High Priest of Tara

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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

HIGH PRIEST OF TARA

When I was in Des Moines came word that two Syracusans I knew well were front page news for an outrageous act committed of the steps of the nation’s Capitol Building, for Christ’s sake.

When I served on the altar at St. Joseph’s French Church on East Genesee Street for six years, a fellow acolyte had been David Miller, who later attended LeMoyne College.

Of much more lasting memory at LeMoyne for me or anyone who ever crossed his path was Father Daniel Berrigan of the Society of Jesus. He resembled an enchanted monkey.

One of the most fascinating aspects of instruction under the Jesuits was the wide spectrum of philosophical thought entertained within the walls of the institution. There was a balance carefully maintained in the overall curriculum, but individual professors were allowed wide latitude in expressing their own personal and particular viewpoints without fear of chastisement or censorship. The basic idea, truly excellent, was to expose students to a wide range of ideas and opinions from which one could draw one’s own conclusions. Indeed, the idea of “thinking for yourself” seemed the primary objective of a Jesuit education.

For centuries, the order had been regarded by many as the “intellectual vanguard” of the Roman Catholic Church. From time to time, the whole lot would be tossed out of the Church, only to return with the election of a friendlier Pontiff. The head of the order (or Superior General) resided in Rome and had often been historically referred to as “The Black Pope”. The color reference related to the Jesuit’s wearing of black robes rather than any connection with St. Augustine who was, in fact, an African-African.

Augustine was regarded as one of the most important scholars, teachers and theologians who’d ever come along in the Church since the time of Christ. We had learned this at Cathedral from Sister Cecilia and Father Shannon, although they never seemed to have any pictures of Augustine handy during discussions on the “Confessions” of this honored Saint. I like to think he looked at lot like James Brown.

You had your conservative Jesuits and your liberal Jesuits and many who were strictly centrist in their views; not too hot and not too cold on any given issue.

Then you had your Liberal Conservatives and your Conservative Liberals.

The Liberal Conservatives voted for Eisenhower, although having preferred Taft; regarded Nixon with thinly veiled suspicion, and supported social legislation which would provide the underclasses with initial wherewithal to begin pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, chinstraps or, in the case of black athletes, jockstraps.

The Conservative Liberals were all for sharing the world’s wealth equally between nations as well as citizens of any one given land, advocated sweeping social reforms aimed at realizing this end, and yet maintained deep respect for and insistence upon individual effort and excellence with reward for same being collective joy in paradise rather than self-indulgent happiness on earth.

Father Berrigan was of this last breed.

LeMoyne College was named in honor of an early French Jesuit explorer and missionary to North America named Simon LeMoyne who concluded his priestly career at the wrong end of a tomahawk.

There were many studying Theology and Philosophy under Berrigan at LeMoyne who would have preferred the quick, sudden termination experienced by our school’s namesake to the slow, methodical, relentless, merciless pressures brought to bear by a true Irish scholar who would suffer no fools, especially those entrusted to his care.

Steel discipline was rigidly and evenly enforced. Each class would witness “volunteers” recruited to replace Berrigan at the podium. All so called would be expected to complete the day’s lecture in Berrigan’s stead with material previously assigned.

Not prepared? “Take a cut!”

Total “cuts” in a single semester over double the number of credit hours in a course were grounds for automatic failure, “sick days” included. Passing Theology was mandatory for continued attendance at LeMoyne. No other instructor or professor would ever actually throw you out of class, especially since such action put you on the fast track to an “F”, except Father Berrigan.

There was another little quirk.

Although his subjects dealt in Theology (the study of God) and Philosphy (the study of thought), Berrigan would deduct a full grade-level for any error in spelling, grammar or punctuation on any report submitted to him. This could get touchy, since any combination of five such errors on a twenty-page, otherwise A+ paper, would get the “Berrigan F” drafted from top to bottom of cover sheet in slashing blue ink.

After a bumpy start with the good man (a “Berrigan F” on a book report I had faked and the only college “F” ever received), I learned to get along.

“This place smells like a rabbit hutch”, Berrigan would casually observe, floating into the lecture hall moments before clattering ring of the starting bell.

Clang.

Round One!

Berrigan would peer across seventy-five faces anxiously assembled, breathless in anticipation of “the selection”.

“How’s our disc-jockey today?”

Seventy-four sets of lungs found heavenly union in heaved sighs of unrestrained relief.

The disc-jockey is fine, Father.”

“Would the disc-jockey like to lead today’s lesson on the first ten chapters of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans?”


“The disc-jockey would be pleased to do so, Father.”

If I was ready for any class at LeMoyne, Berrigan was the priority. Especially after that fucking book report. He wanted to burn my ass in public. It takes an Irishman to know an Irishman. He’d not catch this one again, even if I had to pull out all the stops and resort to genuine preparation doing actual homework. The shame of it.

After awhile, he would stop me after class from time to time and be ever so charming. His success in radio certainly exceeded my own. Years before when he was in his late twenties, he had appeared in a program which became known as “The Jesuit Hour”. It was then being carried in syndication Sunday mornings on over five hundred stations across the country. He was quite the broadcast star in his own right. I would often drive him back to the Jesuit rectory after class and always considered him a man set apart, especially among his fellow priests.

When I read the story off our Associated Press wire in the KSO newsroom, I suddenly remembered the time that Berrigan had chained himself to a construction crane protesting some demolition work in one of Syracuse’s poorer neighborhoods just after my graduation. That time and this, I pretty much wrote-off to typical Irish craziness, being comfortably familiar with the subject myself. I thought Berrigan might only have been weaving a strange Druidic spell with chains and cranes in place of clouds and shrouds. Who knew toward what end such magic might be directed? I knew Irish ritual in every form can be end enough in itself.

Most males of the Celtic race seemed to carry a perpetual attitudinal hard-on, erected consequential to centuries of oppression and economic enslavement. It was a matter of proud genetic entitlement. The ancient Celts had even gone into battle sporting visible physical erections with which to intimidate an enemy when they still came out on the winning side of things as later depicted in Mel Gibson’s “Brave Heart”. I had always suspected that the typical Irish drunk, myself included, more often than not was attempting to dull this instinct. Berrigan, a thinking man, was not a drinking man.

Berrigan was to later become most prominent in the growing anti-war movement. He poured blood on Selective Service files in Baltimore and was hunted for years as a Federal fugitive. He eventually was apprehended and served time in Lewisberg Penitentiary, where I understand he met Jimmy Hoffa. His brother, Father Phillip Berrigan, married a former nun.
Powerful thoughts were ricocheting through my mind. I had been temporarily stunned by Bob Dell’s utterances regarding the “totally fucked” war and our President’s head being stuck “up his ass”, an orifice I still felt best left unviewed, let alone cranially visited. I was drifting.

I was shifting.

1967 was but days away.

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