How To Keep Your Faith :
When all Around you are Losing Theirs
By Carl DiLorenzo
My father was a man of faith – I think. I will never know for sure because he died when he was forty-three years old and I was fifteen. I never got the chance to ask him questions about his faith. As a child, I watched him say his morning and evening prayers, go to Mass on Sunday, and bless himself with the Sign of the Cross when he drove past a church. As best I could tell, he followed the teachings of the Catholic Church. Even as a child I recognized that he had a devotion to his faith that other male members of our family didn’t have. Somehow he seemed different.
A few years ago I went to see my mother, Dolly, in the nursing home where she lived, day after day, not knowing where she was or why she was in this strange place. The home gave meaning to the expression, “God’s Waiting Room.” I dreaded these visits and hoped this wouldn’t be the one when she failed to recognize me at all. She began, as usual, asking if I had come to take her home to her house on Floyd Street, in Brooklyn, New York – the place of her birth, torn down fifty years before to make way for housing projects. Before she drifted into silence she asked why her mother and my father hadn’t come to visit her, completely unaware that they had passed away years before.
Trying to make conversation, I asked her, “What made dad a religious person? He seemed to have great faith. What drove that faith?”
My mother’s reply astounded me. She said, “I don’t know.”
I kept questioning her, hoping to extract a little more family history before dementia locked it away in her mind forever.
“How could you not know?” I asked. “You were married to him for seventeen years before he died. Didn’t he ever share his faith with you?”
She said, “No, he didn’t, he just prayed every morning and every night and went to Mass on Sundays.”
I believe her answer had nothing to do with dementia. My mother either didn’t know or wasn’t willing to share what she knew of my father’s beliefs with anyone – not even her oldest son.
It occurred to me after that visit that a person’s faith can be as personal as their sex life and shared just as sparingly. I realized that while some people wouldn’t hesitate to proclaim that they didn’t believe in God, or that Jesus was their Lord and Savior, or to make some other defining declaration of their faith, the full depth of their beliefs stayed locked inside them. My experience has been that even priests, rabbis and ministers, while telling us what we should believe, rarely share the strengths and weaknesses of their own faith with us. What a shame. Why would we not want to share this part of our lives with those we love? Is it because we are equally afraid of coming off the sinner or the saint?
I would never fall into the category of saint, but I was determined not leave my children and grandchildren with the same questions I had about my father. I was sixty years old and I didn’t want them to remember me this way. I was also concerned that, like so many young people today,my children were distancing themselves from their Church because they disagreed with some of its teachings. I wondered if they knew that I have disagreed with some Catholic Church’s teachings for many years but I still consider myself a Catholic and would never think of leaving the Church. Did they understand that it’s okay to disagree? Did they realize that you don’t have to give up just because you have a different opinion? So many people don’t.
I was searching the Internet one day and came upon a personal website known as a blog. The website had the name “Bad Catholic” and the writer was a twenty-something female journalist. “I’m a Christian at the crossroads,” she wrote. “I was a Catholic but am currently attending an Episcopal church and taking things one day at a time. I’ll end up wherever God wants me to be as long as I keep listening; I just haven’t figured out where that is yet.”
The blog contained many instances of where she disagreed with the Church, more or less justifying her decision to leave. What truly surprised me was that because of her differences, she labeled herself a Bad Catholic and gave up on the Church when she not bad at all – just struggling. Do people call themselves Bad Jews or Bad Baptists or Bad Republicans when all they want to say is, “I don’t agree with everything you are telling me”?
How was I going to broach this with my family? I knew I probably couldn’t engage my children in a conversation about faith for more than a few minutes without it turning into a debate and rapidly moving into an argument before we all left frustrated. My youngest grandchildren were under five years old and chances are I wouldn’t be around, or in my right mind, when they were old enough to carry on this conversation. I decided that I had to document what I wanted to say. I would have copies printed and give it to them. They could then do whatever they pleased with it.
With that in mind, I began a project to identify the things I believe and do not believe regarding God, Jesus, my Church, prayer, etc. This project would require much time and introspection.
I discovered the best time for me to reflect was during my early morning jogs. At 6:00 a.m.,with the sun rising in the sky, the air crisp and the world around me just starting to stretch and wake up, my mind was uncluttered and I could concentrate. I spent a great deal of time thinking about my family, friends and the people I met throughout my life. I thought about how good God has been to me. I rejoiced in the fact that I was born and raised in a free nation, I never went hungry, I have had loving parents, a wonderful wife, fabulous children and grandchildren, and supportive brothers and sister. I have family who were there for me when I needed them. I have been blessed with friendships that go back over a quarter of a century.
