Talking Back

by Terry Sanville

So why should I have to apologize for being Catholic?

We sat in a spring morning daze watching Father Salvador slowly inscribe the title of our class on the blackboard, painfully stretching his stocky frame on tiptoes to expose white sweat socks and hairy legs below a black cassock.

“Apologetics: the study of how to defend our religion using reason,” Fr. Sal intoned in a gruff voice, partially answering my question.

Twenty-five boys from the class of ’65 stared forward, the sound of our yawns and deep sighs punctuated by distant shouts from PE instructors, calling out calisthenics routines to the girls. My mind chose to contemplate bouncing female bodies and not the tenets of Catholicism – which is probably why Saint Xavier’s taught the girls separately from the boys. But Fr. Salvador was annoyingly persistent.

“Gentlemen, you will depart high school in less than three months and enter a world where there are few written tests and no letter grades. To prepare you for this change, the faculty believes you are ready to challenge your faith and learn how to defend it.”

Loren Van Burton, Stuart Wall and a few of the other “brains” copied down the class title and definition, their ball point pens poised over dog-eared notebooks. The rest of us, destined to attend State college or work in auto parts stores, propped our heads in hands and waited for the lecture to begin.

“First, I want all of you to put your notebooks under your desks. Learning to defend your religion requires active participation. Your grade will depend on speaking out and nothing else.”

A chorus of baritone groans filled the room until Fr. Salvador pointedly glared through his rimless glasses at Pete Sutleff, the loudest perpetrator. We quickly settled down. Why couldn’t O’Malley have taught this class? Now there was a Jesuit who knew how to lecture – reading verbatim from the text and copying salient passages on the board, which eliminated the need to pay attention to anything he said.

“Those miscreants who have a strong dislike for class participation have the option of submitting a thirty-page term paper covering a religious topic of my choosing. See me after class if you are interested.”

We settled back to see how Father Sal would proceed, except of course Van Burton who sat in the row next to me, poised on the edge of his seat with an almost-girlish right arm ready to shoot into the air at the least provocation. Loren was only slightly more of a spaz than me, but with brains. He’d help me with trig homework and I’d coach him on how to talk with Beverly Knocksted, as if I could help.

“This first class I will let you get familiar with the reading materials,” Father Sal continued. “However, at the end of each session I will write three questions on the board. You are expected to come with answers the following day and debate all sides of each issue. Be advised that rote Baltimore Catechism responses will not suffice. To be successful apologists, you will need to know the relevant scriptural references, Church doctrine and canon law, and be persuasive without expecting others to believe you as a matter of faith. Are there any questions?”

“The only Bible we got at home is one my Pop kiped from the Motel 6. Is the Gideon version okay?” Joe Espanoza was oblivious to disclosing his father’s eighth commandment transgression. We all laughed.

Father Sal slowly shook his head. “For those without a proper Catholic Bible, there are three copies in the school library. But I encourage you to purchase your own.”

“What if I don’t fully, ah – understand the basis for the Church’s beliefs? Can I play devil’s advocate?” Van Burton’s Aryan blue eyes bulged behind coke-bottle glasses.

“Yes, yes of course you may,” Salvador said impatiently. “But this class is supposed to make our faith stronger, and I won’t tolerate disruptive behavior.”

I could tell the good padre expected something like that from Loren. It had gotten worse after Van Burton’s parents’ not-so-amicable divorce during junior year. There’d been a lot of chitchat in the hallways about who Loren would live with: his mother was a real looker but his dad controlled the money. Through all of it Loren stayed at the top of his scholastic game. But he’d spent a lot of time in the vice principal’s office, being reprimanded by Fr. Sal for verbal scrapes with the priests and lay instructors. He’d even challenged Coach Marelli’s decision to teach us soccer since, according to Loren “there are no organized leagues in America and probably never will be.”

A few minutes before the period ended, Salvador scribbled three questions on the board. We barely had time to copy them before the buzzer sounded and we dashed off to Father Bernard’s civics class.

The next morning Fr. Salvador started right in: “Why do Catholics worship the Virgin Mary?” He repeated the question and waited, ignoring Stuart Wall’s raised and quietly flailing hand.

