Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Walking in Chain-Gang Style, Blindfolded, We Were Ushered into the K of C Chamber for the Catechism Exam With Many Second Thoughts

[Part II of the Knights of Columbus initiation circa: 1954 for my kids and grandchildren, although you’re allowed to look in, too. For Part I, scroll back to Saturday, April 1].

Once in the chamber, walking in line, each with hands on the shoulders of the candidate preceding us, we were helped to our seats. Then the booming voice of James Dailey, famed prosecuting attorney and the conservative wing of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party’s hope for attorney general: “One of you said that none of you were told that you would be examined on your faith! What did you think you were here for? To get a pass on the articles of Catholicism? Well, if you thought that way, pull off your blindfold and you’ll be escorted out of here, never, never ever, to be considered for membership in the Knights of Columbus again! I’ll wait for anyone who wants out to get up and tell us he’s not up to it.” Pause. No takers.

Then Dailey said he would begin the examination to see how well we knew our Faith. If we didn’t know our Faith, our wanting to join the Knights would be a waste of time and we better decide to do something else. The first question seemed easy. He said, “Stand up when I call on you. Now, Mr. [and he called a surname], stand up and tell us, What is the Pope?” The guy began very logically: “The Pope is the man who is elected to rule the Church.” Dailey thundered: “Si-i-i-i-t down! I’m asking for the Baltimore Catechism definition, devised by the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1885, the one mandated to be learned by all Catholic parochial school children, the one you had to learn by heart. We are endeavoring to discover if those timeless truths are still remembered by you. Next, Mr. [another name] what is the Pope?”

The candidate said in quavering voice: “I can tell you, sir, but perhaps not in the same language--.” “Si-i-i-i-t down! This is not a Church where you formulate philosophy or definitions in your own words! Who can tell me?” Silence as we sat there blinded. Then a scuffling of feet and one of our number arose. “What is your name, sir?” roared Dailey. It was the convert, Gerald Olson. “Very well, Mr. Olson. What is the Pope?”

In a clear, steady voice: “The Pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth and the visible head of the Church.” Sustained applause from the Knights with which we embarrassedly joined in. Dailey: “Perfect! Word-for-word perfect, perfect theologically, perfectly accurate in line with Christ’s mandate to Peter. Now, let me ask you another question. Why did God make you?”

Olson spoke loudly: “God made me to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him forever in the next!” Ringing applause from the Knights while Dailey shouted with excitement.

Question to Olson: “Define the conditions that go to make up mortal sin!” Olson: “They are grievous matter, sufficient reflection and full consent of the will.” Another ovation as Dailey apparently bounced off the wall in excitement. “Perfect! Now, Mr. Olson, tell us how you know the answer to these questions when some of your colleagues do not!” Olson, modestly, “well, sir, I’m a convert, you see, and I had to memorize these answers in order to join the Church and be baptized.” Another ovation and Dailey said converts like Olson are a great testament to the Church while the laggards like the rest of us who falter through the articles of faith are not. He said then that he would examine each one of us personally and that if we did not know our faith—as defined by the Baltimore catechism—we would fail this test and would be rejected.

Then the Grand Knight of the Council intervened, saying that time grows short, that he thought we were prepared but, acknowledging that we had not shown up well, he would insist that all of us agree to re-read the Baltimore catechism. Dailey reluctantly assented; we were asked if we would and loudly agreed. Then with a note of grave disappointment, Dailey ordered the Adjutant, the name he gave the drunken functionary, to escort us back to the holding room to await the next phase of the examination. We marched back single-file, blindfolded, hands-on-shoulders. Once in the room, we gave the blindfolds to the Adjutant. He took them, glowered and said sarcastically, “Great job, guys!” He swung the door open to leave and we shouted, “don’t slam it!” He slammed it so hard the rafters rang.

Then most of the men congratulated Olson but I was suspicious. So I moved over to him, slowly, and once standing by his side, I asked him, “You’re not a plant, are you?” He fell back as though I had struck him and said, “a plant? Is that what you’re saying I am?” I hadn’t wanted him to repeat it but as long as he did, I said, “no, I’m just asking you.” Immediately there was an uproar in the room and most of them looked accusatorily at me. One guy shouted, “you’re just a super-cynical newspaperman that’s what you are! You should apologize!” Even my friend, the disabled granite worker, looked aghast at me. I thought: I really stepped into it this time. Finally the priest admonished me—horrors! “You know, Mr. Roeser, is it? It’s really unfortunate you made that charge. All of us should understand that converts are welcome and should not be disparaged. I think you should apologize to Mr. Olson, sir.” Well, of course I did, thinking that when we go into the Council chamber next I’m sure Jim Dailey will have heard of my unutterable breach and denounce me from the floor, maybe kick me out to my everlasting mortification. I asked myself: why did you say that, you stupid.*&$%?”

But my embarrassment wasn’t too long lasting. Everybody decided they were warm, sweating and heartily tired of standing around. They talked among themselves—I was shunned—and decided to pound on the door to get out of there, meaning that if we all were to forego the initiation, so be it: we wanted out. The loudest, most aggrieved was my friend—or ex-friend, I now adjudged—the disabled granite worker who pounded on the door with fury, shouted that he wanted to be let out. Then after he finished one of the loudest tirades I ever heard, he turned suddenly inward, his eyes bugged out like Rodney Dangerfield’s used to and he fell to the floor. “Watch out!” somebody shouted, “he’s collapsing!” He was lying on his back, his eyes open and seemingly sightless, his mouth agape and pouring out blood.

The priest went to hi and a wiry young man in our group pushed through the crowd saying, “Here, let me through, I’m a doctor.” I recognized him as an emergency room resident at St. Cloud Hospital whom I had talked to after covering an automobile fatality. “Stretch him out,” he said, “stand away. Somebody keep banging on that door. I think he’s going into shock! We’ve got to get him out of here!”

[At that point I was not only sure I didn’t want to join the Knights of Columbus but that I’d try to remember all the details for a news story which would probably prompt an investigation; who knows, maybe a story that could go national about an initiation that went haywire. . Tomorrow—Part III: : How we end up in a fist-fight and chase the drunken Adjutant out into the Chamber before the startled Knights.]

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