My first year at Sacred Heart was the first year for many. So the events of that strange time we accepted more easily than the grown-ups, both from the resilience of youth and the fact we had no other time at the school to compare.
While other parish schools were struggling to stay open, ours had seen unrivaled increase in enrollment. Father Michael had come to Sacred Heart just the year before and through his intercession a bevy of young Dominican Sisters had agreed to come as well. They migrated to their small newly-built convent as joyfully as geese in full habit. Families from beyond our deanery, some with more than six children in grades K through 8, had enrolled their whole brood with hopes of the Sisters' influence instilling greater reverence.
Even in families of ten, most children had a dark and unpilled sweater vest for every day of the week. My one had faded to cadet blue, thin from laundering over and again.
I never had a problem being reverent. It's mostly just being quiet. Other boys in my class, the ones with good homes and confident catechism, still wiggled in the pews during Friday mass. But we all sat still for Father's homilies, tales of bloody accidents and miraculous interventions that saved the faithful from early deaths.
That Friday, the Deacon gave the homily instead of Father Michael. It was not until Father was preparing the Eucharistic altar that we could see the hard cast under the folds of his robe, the tape which secured his nose, or the plummy bruises blooming around his eyes. With stories of Padre Pio fresh in our young minds, it became clear to us what had befallen our priest. Father Michael was so holy that Satan had been unable to coax him with any temptation. In frustration, Satan had to resort to sending demons to simply beat him.
I imagined Satan had used the same tactics with my mother, who could not be provoked to despair or lose faith over anything my own father had done. She went to mass every day with a chapel veil for modesty. She wore her bruises without complaint, seeking holiness over pleasure or desire.
I heard Sister Agnes ask Father about his injuries, and all he said was, “The Devil does not want to lose this battle. He takes on many forms. I am patient, however, and I know Jesus, Our Lady, my Guardian Angel, and St. Francis are always with me.”
In the lunchroom, we debated the demon fight. There was no question that it occurred, just the appropriate response. Mary A. and Mary O. (there were five Marys and two Marias in the third grade) assured us of Father Michael's eventual sainthood. In general, the girls felt we were called to greater holiness and the boys... well, the boys felt it best not to be so holy that the Devil would seek you out for particular attention.
On the way to Adoration, Sister Brigid had stopped by the statue of Saint Francis upon noticing what seemed to be a live mouse sleeping in his plaster palm. It was, unfortunately, in repose of the soul, having been skewered through the tail by a test pencil. The noise Sister made was most unmusical, but satisfied the perpetrator that the Devil would have no interest in beating him.
As the displays of irreverence increased, so did the consecrations to good. Those who did not seek a way to avoid demons' wrath sought to prove they were worthy of sainthood. Half the class was soap-scrubbed, rosary perpetually in hand, and intent on finding physical manifestation of the divine. Many fasted on bread and water until their small bodies were too depleted to do anything but pray at recess. Mary A. cut off her hair with kitchen shears to show that she had placed no importance on things of the flesh. (I think she must have seen this in a movie.) They pointed at oak galls and rust stains which were shaped in the image of Our Lady. They eagerly told the sisters of their visions of saints. But none of them, as far as I know, received a visitation. Mary-Clémence even achieved brief local fame for stigmata, tearfully holding her palms up to show the pooling blood, until the wounds were identified as self-inflicted by the sharp corner of her crucifix.
I can only imagine the mix of pride and puzzlement of which Father and the Sisters regarded us. Even then, I could see that those aiming for holiness were going about it in an awful way. And, those attempting to escape perfection were already far from it – no little mouse needed to suffer to show the Devil he was not threatened.
Myself, I didn't change much. I was quiet. I didn't wait for miracles. I prayed that my mother would find some peace and I prayed for my confused classmates.
At night, when the demon did come for me, it would shake my bed until I tumbled out. Sometimes the demon appeared as a snarling wild dog, sometimes as a man, and sometimes unseen, just the scent of burnt timber. I would curl up like a mouse in the palm of St. Francis while the strikes landed like lead pipes against my back.
I'm not frightened anymore. But, ever since third grade, I've walked with a limp.