Archive for the 'catholicism' Category

Tell Them I’m Not Home – out now!

Tell Them I'm Not Home

‘Tell Them I’m Not Home’ is a lightly fictionalized memoir of growing up in the Olney section of North Philadelphia in the decade following World War II, a place not unlike Jean Shepherd’s Hammond, Indiana of a decade earlier. The close-quarters life in a blue-collar neighborhood of row-house streets provided the author with a cast of characters, many funny, some scary, as well as a near-endless litany of stories. ‘Tell Them I’m Not Home’ is a ticket back to the Olney & Philadelphia of the late 1940s and early 1950s, a place as singular, colorful and as lost to today as Hapsburg Vienna or tenement New York.


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Sample Chapters:

“The Glory That Was Rome
In neighborhoods like Olney, people sorted themselves out along a variety of fault lines. Phillies fans versus those who allied themselves with Connie Mack’s pitiful Athletics, those with Lionel Electric trains against those with American Flyers, the cheaper Father and Son shoes against the pricier Flagg Brothers, Luckies or Camels, and on and on and on. But the defining separation among the people who populated the neighborhood of my childhood was the religious split between Catholics and the Protestants. Among Catholics like us, the prevailing interpretation of Protestantism encompassed anyone who wasn’t a Catholic.  (Click here to continue…)


 “Happy Birthday Patsy Mullins”
I was coming down 5th Street when I met Eddie Matthews who was coming the other way. In the course of the kind of conversations that twelve-year-olds, newly minted twelve-year-olds, carry on, Eddie asked if I were going to Patsy Mullins’ birthday party. The question kind of bounced off me. Like what birthday party, and why would Patsy Mullins invite me to her birthday party? In the sexually segregated Irish, Latin, Roman Catholic world of late 1940’s Philadelphia where this conversation was taking place, I was very much aware of young Ms. Mullins. But although we were in the same grade in the same parish school, we had never exchanged more than a “Hi” when passing on the street. Seventh grade boys were on one floor of the school building and girls on the other. In all the years I had spent in the Incarnation of Our Lord parish school, I couldn’t remember any interaction between them and us. The seventh-grade girls could have been Albanians or Martians. (Click here to continue…)

“Kenny Bergman”
On Christmas Day, 1950, Kenny Bergman and I sat on his living room sofa smoking cigarettes. I was thirteen. Kenny’s mother was visible, working away in the kitchen. The house smelled of roasting turkey and the radio was on, Bing Crosby singing carols. On the other side of the room under the Christmas tree a set of American Flyer electric trains moved slowly around a platform filled with little houses, cars and mountain-paper tunnels. Each time the train emerged from the nearest tunnel, Kenny or I would raise his Daisy Targeteer BB pistol and aim for one of the glass Christmas tree ornaments he’d placed in a gondola or on a flat car. Several times, a smiling Mrs. Bergman walked through the living room. She never said a word. I thought I was in heaven. (Click here to continue…)

“Tell Them I’m Not Home”
I got in from school around three-thirty. At a quarter to four, the phone in the living room rings. “Oh shit,” I thought. As my mother moved to pick up the receiver, I shouted down from the landing, “tell them I’m not home, Mom. Tell them I’m not home.” I knew who was on the phone. It was Rudy Bederman, the assistant manager at the A & P on 5th Street, and I knew what he wanted. It was Thursday. I wasn’t scheduled to work until the next day, Friday. Somebody hadn’t shown up and they wanted me to fill in. I had nothing on my afternoon agenda other than walking over to Fairhill Street to hang out with the crowd at Geever’s candy store. My mother was not to be trusted in these matters. To impart a sense of urgency, I kept up my chant. “Mom! Mom! Tell them I’m not home.”  Unfortunately, in the seconds that my mother hesitated with the receiver in her hand, Rudy Bederman heard me shouting that I wasn’t home. (Click here to continue…)


“Do You Believe In Magic?”
In September 1954, my senior year of high school had just begun, just barely. I had flunked summer school, my third summer school in as many years. According to the rules that meant I wouldn’t be going back to my high school. I would have to go to a public school and repeat junior year. (Click here to continue…)

all content copyright Pete Byrne 2011

A Lapsed Anti-Anti-Catholic

Despite my growing up utterly immersed in pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism (twelve years of Catholic education and degree from a nominally Catholic college) I never really got the idea of my place in a cosmology that included anything remotely like a personal God.

All the peripheral stuff of a religious life, the rituals, the rules, the concepts of sin, limbo and pagan babies, all of it simply eluded me. And unlike many of my fallen-away contemporaries, I never looked back in anger. While religion never became in any way an essential part of my life, I bore it no ill will. In fact, my view of the Church was a fundamentally benign one, and when the subject of religion did come up, I almost always gave Catholicism the benefit of the doubt. I was for want of a better phrase, “an anti-anti-Catholic.

