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Harvard as the path to damnation

By Francis J. Connolly

Like planned parenthood and Daniel Berrigan, Harvard has never been very popular with Catholic America. There are a few who don't mind the great bastion of Eastern intellectualism--the kind of people who read Playboy and don't say so in confession, who snicker wickedly when the bishop belches into the pulpit microphone during his Christmas sermon and especially the ones who root for USC against Notre Dame every November. But real Catholics aren't so kind. As a sign of serious spiritual decay, a Harvard education ranks right down there between nymphomania and a marked distaste for fish. It's not that Harvard is so evil, of course--it's just that Georgetown, Fordham, Holy Cross, St. John's and Notre Dame are so, well, orthodox. Maybe if Derek Bok became a Jesuit and Joe Restic started giving locker-room speeches like Pat O'Brien things would be different. But for now, almost every Catholic high school senior unavoidably learns that the path to the Ivy League is fraught with genuine spiritual peril.

Brother Ignatius Jones, FMS, is a case in point. Brother Ignatius is your basic old-line Catholic teaching brother, which means he is like a priest because he can't get married and has to wear a black-and-white habit that makes him look like a six-foot penguin, although he doesn't have to say Mass every Sunday and instead gets to say things like "Jesus Christ" without having to wrap a sermon around them. Brother Ignatius taught calculus in my high school in New York, and he taught it really well, because everyone learned it really well. If you didn't learn it really well Brother Ignatius would say something like "Jesus Christ" loud enough to cause inner ear damage, and then remind you that although he was 58 years old he could still punt a football 65 yards. Sometimes he would demonstrate by kicking a solid oak desk half-way across the classroom, which was impressive enough that everyone would buckle down to derivatives. Brother Ignatius did not care for the idea of my going to Harvard.

"Jesus Christ," he would say, eying me as if I had developed a recent liking for Martin Luther, "Harvard doesn't have a religion department--you might just as well be going to Yeshiva or someplace like that." (Ignatius had done graduate work in mathematics at Yeshiva and had never recovered from the shock.) Worse than that, though, Harvard didn't have discipline--no more parietals, no compulsory chapel at 6 a.m. And to top it all off, Harvard had women. The path to damnation was opening wider and wider in Ignatius's eyes.

Reason would not work. I made my case forcefully, noting that none of the major Catholic schools had parietals anymore, that even Holy Cross had surrendered to co-education, that early-morning chapel had gone the way of all flesh, even at Fordham. In short, all of Ignatius's arguments were bogus--Harvard could not possibly corrupt me any more than the purest citadel of religious learning. Fulton Sheen would have been proud of me.

But Ignatius was not. Calculus class became a horror, and the slightest fudged quadratic would inspire the oak-desk routine. Then Ignatius began dropping hints muttering about how when he was a missionary they really had to discipline the heathens. I looked around and saw nothing but people stepping out to St. John's and Fordham for their admission interviews. With my faith shaken by memories of the last heathen Ignatius had to discipline--an unfortunate physics whiz who three years earlier had barely survived the fall-out when Ignatius heard he was on his way to Yale--I decided it was time for a heavy-duty campaign.

The next day I cornered Ignatius after class, and walked down to lunch with him. Like a fox confronted by an ambitious canary, he listened carefully as I made my pitch.

"Brother," I pleaded over the meatless chile, "all those other schools you talk about have Jesuits." Ignatius was clearly on the ropes now, because if there is anything Ignatius hates more than an Ivy League professor it is a Jesuit professor. Jesuits--an order of priests that spends much of its time being intellectual and professorial, or sometimes political, like Fathers Berrigan and Drinan, or sometimes bureaucratic, like Father Hesburgh of Notre Dame--are, in fact, the bane of Ignatius's existence. (They are the bane of most Catholics' existence, because they usually adopt a lofty air that implies they are somehow privy to the wisdom of Creation and a bunch of other theological secrets the rest of us are, quite literally, dying to be let in one. But Ignatius is especially sensitive to the "brilliant Jesuit" mystique, probably because the Jesuits aren't interested in Math teachers with extraordinary punting ability). "Harvard," I pressed on, bearing in as his defenses crumpled, "doesn't have single Jesuit. Not one. Nothing but WASP's, but they're pretty harmless."

Ignatius gave in, and returned to his parabola with a resigned air. Though the fireworks stopped in Calculus--he tore an Achilles tendon a week later and never quite returned to All-Pro kicking form--his warnings stayed with me. The day I sold my sould to John Harvard I was a marked man.

There are few things in life worse than not being welcome at an Irish bar, probably because everyone is welcome at an Irish bar except Italians and Jews and Poles and Puerto Ricans and Lithuanians and Portuguese and lepers and convicted axe-murderers and, worst of all, WASPs. But, bearing none of these ethnic handicaps, and bearing a fairly obviously Irish mug besides, I had never felt uneasy about strolling into the local pub and shooting the breeze with a group of old-timers who look like they've just stepped out of the mists in "The Informer." That is, I never felt uneasy until I went to Harvard.

