My Teenage Idols: A Pope and a President

imageDuring my teenage years, two great Roman Catholic men called John captured my imagination with their progressive visions for my church and country: Pope John XXIII and President John F. Kennedy.  I took to heart their calls to open the windows and doors of the church, and to ask not what our country could do for us but what we could do for our country.  Their words still shape my religious and political views, and continue to echo in my heart.

In the early 1960’s, it was quite an exciting time to be a Roman Catholic teenager in Chicago.  After centuries of the church seemingly “frozen in time,” suddenly it became alive with the Spirit of renewal.  Looking back, its hard to imagine just how earth shattering the changes were going to be for us living through those times.

I can distinctly remember going out on Friday nights with my friends, and the main topics of conversation would be politics and religion.  Why do I remember Friday nights?  We would spend all week talking about our plans, and then Friday would come around and we’d rush home to get ready to go out to a dance (which were mostly “sock hops”), or catch a movie staring Paul Newman or Robert Redford (hopefully both), or perhaps go out on a date with a “steady”  (boyfriend or girlfriend).

Afterwards, we would all try meet up at a local hamburger joint or pizza place and longingly place our food orders just before midnight.  You see, in those days my Catholic friends and I weren’t allowed to eat meat on Fridays for fear of going to hell if we did so.  That’s right…it was a “mortal sin” to eat meat on Friday, so we didn’t want to risk our souls by breaking this church law.  So we would wait to place our orders for hamburgers or pepperoni pizzas until about 11:45 pm, and tell our waiter or waitress not to bring our food until after the stroke of midnight.  This would immediately identify us as Catholics, and they knew not to bring our food until after the clock struck twelve.

One particular evening comes to mind.  We were all sitting around having burgers and fries about 12:05 am on a Saturday morning.  Bob came rushing in with the news he had learned that day in school, at Loyola University.  He said that the Pope and Bishops, who were gathered in Rome for the Second Vatican Council, were going to make sweeping changes to the church.  They were set to vote on two issues that would greatly impact our lives: the ban on eating meat on Fridays, and dropping the requirement that Mass be said in Latin.

To be honest with you, even discussing these topics seemed unreal back then.  There was no way that these things were ever going to change.  It was more likely to happen that we were going to send a man to the moon as our president had predicted.  Its hard to believe, but all of these things came true within just a few short years.

Thanks to the pope and the president, change was in the air…and it seemed unstoppable.

But before my twentieth birthday, both of my teenage idols would pass away.  My beloved Pope John XXIII, who had set the vision for renewal in the Roman Catholic Church, did not live to see all the changes that would come to pass as a result of the Second Vatican Council.  And President John F. Kennedy would be assassinated, his life and dreams cut short on a November afternoon in 1963.

Their visions would live on, but without their leadership many of the hopes and dreams that they inspired would never quite take hold.

Looking back on my teenage years, it really did seem like we almost reached “Camelot”…that mythical time and place when all was going to be made right with the world.  The words from the musical sum up what it was like for me to be coming of age in the early 1960’s: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”

(Photo above…my Holy Card Collection.  I know some kids saved baseball cards, but I collected holy cards including  one from 1959 of Pope John XXIII…my all time favorite pope.)

Stay tuned for my next blog: Idealism Dies Hard.


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