In the public donnybrook that is the current “God Debate,” the British literary theorist, Terry Eagleton, himself a one-time Catholic, came out swinging, landing, if you agreed with him, solid blows to the facile atheism of such public intellectuals as Richard Dawkins and Chistopher Hitchens. Eagleton dismissed today’s fashionable atheism as having been gotten “on the cheap,” of it proponents having failed to do the intellectual heavy-lifting required to sustain such a position in the face of the ineluctable mysteries of human existence. Eagleton slyly evades stating his own point-of-view on the larger issue of the existence of a God.

In my own reactions to the glib proclamations of secular humanism, particularly those directed at the Roman Catholic persuasion, I have found of late that the ground beneath my long held positions has gotten rather shaky. The Vatican’s unconscionable behavior in the matter of clergy sexual predations followed by the recent astounding comparisons of the ordination of women with the sexual abuse of children was my last straw. I have begun to sense that we may be entering the first stages of a Second Reformation. And in this coming sea change, the Vicar of Rome and his cohort will no longer be able to bank upon my qualified support. Thanks be to God, or to whomever.

Arrivedeci Roma!

imagesWhat ever has happened to the Roman Catholic Church, my church, the one I knew in the nineteen-forties and fifties, the church that seemed to utterly dominate my childhood? What happened?

The end of the church as I knew it, and it is over, might have begun more than a century ago in Rome’s choice of battles. Throughout its history, Catholicism has found itself involved in what it always proclaimed were the clear-cut struggles against the universal forces of darkness. In recent times, the battle for Christ was joined against the rise of atheistic communism. At the end of the Sunday masses of my childhood, there was an addendum directing us to pray for “the conversion of Russia.”

When the settling of scores in Central Europe after the Second World War resulted in the jailing of a couple of cardinals, the party line pushed on us by the nuns suddenly cast a name we’d never heard, the Yugoslav communist dictator, Tito, as the personification of all evil in the world. Tito’s demonization, not at all unwarranted, involved his arrest of a Croatian Cardinal named Stepinac, implicated rightly or wrongly in the wartime mass murders of Orthodox Serbs, Jews and Muslim Bosnians and Albanians at the hands of his Croatian Catholic brethren.

I suppose that the church’s vehement anti-communism reflected a valid understanding of a threat posed to the status quo by the godless scientific socialism of Karl Marx and Joseph Stalin. In seeing the survival of Catholic Christianity in terms of stopping communism, the church had always to choose among what it believed would be the lesser of evils. I learned later that during World War II, political expediency dictated that there would be no call from Rome on behalf of Europe’s doomed Jews in the face of Nazi Germany’s Final Solution of the Jewish Question.

Like the Soviets themselves, the church seemed never to appreciate that history follows no dialectic, but more often than not chooses the ironic. Catholicism never saw it coming. While Cardinal Spellman schmoozed with J. Edgar Hoover about the enemy within, a less visible but lethally profound threat was devouring the foundations of every traditional way of looking at life. In less than fifty years following the end of the Second World War, a tsunami of change, an exponential acceleration in the rate of social, economic and cultural change, would engulf, transform and in many cases destroy the traditions of centuries and millennia. The successful counterattack of the Roman Curia against the reformist trends of Vatican II, the long reactionary reign of John Paul II, continuing now with Benedict XV, and finally, the tone-deaf and foot-dragging institutional response to the horrendous clerical sex-abuse scandals, would seem to deny Roman Catholicism much of a vital role in the future of this world. But then again, who knows?

Many in my own generation were the last of their kind to have lived their daily lives in accordance with the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church. A continuity spanning a thousand years has been snapped in a half century. I have no idea of what it all means, but for many of us who remember what was, it somehow seems to embody the sense of anomie that marks so many of our lives in this first decade of a new century.

This latest Fall of Rome, certainly hastened by the church’s distracted irrelevance in the ordinary lives of its people, particularly by its blind obstinacy in matters of human sexuality, has probably already occurred. While I mourn the accelerating passage of the church of my childhood into Trotsky’s historical dustbin, I also mourn the passage of many other things that were a part of my childhood. The ultimate historical significance of the demise of the Roman Catholic Church may not even outweigh the end of knickers, the A & P, or the Studebaker. Because, within the context of the validity of the Word, none of it is any big deal. In fact, it actually could be a prerequisite condition if a vital new Catholicism is to ever arise from the messy ruins of the one we thought we knew. One of the many interesting things included in the primitive theology I was taught so long ago by the Sisters of Saint Joseph was the idea that for the true Church, the Mystical Body of Christ to continue on, all it really takes is one or more of true believers gathered together in His name. No danger of that not happening