Monday, June 6, 2016

Back to MSU for a moment

Realizing that today is the anniversary of the day I entered the Catholic Church, I thought I would go back to the memoirs and post a section related to how all that happened. This is lengthy, but I hope you find it interesting.

            I had gone to Michigan State as a Spanish major. I had studied Spanish all through junior high and for five semesters in high school. I had a gift for the language and I liked the culture. So it seemed obvious that my career track was teaching Spanish. Like I say, growing up in the shadow of the oldest teacher’s college in Texas and in a family with lots of teachers, I assumed teaching was what adults did. Smart adults, that is.

            As it turned out, Spanish was okay but the thought of spending my life teaching it lost all appeal. It seemed that my classmates, those who were not planning to teach Spanish, were only there to fulfill a language requirement and had heard that Spanish was the easiest thing going. So the professors were always swimming upstream, trying to generate some enthusiasm. I didn’t want to do that. By the time I went home that summer, one of my goals was to find a new major.

            I studied the course catalog so much you would have thought I was going to have an exam. Much of the reading I did every night at work was an attempt to narrow down my field of interests. I read psychology, sociology, history, classics. I did not even consider the hard sciences. I had excellent grades in all my science classes in high school, but I knew my mind did not work that way. And I would do anything to avoid any more math classes.

            MSU had a number of innovative programs, but none of them appealed to me. My best friends Steve and Randy listened patiently to all my fretting, but eventually even they told me to just flip a coin or open the catalogue and go with whatever page I landed on.

I did not have to declare a major until I was a junior, which meant I had a year to think about this. Patience, however, is not a strength. I may take what seems like forever to make up my mind, but when the time comes, it sometimes appears to others to be a bit of a snap decision and I am reluctant to revisit it. This, by the way, is not a good quality. In years to come I would realize it to be a character defect.

Sidebar joke: I don’t have character defects, just charming personal idiosyncrasies.

Sidebar serious: One of which is using humor to avoid facing facts.

Anyway, I kept reading like mad and pondering the possibilities. One thing that was fairly clear was that I expected to spend my life in academia. So I was not looking for a career; I had the career picked out. I was just looking for subject matter.

At some point, I remembered that I had actually taken a series of tests the summer after my junior year in high school, tests designed to help me know what career would fit me best. I had put that out of mind for two reasons. One, the graduate student who administered the tests as partial fulfillment of some requirement for his master’s degree in education, had mistakenly let me see the hard data from the testing. He was supposed to give me the interpretation and be done with it. But I saw it all, saw my IQ test results, which pleased me, and also saw a graph that showed that my answers to the tests all followed the typical curve for a girl and not for a boy.

I was horrified. There it was in black or white, I was a homosexual, a queer. It would go on my permanent record! I was relieved to find out that this was all confidential, that nothing went on my permanent record and that the results were kept totally anonymous, even in his final report for his professor. He said nothing about the girl-curve, but it ruined my week.

The only glimmer of hope for me was that the tests showed very clearly  and strongly that the thing for which I was best suited was ministry. I laughed and explained to him that I didn’t even believe in God. That neither surprised nor impressed him. The test, he pointed out, showed that I had good empathy skills, good language skills, was compassionate and a good listener and so on. In combination, these qualities pointed to a career in ministry, but they could easily fit into a counseling profile.

I thanked him very much, hoped that the foolish ministry outlook was a sign that the girl-curve was also an error, and did my best to forget the whole thing.

Until that summer when I was looking for a major; it came back with a flash.

        My spring term of freshman year I had taken an Introduction to Christianity course. I thought (a) it would be simple because I thought I knew everything about the Bible and Christianity already, and (b) since it met in a classroom in my dorm, I wouldn’t have to trek across the enormous campus to get to and from that class at least.

