Surrounded by Catholics, Part I: Blessings on Everything

Every Danvers Catholic kid I knew swore by everything Father Berube said. About anything. The reason why was . . . complicated. Oh, so complicated.

“Now you're getting older, your body's starting to change” said Dad. “Any questions?”

“How do you stop getting hard in church?” I asked.

“Don't be ridiculous. That never happens.”

“I just heard . . . in school. Some of the guys . . .”

“It doesn't happen if you're Catholic. You know all about impure thoughts by now.”

“Yeah, but . . .”

“You just got confirmed for chrissake.”

“Not sayin' it was me.”

“Then who? Better not be that Channing Johnstone character.”

“I'm just asking, what if it happens? What are you supposed to do?”

“You say a prayer or something."

“What prayer?”

“Any prayer!”

“But what if some girl’s sitting in the next pew and . . . and looking real pretty . . . and things get out of hand and suddenly you gotta get up and take communion?”

“How the hell should I know? Ask Father Berube.”

from “Questions I Tormented my Dad With”

IN WHICH we are truly blessed.

I never did ask Father John Berube that question, but it wasn’t because I didn’t trust him. He was eminently trustworthy. Every Danvers Catholic kid I knew swore by everything he said. About anything. The reason why was . . . complicated. Oh, so complicated.

The girls liked him – girls and women – but he was not in any sense good-looking. With both receding chin and hairline, cartoonish ears, and Joe E. Brown grin, he looked like an exceptionally tall hobbit. There was no mistaking him for that “father-what-a-waste” type that unattached women tended to present with casseroles after church. Something else about him drew 99% of the Catholics in our town to St. Mary’s of the Annunciation Church in 1959.[1] But, as Berube often said in his sermons, “I digress.”

“Nobody’s Perfect.” Joe. E. Brown in Some Like it Hot

Where did Father John Berube come from? Who knows? One Sunday he just appeared at our church, which was the only[2] Catholic church in town, to join Father Cronin and Monsignor O’Brien in ministering to the parishioners. He gave a sermon the next Sunday, interpreting the gospel account in which Jesus casts the demons out of the swine and sends those piggies plunging into the sea.[3]

“Now why did our Lord do that?” he asked. “Seems like a waste of good pork to me.”

That drew a rare, collective congregational laugh and quickly established Father Berube as the parish jokester. It didn’t hurt that he also chuckled at his own jokes like Red Skelton, a haw-ho-ho that was halfway between throat clearing and Santa’s customary greeting.

“Turns out that wasn’t the case,” Father Berube continued. “Our Lord was casting out demons. That’s why we call it ‘The Miracle of the Gadarene Swine and the Exorcism of Legion[4].’ That’s a mouthful, isn‘t it? The point is sometimes we all must exorcise our demons. It’s not easy to cast them out when they are within ourselves. We sometimes have to make sacrifices.”[5]

Waste of Pork?

I could feel at least one demon raging in me at that very moment. I was staring at Lois Howell in the pew across from me, and she looked especially fine in her dress, yellow as a GO SLOW sign with the collar buttoned up to her neck. She turned to look at me for a nanosecond, her nose twitching like she smelled broccoli boiling, and then turned away to look straight ahead. But the demon inside me was twitching also. Did Father Berube know how to cast it out once and for all?

Eventually, I would find out.

A few Sundays passed, and without so much as a warning in the church bulletin, Monsignor O’Brien ascended the pulpit and delivered an important message to parishioners. And that’s what started this whole episode churning like my mother’s favorite Rock Hudson film.

“I Understand Completely”

He strode up to the rostrum, his girth barely concealed by his Gaudete Sunday[6] rose vestments.

“It’s not often that I get to use these words,” he began. “But our church, your church, is offering you a ‘rare opportunity.’”

He didn’t use his fingers for emphasis because it was decades before the invention of air quotes. So he just said those two words louder than the rest.

“You know that we bless many things in this church. The sick. The elderly. A modest donation. An inheritance, a luscious steak dinner, the dying, a promotion, a shiny new car. A generous donation, a broken arm, your tomato plants, the postman at Christmas, your marriage . . . but not your divorce!”

