When you're in school you never think about reunions 10, 15 or 20 years down the road. Why should you? At 18 you're still creating the past you'll someday wax sentimental about. But if you live long enough, one day the letter will arrive in the mailbox announcing a reunion of your graduating class. Mine came in June.
It's safe to say that my alma mater wasn't an ordinary college. Located in Glen Ellyn, Ill. — 30 miles west of the Chicago Loop — it was first and foremost a men-only institution. The top enrollment was only 400 students. Upon my arrival on campus in August 1965, I found the upperclassmen wearing long black robes known as cassocks. And the common goal of the student body was not to get into the world and make as much money as possible, but rather to "bring Christ's name and grace to all." Or so the school song declared.
Maryknoll College was a Roman Catholic seminary where the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America educated and trained the priests of tomorrow. For Maryknoll, 1965 was a boom year. More than 50 priests were ordained at its Ossining, N.Y., headquarters (the total training required nine years after high shcool), and my freshman class at Glen Ellyn — 120 strong — was the largest ever.
But 1965 was also on the cusp of the social and political revolution we now refer to as "the 60s." The anti-Vietnam War movement was still primarily a Berkeley, Ca., phenomenon. Dr. Martin Luther King was still alive. In fact, he had just brought his open-housing crusade to Chicago that summer. Mass was still celebrated in Latin. I'd never heard of marijuana. Mickey Mantle still played for the Yankees. Folk music was king of the musical hill.
How quickly everything changed. Thanks to Pope John XXIII's Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church officially decided to enter the "modern world" in 1965. It was a bold idea at the time. By the second semester of my freshman year, Latin masses were a rarity and cassocks had gone the way of buggy whips. The rule that had once allowed only four off-campus trips a year got flushed, and my classmates began to depart in a steady stream, never to return.
After one year, our class of 120 had been whittled down to 65. After two years it was 40. I left after the third year, and by 1970 only 20 were left to receive their degrees. One year later Glen Ellyn shut down for good. Young men were no longer considering a life of celibacy in God's name a viable lifestyle.
At my reunion last month in Ossining — the home of Sing Sing Prison — 25 of the original 120 freshmen showed up. Two were ordained priests. All of us were grayer or heavier or both. Eight were accompanied by wives and children. Several of my former classmates became social workers. One is a state legislator in Kentucky. Another a Chicago tax lawyer. Several more sell insurance.
Kevin, a former roommate and one of six classmates to reach ordination, left the priesthood and married a former nun. Today, he's a nurse on Cape Cod. His wife works, he explained, for "one of those Save the Whales-type groups." Over dinner on our second and final evening together, Kevin bitterly unloaded on the Catholic Church for what he perceived as two glaring shortcomings: failing to acknowledge women as equals and totally ignoring homosexuality.
In the giant fieldstone refectory of Maryknoll's that once housed over 300 priests and seminarians — and now is home to just 20 — Kevin pointed out that when he was a seminarian in the 1970s women were at least allowed to stay overnight on the premises. Now they're verboten. An aging male hierarchy (median age: 65) still clings to the way the world was, determinedly blind to the way it is.
Those who attended the reunion last month came for the simple reason that Maryknoll was an important part of our young lives. It was probably the last time we had enjoyed stability and certainty, when our lives seemed all planned out. Friendships were strong because of a common purpose. But when "the '60s" erupted, our innocent dreams crumpled like a house of cards.
Not surprisingly, the reunion was a mixture of sadness and joy. Another old roommate, I learned, had died climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Another who had left the seminary and become a surgeon was killed in a San Francisco car accident during his medical residency.
The one former faculty member from our Glen Ellyn days who still lived there, a somber, conservative theology teacher, was conveniently out of town the weekend of our reunion. Too bad. Fr. Frazier had been my nemesis. As the acknowledged political activist in my class — they still joke about taking up a collection to bail me out during the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention — I had inevitably locked horns with Frazier. He had nothing but fear and disdain for the "outside world." I had fervently believed then, and still do, that that's precisely where Christ was to be found.
I'll always remember the day Fr. Frazier called me into his office midway through my third and final year at Glen Ellyn. The distinguished theologian sternly told me, "Mr. Freyne, it's not a question of whether or not you have a vocation. The question is whether or not you're still a Roman Catholic."
I guess he was right. I never fancied wearing the blinders necessary to remain an officially designated Roman Catholic. And I certainly never wanted to end up living in a big, empty building with a handful of old men who cling to the vision of a church where women are second-class and there's no such thing as gay people in the kingdom of God.
Twenty-five years later the Catholic Church is a shambles. Back in the '60s, "scandalous" priests made the newspapers for getting arrested at civil rights or antiwar marches. Or being deported from some Central American dictatorship for preaching liberation theology to the peasantry.
Today when a Catholic priest makes the news, it's often because he's been busted for sexually assaulting altar boys. It surely takes a lot of moxie to pass the collection plate in a church in which the priesthood has become a refuge for pedophiles.
If anything, my seminary reunion got me thinking about things long ago parked on the back shelf of cognition. The "spirit of Christ," as we used to call it, still lives. Ironically, the Church is about the last place you'll find it.