            It turned out to be a fascinating class. Instead of being Bible for Morons, what I assumed any Introduction to Christianity would be, it was more about church history, how the scriptures came to be written and the canon formed, how various questions arose in the early community about the nature of Jesus and the organization of the church and so on. It was totally new territory, and I found it fascinating. The fact that I was an atheist or agnostic gave it the extra kink it needed to appeal to me. Halfway through the summer, I decided to change my major to religious studies when I returned to East Lansing in the fall.

            At the time, there were about 45,000 students enrolled at MSU. The religious studies department – which was called the religion department in those days – offered a major and hundreds of students took their courses. But I think there were fewer than ten religion majors.

           When I went in to talk to the department chair about my interest in making religion my major, he was very discouraging.

            “Are you planning to go into seminary?” he asked right off the bat.

            “No,” I said succinctly.

            “Why not?” he probed, bushy eyebrows rising.

           I pondered. Would it be okay to say I didn’t believe in God, that I was only interested in religion as a field of study like anthropology or Victorian literature?

            “I can’t really see myself in a seminary setting,” I offered cautiously.

            He sat back and glared.

           “There is no job market for religion majors who are not going into seminary,” he pronounced with some finality.

           That was the tone of the rest of our conversation, but eventually he sighed and let me sign up as a religion major. I had also become a member of the Honors College, one of the things that had appealed to me in the MSU offerings. This meant I could, with the help of my academic advisor, design my own program, ignore some general requirements and such stuff. Since I was in Honors College, the chair had to be my advisor and could not foist me off on one of the lowly assistant professors. I think this was another reason he was not too happy.

To the best of my knowledge, I was the only religion major who was in the Honors College the whole time I was at Michigan State. Most of the majors, and lots of the students who just took the Bible courses, were planning on going into ministry. They complained that they wanted courses on how to run a Sunday school, not courses on the history of dogma. The department held out against this, but it meant that I was very much the odd man out among the majors. Oddly enough, I was appointed to the Students Advisory Committee my junior year and became Chair of the Committee my senior year.

I enjoyed being a religious studies major a lot. As a result of my classes, I came to appreciate church history and how things had developed. I saw that Christianity was not a matter of just quoting texts at your opponents, that the texts themselves had not even existed for decades while the church was forming and that it was centuries before the church decided what was inspired scripture anyway. The Church of Christ had always acted as if the New Testament as we had it had arrived on a silver platter the afternoon after Jesus ascended into heaven, forty days after the resurrection. Obviously this wasn’t true, but there was no serious reflection on how the books and letters were written or chosen.

I was amazed to learn about things like the letters from the period of the Apostolic Fathers, letters that overlapped with the time when the last books in the New Testament were being written. I was even more amazed to learn that the church described in those letters bore little relationship to the Church of Christ and looked uncomfortably a lot like  Roman Catholicism – which we had always understood to be the archenemy of the Church of Christ – and Eastern Orthodoxy, which was a venerable and rich tradition about which I knew exactly nothing.

I loved learning, I loved the stories, I loved the thinking processes and the whole thing. I looked forward to teaching other poorly informed Christian college students all about this in the future. I did not doubt that I would be a lowly assistant professor or just a lecturer at some little no-name college in some little no-name town. But it looked like exactly what I wanted to do.

So I began my sophomore year in fairly good spirits. At some point in the fall term, I had sex a couple of times with the girl I had been dating off and on since freshman year. We were at a party at her apartment and both pretty drunk. It was fun for me, and I think for her, at least the second time. I walked the mile or so back to my dorm through the cold dark night, smug as a bug in a rug.

You might think that this episode and a few other sexplorations would have encouraged me about the gay thing. But it did not. In fact, and I cannot say why, as the winter term began, I became more and more depressed. Money was very tight at home that year, and that was probably part of the problem. But I have always been frugal to a fault, and I wasn’t terribly worried about that.

What I obsessed about was being queer, even though I don’t recall obsessing about any particular guy. I was about to turn 20, and it was becoming clear to me that this was no phase. I was homosexual. And to a Texas boy raised in the Church of Christ, homosexuality was a dead end in 1970.

