Growing up as a young boy, I was fascinated by World War 2. I read a ton of books on the subject matter. The first speech I gave in high school was about Kamikaze pilots. One book in particular caught my attention and lodged some impressionable images in my young brain. It was titled: ‘God is My Co-Pilot’; the diary of a fighter pilot engaged in the air war over Germany. The author spoke of his relationship with God while facing death on a daily basis.
Recently I had some similar thoughts as I was piloting a Chevy Suburban cross-country back to Minnesota. I wasn’t thinking of death as much as my relationship with God after being raised Catholic as a young man.
The Suburban was the size of a Greyhound bus (better to carry all our stuff back home) and had the electronics to suit. Since neither Sharon nor I are techno-files or familiar with the latest computer technologies the wide-screen menu board offered us little more than confusion despite all our finger-tapping from one icon to the next.
With our combined ineptness, we only managed to find Country Music, Christian Music and religious radio stations as we trekked across the country. The most consistent of those radio signals was from EWTN (the Global Catholic Radio Network). We also kept coming across stations that were part of Covenant Catholic Radio Network because it had the strongest signal as we were passing through their area.
While I normally never listen to the radio while driving; especially religious radio, I felt trapped in my cockpit and needed something to distract me. The hum of the tires was practically putting me to sleep. Fighting the fatigue, I began playing a game of cat and mouse with law enforce-ment. My brain had shifted into automatic pilot, either cresting the hills looking for smokies or hugging the curves and watching for sheriff’s deputies on the shoulders. The other half of my brain needed something to distract it from the monotony of the miles ahead.
Miles after mile, county after county, state after state, radio seemed the only answer. Lord knows (pun intended), I had the time with ‘six hours’ driving the first day,’ twelve’ the second and ‘Fifteen’ the third and final day. Now I’m not a practicing Catholic. In fact, the closest affiliation I can now claim is the fact that I’d already written the lyrics for a contemporary song about Christ entitled ‘Jump Seat Jesus.’ (an alternate title was: Shotgun Jesus’). It was meant to be a song in a similar vein to ‘One of Us’ by Joan Osborne. While this didn’t entitle me to membership as a faithful Catholic radio listener, I did find solace in a strange kind of mental return to my youth and Catholic upbringing.
The station followed a pattern of call-ins with a psychologist dealing with listener’s questions about their emotional issues surrounding the Catholic faith. There were religious music sections and choir music. Another call-in segment dealt with questions about theology and Catholic practices and church teachings. These call-in sessions were broken up with hourly news reports from a Catholic perspective. Over the many miles and states, we alternated between Catholic Radio, Country Music and Christian Music. It was a lot to feed my brain with thought.
I was raised Catholic in the fifties and early sixties. Like many young people of my generation it was the faith of our parents and grandparents. It was tradition and history and how we were expected to be raised. For all of its foibles and shortcomings, it was as good a religion as any around. Religion began for me and then gradually lost its luster in grade school.
St. Louis Grade School was a small French (Catholic) grade school located in downtown St. Paul. It was run by nuns who wore their iron will and strong philosophy of discipline as tightly as their starched white face wraps. Catholic teachings were an integral part of their curriculum. Reflecting back, I can now see their pattern of teaching that didn’t require a lot of thought but memorization instead. Groupthink was the norm and it fit most of the students just fine, me included.
Cretin High School was run by the Christian Brothers who could match the nuns with their focus on discipline and curriculum. Religious teaching wasn’t their strongest suite but it found a place in weekly classes. Those classes required us to think a little more about God and goodness and the Catholic faith and overall presented a more present-day approach to our faith.
During that time period, the Catholic Youth Center in downtown St. Paul was supposed to be a place for Catholic youth to congregate and mix with the opposite sex. Most of the sponsored dances were lame and overly controlled by either traveling nuns and priests or parental sponsors, all intent on making sure the boys and girls didn’t mix it up too much. Father Sweeney ran the place and focused on an old fashion approach to religion and youth.’ Listen and learn’ was his motto. Questions didn’t seem to be encouraged there.
St. Thomas College offered a few mandatory religious classes but mainly during freshman year. Most of those classes were rout repeats of the same message we had hammered into our heads in high school. The saving grace for me during that period was the Neumann Center on the campus of the University of Minnesota. The Neumann Center was run by hip, savvy priests who were able to communicate with young people and earn their respect at the same time. They spoke in plain English about God and being a good person verses just being a faithful obedient Catholic. Their message resonated with me on a very visceral level.
By the time I’d returned from the service and was back at St. Thomas, the Neumann Center had evolved into Hippie Central and attracted a large swath of hippies, artists, bohemians, and other radical youth. There was popular music and singing during each mass and social gatherings afterwards. It became a wonderful home away from home for Susan and me. ‘Suzanne’ by Leonard Cohen was our favorite song. Perhaps we should have been singing a sad lament for the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland instead.
Now as the miles piled on, many of those thoughts about the strict nuns and Christian Brothers and neighborhood priests swam though my brain. I thought back to my mother’s strict devotion to her faith and how it was never my approach to religion. I will admit those Catholic institutions gave me a good solid educational foundation for which I am very grateful. Yet even back then I felt some guilt because I could never grasp and accept their approach to Christ. I had too many questions and challenges to ever become an obedient servant of their God.
Now a lot of my generation seems to have gravitated back to the idea of faith at this stage in their lives. They’ve become practicing Catholics once again and attend mass every weekend. I expect for many of them, there is a comfort and security as their thoughts shift to the possibility of ‘life after death.’
Mine is a more simplistic approach to faith and belief and God. The questions I ask myself are pretty straightforward. Did I live a good life? Was I a good person? Did I do right by others? For me, it’s not one specific religion or label or moniker. I’d much prefer to be called a good person rather than a Catholic, Christian, Agnostic, Buddhist or Jew. In the end, I don’t think it matters one bit. If God is what others claim him (or her) to be, then I think my approach still makes the grade.
He’s still my Co-Pilot. It’s just that only he knows when this journey of ours will end and he’s not telling me just yet. I guess I’ll just continue flying along, trying to do what’s right and enjoying the scenery for as long as I can.