As Ash Wednesday kicks off another Lenten season and the 40-day runup to Easter, the holiest of days for Christians, it occurs to me how America sorely needs the sort of morale boost we used to count on from our churches — before clergy sex abuse scandals soured so many people on organized religion.
I refer particularly to the 1960s, a time when I was attending one of the 200 high school seminaries in the U.S., nearly all of which have since closed down. I strain to remember my state of mind when I was 14. But we were taught by the Catholic nuns at St. Bernadette’s that you might have a “vocation” for the priesthood if you were a top student and noticed other signs that you had a “calling” — such as my favorite uncle also having attended the seminary. Ignoring the calling was a sin; whereas, heeding it seemed to essentially guarantee you a place in heaven.
I also liked the idea that priests, nuns, and brothers were exempt from the military draft. It was the peak of the Cold War, and I thought about dying every afternoon that our city tested the air-raid sirens. Reducing the odds of getting shot and killed in the Army was powerful persuasion.
Yet, after all that, I only lasted three years at St. Joseph’s Seminary, at which time the head of the school and I mutually agreed that my tendency toward rebellion did not make for a good fit. I was promptly enrolled as a senior at our local public high school.
As I look back, the best recollection of my days in the seminary was of the midnight Easter vigil service. On Holy Saturday, all 300 seminarians went to bed at the usual 9 p.m. But less than 3 hours later the lights in the dorms were switched back on, signaling us to rise, get dressed, and take our regular place in the pews in the campus church.
In the darkness of the cavernous building, with everyone quiet, a priest in the back dressed in violet vestments and surrounded by altar boys holding lighted candles, started moving slowly up the aisle. After several steps, he stopped to sing a prayer in Latin, to which we all responded in unison, after which he grasped a chain holding a pot of burning incense and waved it in four directions, filling the building with the scent of sweet wood smoke.
The prayers were sung without musical accompaniment, in Gregorian chant, which is the ancient way monks used to sing, based on a special scale with a limited range. It results in a kind of forlorn, plaintive song. Imagine a wolf howling in the frozen tundra.
So you had this dramatic, ghostly atmosphere because of the blacked-out church, the flickering candles, the intoxicating smoke, and the spooky music as the priest and the servers made their way to the front, timing it perfectly so they arrived at the altar at exactly midnight Easter Sunday, when Jesus burst from the tomb, rising from the dead.
At that precise moment, the overhead lights switched on and the bell at the top of the 115-foot tower above the church rang like crazy, echoing inside and filling the surrounding hills and woods. Louis Wappel, my classmate up in the choir loft, commenced to whale away then on the vintage pump organ, glorious music ringing in our heads and vibrating through the floors, the walls, and our very fingertips.
Imagine if you were standing in the front row at a colossal rock concert and the two dead Beatles, John and George, suddenly appeared, alive and jamming at ear-splitting volume. That’s what it felt like, especially since we had all just endured 40 days of Lent, during which we went to church every day and twice on Sunday; fasted on Fridays; were compelled to give up TV, snacks, and desserts; and were not allowed even to speak the first hour or last hour of every day.
So the feeling was one of enormous relief, of hope for the future, and of communal exhilaration, the kind which whole cities seem to experience when, for example, their sports team wins a championship. Or, on a grander scale, what our country last experienced on Aug. 14, 1945, when Japan surrendered, signaling the end of World War II and igniting spontaneous celebration and dancing in the streets of every town in America.
As politically and culturally as our country is divided today, we could certainly benefit from the same kind of expression of unifying joy. But there is no world war and no communal cause or victory in sight that we might all celebrate.
What is needed then is an American leader to emerge, possessed of the charisma, the confidence, and the competence to inspire and rally everyone together. To renew our confidence and pride in the country. To make us want to dance in the streets with our neighbors instead of sneering at them and fighting with them on the internet.
Is there someone out there who fills the bill? Someone who can burst from our tomb of divisiveness and rancor and carry us with them? Someone in plain sight? Someone to vote for?
David McGrath is a former Hayward resident and frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page. He is an emeritus English professor for the College of DuPage in Illinois. He also is the author of "The Territory." He can be reached at email@example.com.