The Stonewall uprising had taken place in June of 1969 (69, get it?), but it had not even blipped across my awareness. I did not know anyone who was homosexual, at least I did not know that they were. (I later discovered that I did know some, including the girl I had been dating and with whom I had been having sex.) I don’t think I had heard the word gay used in the new sense, but I must have heard it. Having no live category to hang the term on, it slid away.

I began to sleep a lot and skip classes. I didn’t drink much and had not started doing drugs, which is a very good thing. Psychologically I was in perfect shape to go into a drug-induced tail spin. I noticed, however, that my daydreams were becoming self-destructive. At least I had that much going on, some self-awareness.

To backtrack momentarily, at the beginning of winter term, I had gone to Mass one Saturday evening with one of my roommates, John. We were probably on our way to a party, and he wanted to go to the Saturday evening Mass so that he could sleep late on Sunday morning. He was at the time a cultural (Polish-American) Catholic. He would never miss Mass, but he was not too confined by traditional Catholic moral teaching. He was perfectly capable of pigeonholing his life this way.

While we were there, I read in the announcements that a class for people interested in the teachings of the Catholic Church would begin a week later. The class was required for non-Catholics preparing to marry a Catholic, but it was open to anyone who was interested, no obligation, no cost. Just come for a couple of hours on Monday nights and learn.

I thought this would be a good way to get to know what the Catholics had to say for themselves. My courses in the religion department had shown me how little I really knew about other traditions. Apparently what I had heard from the Church of Christ, where we spent the entire  year of eighth grade Sunday School studying the evils of Catholicism, was not all that reliable. And it was free!

I remember thinking that other churches and even the Hillel Center probably had similar classes. I could take these classes on the side and supplement my formal education. Sounded like a plan. So I decided to do it.

The Franciscan priest who taught the class was not the world’s best teacher, maybe, but he was certainly engaging. I enjoyed the class, was not too surprised to learn how wrong just about everything I had heard back in that Huntsville Sunday School room had been, and I started reading everything I could get my hands on. That was quite a bit, because this was a student parish. They had an extensive paperback selection of Catholic literature, catechisms, Bible studies, novels, lives of saints and so on.

During these weeks while my depression deepened and the world seemed to grow darker around me, while I skipped all my regular classes, I kept going every Monday night, through the winter cold, across campus to St. John Student Center. Looking back on it, what happened was pretty inevitable. But it came as a shock to me.

Back to the depression.

After a couple of weeks that felt like months, I realized that I needed help and decided to go to the university counseling center. When I walked up to the counter and asked to see someone, the young woman looked me over carefully and asked, “Can it wait until tomorrow?” I can only imagine how bad I must have looked.

“Sure,” I smiled, and she put me down for an initial interview the next day.

The woman I met with was probably in her thirties, pleasant and non-threatening. I thought I might as well start with the hard part.

“I’m homosexual,” I said, staring at the floor.

“Tell me about it,” she said.

And I did. For the next half hour or so I rambled on about my fantasies, my fears, me confusion. She listened without seeming the least bit alarmed. I don’t know if I had expected her to punch a button to call the campus cops and have me hauled away or what. Instead she asked a few questions, calming me down by her own calm, reassured me that this was not the end of the world and called to set me up with a counselor whose office was closer to my dorm. I would meet with him weekly.

The next day I started going back to class. I had been skipping so long that when I went back to my Greek class, I was no longer sure which room it met in. I stood in the corridor and waited for a familiar face to go in. Surprisingly I did not fail anything, nor even seriously damage my grade point. Maybe it had not been as long as it seemed to me. But getting back to class was a step in the right direction.

The guy who became my counselor for the next six or eight weeks was fantastic. He was what I would come to know was pretty Rogerian in his approach: unconditional positive regard. He listened carefully and repeated what I had said to make sure he understood it. He came across as genuinely concerned for me, but he also came across as not worried about me. So I was homosexual. I was also short. He was heterosexual and tall. Life was like that. After the first session, I went home without the dark cloud over my head. And it did not return. I was not only going to be okay, I already was okay. Just the way I was.

