Brother James wasn’t like the other postulants. For one thing, he was a college graduate. Most of the other novices were no more than a year or two out of high school. Brother James was twenty-eight. He’d gone to Seton Hall, just a short hop from New York City. He once had a drink with Louis Armstrong at Basin Street East. He’d been in Germany with the Army. Elvis Presley had bought him a beer.
Brother James’s mother had died a couple years earlier, and he’d used his small inheritance to finance a trip. He’d seen Hong Kong’s wealth and Calcutta’s squalor. He’d been to the Holy Land and prayed at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Once, he’d barely escaped the clutches of an angry mob in Cairo.
By the time he arrived at the Congregation of Holy Cross novitiate in Valatie, New York, Brother James had seen the world. He’d decided that helping people was the only thing that mattered.
The Holy Cross brothers were a teaching order, which suited Brother James. He’d had some teaching jobs in the Catholic schools of his home diocese of Paterson, New Jersey. Many of the professed brothers in residence at the novitiate that summer were teachers. They were on retreat from Holy Cross schools in cities like Boston and New York. Brother James liked that. He felt comfortable with these guys.
The postulants were supposed to limit contact with the world during their formation. They were to speak only when necessary and refrain from reading the news. If they weren’t praying at lauds and matins, they were serving at mass. If they weren’t studying in the classroom, they were laboring on the brothers’ 400 acre farm.
A new silo was going up next to the barn that summer. It was hot work, the kind that makes a man thirsty. During breaks, the young postulants were given water. The professed brothers drank big cans of ice-cold beer. One of them noticed an overheated Brother James looking glum. Brother Joseph reached deep into the cooler and pulled out a frosty one. Taking a long pull on it, he issued a satisfied “Ahhhhhhh.” Smiling, he said, “Brother James, they’re going down smooth today.”
Brother James thought he could easily live in poverty. He’d find the strength to live in chastity. He’d come to terms with obedience in the Army. But a whole year without beer?
Brother James was going to have to dig deep.
This was 1963. There was a lot going on, both in America and in the Church. Kennedy was president, John XXIII was pope, and the times they were a-changin’. Like many good Catholic boys of his era, Brother James was an idealist. He wanted to get involved in the civil rights movement. He wanted to help people. He guessed that if he stuck it out in Valatie, they’d probably send him to get a master’s degree at Notre Dame. He’d end up teaching at a Holy Cross school in Buffalo or Brooklyn.
That was helping people, he supposed, but he wondered if it would be enough to fulfill him. Brother James was starting to have some doubts.
One day, while cleaning the professed brothers’ rooms, Brother James spied a newspaper that had been left out in the open. On the cover was a story about the death of President Kennedy’s two day-old baby, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy. Brother James was gutted. He was from a big Irish family. The first Catholic president meant a lot to him. Family meant a lot to him. He wondered if going “behind the wall” had been the right decision.
Then the novice master at Valatie, Brother Elmo, called Brother James into his office. They had a long talk, about culture, about theology, about the Second Vatican Council, which was then entering its second period. Brother James felt it was a good talk—open and honest. For the first time, Brother Elmo seemed genuinely curious about Brother James’s thoughts and opinions. The master treated the novice like an equal.
Brother James thought maybe he’d turned the corner with these guys. Maybe now they’d throw him a beer on a hot day.
Brother Elmo invited him for another talk the following week. No sooner had Brother James sat down than Brother Elmo came out with it: “I don’t think this is the place for you.” Brother James knew what it meant. He would be leaving—immediately. He was forbidden to speak with the other postulants. Brother Elmo didn’t want any discord. When a postulant washed out, he simply disappeared. Brother James’s bags were waiting for him when he left the abbot’s office.
Not long afterward, Kennedy was assassinated, LBJ became president, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. Brother James went back to his old life. He went back to being Jim. But he was still an idealist. He still wanted to help the country heal its racial wounds. A priest friend saw an ad for an outfit called South Mission Volunteers. They matched Jim with a teaching job at a Catholic school in Jennings, Louisiana. He packed a bag and hitchhiked south.
It was in the bar at New Orleans Airport that he first set eyes on his true vocation. Jim and Ann were married in 1966 at her home parish, St. Patrick’s Church in Yorktown Heights, New York. They had two beautiful daughters in Louisiana before moving back north to New Jersey, where I was born. My little brother came along later to complete the clan.
God must have been at work in Brother Elmo’s heart, because he saw something in Brother James that my dad couldn’t see in himself. The consecrated life wouldn’t suit him; his destiny was elsewhere. Brother Elmo kept my father from taking the wrong path. I guess you could say I owe him everything.