Nervous laughter from about three people.

“If I may be permitted a little levity.” He cleared his throat and tapped it, as if that would help the clearing. “Oh, that reminds me, don’t forget the Blessing of the Throats, which is February 3, not too long from now. We all know there’ll be a lot of strep going on by then.”

Go and Suck Cough Drops No More

My mother swore by the Blessing of the Throats[7]. She’d take hers over Smith Brothers Cough Drops any day.

“But most importantly, you now have the opportunity to have your home blessed by one of our very knowledgeable and most holy priests.” He gestured toward Father Berube and Father Cronin, who were sitting in the special holy person’s pew[8] at the front of the church and smiling benignly back at us.

“I can’t stress enough the benefits of having your home blessed. God’s benevolence will shine through your home and your family. Let me tell you what that means. He will bring you good fortune with any ventures you undertake, like that backyard swimming pool. And everybody knows that evil will think twice before venturing into a blessed home. Finally, home blessing will allow you and your family to lead a truly holy and auspicious life for years to come.”

If churches allowed applause, Msgr. O’Brien would’ve gotten a standing ovation right then. There were some awws and stunned gasps, and soon there was a long line at the end of mass for people signing up for home blessing. My mother ended up about halfway back in the queue and waited patiently for about twenty minutes. My father nervously waited in his usual spot: the back of the church with the other disgruntled acolytes. He was a reluctant convert from Congregationalism to Catholicism[9]. He knew he had to be there per their marriage agreement, but he’d be darned if he’d take part in all that up-and-downing. Ding! Sit for sermon. Ding ding, kneel for consecration. Dingaling, stand in line for communion. After all, he was a woodsman. He could stand, heavy gun in hand, and wait for a nine-point stag for hours. But at least that had meaning.

Father Berube was duly scheduled to come to our home a week from next Wednesday.

Before I knew it, Wednesday leapt upon us like the Lion of Judah[10].

“Wel . . . welcome into our home,” said my mother. “This is my son Peter, and my younger son is Jeff-rey, who’s still at school. Of course, Romy – Jerome – took time off from work to get. . . uh, something, some material for our new three-car garage.”

There she stood, gazing at him. She hadn’t a clue what to say next.

She gestured toward the living room. “I’m sure you’ll do what you have to do, to get on with . . . uh, your blessing. I’ll be in the kitchen if you need anything.”

A priest had obviously never come into our house before. Luckily, I was there to ask questions. Pointed questions. Cogent questions. I’d been sent home for lack of a signed field trip pass. I never did get to see the Middleton House of Correction.

“Can you bless the dog, too?” I asked, my collie mix Heather panting at my heels.

“You know, I’d really like to, Pete,” said Fr. Berube, “but it’s not permitted. Dogs don’t have souls.”

The dog looked depressed for about eight seconds and then got attacked by a rump flea.

“Where do you bless the home?”

He put his hand on my shoulder. It felt heavy. “Traditionally, the hearth.”

“What’s a hearth?”

“A hearth is a warm spot where a family gathers, and I like to think of it as a place where the Almighty is worshipped.”

Fat chance of that. My father worshiped only on Sunday. Maybe he thought that’s all God would get out of him and (possibly) all that divinity deserved.

“How does the blessing get into the other rooms?”

I instantly thought of my grandmother and her heavily performed wrists. “Does the blessing float in and out of our rooms, like perfume?”

Father Berube chuckled as if I were trying to make a joke, but I wasn’t, I really wanted to know. The tumultuous birth of my sarcastic side was at least three years away.

“I’m sure God will see to it there’s enough blessing to go around the whole house.”

“Even the bathrooms? And my brother Jeffy’s room is a mess. Will the blessing go over something it shouldn’t, like something sticky?”

Jeffy had spilled cocoa on his bedroom rug before school and Mom hadn’t had a chance to clean it up. So there’d be no house tour. My mother came back into the room.

The Mighty Aspergillum

Father Berube smirked and put down his large black case, opened it and took out an aspergillum[11]. I’d never seen one up close. Then he took out an ornate glass container that was fancier than any perfume bottle I’d seen, with fleur-de-lis etched into the glass.