I saw him once a week for the rest of the term. After a few weeks of feeling sane, the God thing happened.

I had continued to attend Fr. Ed’s classes at St. John. This was the spring of 1970, and the new Vatican II sacramentary (the book that has all the prayers for Mass) was going to be taking effect at Easter. Mass had already been in English for a while, and Fr. Ed suggested that those of us who had never attended a full-blown Gregorian Latin Mass might want to go to the one scheduled at the parish the following Saturday evening. The parish was taking the opportunity to say goodbye to the old tradition respectfully (no one knew at the time that resistance to the new Mass would mean that the old Mass never completely went away), and the homily would be about the history of the development of the Mass over the centuries and an explanation of how and why things were changing while remaining essentially the same.

So the next Saturday found me sitting next to my roommate John again in the big nave of St. John Student Parish.

            I had enough Latin to be able to follow more or less what was going on, assisted by the well-prepared program, and I loved the music, the incense, the colors of the vestments, the whole show. I also experienced a bit of what many people loved about the Gregorian Mass. It was a great setting for personal reflection. Unlike the English Mass which demands that you pay close attention in order to be able to carry on your part of the service, the Gregorian service where the clergy and the choir did most of the work, you sat immersed in sound and sight and thought your thoughts, shaped consciously and unconsciously by the explicitly religious environment.

            I was no longer depressed about being gay. But as I sat there during the liturgy of the word, all sung in Latin, my mind wandered and I looked around. Over the main altar was a slightly larger-than-life size carving of Jesus crucified. Although it was carved from wood, it was covered with gilt and looked a bit like gold plastic, to be candid. It was not my favorite bit of religious art. But as I sat looking at it, all of a sudden I saw that the arms of Jesus were not only stretched out on the cross to die. They were stretched out to reach out, to reach out and embrace the whole world.

            And that included me. Homosexual me. In an instant I felt that God loved me. Loved me just the way I was. It didn’t matter that I was not the perfect little boy I had always tried to be, that whole best-little-boy-in-the-world trap that so many gay men fall into headlong. I was okay and God was okay with that.

            And it seemed to me that what was going on in that place, at that time, with those people, that Mass was the most important thing in the world. I had to be part of it.

            What little burden I was still carrying around with me lifted, and when the collection plate came around, I put in all I had in my wallet. Ironically it was three dollars, the lack of which had brought me to that church for the first time with those girls who told me it was best not to become Catholic. [A story for another day.]

            When we left church, I turned to John and asked him what you had to do to become Catholic.

            He looked at me strangely.

            “I don’t know. Be born to Catholic parents?”

            He did tell me to ask another guy who lived down the hall from us, someone who planned to become a priest. When I got back to the dorm, I tracked him down and he told me to just go talk to Fr. Ed about it.

            And my life changed.

         The following week when I met with the counselor, I explained all that had happened. He listened patiently, as he did to every ridiculous thing I told him. He asked a few questions to see if I understood what being a priest would mean. He wanted to know in particular if I was trying to avoid the whole issue of my sexuality by opting for a celibate career path.

            I assured him that I did not. I was doing this for all the right reasons, out of the purity of my heart and my love for God. He may not have bought it, but he didn’t press me on it. He did continue to ask the question from time to time, but I was in my own little happy cloud. It wasn’t until some thirty years later that the question returned to haunt me.

            I did go talk to Fr. Ed. I discovered that the Catholic Church, unlike the Church of Christ, did not just let you jump up and say baptize me and send me to seminary. They took things a bit more slowly. For one thing, I would have to continue taking the classes each week. When spring terms came, I would need to continue to take classes. I would also need to find a baptismal sponsor, someone who would be expected to accompany me to class each week. That person would be a resource to help answer questions that I might not think of in class. He would also stand as my sponsor when I did enter the church at the end of the school year.

            I asked Rich, who had also been my roommate freshman year. He reluctantly agreed, and I have to admit he came to class with me throughout the spring term even though I am sure there were things he would much rather be doing on Monday nights. When I was finally baptized, his parents and his own godparents attended the ceremony and took us out for a nice dinner afterward.