“Come on, gentlemen, no need to raise hands in this class. If you have something to say, just say it – like in normal conversation. When someone challenges you on the street or at a business luncheon, they won’t be raising their hand.”

“Well, maybe we worship Mary because she was the last virgin in Jerusalem,” George Swank cracked.

A wave of snickering filled the room as the blood rose in Fr. Salvador’s rutted face, enlarging the veins in his bulbous nose. He was easily flustered and our resident wise-asses played him like a hooked marlin, actually more like a trapped capybara.

“The question is wrong,” Stuart Wall proclaimed in his know-it-all voice. “Catholics don’t worship Mary, they venerate her. We only worship God.”

“Yeah, right,” Pete Sutleff muttered. ”Then why does she always have the best statue in Church, huh? If you kneel before her and pray, that’s no different than worship in my book.”

“No, you guys are missing the point. Mary has the ear of her son and the Big Guy. If you want something from them, you gotta go through the mother, right? That’s how it works in our house.” The class hooted at Steve Hanson’s “mama’s boy” admission. He turned crimson and shut up.

“But why not pray to Saint Joseph?” Joe Espanoza asked. “I mean, the guy is just hanging around while his wife gets all the attention.”

“Are you kidding? What kind of a guy could he be if his wife has a baby and then claims she’s a virgin! Talk about being the laughingstock of the neighborhood. I mean…”

“All right, Mr. Swank, that’s enough,” Fr. Salvador finally intervened. “Some of your comments are on point, although not presented very eloquently. You need to learn to be articulate, to speak with knowledge and control. Only then will your views engender the respect they deserve.”

Van Burton squirmed impatiently in his seat. “I’m not sure this is eloquent,” he cracked, “but Canon Law 1255 instructs Catholics to only worship God. Church writings also state that Mary is worthy of our veneration. I looked up ‘venerate’ in my dictionary and Webster’s uses the word ‘adore’ to define it. And adore is used to define worship. Isn’t the Church playing word games with us? If we venerate Mary, aren’t we really worshiping her?”

A tight-lipped smile crept across Loren’s face. He stared at Father Sal whose own eyes narrowed. The priest scooted forward on his chair and opened his mouth to speak, but Pete Sutleff cut him off.

“Yeah, that’s what I was sayin’ – you got it, Loren. And the reason why we venerate Mary and not Joseph is because he wasn’t a legit father while Mary definitely was a mother.”

“So we venerate Mary so she will intercede on our behalf with Jesus and God the Father.” Father Salvador hurriedly stood, attempting to draw the discussion to a conclusion, any conclusion! I could tell our combination of wise-ass remarks and pointed criticisms pissed him off because his voice grew louder and rose almost half an octave.

“Who can give me any Biblical references for Mary’s role as interceder?”

The class fell silent. I had made only one short remark the whole time and vowed this next round I’d need to jump into the fray if I wanted to maintain my solid “C” average.

“All right, then let’s move on to the second challenge: Why do Catholics believe in Purgatory?”

“I’ve got something to say about this,” I quickly put in. “Why do Protestants and Jews only get two options – going to Heaven or Hell – while Catholics get Purgatory as a third option?”

“Hey, don’t knock Purgatory,” Pete Sutleff said. “I plan on spending a few years there before moving on to Heaven. And it beats going straight to Hell.”

“Yes, but you never know how long you hafta spend there. It’s like going to jail without being given a definite sentence.”

George Swank looked worried and I wondered what he actually knew about jail.

“Why do all that praying for forgiveness that might buy you a year or two out of Purgatory when you might be there for a few million years?” Steve continued. “You could spend your whole life in church and not get much of anything done.”

“Well, maybe if you did, you wouldn’t be committing those venial sins that got you into Purgatory in the first place.”

“Are you kidding? When I’m sitting in a quiet church, I’m thinking all sorts of nasty stuff and racking up the venial sins – I need to go to confession before I can get outta there.”