As my feet pounded the pavement, so many of my life experiences came rushing into my head that I was afraid I would forget them by the end of the run. When I reached home I would write down my memories, both the good and the bad. I did this over a period of weeks and when I finished, I scanned the list. This is what I had written:
- I believe in God, the Father Almighty.
- I believe God created the Heavens and the Earth.
- I believe He works in and through me.
- I believe Jesus is the son of God and Mary is his mother.
- I believe that ultimately He allows me to make my own choices, right or wrong.
- I believe when I make the wrong choices I can ask God for forgiveness and He will grant it.
- I believe God laughs when I tell Him what I have planned for my life.
- I believe He helps me with tough decisions when I ask, and His guidance comes to me through a phenomenon I can’t explain but I know as the Holy Spirit.
- I believe in saints – the ones that have been canonized, as well as relatives and friends, both Catholic and non-Catholic, who have died and are enjoying whatever reward awaits us.
- I believe in the Catholic Church as a community of worshippers who believe in the grace of the sacraments and the mystery of the Eucharist.
- I believe, when we die, it is not over.
I also had another list. These were questions I had no answers to. The things I need to ask God when I see Him.
- Did Hitler come from Satan or from You?
- How do You pick which side will win a war?
- Why do You allow little children to suffer?
- Are You male or female?
- Why did You bless me with so much? What did I ever do for You?
At this point I realized the only thing I had to pass along to my children and grandchildren was a snapshot of my faith. It seemed that the list defined my faith at a given moment – static and frozen in time. Yet, I knew that my faith wasn’t static. It was constantly evolving. My beliefs as a child or young adult were quite different from what I believe as an adult and those beliefs will probably keep evolving until the day I die.
I decided that a more useful lesson wasn’t so much what I believed, but how I reached this point in my faith. My faith had always been influenced by three major factors – my formal religious education, the people I loved and respected, and my personal life experiences. This was going to be a lot more difficult than I thought.
It became obvious that if I was to continue with this endeavor I would have to come clean and “tell all” to my family. I would have to be completely honest and relate those personal experiences, both good and bad, that contributed to my faith. I would have to demonstrate how people I loved and respected influenced my beliefs. I knew I couldn’t omit the disagreements I’ve had over the years with my Church or the times I felt angry with God’s decisions. I would have to share how I struggle with the constant media message that priests are pedophiles; organized religion is bad and its followers are uneducated; Jesus wasn’t the Messiah; God did not create the universe; and the Bible doesn’t reflect the Word of God. Yes, I would have to share the doubts I had along the way and the times I wanted to give it all up.
This is the story of how I held on to my faith.
* * *
My parents weren’t big on preaching or teaching morality, but by listening to the stories they told and observing how they lived their lives I learned a great deal. My mother never gossiped or had a bad word to say about anyone. My father had tremendous faith and didn’t try to hide it. Neither parent ever uttered a prejudicial word. When I lived in Brooklyn I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to like people who were of a different color, race or creed. My parents didn’t teach that. They taught me to live and let live and get along with everyone. I learned prejudice as I got older and started hanging around with more “sophisticated” people.
There was a black man on Floyd Street, where we lived in Brooklyn, named Curly Level. I don’t know how he got the name Curly, because his head was as smooth as an ebony bowling ball. Curly had a couple of kids and found it difficult to hold a job because he was an epileptic. He came to my father and said, “Mr. Tony, I’ll do anything. I need a job.” My father hired him on as a laborer.
Curly would be mixing concrete or digging a footing for a foundation and have a seizure, falling to the ground and shaking. The other workers and my father would make sure he didn’t bite his tongue or hurt himself, until came to and was well enough to continue working. No one ever mentioned the seizure. Curly worked for my father until we moved from Brooklyn. Occasionally my brothers, sister or I would look for one of our toys and find it missing. I didn’t have to ask my father where it went. Dad had given it to one of Curly’s kids. If I asked my father why he gave my things away, the answer was always the same: “You have plenty. They have nothing.” End of discussion.
“God bless you, Mr. Tony,” Curly said every time he saw my father. I think it embarrassed my father to hear him say it.
My mother told a story once that profoundly affected me growing up. She and my father were poor when they got married. After the honeymoon, they moved into a small Brooklyn apartment. My father worked on the docks as a longshoreman. It was a common practice in those days for longshoremen to sneak items off the pier that had “fallen out of a broken crate.” Of course no one ever said how these crates got broken. During winter, when the men wore layers of clothes to keep warm, it was simple to hide “fallen” items under their coats as they walked past the watchman on their way off the pier. One night some negligees had “fallen” from one of these broken crates. Since my father was a newlywed, the men insisted that he take one home to his bride. My father resisted but the men wrapped a negligee around his waist under his coat. He rushed off the pier and went to punch out. The watchman standing at the gate started laughing at my father.
