My father fervently believed that having a priest in his offspring would guarantee a golden pass through the gates of heaven for him and my mother. Whenever asked if any of his five sons had a call to the priesthood, he answered sadly, “A priest? I don’t have a good altar boy among them.
Despite his constant wish to get one of his boys into seminary, I never thought of it until our eighth grade class from St. Charles School was taken to the Catholic Youth Center to attend a religious vocations day in 1963. Joined by eighth-grade students from the city’s four other parochial schools to see more than 30 stalls, each manned by nuns and priests of different orders, all dressed in their finery.
That evening I brought home a dozen brochures and eagerly filled out the postcards that accompanied them to learn more about the junior seminaries of the respective orders. When Dad saw me at work, he gave my noggin a warm rub of encouragement. Yes, her youngest son of eight siblings with bad grades and crooked teeth just might be her passport to heaven.
Once I received the multiple brochures in the mail, it was just a question of what type of cleric I should be. Dad favored the Jesuits, “the brightest of them all,” but I knew Latin would never come easily to me as a second language. How about a diocesan priest, like our dear Fr. John Foley at St. Charles Church? But I knew that I was absolutely incapable of keeping secrets. Therefore, if a parishioner divulged a juicy sin in the confessional, I would be sure to let it go during my Sunday homily, while adding a little ketchup to their story. That’s why my mother always called me “Chirpy”.
The Trappists, world renowned for their tasty jams and jellies, were also in the running. But after reading about how they wake up at 3 a.m. for wakes and aren’t allowed to speak a word from dawn to dusk, I quickly put them aside. Ditto the Benedictines, the Carmelites and the Capuchins. Worse still, these monastic monks were strictly vegetarians, so goodbye burgers and dogs.
Then, the Maryknolls, whose magazine was delivered monthly to our mailbox. These unsung missionaries have done wonderful things all over the world. But, really, did I really want to spend my days digging irrigation ditches in the sweltering plains of Kenya? The Franciscans, dressed in their beautiful brown robes, were also a possibility. But, unfortunately, they were only allowed to wear sandals, and I was strictly a socks and sneakers guy.
I ultimately settled on the Edmundites, as they sported a cool red patch on the front of their habits, in honor of their founder, St. Edmund of Canterbury. Also, their seminary was located in neighboring Vermont, so I figured I could come home every weekend to see my buddies. Plus, they could be wearing shoes!
On a sunny Saturday in April, a young priest from Edmundite came to our door and found me dressed in my Sunday best. We sat together on the porch, where he asked his first question: “Why do you want to become an Edmundite Father?” I answered him right away. “So my mom and dad can go to heaven.”
After a few more questions, he summoned my parents to join us. Once they were seated, he bit his lower lip and said, “I believe your son will make a great St. Edmund brother after he graduates from high school.
I jumped up from my chair excitedly, “You mean like Friar Tuck!”
Papa, in turn, dropped his heavy head. A brother to him – despite their deep devotion – did not carry the same weight at the pearly gates as a priest or a monk. Seeing my father’s face crumble, the engaging recruiter tried to cheer him up: “Remember, Mr. O’Hara, there are many glorious Brethren of the Catholic Church; Saint Benedict of Nursia, Saint Francis of Assisi, Brother André of Montreal…”
But no words could console my downcast father, as only an ordained priest could. So, rather than packing my trunk for Vermont’s Green Mountains, I entered St. Joseph’s High School in September, dreaming only of pretty girls and being on the football team.
Years later, at family gatherings, the eight of us children would often speak fondly of the old man and his desire for one of us to become a priest or a nun. Nevertheless, we all agreed that none of us needed to have chosen a religious vocation. After all, Dad had unknowingly stamped his own ticket to heaven by simply being himself.
Longtime Eagle contributor Kevin O’Hara is the author of “Ins and Outs of a Locked Ward: My 30 Years as a Psychiatric Nurse.”