“I’m quite sure you do, Mr. Sutleff,” Father Salvador said sternly. “But let’s get back on track. Why do Catholics believe in Purgatory?”

We sat there feeling stupid, trying to think of something to say. Steve Hanson paged through his Bible, hoping to look studious but not fooling anybody. Finally, Loren bailed us out – sort of.

“I couldn’t find anything in the Bible that mentions Purgatory or venial sins. I believe the Church created Purgatory to cover situations when we’ve done some objectionable things that don’t deserve eternal damnation in Hell. Purgatory’s not a bad idea, but I wouldn’t count on it being there.”

“Well, this Protestant kid who lives next door to me says you’ve gotta be really bad to go to Hell. His father told him God doesn’t sweat the small stuff. So while we’re burning in Purgatory for talking back or swiping some beers from the corner market, he’ll be in Heaven floating on a cool cloud.”

Father Salvador had kept quiet during most of the discussion, pacing the front of the classroom, occasionally shaking his head, and raking arthritic hands down his bearded cheeks.

“We pretty much pulverized that one,” he announced. “Unfortunately none of you could convince anybody why Catholics believe in Purgatory. You’ll need to try harder on the next one. How would you explain to your Protestant and Jewish friends why the Pope is infallible?” Salvador took his seat and waited.

“You’re asking why the Pope is inflatable?” George Swank cracked, drawing another glare from Salvador as the rest of us laughed.

“You know very well what I mean, Mr. Swank. And I am infallible in my pronouncement.”

“Yeah, George, and the Pope thinks, no, he knows you’re ugly, too,” Steve butted in, followed by more chuckling. Father Sal’s face turned purple and he was about to launch into a more thorough rebuff when Loren cut him off.

“Actually, I think it’s in the Book of Matthew where Jesus told Peter he was the head of God’s church and that whatever Peter bound on earth would be bound in Heaven and whatever was loosened on earth was loosened in heaven.”

Father Sal leaned back in his chair wearing the closest thing to a smile since the class began. Loren knew how to kiss up when he needed to – but alas, it didn’t last.

“Yeah, but how does that mean that the Pope can’t be wrong about something?” Steve Sutleff griped. “I mean Pope Pius is an old Italian guy. So he gets outta bed one morning and says his prayers wrong. Is he still infallible?”

Van Burton took a deep breath – he was on a roll. “Simple worldly issues would pose too easy a challenge to the concept of infallibility. Besides, everybody knows this particular Pope is not the fastest runner out of the blocks.”

“Now Loren, you know sarcasm is a weapon of the weak,” Father Sal chided.

Van Burton ignored him. “In the fourth century the Bishops got together and decided to limit the concept of Papal infallibility to matters of faith and morals – although the part about morals was tacked on and isn’t found in scripture.”

“How does reason lead you to that conclusion?” Salvador hissed in a low tight voice. The class quieted down.

“Well, the whole idea of Papal Infallibility is supposedly tied to passages in the Book of Luke where Christ prays that Peter’s faith will not fail him. Catholics believe somehow this passage combined with those in Matthew documents Papal infallibility. But faith and morals are two different things.”

“No, Loren, you’re misinterpreting…”

“While canon law hasn’t changed the Church has been redefining morals for the last two thousand years. We even had a married Pope, didn’t we?”

“Well, yes we did, but no, morals have not changed. The Church has been steadfast and consistent in its interpretations.” Father Sal stood and resumed his pacing.

“But the rest of us depend on the clergy to define morals over time – a clergy with only a second-hand understanding of how people, how married people live, and the things that tear families apart.”

The room grew even quieter. Van Burton’s pink cheeks turned ashen. His thin lips trembled.

“Mr. Van Burton, personally attacking your opponent is a sure sign your arguments are weak, don’t you agree?”

“No I don’t agree. It’s confrontation that allows us to learn. Aren’t we supposed to confront our faith to make it stronger? If our faith is based on the efficacy of the clergy, shouldn’t we question that also?"

“Yes, yes – you’re right, but…”

“Besides, others have tackled this issue. Voltaire talks at length about the distorted role of the clergy in his Lettre Philosophiques les Anglais and again in Dictionnaire Philosophique. I have English translations here if anyone wants to read them.” Loren held up two battered volumes and scanned the room for takers. Only bewildered faces stared back.

