Sit back, Reader-land, it’s finally time to tell the story of my expulsion, and it’s a doozy.
Harken back to when I spoke of Fr Francis, and remember that I was captivated with the spirituality of the Society and I felt called to the priesthood. Well, in the beginning of 1995, in seventh grade, I went up and started boarding school in New Jersey.
Let’s acknowledge that I was unprepared, to put it mildly. I didn’t know the first thing about interaction with boys my own age and I developed a bad attitude toward authority figures. I didn’t have a good head for extended study periods. Or hygiene. Or spirituality. That first half year I was totally unprepared and I think the priests went easy on me. They kept my parents in the loop, though, and the reports were that I was a good kid but being bad all the time. I got in trouble a lot. I was more interested in reading Asterix comics than studying. I can go on!
But that first year I was invited to summer at the motherhouse in Spain, and I wanted to and my parents agreed. The purpose was to acclimate us to the spirituality of the Society and prep for that kind of life. Father Alfonso believed in educating the youth, and not letting them go through all of the crap the world puts in front of them. That way they have a firm foundation of God. And I tried to get with the program, but I kept missing the mark.
Like many youths, I didn’t look deeper, understanding the very real brotherhood within the Society. I saw the fun and camaraderie but missed the foundation of it. So even as I pushed myself further and further into the school and up into eleventh grade, because I had missed God, my foundation was built on sand.
Let me give you a day in the life of a school day. Get up at five, dress, grab coffee and in the chapel by five-thirty. Depending on your age, silent meditation for fifteen, thirty, forty-five, or sixty minutes. Then into the Van, and drive one hour to school in New Brunswick, Highland Park, to be precise. Twenty minutes for breakfast on arrival, then school. We were taught by priests and laypeople, very tough classes, including Latin and Spanish at a level we never hit at Seton until Frau Haggerty in high school! Regular school day. Then, depending on the day, outdoor soccer as PE or basketball. Then drive back, shower, then study time. For HOURS. Then more silent meditation, then mass, then dinner. After dinner, about a half-hour to play, then back to studying. Then, depending on the age group, bed by ten.
That is where I got in the most trouble. I couldn’t sit still or behave.
I may have improved, but then I became friends with another young man and together we were trouble. All the time. You ever watch the movie Trouble with Angels? Well the two of us together brought out the worst in ourselves. It is my fault, because I was older and should have been better. I hope I didn’t ruin my friend’s life by my lack of discipline. But that was when I got worse. They even suspended me for a time, because I was just not being very obedient or diligent. And I had a tendency to think that just because older people would joke about stuff or read stuff, that I could too. Oh man, did I make Fr Lope mad!
Instead of expelling me, they offered me to go to school in Spain with the older boys, John, Jared, John, Bonfilio, and I went, again in the middle of the year. My friend did not go, and the point was to separate us while keeping us in the program, because they saw something in us we didn’t see ourselves! But in Spain you are face to face with the founder, El Padre Alfonso, and the men who had already been through what I was going through, priests, and tough priests at that! And I think I did ok to start. It was either that year or the next that I was suspended for the summer, but I can’t exactly remember.
This was my grade progression. I went from the middle of seventh grade back to the middle of sixth. So, 7-6-7-8, 9 I did in Spain and then I skipped tenth grade straight into eleventh. Make sense?
Then let’s be blunt about culture. In Spain, drinking alcohol is not verboten for minors. It’s the normal everyday process, so I learned how to drink and enjoy responsibly at a young age and can proudly say I’ve only once gotten to a point where the room was spinning and even then knew enough to stop and wait and drink water. Take that, puritans! Then there’s the smoking. It seemed like everyone smoked, even some people in the Society! Then, nudity is a thing. On billboards, on the street corner, on beaches. On TV. We had to walk around in the city of Murcia, and this is before I knew what porn was! So you have to avert your eyes! But the culture is different, and that is a good thing!
But my problems continued, they just grew older. I would sneak Johnny Walker during siesta time or think I was being all sneaky and I would go have a cigarette with the older kids. (I didn’t know how to inhale, which is probably why I never got addicted. Heck, I can’t even do the helium trick right!) Again I had problems with authority, and I didn’t focus on my work. I was lazy and entitled, basically. Along with other things in my spiritual life.
What eventually happened was that my friend had come over to Spain and I started getting in trouble again. Only this time I didn’t realize that I was one of the older kids now, and the kids who were younger thought that they could act like me. Uh oh.
I had overcome a lot of personality traits with the discipline of the Society, but I didn’t realize it or pass those lessons along as they were to me. And one day a younger kid I had teased was hurt, so he told on me putting brandy in my coffee, which wasn’t a big deal to me but it was to the Society. More to the point, they did a comprehensive review.
The next day, a Monday, we were at school and I was called to talk to my spiritual director. After some grilling, he straight up asked me if I wanted to stay and I wanted to think about it, thinking I could be able to think it overnight. And I had come to the conclusion that yes I did! But before I could tell anyone, I and my friend were called out of class the next day, told to pack everything, and we were driving to Madrid that night, and on a plane back to the US the next day.
What did I do that was so wrong? I was a bad example. And with years of reflection to see the sins I committed, the terrible behavior, the selfishness, entitlement that I still have, pride, anger, and lack of focusing on God, I know EXACTLY why they kicked me out! Oh, I was furious at first, as was my father, but with time came the understanding that I had focused on the fun and not on discernment, and when the wind came my foundation on sand collapsed.
But, was it wasted time? No, Reader-land, because I was protected from the world while I was being a complete A-hole! Can you imagine if I hadn’t had the strict discipline, and I was doing the same? In the world where sex, drugs, porn, and alcohol are so easily found, where it’s praised and encouraged by every movie, TV show, politician, Alyssa Milano, etc? If I had gone through puberty at home I wouldn’t be writing this right now. Heck, man!
I owe them so much! Because they wiped out my foundation on sand, I was able to restart, with the lessons learned. They had kept me in mass every day, and in hours of time alone with God, even if I wasn’t focused. That CANNOT be a bad thing! And I owe them the understanding of brotherhood and of fighting for something greater than oneself, even if is impossible.
What about the priesthood? Well, I will tell you a secret. I was angry when they kicked me out, but I didn’t feel lost or abandoned, and came to realize that I didn’t have that vocation, or at least with them. When I started realizing that marriage was my vocation was when I broke up with Mel. The loss, it was a giant hole, and part of me was just gone! (Yes, Reader-land, I broke up with Mel in a fit of anger. I was totally wrong. Thank God she took me back!) I was being ridiculed at work because I was so upset, and they didn’t understand because I was the one who did it. And that is when I realized there was something more than just a girlfriend there, but a calling!
I’m a product of my life. I wish I could take back all my sins, mistakes, everything. But without them I would not be the person, the weirdo, that I am.
As Fr Riley gave to me when I left for Spain this quote from Paul, beautifully scripted, and now hangs in our entryway;
“We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” -Romans 8:28