Visions of evil spirits chasing altar boys down the street, parishioners struck dead for leaving Mass early and literal conversations with God: these were among the thoughts that stirred in young Catholics’ minds in the mid-20th century. A religious scholar with longstanding Fordham connections, Robert Orsi, Ph.D., discussed this theme on Feb. 26 during the second annual Rita Cassella Jones Lecture.
The lecture, “The Imaginations of Catholic Children,” was sponsored by the Francis and Ann Curran Center for Catholic Studies. Curran Center co-director James Fisher introduced Orsi, the Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America at Harvard Divinity School, as “one of the pioneering figures in the field of American Catholic studies, and one of Fordham’s greatest ambassadors.”
Orsi interviewed adult Catholics throughout the United States concerning their early experiences in the faith in the period from the 1930s to the 1960s. Orsi said his task was to “find his way through the thicket of evil nun stories and very formulaic memories” and get to the heart of what Catholic children thought and felt during their formative years. Interview subjects in Nebraska, Arizona and Louisiana shared stories that were alternately humorous and poignant, revealing a worldview where “the supernatural could burst into the natural at any moment,” Orsi said.
“Modern American Catholicism disciplines children to see the supernatural as really real,” he said. He cited instances of children believing exactly what they were instructed; Told that Christ was alive in the tabernacle, some left cookies for him.
Others believed that once they arrived in Heaven they could ask God questions like “Why are giraffes’ necks so long; why didn’t you just make the trees shorter?”
Orsi said that despite a Catechism which emphasized rote memorization and unflinching, unquestioning faith, Catholic youth were still possessed of “ a powerful spiritual confidence and bravado and were not afraid to think on their own feet.” This came about, he said, because children debated and thought about issues like how they could actually “pray people out” of purgatory, or why their non-Catholic neighbors, seemingly very nice people, were nonetheless condemned to Hell.
Orsi said that an even more intense, introspective questioning process took place in other children. Several Nebraska women were told that their First Holy Communion should have been the happiest day of their lives, but instead found the experience simply “scary.” Subsequently, he said, they felt both guilt and sadness. Orsi also spoke about the “enduring scars” for many Catholic men who failed at their attempt to become altar boys. “A number of men never got over this,” he said. “It’s a very haunting thing to them.”
He said his goal in the interviewing process was to get beyond the unquestioning faith — “we believed whatever Father/Sister told us” — to the “fault lines” of doubt and questioning which broke the church’s “ground of authority.”
Orsi’s return to the Bronx prompted a few personal memories; he attended Fordham Preparatory School and later taught at the University. His mother Ann worked for many decades in the Office of Campus Ministry and University bookstore and his father Mario spent many hours visiting the sick and elderly Jesuits in Murray-Weigel Hall. He is the author of Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them (Princeton University Press, 2005), The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem (Yale University Press, 1988), and Thank You, St. Jude: Women’s Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes (Yale University Press, 1996).
The Rita Cassella Jones Lecture Series is named for the late wife of Robert Jones, Ph.D., Fordham professor emeritus history.
By Brian Kluepfel