He twisted off the metal top of the glass container and poured the holy water into the top of the aspergillum. The ceremony had begun.

“O heavenly Father, Almighty God, we humbly beseech Thee to bless and sanctify this house of Natalie, Peter, Jeffy . . .”

“Geoffrey,” said my mother. “Jeffy’s his nickname.”

“Sorry. Geoffrey. And Jerome and everything else in it, and Thou vouchsafe to fill it with all good things. Grant to them, O Lord, the abundance of heavenly blessings and from the richness of the earth every substance necessary for life, food, automobiles, and, uh, the garage . . .”

“It’s a three-car garage,” I said. “But one part’s for the boat. Dad built the boat in the porch before it turned into the rec room last winter.”

“. . . the three-car garage, the boat, the rec room . . .”

“It’s got a new stereo, too,” I helpfully added, “with a tape recorder.”

“. . . the stereo and tape recorder, and direct this family’s desires to the fruits of Thy mercy. At this hearth, therefore, deign to bless and sanctify this house as Thou didst deign to bless the house of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob; and may the angels of Thy light, dwelling within the walkway leading up to this house, protect it through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

He shook the aspergillum half a dozen times and it spattered all over the fireplace. My mother winced. I hoped the wood didn’t get so soggy it wouldn’t light tonight. I had a Jiffy Pop Popcorn tinfoil pan at the ready. I caught my mother staring down with intense concern at all the water splattered about.[12]

“How long does the blessing last?” I said. “Does it wear out? Will we need another one soon?”

“Oh stop, Peter.”

My mother eventually wearied of my questions, not because she didn’t know the answers, but because she thought my knowing too many things at once might distract me at school.

“Peter, you’re quite the inquisitive young man. Natalie, do you have a set of encyclopedias in this lovely home?”

Of course we did. Most middle-class families did back then. And they were always in excellent condition because nobody read them.

“Yes,” said my mother, “we have the Encyclopedia Americana, with a new annual every year. Lots of nice reading and wonderful pictures.”

She suddenly stopped and looked uneasy, maybe thinking the church might not approve of that encyclopedia for some reason, like the photographs of naked Greek statuary in Volume XII, page 703.

“Peter, I’d like you to look up the entry for Saint Teresa of Ávila. She is one of our most revered saints and you should know all about her. And you’ll notice at the end of the article, there’s a part called something like ‘For more information.’ It’s a ‘cross-reference’ and I want you to read the articles that it points you to as well. Of course, these articles may have their own cross-references and if you are the curious young man I think you are, you’ll check those out, too. Natalie, if we could sit somewhere, I have something to discuss with you.” They left to go into the kitchen.

The “For more information” entries were “Counter-Reformation” and “Inquisition,” both of which I obediently read. I didn’t quite understand them though.

On the way back to the kitchen, I passed the coffee table upon which Father Berube had placed his silvery aspergillum. I picked it up, an act of considerable gumption or stupidity. It was a lot lighter than it looked, nowhere near as sturdy as a full watering can or my newest metallic device, my three-cell Eveready Iron Candle flashlight. I examined it closely. What was it made of? Tin? I walked over to the dog lying on the floor and shook it just once.

“I bless thee in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”

A surprisingly amount of water spurted out. Heather jumped up, did a brief barrel-shake, then ran into the next room like a vampire assailed by water so holy it singed her flesh.

I put the aspergillum back on the table and started back toward the kitchen, where my mother and Father Berube were drinking wine and having an animated discussion. My mom smiled and nodded attentively like she’d done with the Encyclopedia Americana salesperson.

“Oh no, no, no,” he suddenly explained, looking at our walls, “this will never do. If you were to purchase a statue of The Infant of Prague, it should never be subjected to this . . .this kind of . . . What is this?” He touched the wall. “Coal dust?”

Indeed it was. Through some money-saving deal my father had struck with the house builders, we had installed an out-of-code 1946 coal-burning furnace, which grimed things up now and then. A few months after Father Berube’s visit, my parents replaced with an oil heater. This emergency purchase was prompted by my mother’s considerable urging.

