“Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.
Maybe everything that dies, someday comes back.”
“Atlantic City” song lyrics
Do you remember the 1976 book “What Really Happened to the Class of 65”? It was a best-selling look at the students of Palisades High School on the cusp of upheaval.
For years I’ve wanted to do a Catholic version — “Class of ’71” — which would look at that year’s graduating class from Loyola High School. My class. In four years we went from Bobby Kennedy to Richard Nixon. From Woodstock to Altamont. From the Maharishi to Yoko Ono.
I wanted to look at the journeys of those 230 Catholic boys: How many kept the faith in adulthood? How many still go to Mass weekly, or weakly? How many are spiritual, but not religious? How many are “none of the above?”
Bruce Springsteen reminded me of my old book idea. To be exact, it was his new memoir. “Born to Run” is a big, rambling, poetic, heap of a book, written by one of the troubadours of our generation.
For me, he has been more than just a Jersey rocker. At one point, 15 minutes into a Springsteen concert in 1980, I had an epiphany that changed my life. The next Monday, I quit my job and decided to become a writer. I won’t say his music told me to do that, but his songs often sang of dreams to be seized or dreams to be lost. I decided that night I was going with seized.
What got me thinking about the Class of ’71 was that Bruce was raised Catholic around the same time we were. His songs are often laced with Catholic references, but in his memoir he paints a picture of that pre-Vatican II Church that involved “the torturously memorized dogma, the Friday Stations of the Cross … the black-robed men and women, the curtained confessional, the sliding window, the priest’s shadowy face and the recitation of childhood transgressions.” Not exactly James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” but not that different either.
Springsteen paints a picture — at times loving, at times haunted — of Irish and Italian Catholic neighborhoods built around life in the parish, of tough-as-nails nuns and the omnipresent shadow of guilt.
“It’s no sin to be glad you’re alive.”
For Bruce, as for us, adolescence coincided with revolution: Sex and drugs and a world that seemed a whole lot more complicated (and, for a time, more enticing) than what the Baltimore Catechism could contain. Bruce drifted away, saying at one point that the little brutalities of a Catholic school “estranged me from my religion for good.”
I never experienced the ruler-wielding nuns and forbidding priests that seem to have haunted Bruce and many of our generation. Still I wonder what happened to my classmates who went from boys to men in the 1960s and 1970s. It is certainly true that we were hit full force by the cultural tidal wave of the 1960s. We thought the world was completely upended and heading toward Aquarius.
Most of those classmates I’ve maintained contact with — and it is a small number — have no connection with the faith of their fathers. I feel like the odd man out as the practicing Catholic who also works for the Church. Yet I’d like to hear all the stories about what has happened in the intervening decades.
“Everybody’s got a hungry heart.”
How many left, and how many are God-haunted if not God-fearing? How many feel the pull of the Church? How many can still recite the Catechism answer to “Why did God make us?” even if they aren’t sure who God is? And how many have come back, part of that small army of “reverts” who may have left the religion of their youth, only to later embrace it as adults who have seen that the Aquarius is more illusion than allure?
“God have mercy on the man. Who doubts what he’s sure of.”
Bruce didn’t make it out of that chapter of his book before he admitted that what had felt “estranged … for good” in fact was not.
“However, as I grew older, there were certain things about the way I thought, reacted, behaved. I came to ruefully and bemusedly understand that once you’re a Catholic, you’re always a Catholic. So I stopped kidding myself. I don’t often participate in my religion but I know somewhere … deep inside … I’m still on the team.”
This is hardly Augustine’s “Confessions,” but it suggests the spark is still there. The song is not yet finished. I wonder how many of my classmates feel the same. How many remain estranged, and how many like myself have come to recognize the tender mercies God extended, and continues to extend, to our prodigal generation?