In exploring the recent history of the Catholic Church in the U.S., I am struck by how often dissent rises from the grassroots. One such uprising led directly to Archbishop Sheen’s invitation to speak over five days to Washington-area priests at Loyola Retreat House in Faulkner, MD, on the shores of the Potomac. 

Sheen in his lifetime had conducted dozens of retreats for priests and laypeople. In 1974, as he prepared for the priests of the Archdiocese of Washington, he considered the request from Archbishop Baum. 

The archdiocese, and the church at large, was still reeling from the seventh encyclical of Pope Paul VI, titled Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life). In July 1968, the pope had issued the document, forbidding all forms of contraception. In June 1968, I had completed my ninth and final year of Catholic education, at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, DC, as the fires of the riots following King’s assassination still smoldered. I guess the message from Paul VI would have been wasted on my parents. By that time, I had just become the eldest of eight kids. 

The response from many in the church, including priests and bishops, was swift and dramatic. In November 1968, at their regular semiannual conference, the 235 Catholic bishops of the U.S. were targeted for demonstrations by dissident priests and laymen. The day before, 3,500 laymen rallied at the Mayflower hotel in support of 41 local priests who had been disciplined by Patrick Cardinal O'Boyle for criticizing Humanae Vitae.

At one point, 130 priests burst into the lobby of the Washington Hilton hotel, where the bishops met, to stage a sit-in in support of the censured clerics. On another night, 120 laymen demonstrated in the Hilton lobby for two hours. They sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic and Impossible Dream, and prayed for the disciplined priests to be granted due process and for "the proper use of authority in the church."[1]

According to Father John Brady, five of the dissident priests, otherwise homeless, had lived in the old rectory at Saint Joseph’s in Pomfret for almost a year during those heady , tumultuous days.

Against this backdrop, Archbishop Sheen was coming to speak to the priests of Washington—and to set a mission in motion that still continues today.

Next: Ministr-o-Media

[1] Time, Friday, November 22, 1968,  Catholic Freedom vs. Authority, http://www.remnantnewspaper.com, retrieved 03 Mar 2014

         In the summer of 1974, I worked the night audit at the Sheraton Northeast in New Carrollton, Maryland. I’d gotten the job in late fall of 1972, hired by a comptroller who’d already given his two weeks’ notice, and was busily crafting ways to screw the owners on his way out the door.

          The interview consisted of two questions: 1) can you run a ten-key adding machine? (I assured him I could not. 2) Can you start tonight? I said I could. So began my career in the hospitality industry, a part-time gig that supported me during my college career. I had not immediately returned to college after my freshman year.  Instead, I had run away from home that summer of 1972 to join a commune called The Children of God. They later morphed into The Family of Love.  In the fall, after having returned home, I was looking for work and fell into the Sheraton job. 

            In that same summer of 1974, Father Brady was presented his first pastorate at a small Catholic Church in Charles County, Maryland. The worldwide Catholic Church was still trying to absorb the shock waves of the Second Vatican Council, convened by a pope many had dismissed upon his election as a caretaker pontiff, too old to do much good or much harm. That pope had wasted little time in making it clear he intended to open the doors and windows and let a fresh breeze blow through Mother church. 

            In New York, a provocative and controversial Catholic archbishop was in the final stages of a lifelong devotion to his church, a career marked by groundbreaking evangelization in the new technologies of first radio, and then television. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen and then-Bishop Angelo Roncalli had held similar posts at one time, as Heads of their country's Society for the Propagation of the Faith—the pope’s personal charity. In the case of Roncalli, his service propelled him into a prominence that ultimately led to his coronation as Pope John XXIII--The Good Pope. In Sheen’s case, his unwillingness to do what he saw as the wrong thing in his position led to a flaming fall from grace and ecclesiastical exile.

In the summer of 1974, then-Archbishop William Baum of Washington, DC invited Archbishop Sheen to lead a priest’s retreat for the Archdiocese of Washington. Many of its priests, and the American Catholic Church, were still reeling from the 1967 fallout of the dissident priests who had refused to support the pope’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which forbade the use of contraceptives by Catholics. 

Sheen came to Loyola Retreat House in Faulkner, MD, aware that his time on earth was short. He’d been considering how to assure his words lived on after his death. He’d noticed that everywhere cars now were equipped with cassette tape players. At the last minute, his staff scrambled to find an audio house to record the archbishop’s four-day retreat. When the search yielded no commercial house able to respond on such short notice, a Father Michael Arrowsmith of the Archdiocesan Chancery recalled a former Scout Master of his, just up the road, and an expert in audio engineering: Father John Brady. 