“If you excuse the expression,” said Berube, “it would be a devil of a job to clean it, if it were on your mantle, its rightful place. I suggest you get a cover for it before bringing it into your home. In your case, I’d recommend the Deluxe Cover with gold trim.”

Guaranteed Soot-Free Environment

I suddenly barged into the room. “I read the encyclopedia articles, Father Berube.” “What’s an auto-da-fé?[13]

With a grave look he said we could discuss it someday, after I’d taken all my required parochial school world (meaning European) history classes. He rose and turned to my mother.

“Natalie, I believe we have a catalog of approved diocesan products at the rectory, including several models of the Infant. Stop by sometime and I’d be happy to show them to you.”

The last thing I remember was the $10 donation she handed him for the “wonderful blessing.”

We didn’t realize that the real cost was yet to come.

  1. Only a few defected to nearby Beverly’s Star of the Sea Catholic Church.
  2. Danvers, Massachusetts, now has another Catholic Church to choose from, St. Richard Parish.
  3. Matthew 8:28–34. And Mark 5:1–20. Also Luke 8:26–39.
  4. Depending on your historian, a legion is about 5,000 Roman soldiers. So 5,000 demons were possessing the two men in the Gospel accounts. So many were needed because they were very weak demons. If you were possessed by only one of them, you’d probably get only an eye twitch. In contrast, the young girl Regan is possessed by only one demon in The Exorcist (1973) and look how he turned her head!
  5. I wondered about this one. Why were all the pigs drowned? Couldn’t the demons swim? And why didn’t the farmers make the best of it, fish out the drowned pigs and have a feast? Were the pigs somehow contaminated? I should have asked, but I chickened out.
  6. The third Sunday of Advent, about two weeks before Christmas, the papal vestments are rose (instead of the purple of Advent) because, according to Catholicvote.org, they are “turning pink from joy.”
  7. She was not alone. Here’s an excerpt from the Rituale Romanum concerning The Blessing of the Throats. “Humbly we beg Thee . . . to bless this wax created by Thee and to sanctify it, pouring into it Thy grace; so that all who in good faith shall have their throats touched by this wax may be freed from every ailment of their throats through the merit of his (sic) suffering . . . “
  8. Most of the time, the assisting priests, visiting or ensconced, sat there. Once a year, on the Sunday closest to December 31, the person who’d donated the most to the church by year’s end sat there with their family. Most of the time it was Herb LeBlanque and his two altar-boy sons, Greg and Stephen. I keenly remember that in one prosperous year, my family had tried to surpass the daunting LeBlanque donation. They failed.
  9. Although not required by the Catholic Church for “mixed marriages,” conversion to Catholicism was strongly urged. What is required is that the resulting children be raised Catholic. My father caved in to both conditions.
  10. Revelation 5:5
  11. A holy water dispensing device. A prototype is mentioned in the Bible (Leviticus 14:4-7). Typically, the top is twisted open to insert a sponge soaked in holy water. With impious irony, Wiccans started using Aspergilla in their pagan ceremonies, notably during witchcraft festivals. Fun Fact: The mold Aspergillus was named by the Italian priest Pietro Antonio Micheli because its cells looked like an aspergillum.
  12. When she started to clean up the holy water after Father Berube had left, I told her to be careful – she might wipe away the blessing. She paused for a second, stopped and let it dry on its own. I wasn’t kidding. Hey, it was possible.
  13. According to most historians, an auto-da-fé (“act of faith”) was the public penance carried out between the 15th and 19th centuries of condemned heretics and apostates. It was imposed by the Spanish, Portuguese, or Mexican Inquisition as punishment. Most of the time, the penance didn’t work and many were tortured then executed by burning. According to one Catholic historian, “an auto-da-fe [sic] involved Mass, prayer, a reading of the sentences handed down, and a procession of the guilty. It was a religious act stressing the hoped-for reconciliation of those accused. The autos-da-fe had no torture and no burning.” “Secrets of the Spanish Inquisition Revealed,” by Robert Lockwood. (https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/secrets-of-the-spanish-inquisition-revealed)

Author: Peter Bates

Peter Bates is a writer and photographer living in Florida. He is the administrator of this blog and also runs the blogs Stylus and Hdrbodegaphoto.

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