            I felt good about doing this, but I dreaded telling my parents. If you had been raised in the Church of Christ in East Texas in those days, becoming Catholic was probably worse than becoming Muslim. When I went home for spring break, I put it off for a long as I could. The entire conversation with my mother was this:

            “I’m going to become Catholic.”

            “No, you’re not. You’ve got more sense.”

            “Yes, I am. I’m taking instruction and am entering the church in June.”


            My mother told me years later that she knew when I became Catholic that I would become a priest. She also told me that she blamed herself – being a mother, that is part of the job – for me becoming Catholic. Why? Because she let me go off to Michigan State instead of keeping me safe and stifled in Huntsville with my friends at Sam Houston State.

            The conversation with my father took place in the car while he was driving me to Houston Intercontinental Airport to fly back to Michigan. The transcript of that conversation:

            “I’m going to become Catholic.”

            “What? You’re going to let some old man in Rome decide if you’re going to heaven?”

            “That’s not how it works.”


            On June 6, 1970 I and about a dozen other students entered the Catholic Church at St. John Student Parish in East Lansing. We were each asked to bring something to be taken up to the altar with the bread and wine during the procession with gifts for consecration, something to symbolize ourselves and our new status. I contributed a thin copy of Miguel de Unamuno’s San Manuel Bueno, martir. It was a book we had read in one of my Spanish classes, the story of a village priest who lives a quietly heroic life serving his people. They all think of him a saint, and after his death he is being considered for beatification, a step towards canonization. The narrator knows that Manuel lived his life the way he did because he thought it was the right thing to do, even though he did not believe in the resurrection. The internal conflict created by his desire to live a holy life, which he did, and his inability to accept all of the church’s teachings contributed to the physical decline that led to his death.

            The book had touched me when we read it because it spoke to the ambiguity of life, of the value of taking a stand on principles and of going ahead even if you didn’t understand everything. I had already decided to become a priest, and I knew at some level that I would be like Manuel Bueno, trying to do the right thing but not completely able to believe everything the church taught.

            If I were to ever go through the canonical process whereby the church takes away my priesthood – don’t worry, I won’t explain any of that  [As it turns out, I did not have to go through the full process. Marrying Tom was enough to get me booted!]– the fact that I received baptism in this uncertain way would probably count towards invalidating all sort of things. I did it willingly and knowingly, but I did it knowing that there were gaps.
In a world of ironies, that clip art up there, symbols of baptism and confirmation, was something Tom designed back when he was head of the RCIA program at the parish in Hyde Park. (RCIA is the process adults go through to enter the Catholic Church.) He did a series of images related to the steps of RCIA and posted them online to be used free by anyone who wanted them for handouts, bulletin announcements and so on. When I entered the church, the full RCIA program was not yet in place, but the process I underwent was based on what was being developed, a sort of precursor.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this extract that explains with candor and charity a crucial episode in your life. I shall read it again (probably two or three times) and think about it.

Quite separately, I thought that the Council of Trent decreed (among much else) that the personal transgressions of a priest did not affect the validity of his celebration of the sacraments. So, if your marriage to Tom barred you from actually serving as a priest, am I right that you can still celebrate mass?


Anonymous said...

I really appreciate you sharing your "history", I enjoyed reading it. Everyone's life is different but some times we share part of the same path. I grew up in a very rural area, was born into a Canadian-Irish family (so therefore very Catholic), became well educated and an still a Catholic.

Michael Dodd said...


"You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek." See Hebrews 7:17-21

Assuming for the moment that my ordination was valid [and the canonical assumption is that it was], I could celebrate Mass and validly confect the sacrament, if I did so properly and with the intention to do what the church does. Such an act, however, would be illicit, since I lack permission from a bishop to do so.

[Liturgical/canonical humor: What is the difference between an invalid Mass and an illicit Mass? If it is invalid, Jesus doesn't come. If it is illicit, he comes, but he's not happy.]

