quite right. A saint, hopefully, but never an angel.
My parents had another child the following year, my sister Carolyn. I was next, then my sister Janet, then my brother Tom.
Growing up in San Diego County, I attended Catholic school for a year or two, then public school, and we went to Catechism class (commonly referred to as CCD). We said the blessing before every meal. I remember my mom teaching my older sister and me the rosary when I was young, and we went to Mass every week.
I became an altar boy. Not a very good one, though. I had a paper route and had to get up pretty early Sunday mornings and deliver papers before Church. At the Mass that I would serve later that morning, I would struggle to stay awake during the homily (similar to a sermon). My head would nod, and I’d start to fall off the armless chairs we sat in. I would jerk awake, stay awake for a few minutes, then start to drift off and go through the whole thing all over again. My mom would see people pointing and laughing and get so mad at me. Mom, if it makes you feel any better, I still can’t stay awake in any meeting lasting over an hour.
My dad was, and still is, an incredibly decent man. Because of him, I didn’t realize until I was 16 or 17 that most adults use foul language. I thought that was just something teenagers did until they grew up and became mature, because I never heard anything but decent language from my dad. And he wasn’t just hiding it from us, that’s how he was.
My dad also used to do something that made a lasting impression on me, and now I make every effort to do. He bought something from every kid who ever came to our door selling something. Girl Scout cookies of course, but also pens, magazines, candy bars, whatever. All kinds of junk that I knew he didn’t want. But he never said no. That consistent generosity and kindness to strangers made such an impression on me. Maybe it’s because at one point, I was a Cub Scout and had to sell those praying hands pens door to door. You remember those. A pair of gold hands clasped in prayer on the clip, and the Serenity Prayer printed on the barrel. Man, I hated that. It was so hard knocking on those doors and being told “no.” After that, I understood why my dad was doing what he did. He was trying to help a kid out. He was practicing the random acts of kindness that you see preached on the bumper stickers of cars as they cut you off. Then again, maybe my dad really did just crave useless junk. Either way, it made me proud of him, and taught me about the right way to treat people, and how little it takes to make someone’s day.
By the way, to everyone who’s ever bought anything from a Cub Scout, God bless you. I mean that. Thank you. I especially appreciate it now that my son is a Cub Scout and has to sell overpriced popcorn outside of Albertson’s. I can’t understand people who look the other way and pretend they don’t hear when my son is speaking directly to them, asking them if they want to help the Cub Scouts. Not even a smile and a “Sorry, not today.” They must not have had dads like my dad.
So anyway, my point is, even though my mom and dad didn’t talk about theology, they lived lives that showed they loved God. And since we didn’t really talk much about religion, I never realized there was much of a difference between religions. I remember mentioning confession to my scoutmaster once (shout-out to my boys in the 7-1-9), and he said he didn’t go to confession. I was surprised and asked him why not. He got kind of mad, and asked, “Why should I confess my sins to another man?” I didn’t know what to say.
As a teenager, I was active in our parish youth group. One Sunday morning I stopped by the church to see if our priest leader, Fr. Roger (now Monsignor Roger), was coming by the youth group picnic that afternoon. He suggested that while I was there, and since I hadn’t attended Mass yet, maybe I could sit with the lectors and announce the picnic to the parish at the end of Mass. I wasn’t really dressed for Mass, but I said okay. During Communion, one of the altar boys, a friend of mine, came over and said, “Hey, no one’s distributing Communion to that side of the church.”
I said, “So?”
“So go get some Hosts out of the tabernacle and let’s go.”
I thought, uh, okay. So I got up, went over to the tabernacle, took out a ciborium filled with Hosts, and my buddy and I walked over to the side section. We stood there, and sure enough, people started coming up, and I just started saying, “The Body of Christ,” and distributed Communion.
Fr. Roger looked over when he finished distributing to the main congregation, saw me over there in my Keep On Bikin’ t-shirt and my jeans and tennis shoes, and thought it was funny. The pastor saw me too, though, and almost had a heart attack. Hey, happy to help.
I also attended my friends’ Protestant youth group. I attended mine on Sunday nights, and theirs on Tuesday nights. I went because my buddies said there were tons of hot chicks there, and they were right. I loved that youth group. Still, I didn’t notice a huge difference as far as theology. They loved God, I loved God.
A couple of fun years later, I went away to college. Away at Cal State Fullerton, I still went to Mass every Sunday, but being honest with myself, I was partially just going through the motions. I still thought of myself as someone who loved God, and I wasn’t out holding up liquor stores or dropping acid, but all the same, it probably would not have gone well for me in front of the Judgement Seat if I had died back then.