Next:  The Uproar of Humanae Vitae

Father John Brady arrived at Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church in Pomfret, in Maryland’s Charles County, on the first of July, 1974. Though Father was an older priest, this was his first pastorate. He would be the lead (and only) priest for his small congregation. Saint Joseph’s was founded in 1763. Long inhabited by tobacco farmers and a few prosperous merchants, Saint Joseph had endured a mostly quiet history under the guidance of the Jesuit order for nearly all of its existence.

On the afternoon of the Fourth of July, three days after he arrived, Father answered the front door of the rectory. Though the day was warm, he wondered if the heat had affected his mind. On the porch stood four Native Americans, in full regalia. Father nodded and smiled. They nodded back. No smiles. 

“How can I help you?” asked Father Brady.

“We are four angry Indians,” one began.He stepped forward. “This is my father, Turkey Tayac[1]. He is getting old. We’ve just come from Chapel Point. We were told we could have any burial site available, but we would have to pay for it!”The speaker was Billy Tayac.

The leader of the remnants of the Piscataway Tribe was born in Charles County in 1895, the same year that a certain Fulton Sheen was born in El Paso, IL. In addition to this coincidence, both men would later change their given names.

Father Brady smiles at the memory. “Turkey and Billy, and two guys that’d just gotten back from Wounded Knee. They were all dressed up, feathers, peace pipe. That was my introduction to the Indians of Southern Maryland.”

Billy continued. “Lord Baltimore took five thousand acres from our ancestors, and gave it to the church. He had no right to do that. So we have four demands. One is we want $1 million.”

One of the visitors from Wounded Kneed explained that the Federal Government had just purchased 850 acres of land from the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) of the Catholic Church for Piscataway Park.

“They paid two million dollars, and we demand half of that,” There were several other demands, including that the Catholic Church abandon the Saint Joseph’s property, and that Father Brady allow the Indians the use of the hall for meetings. Shaking off the incongruity of the request, Father quickly agreed to the use of the hall for weekly meetings. 

Father Brady invited the four into the rectory. In the front room, they smoked a peace pipe. Shortly after the Indians left, Father Brady contacted the Provincial of the Jesuits, in Baltimore. The Provincial he spoke to agreed to come the following week, with a Jesuit expert on land affairs, from California. 

Next:  The Archbishop.

[1] "Tayac" is the Piscataway word meaning "Emperor" or "ruler of all the chiefs.”

I started watching a show called Undercover Boss.  CEOs of name organizations go undercover to see how life is for the employees, and to see what they can't see from the C Suite. 

Great concept.  The endings always rub me the wrong way--four highly worthy employees selected to receive capricious and sometimes odd bonuses.  But overall, full of cool life lessons.

The last show I saw made me sit up, and gulp a little. A boss in disguise was talking to an employee. In almost every scene on each show, the employee at some point, for reasons sometimes hard to believe, starts sharing soul-searing life stories to this person they've known 45 minutes.  Normally, the focus of the camera and the narrative is lasered on the employee's teary tale.

But this time, the boss, as he is telling his own fabricated past, suddenly stops, stricken.  He is overwhelmed, realizing that his story is a complete hoax, meant to accompany his costume, but what he's receiving is as real as it gets.

So he breaks all the rules of the show and confesses. And it is all tears and hugs. Cool. 

A year or so ago I started a nonfiction book on my experiences as a youth minister at Saint Joseph's Catholic Church in Pomfret, MD. You'll be hearing a lot about it here, if I have the nerve to be honest about this journey.

I am interviewing people that are opening their hearts and memories in part because they knew me one way, a long time ago.  It is inevitable that people change over the decades since we knew each other, but if I am asking for the language of the heart, i am convinced I have to be willing to be a companion, not someone in disguise.

So I confess. I am an ex-Catholic. I chose to turn away from the Church when I found solace first in substances, then in a God as I understand Him. Sorry. Honesty time. Her.  For me, Catholic teaching contains some real showstoppers, and I stand on the other side of an impasse, switching between angry and sad.

When it was just me, I had no issue at all with my form of spirituality. As a father of three kids, I find myself questioning, really questioning, my abdicated role as values-provider where religion is concerned.

Recently a wave of fresh air has fluttered the dusty heavy curtains of the Church, right at the time I've begun writing about a much different time, and people who, IMHO, were and are true saints. I am conflicted.  While this ultimately may not be a blog worth reading, I feel it's a blog worth writing. So I'll try to keep an open mind.