I remember when I was about four or five years old and I was talking to a neighbor boy across the street who was about my age. Somehow we got to talking about church and I said that I was Catholic. He asked me what that meant. I didn’t really know. He wanted to know what do Catholics do? I said we go to church EVERY Sunday. We had to go EVERY Sunday. He said his family went to church sometimes but they didn’t go every Sunday. “Well, I guess that means you must not be Catholic.” It wasn’t bragging. We were just trying to figure out what he was and by process of elimination if Catholics were people who went every Sunday and he didn’t go.… he wasn’t one of them. Neither of us still knew what it meant to be Catholic or not. We just knew I was and he wasn’t.
I remember going to church to St. Bridget’s church near downtown even though that wasn’t our nearest church. I later found out the reason we went there was because they had Mass that started at 12:10 PM on Sunday. It was the latest Catholic Mass available anywhere in the city and people would come from all over so that they could sleep in. Sadly St. Bridget’s closed in 1994. There were lots of steps at the front entrance of the church but if you went around to the side entrance there were only three or four. I was only about five years old and it was easy for my mom to carry me up the steps in my wheelchair perhaps with a little help from a stranger. Also my grandmother and great aunts on my Mom’s side as well as other friends of the family would go to that Mass.
In 1960 when it was time for me to start school, my mother went to St. Christopher parish in Speedway and talked to the priest there about enrolling me in their Catholic grade school. Of course there was no way that a Catholic school in those days could deal with someone with a disability like mine. There were steps in and out of the building in various places. I think the cafeteria was in was in the basement I’m not sure. Even if the whole thing had been completely accessible, my guess is they wouldn’t have touched me with a 10 foot pole. The priest kept telling my mother “religion is taught in the home.” It was a tough sell because my mother had been brought up and most people continued to believe in those days that if you were a good Catholic, you had to send your kids to Catholic school. It wasn’t a mortal sin if you didn’t and might not have even been a venal sin but you were definitely considered a “bad parent” if you were Catholic and didn’t send your kids to Catholic school. In the end he convinced her it was okay for me to go to the special public school that had been set aside just for handicapped kids. For the story of that experience see my article “The Reunion“.
Despite the priest’s insistence that “religion is taught in the home” my mother insisted that I have some sort of Catholic catechism instruction. Many of you who are Catholic and went to public schools one who had friends or family who were Catholic probably have heard the words “CCD classes” but weren’t sure exactly what that was all about. The letters CCD stood for the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. They were an organization within the Catholic Church whose job it was to establish curriculum for teaching the Catholic faith. They were based in Baltimore Maryland and they produced a little blue book known as “The Baltimore Catechism“. This was the official textbook for indoctrinating (oops excuse me teaching) children the Catholic faith. Catholic instruction classes used this catechism and other materials associated with it produced by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine and so the books, workbooks, handouts and other materials bore their logo with the prominent letters CCD. Thus any form of classes which use those materials came to be called “CCD classes”. That’s a long answer. The short answer is that for most Catholic kids who did not go to Catholic school, CCD was the Catholic version of Sunday School. Of course kids who attended Catholic school use the same CCD materials but it was just part of their regular daily curriculum for studying religion in a Catholic school. They didn’t call Catholic schools CCD schools because they taught more than just CCD. They taught the three R’s and social studies and believe it or not even science just like public schools.
But as I said earlier, in 1960 it was extremely rare for anyone to not send their kids to Catholic school so there was no general system of CCD classes available in most parishes. So after some negotiation, the priests agreed that they would give me private, one-on-one CCD lessons at the rectory (the house where the parish priests lived). I say priests plural because it was common for a parish to have two or three of them. As in any organization, the really crappy jobs go to the low man on the totem pole. So the job of teaching the little crippled kid CCD classes went to the youngest associate priest Father Paul Rehart. Once a week mom would take me over to the rectory to his office where we would have a little sitdown one-on-one lesson fresh out of the Baltimore catechism. Once I began these classes, we started going to Mass at St. Christopher’s. My current parish St. Gabriel wasn’t built until 1964.
The teaching method used in the Baltimore catechism was that each chapter has a series of numbered questions with answers provided. It was up to the student to memorize these questions and answers 100% verbatim. So while my Protestant neighbors were going to Sunday school and being indoctrinated in memorizing Scripture verses from the Bible 100% verbatim, we had to learn the questions and answers in the catechism. The first four of these questions were as follows…
1. Q. Who made you? A. God made me.
2. Q. Who is God? A. God is the Supreme Being who made all things.
3. Q. Why did God make you? A. God made me to show forth his goodness and to share in His everlasting life.
4. Q. What must I do to share in God’s everlasting life? A. To sharing God’s everlasting life I must: know him, love him, and serve him.
If for example you answered question number two “God made everything” that was wrong. The correct answer was “God is the supreme being who made all things”. One would’ve thought God’s name was “Verbatim”.
Timeout for a joke… There was a young nun fresh out of the convent who was teaching first grade in a Catholic school. Naturally she was using the Baltimore catechism and asking the above questions. She thought she was doing a really good job but because of her inexperience she always asked the questions in numerical order starting with the first kid in the front row, the next question to the next kid etc. One day that boy was absent and so she asked the next child “Who made you?” The kid could not answer. One by one she went through each child asking “Who made you?” But none of them knew. As her frustration grew, a little boy in the back of the room raised his hand. “At last”, she thought, “at least one of my students was paying attention!” When she called on the child with a raised hand he said “Sister, the little boy that God made isn’t here today.”
It’s getting a little bit ahead of the story to tell you that it was nearly 20+ years later that I finally began to appreciate the wisdom of the Baltimore catechism. You’ve probably seen the little booklet “All Really I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten”. Someday I’m probably going to write a similar book titled “All I Really Need to Know about God I Learned in the First Four Questions of the Baltimore Catechism”. But a lot of stuff happened before I could reach that conclusion. They had their questions… But I had questions of my own. We’ll talk about that in the next installment.