“Tony,” he said, “you need more practice being a crook.” My father didn’t know what he was talking about until he followed the watchman’s eyes to the ground and saw that the negligee had slipped down around his ankles. My mother said that when my father came home he cried out of shame and embarrassment. That event guided my father’s actions for the rest of his life. Years later it would cause a serious rift between my father and me. Let me tell you about it.
When I was twelve, I was going through my photography phase. I had purchased a Brownie camera and now I was saving for an 8mm movie camera. I really wanted a movie camera. I was going to produce great films. One evening I ran into one of my uncles coming home from work. He showed me a beautiful 8mm camera someone had just sold him. It had “fallen off a truck.” He didn’t want it and said he was selling it for $10. I had at least $10 saved and knew I would never be able to purchase a movie camera at that price again. I ran up the two flights of stairs and flew through the door to tell my father about my good luck. I was so excited I could hardly get the words out. When I finished speaking my father looked at me and simply said, “You can’t have it.”
“What do you mean I can’t have it?” I couldn’t believe my ears. “Why not?”
He repeated his decree. The tears started coming and I pleaded. My father let me go on for a while and then said sympathetically, “Son, the camera is stolen goods. It didn’t fall off any truck.”
“I didn’t steal it, so what difference does it make?” The idea of my own uncle trying to sell me stolen property never even occurred to me as being wrong.
“No,” my father said, “and that’s final.” And it was final.
My father encouraged me to become an altar boy. Every night we would sit together at the kitchen table and practice the prayers I would have to recite in Latin. He seemed to enjoy helping me. We did this until I memorized all the responses, passed my exam and was accepted by the pastor. It was one of the few things my father and I ever did together without locking horns. I think he was proud that I was an altar boy, even though he never said as much.
While my father would never think of missing Mass on Sunday, my mother usually didn’t attend when we were kids. Her Sunday morning ritual was to get up early and start frying meatballs and sausage for our Sunday pasta dinner. She would attend the Novenas at night during the week. My father, brother, sister and I went to the 9:00 am children’s Mass every Sunday, not because we feared going to hell, but because we feared what my father would do if we told him we didn’t want to go. My father did not believe in missing Sunday Mass.
One Saturday night my cousin Jerry slept over at our apartment. On Sunday morning he informed my father that he wasn’t going to Church and stated all the reasons why he didn’t think he needed to attend Sunday Mass. My father very calmly told him that it was his choice, but if he didn’t go, he shouldn’t expect any Sunday dinner in our house. He said this as the smell of sausage, meatballs, garlic and tomatoes had filled the entire apartment and my mother was making the raviolis. My cousin sat next to me at Mass.
The door to our apartment opened into the kitchen. If you looked to your left when you came through the door you could see all the way into my parent’s bedroom. In the corner of their room stood a large mahogany chest of drawers clearly visible from the kitchen. It was a tall piece of furniture and the top drawer reached my father’s shoulders. Each morning before work and each evening when he returned home, my father would go directly to the chest of drawers, open the top drawer, bless himself a few times and stand with clasped hands in silent prayer. He never deviated from this practice and, more importantly, he never cared who was watching. The first time I stood on a chair and looked into the drawer I was amazed at the number of religious articles my father had crammed into this one space. It was filled with little prayer cards, the type you get at a funeral home, with the picture of a saint on one side and the name of the deceased on the other. It also contained old rosary beads, crosses, leftover palm from Palm Sunday and other religious artifacts. I stood on a chair and opened the drawer many times, not to pray but to look around at my father’s private chapel.
My father was a carpenter by trade and had his own small construction company. Some evenings a prospective customer or business associate would be waiting in the kitchen to talk to him. If they arrived before he prayed, they waited while he finished his prayers. It made no difference to him that a stranger might see him standing and praying in front of an open dresser drawer. He didn’t hurry. The person sat on our plastic covered chairs at the Formica kitchen table and waited until he finished.
My father never told me why he did what he did; he never suggested that I do it; he never asked me to join him; and he never told me what he prayed for. This was his private chapel and his private service. Observing this daily ritual was the most profound religious lesson of my life. Looking back, I realize he was my greatest religious instructor. I wish he hadn’t died so young. There was so much I wanted to ask him.