Mid-way through the first semester of freshman year I journeyed back to New York and naturally had to visit the city's quintessential Irish bar, a little hole-in-the-wall in the wilds of forgotten Queens called The Liffey. The usual crowd was there--a veritable sea of middle-aged pug noses and freckles, resounding with the dull roar of angry brogues protesting the blindness of an insufficiently partisan basketball referee. James Joyce smiled benignly from several wall posters, four signs urged me to join the IRA, and behind the bar rolled Tommy, the spherical bartender who had taken enough time off from hustling customers at the pool table to come back and draw a few glasses of Guiness stout. Feeling serene, I sat down for a night of beer and blarney.

Then it happened. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a particularly drunk old-timer, the type who spends his days going to the wakes of his "life-long friends" and his nights telling strangers what dirty so-and-sos they were for not leaving him anything in their wills. Definitely someone to avoid, but as avoiding a drunk at an Irish bar is about as easy as outswimming a tiger shark, I knew I was a goner.

"Why hello there, son," he said, sidling up to the bar with the obvious desire of buttonholing me for a drink. Having read "The Last Hurrah" I was well aware that any defensive maneuver short of armed resistance was useless, so I gave in and ordered a round. My companion smiled and said "God bless you"--Irish drunks are the only people in the world who say "God bless you" when you haven't sneezed--and then began the Inquisition.

I survived the questions about my parents, grandparents and place of residence pretty well, and pulled off a real coup when I told him I had a cousin in the IRA. I thought I had him aced until he popped The Question.

"Where do you go to school, son?"

He had me and I knew it. Sister Patricia in third grade had rather painfully impressed on me the evils of fibbing, so rather than spend four years in Purgatory I had to fall back on a rather weak evasion. (Father Lavin calls such evasions "sins of ommission," but it was only worth 18 months in Purgatory so I figured I was ahead of the game and went on with it).

"In Massachusetts, sir," I stammered, politely.

But it wouldn't wash. Then the inevitable question: "Where, B.C.?"

Visions of spending eternity in a Steven Dedalus-like hell flashed through my brain, reinforced by Joyce's smile on the wall.

"No, H--," I began, preparing for the worst.

"Holy Cross! A fine school, but the team hasn't been the same since Cousy graduated. Now, Jack Foley, he was a ballplayer of course but not tall enough to make it in the pros..."

"No sir. I go to Harvard. In Cambridge." The truth was out.

Conversation ceased, Tommy rolled over to listen, even Joyce's smile seemed to fade. I felt like I had just told Pope Gregory I didn't want to go on the second Crusade. And I was standing in the Vatican.

"Now what did you want to go and do that for? What do they teach you there? I hear it's all a bunch of rich boobs runnin' around goin' to parties and gettin' drunk all the time. Are you all Irish?" And then the bone-cruncher: "When was the last time you went to Mass?"

I go every week, I tried to tell them, which is more or less true, but no one would listen. "I betcha got them Commie priests up there, the ones that run around tryin' to get themselves married on the sly. And the Cardinal--why, he's just a Portugee, he don't even count," the drunk hollered.

I felt the urge to define Cardinal Medeiros's ecclesiastic integrity, but one look at the bartender told me not to risk it. Tommy had assumed the pained but determined air of a nun who must deal with a wayward child without brooking any resistance. Protestations of innocence were no good anymore, and although physical violence did not seem likely, I thought it best not to remain in such a plainly hostile environment. The subway ride home was more than humiliating; every derelict in the "F" train looked like he was about to approach me with a papal bull of excommunication.

The next day I returned to my old high school, and of course the first person I ran into was Ignatius. "How's Haaaahhhvahd?" he asked.

I cringed. The cast was off, and his kicking foot looked in terrifyingly good shape. I knew he would be listening to my every word, hoping for traces of a broad Harvard "a" that would testify to my slide into spiritual degeneracy.

"Uh, pretty good, y'know Bruddah. How about yerself?" I replied in the best imitation of Rodney Dangerfield's Brooklyn accent I could muster.

"Okay. Been to Mass lately?"

I knew I had him now--I could have recited the Agnus Dei, Confiteor, Kyrie Elaison and the entire 23rd Psalm if he asked. My faith was like a rock, as the bishop always used to tell us it had to be, and I was even going to confession in another month or so for spring cleaning. I didn't have a note from my pastor, but I still felt confident.

"Sure thing, Bruddah. Every week. How's the foot?"

Ignatius mumbled something and started to brush past me, then stopped and turned around. "Jesus Christ," he said, only not as loud as he usually said it, and a good deal more reverently. "Jesus Christ, first you have that damn ecumenical council and you start getting soft on those people, and then you start shoving your kids off to places like Haaaahhhvad, for the love of St. Peter, where they don't even know what's going on in the world of the soul, by God. Jesus Christ. Yeah, my foot hurts."

I was about to say something about how I didn't think the Holy Father would care to hear Ignatius's views on ecumenism and Church reform, but canned the speech. Hell, I had won--he was the one who was talking heresy now, real burn-'em-at-the-stake stuff if the Knights of the Inquistion ever got the word back to Rome. The quality of mercy is not strained and all that, I thought, so I just nodded and walked away.

Besides, the Church had learned to live with Berrigan and planned parenthood, even if it was an uneasy truce, so it could probably learn to live with old-line heretics like Ignatius. No sweat--it might even learn to live with Harvard, which isn't easy. Everybody living with everyone else in peace and truth and veritas! It sounded like either the Sermon on the Mount of something from the Gazette. I couldn't figure out which. But it didn't really matter.

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