In college, I worked at Tower Records in Brea. What a blast. I became good friends with my manager, Bob, and when he got transferred to the Tower store in nearby West Covina around the time I graduated from college, I transferred to that store with him. Then when one of his two roommates moved out suddenly, I moved in with him.
Bob was Catholic too, and had gone to Catholic school as a kid. He told me he ditched one time, and called the nuns at school, pretending to be his father.
“Hi, Bob won’t be in school today. He’s very sick.”
“Who is this?” the nun on the phone asked sternly.
“This is Bob’s father.”
“No it isn’t! Who is this?”
“This is Bob’s brother.”
“No it isn’t! Who is this?”
“This is Bob.”
“You’re in big trouble, mister!”
Bob and I wouldn’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent, but at about 11:50 p.m., we would get in the drive-through line at In-N-Out Burger, so by the time we got our burgers, it was 12:00 Saturday. If we didn’t time it right and we got them at 11:59, we waited till 12:00 to eat. Probably not the spirit in which the discipline was intended, but hey, we were trying.
One January night in 1984, my on again/off again college girlfriend called with bad news. Her ex-roommate, who was a close friend of mine, had been killed in a car crash two days before. She had been ejected (not wearing her seat belt), and suffered massive injuries. She had died the next day.
I was lost. I didn’t know what to do. We had just spent a few days together over Christmas and she had met all my Tower buddies. And now... It was the first time anyone I was really close to had died. I drove over to see a girl I was dating, but she didn’t know what to say. I called my mom. I called Fr. Roger. My mom and Fr. Roger told me the same thing: it’s faith that will get you through. But how? How will it get me through? What does that mean? After all that time going to Mass, at the age of 23, I still didn’t know.
A few months later, I got a job in my chosen profession of advertising, and with much excitement and sadness, I left Bob and all my friends at Tower Records.
I moved to Huntington Beach. Shortly afterward, my on/off college girlfriend called it quits for good (don’t worry, I took back the Elton John tickets I had given her for her birthday, no way was I going to sit home thinking about her and her new boyfriend going). So at this point in my life, like most guys, I was simply concentrating on my career while keeping an eye out for the right girl.
Advertising and God rarely mix, but one time I wrote a headline that was a takeoff on the verse, “Man does not live by bread alone.” Someone wrote in to the client to say that was a perversion of the Word of God. Since I was the copywriter, and probably because no one else knew how to respond, the letter was passed down the chain for me to answer.
I had never used a Bible verse as a headline before, but it had also never crossed my mind that there might be anything wrong with it. So I called Fr. Roger. He explained to me that using Scripture to sell products dilutes the true meaning of the Scripture, and therefore lessens its meaning and impact. In other words, don’t do it. So I answered the letter by thanking the person for writing in, told them I hadn’t known it was wrong, was sorry, and promised I would never do it again. See what happens when you write a protest letter to a company? You never know what good it will do or who it will touch.
Oh, here’s something interesting. I was kidnapped at gunpoint in Watts.
It was after a Van Halen concert. My buddy and I were thirsty and hungry, so we were trying to find a fast food place near the Inglewood Forum in L.A. We looked on a map and figured, we’ll just catch Imperial Highway over to the freeway and find a fast food place on the way. We had no idea Imperial Highway runs through the projects. I guess that would explain the two obviously out-of-place guys standing calmly in line at Church’s Fried Chicken at midnight in the middle of the projects, wondering why everyone was staring in disbelief. Long story short, we got our chicken, I pulled over on the side of well-lit, four-lane Imperial Highway to finish mine, and a 15-year-old boy came up and opened my door and pointed a gun at me. He drove us across the street into the heart of the projects, got us some tools, made us pull my stereo, then gave us back our keys and told us to leave before some other African-American decides to bother us. Not necessarily in those words.
At work the next day, I told everyone the story, and to my everlasting shame, finished by wondering where God was last night. At once, all of these people, most of whom didn’t go to church, answered, “Are you kidding? He was there with you.” I realized they were right, of course, and I was struck by my ingratitude toward God. Still, it didn’t inspire me to get closer to Him the way it probably should have.
About this time, the gym where I was working out closed down. There was a group of us who used to work out together, and in the end, one guy and I decided to join a gym that was near where we both lived. His name was Bob. Sure seem to be a lot of Bobs in my life. Maybe someday we’ll all meet up in Heaven and go Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ along. Did I really just write that?
This Bob was a few years older than me, and was the father of five great kids. He was also Catholic.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Bob was to play a major role in this journey I didn’t know I was on.