There are interpretations that such a Mass would be illicit AND invalid, because the fact that I do so outside legitimate communion with the bishops means I cannot have the proper intention to confect a sacrament that is of its nature an expression of that communion.

At any rate, I would not and do not celebrate Mass.

In case of a dire emergency (in case of danger of death) and in the absence of another priest, I would be willing to hear the confession of someone and grant absolution for his/her peace of mind. In that case, in fact, the church permits me to do so, the needs of the person near death trumping all other considerations. There is even a handy Latin phrase -- ecclesia supplet -- which means the church supplies for any defect in my situation in order to provide for the sacramental needs of the person asking for my help. [See Code of Canon Law (1983) 144.1]

Until such a case comes my way -- something less likely than which I cannot conceive -- I am not a sacramental minister.

Anonymous said...

Michael, I did not mean to be intrusive or to suggest that you would celebrate mass (rather to ask if you still can). I find the requirement about "right intention" exceedingly odd, because the hierarchy (starting with the bishop) can condemn anything they don't like on that ground - prosecutor, jury and judge in their own case. As a former lawyer, I am know about the "invalid" and "illicit" through the traditional laws about capacity to wed (marriages are illicit but valid in some cases). And here I go again - isn't "extreme unction" part and parcel of the final rites or is there a bar to your giving that even in the case of imminent danger of death?


Michael Dodd said...


I would not want to imply that I think the system is just or perfect in all its particulars. Sadly we have seen all too well what tragedies can occur when a bishop (for that matter, any person in authority in any institution) acts as prosecutor/jury/judge when ruling on cases in which he has a personal stake. Fortunately the present pontiff has recently tightened church discipline to deal with bishops who mismanage such situations.

I could in theory give final rites including not only penance but anointing, but the chances of me having sacred oils on my person or ready access to vegetable oil to bless and the booklet with all the ritual are pretty much non-existent. (Yes, I could wing it, but ...) Confession or at least contrition on the part of the dying person and the giving of absolution by the priest are the important parts.

There is some historical evidence of laity acting as the priest in extraordinary cases of this sort, but that discussion would take us far afield. At any rate, even in such a strong sacramental tradition as the Catholic one, there is a tradition of "baptism by desire" and "communion of desire" for those who desire a sacrament which is unavailable to them at the moment of death. In cases such as this -- dying penitent without access to confessor -- an analogy could be drawn. And we must never forget that God is not bound by the parameters of sacramental administration when it comes to bestowing grace. A fact for which we all might be grateful.

I imagine in this, as in almost all pastoral questions, you can find Catholic clergy who would hold differing opinions. What I say here is my own understanding, which may well be false or at least outdated.

Ur-spo said...

This one I want to give careful reading to; I will reply anon......

Mitchell is Moving said...

I'm not a believer and, in fact, am sometimes angered by the terrible things people do in the name of their religions. However, I realize that, if there were no religion, they'd do those terrible things in the name of something else. And I'm always grateful to learn from enlightened believers like you. If all believers were like you, you'd get no complaints from me.

Michael Dodd said...

I would not want to give the impression that I am in any usual sense a [Christian or Catholic] believer today. I try to be respectful of the beliefs of others -- not always an easy task! -- and I am intentionally circumspect about my own beliefs. Excerpts from my memoirs reflect what I thought/believed/hoped at the time of the events described.

When attempting to explain Catholic belief and practice, I willingly suspend disbelief, in order to present what the church herself, to the best of my knowledge, believes. I draw on the example of one of my professors at Michigan State, a Baptist minister who taught courses in Buddhism, Hinduism and other Eastern religions/cultures. He always did this from their own perspective, so well that he was sometimes accused of being Hindu/Buddhist/Whatever.

As I have pointed out before, plenty of folks who consider themselves staunch Christian or Catholic believers would take issue even with my attempts to be fair. I can but try.

Mitchell is Moving said...

You do a great job, Michael. Thanks!