Boston: I grew up in the suburbs of Boston, the second of four children in an Irish-Catholic family. Being a good Catholic, I went to Mass every Sunday and each Holy Day of Obligation, which meant I was in church at least sixty times a year. Some of my earliest memories were while I was at church. Part of my education was in a Catholic school, which was challenging academically and good for me. Dealing with the nuns and priests, who were positioned as intermediaries between God and me, however, was difficult and not at all beneficial.
How they dealt with me has had an impact upon how I perceive God, which has influenced my entire life. I’m not alone; there are millions of Catholic kids like me who have their own stories to tell—many of which are much worse than mine.
One incident in particular had a profound impact on me. It was the day of my First Holy Communion, when I was just seven years old. For months, all the girls and boys from my Communion class practiced going to the alter rail, kneeling down, holding our heads back, opening our mouths, and sticking out our tongues. When we did, the priest would put the Communion wafer on our tongues, say something—which I couldn’t understand, and move on to the next kid.
It sounds simple enough, but its execution on that fateful day was anything but simple. We were told—harshly, repeatedly and in no-uncertain terms—that we were to close our mouths immediately when the Host was placed on our tongues.
The priest said, “You don’t want to drop Jesus on the floor, do you?” He went on to tell us that this was a sacrilege—a mortal sin, and it would send us to hell. This, of course, terrified me as a seven-year-old. I can still feel the cold chill of fear from his words more than half a century later. His harsh admonition wasn’t accurate Catholic teaching, but I didn’t know it at the time.
Although I was little, I remember trying to look at the wafer as the priest held it up. I wanted to see Jesus’ face in it, but I never could. It didn’t look like Him, and it didn’t look like any part of a human being I had ever seen before either. Nevertheless, it was His body, and I was scared to death of dropping Jesus on the floor.
When the eventful day arrived, each girl was dressed in white, and all the boys, including me, wore white suits, white clip-on ties, and white gloves. Everything we wore that day was white, signifying purity—girls and boys. There were at least one hundreds kids taking their First Holy Communion that day, which seemed to excite the parents much more than any of us.
We sat up front away from our families—the boys on the right side of the aisle—the girls on the left. Sitting immediately to my right was Jerry Callahan, who was a little goofy on his best day and slightly retarded on his worst. Because he was on my right—sitting right next to me—he was in line to receive Communion immediately before me.
On schedule, we were ushered to the rail by a nun. Each of us knelt precisely as we were instructed. When the priest came to Jerry, he didn’t open his mouth as wide as he was supposed to. This irritated the priest, who spoke very sternly to him. Scared, Jerry started to whimper. Exasperated, the priest put the Host on Jerry’s partially protruding tongue, hoping that all would go well.
Then, the unthinkable happened; Jerry let the wafer drop from his mouth. Jesus landed on the floor right before my eyes. Aghast, the priest hurriedly grabbed the wafer, scraped up all the crumbs beside it, and put it in his own mouth, which really surprised me. After that, he rose quickly, gave Jerry a look of pure hate and slapped him right across the face. It was a hard slap, and Jerry screamed from shock and pain.
As this drama was unfolding, Jerry’s mother rushed forward to retrieve her child, who was now hysterical—screaming at the top of his lungs. As she arrived, she looked up at the priest, and said, “I’m so sorry, Father.” With that, she clutched her son, put a protective shoulder around him, and led him out of the church. I can still remember his receding sobs, as every adult looked at Jerry with contemptuous smirks.
The priest then turned his focus on me with defiant eyes, daring me to make a mistake. I was close to wetting my pants with fear, but I didn’t. I did exactly as I was supposed to do. Because I was so afraid, however, my mouth was bone dry, and Jesus stuck to the roof of my oral cavity and wouldn’t dissolve. It might as well have been peanut butter. Kids weren’t allowed to talk with Jesus in our mouth, and we couldn’t chew Him either. It was a sin. It took at least thirty minutes for Jesus to dissolve, and the Mass was long over before I could open my lips and say a word.
The next year, Jerry died of a brain aneurysm. Because he was so traumatized by the priest’s actions that day, he was never allowed to make his First Holy Communion. This meant he couldn’t go to Heaven, which saddened me. It’s also why I have such a vivid memory of the incident so long after it occurred.
This episode solidified my fear of God or, more accurately, my terror of Him. I saw God as cold, hateful, impersonal, petty, and mean-spirited. He was punitive—just like the priest who gave me communion that day. This twisted my perspective about God for years, but the abusive part was the corporal punishment inflicted on Jerry by the priest.
Everybody believed the priest had a right to do this, and nobody protested—not even Jerry’s mother. Catholics were terrified of their priests—men who wielded unquestioned authority over the people in their Parrish.
This was not an isolated instance. It was routine in Roman Catholicism before Vatican II. If you think I’m wrong, just ask any Catholic who was raised during this era. Nearly every one of us has a story to tell about an abusive priest or nun.
As I grew older and saw the world through adult eyes, I left the Church, and my memories of it are not pleasant. The mindset of the Catholic clergy—at least the one’s I knew—was that it was their right to slap kids around, and they did it routinely. Their power over the people was so strong and unassailable that moms and dads never protested how their children were being treated. This resulted in abuse that affected millions of kids like me—abuse that still impacts our lives. Just writing about it still angers me. I wonder if I’ll ever get over it.
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