His recitation of the French titles rolled off his tongue like a true bon vivant. But instead of impressing Father Salvador it seemed to have the opposite effect. The Jesuit stopped his pacing and stiffened, face chalky, hands and arms overcome by a strange palsy that gripped his body. The rest of us were still trying to decide what terms like “efficacy” and “distorted role of the clergy” meant – since they seemed to be the key to Father Sal’s discomfort. Finally, taking a deep breath, Salvador walked slowly to Van Burton’s desk and extended a hand.

“Please give me those,” he said quietly and motioned to the two volumes. Loren handed them over without hesitation. Salvador turned his back on the class and began speaking as he walked to his seat.

“Gentlemen, over the centuries the Catholic Church has had many enemies – Monsieur Voltaire was one of them. His immorality was so profound that he was exiled from his own country on numerous occasions. All of his works – and I mean all of them – are on a forbidden reading list created by the Papacy. We are here to use reason and not immorality to bolster our apologistic arguments. Mr. Van Burton, you will please refrain from referencing these works.”

Loren glared back at Salvador, his eyes afire with the zeal of a wronged apostle. Father Salvador looked tired.

“But if Voltaire is wrong, shouldn’t we use reason to determine that? Wouldn’t it make us better apologists?”

“No, Loren, it could make you a heretical one.”

“But wasn’t it Voltaire who said ‘I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it’? Wasn’t that the basis for our principal of free speech?”

“Yes, yes – Voltaire said a lot of things. But we are not talking civics here; that’s Caesar’s domain. The Church is not a democratic organization. It depends on the infallibility of the Pope and the faith of its members to survive.”

“Well, maybe that’s why Voltaire said, ‘God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.’”

Stu Wall and a few other students broke into giggles but it died quickly as Loren continued, his rapid-fire words bouncing off the walls at a soprano’s pitch.

“Isn’t it strange how our political system stresses free speech while our religion says faith and conformity are the keys to salvation?”

“Loren, you’re getting off the…”

“If God lets us use these freedoms wisely, would he feel threatened if we questioned everything?”

“Mr. Van Burton, I must insist that you…”

“Would the Church need a forbidden books list? Would we need priests to interpret God’s will using fourth century logic?”

“Loren, SHUT UP!”

These last words rang out over a deadly still classroom. Father Salvador charged down the aisle toward Van Burton. Loren swiped at dripping eyes and struggled to his feet. Both were pale and breathing hard. Lewis Mendoza, our all-league tackle, quickly stood, just in case.

The buzzer suddenly sounded, echoing down the hallways, and we all jumped. Doors banged open and conversation erupted from adjoining classrooms. Father Salvador struggled to compose himself, not having time to identify the questions for the following day’s class. Nobody bothered to ask about them.

Salvador stopped Van Burton before he could leave. “Loren, I want to talk with you and your … your mother tomorrow afternoon.”

“Sure, Father – more family counseling, I can’t wait.” Loren pulled away from the hand Salvador placed on his shoulder.

By the end of the week, the most curious of our class had read both of Voltaire’s works that Loren referenced. By the beginning of the following week, Father O’Malley was teaching our senior religion class in his comfortable easy-to-ignore style – the experiment with apologetics being apparently over.

Years later, bearded and bespectacled myself, I still wonder about all of it. Where did Fr. Sal end up, finally – in a library somewhere uneasily checking out the proper books? And I wonder if Van Burton is still destined to burn a few years in Purgatory, to be cleansed for such a venial offense as talking back? I’ll be praying for him anyway, even if I no longer believe faith must be blind. Or even apologized for.

© 2008 by Terry Sanville


About the Author

Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and one fat cat (his in-house critic). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, an occasional play, and novels (that are hiding in his closet, awaiting editing). Since 2005, his short stories have been accepted by more than 75 literary and commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies (both print and online) including the Houston Literary Review, Storyteller, Read This, and the Southern Ocean Review. Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.


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