My dad fervently believed that having a priest in his brood would guarantee a golden pass through Heaven’s Gates for both himself and my mom. Whenever he was asked if one of his five sons had a calling to the priesthood, he’d sadly reply, “A priest? I haven’t a decent altar boy among them.”
Despite his ongoing wishes in having one of his lads enter the seminary, I never gave it a thought until our eighth-grade class at St. Charles School was marched to the Catholic Youth Center to attend a Religious Vocations Day in 1963. There we were joined by eighth-graders from the four other city parochial schools to view more than 30 booths, each staffed by nuns and priests from different orders, all dressed in full regalia.
That evening, I brought home a dozen brochures and eagerly filled out the accompanying postcards to learn more about the respective orders’ junior seminaries. When Dad saw me at the task, he gave my noggin a warm rub of encouragement. Yes, his ho-hum middle son of eight siblings with poor grades and crooked teeth might just be his passport to Paradise.
Once I received the multiple booklets in the mail, it was merely a matter of what type of cleric I should be. Dad favored the Jesuits, “the brightest of them all,” but I knew Latin would never come easily to me as a second tongue. How about a diocesan priest, like our dear Fr. John Foley at St. Charles Church? But I knew I was absolutely hopeless at keeping secrets. Therefore, if a parishioner divulged a juicy sin in the confessional box, I’d be sure to blurt it out during my Sunday homily, while adding a little ketchup to their story. That’s why my mom always called me “Chirpy.”
The Trappists, world-renowned for their tasty jams and jellies, were also in the running. But after reading how they wake at 3 each morning for vigils, and are not permitted to utter a word from dawn to dusk, I quickly cast them aside. Ditto the Benedictines, Carmelites and Capuchins. Worse still, these monastic monks were strict vegetarians, so bye-bye to burgers and dogs.
Next, the Maryknolls, whose magazine was delivered monthly to our mailbox. These unsung missionaries did wonderful things around the globe. But, truly, did I really want to spend my living days digging irrigation ditches in the stifling plains of Kenya? The Franciscans, dressed in their handsome brown robes, were also a possibility. But, regrettably, they were only allowed to wear sandals, and I was strictly a sock-and-sneaker guy.
I finally settled for the Edmundites, since they sported a cool red patch on the front of their habits, in honor of their founder, St. Edmund of Canterbury. Furthermore, their seminary was located in neighboring Vermont, so I figured I could come home every weekend to see my buddies. Plus, they could wear shoes!
On a sunny Saturday that April, a young Edmundite priest arrived at our door, finding me dressed in my Sunday best. We sat together on the front porch, where he posed his first question, “Why do you want to become an Edmundite Father?” I answered him straightaway. “So my Mom and Dad can go to Heaven.”
After a few more queries, he summoned my parents to join us. Once they were seated, he bit his lower lip and said, “I believe your son will make an excellent Brother of St. Edmund after he graduates from high school.”
I jumped excitedly from my chair, “You mean like Friar Tuck!”
Dad, in turn, dropped his heavy head. A Brother to him — despite their deep devotion — didn’t carry the same clout at the Pearly Gates as a priest or a monk. Seeing my Dad’s face crumble, the engaging recruiter tried to buck him up: “Remember, Mr. O’Hara, there are many glorious Brothers of the Catholic Church; St. Benedict of Nursia, St. Francis of Assisi, Brother Andre of Montreal ...”
But no words could console my crestfallen dad, as only an ordained priest would do. So rather than packing my trunk for the Green Mountains of Vermont, I entered St. Joseph High School that September, dreaming only of pretty girls and making the football team.
Years later, at family gatherings, we eight offspring would often speak fondly of the old fella, and his desire to have one of us become a priest or a nun. Nonetheless, we all agreed there was no need for any of us to have chosen a religious vocation. After all, Dad had unknowingly stamped his own ticket to Heaven by simply being himself.