Campus Maneuvers: This R.C. Ain’t P.C.

My patron saint is, fittingly, Joan of Arc. “Joan” was the closest to any of my names in Butler’s Lives of the Saints, but I also found her to be one of the most admirable female saints. It was a plus that she was French, since my own mongrel European heritage includes a few Gauls. The priest who instructed me prior to my profession of faith and confirmation into the Church warned me that she would be a tough act to follow. As usual, he was right.

I approached the beginning of last semester with the ambitious plan to take over the Butler University Newman Center in a bloodless coup. (As St. Joan is my special protector, I tend to think of rather ordinary things in military terms.) The Newman Center priests were given the statistic from the admissions office that there were approximately 300 Catholics enrolled at Butler, but there were never more than about 100 or so who made use of the all-too-P.C, Center. I can’t speculate as to what all of their reasons were, but I knew that there was an orthodox core of students who were somewhat put off by the female pastoral assistant who called herself the campus “associate pastor” and “assistant chaplain” with seemingly no protest from anyone.

The students who showed up to Mass regularly at Butler assumed that anything that occurred without contradiction from either of the Newman Center’s priests was accepted by the Church. My plan was to join the Newman Center Council and make sure that the Mass and various activities were fairly harmless—no retreats held in Fidel Castro’s house or anything like that—so that the traditional students would feel compelled to return.

The coup part of my strategy was simple. The office of Newman Center Council member was not an elected one, but rather a voluntary one. No one was especially enthusiastic about joining the council at all, so I was welcome to join as long as I promised to attend the monthly meetings. There was a power vacuum in the Council, as the president was excruciatingly shy and found it difficult and terrifying to meet new people and mingle at social gatherings sponsored by the Center. Here was my chance to take over with no resistance and no resentment, since no one wanted the job. The pastoral assistant decided, however, that it was too elitist to even have a president and that all of the Council members should share the decision-making responsibilities.

Nevertheless, I attended the meetings and offered a multitude of ideas, much to the dismay of the other members who did not share my zeal in planning new activities. My ideas—a rosary group, Catholic literature discussion group, and ads in the campus and diocesan newspapers about Center activities—were either dismal failures or never saw the light. I tried to explain my interest in Catholic literature by telling the assistant that I had been wading through the campus library’s set of Chesterton’s collected works and felt that they were thought-provoking and would be fun to discuss. I received an excessively dispirited look from her, and the idea was never brought up again. The activities advertised heavily during this time included candlelight vigils for the world’s children, caulking local poor families’ houses for winter, and a Saturday event called “A Day To Be—Spend Time With Your Right Brain.”

I involved a few co-conspirators in my plan, some of whom had rallied to my cause last year. Peter, my fellow National Forensic League veteran who has a fantastic booming voice and actually enjoys public speaking, was recruited to do the readings at Mass. This tactical maneuver was the simplest of all to execute, since it is almost impossible for the priests to find readers every week. The desperate words students dread to hear when walking into the room where Mass is held are “Hi. Do you want to do a reading today?” Once I was asked to read when I was sitting discreetly in the back row of chairs with sunglasses on and slouched posture. Peter, whose confirmation saint is Thomas Aquinas (which says it all), made sure that the exact words in the missal were read without any concession to the assistant’s feminist ideology. No one wanted to take his place, and no one could disagree with the fact that he did a wonderful job.

I provided music for the Mass by playing guitar, which gave me at least partial control over what songs were played. Although not quite Gregorian chants, the songs were at the very least traditional. If the assistant had given the singer, other guitarist, and me an outrageous heathen hymn to play, I could have just looked at the music and said, “Gosh, I just don’t know these chords. Sorry.” I avoided the photocopied songs that had been anonymously included in the hymns, such as “Canticle of the Sun” by Marty Haugen, which includes the lines “Come, dance in the forest, Come, play in the field, Sing in the sun . . . , Praise to the wind . . . , Praise to the rain . . . , Praise to the fire . . . , Sing to the earth . . . , Praise to the death that gives life its meaning.”

My plan failed within a few weeks. The assistant hired a local peacenik couple to dominate a Sunday Mass or two and provide music, thus putting the singer, other guitarist, and me out of a job. The couple took up the time normally used for a homily to play songs protesting abortion, euthanasia, war, the military, the death penalty, war toys, the defense budget, nuclear weapons, homelessness, patriotism, conservatism, handguns, the Ku Klux Klan, domestic violence, and all other forms of violence. The music used to warn us against all of these evils was something along the lines of Bob Dylan and Neil Young at Woodstock. The audience was nonplussed and mostly speechless, but they felt as though etiquette demanded that they clap when told to do so. The husband lifted his arms to indicate when the audience was to sing along, but they just stared at him in disbelief.

My united front fell apart after this episode. Peter was so disgusted at the spectacle of a Woodstock time warp that he refused to show up to Mass on campus ever again. The female psychology major I had posted in the crowd to monitor reactions to weird occurrences at Mass decided to attend services at a local parish about a block or two from campus; she thought it would be less traumatic for her. The first Mass she attended there was a special one for homosexual couples. It took her a few minutes to figure out what was happening, and she then escaped, almost knocking over a full drum kit—to be used during Mass on her way out the side door.

The Newman Center attracted the largest crowds whenever a Notre Dame or Georgetown ball game was on TV, as some probably thought that watching a Catholic university’s team play fulfilled their Sunday obligation. The Sunday Mass attendance averaged 60-100, but the priests were lucky if two people showed up for weekday Mass. I ceased attending weekday Mass because one of the priests would say it even if I were the only person there, whereas if I didn’t appear he would just as soon catch up on his telephone calls and correspondences.

I eventually gave up on the strategic objective. After all, even St. Joan had troops to lead into battle, but it’s hard to start a revolution when the rabble one is trying to rouse barely know what’s going on around them. I could not muster any forces. The ones who sympathized with my mission weren’t willing to fight and the rest could not see that anything was wrong. Nevertheless, I had established myself as the resident defender of the faith and was approached by a few people in the following months for some odd missions.

I was stopped by an agitated gentleman after psychology class one morning. I assumed it would be a perennial request for missed notes, but instead he said, “You’re a Catholic, right? Didn’t you get into it about purgatory in English class? You’ve got to help me. My roommate thinks I’m a Satanist.” I backed up a few steps and asked if he really was.

“No!” he said. “I’m a Catholic too, but he was asking me all sorts of questions yesterday about the Church, and I must have said something wrong.”

The incident in our Introduction to the Western Canon English elective to which he was referring took place during our unit on Dante. I had attempted to explain the concept of purgatory and indulgences to the professor and an obstinate student who didn’t understand the difference between prayer as part of the sacrament of penance and the indulgences that were purchased from medieval clerics.

Now I was asked for advice from my new Catholic friend whose fundamentalist roommate had asked him to explain transubstantiation, statues, and the Immaculate Conception in the middle of the night. My friend had gone to CCD classes most of his life but hadn’t paid much attention and could not remember enough from the classes to be able adequately to explain Catholic beliefs. Now he wanted me to talk to his roommate and explain why the Church was not the work of Satan. I offered to lend him a few books that would help him explain his beliefs to his roommate, but he told me that he had no time to read. As an alternative, I gave him a crash course in the Real Presence, veneration of saints, and the Immaculate Conception between that classroom and the next building. I assume he succeeded, because his friend had no more questions.

Two semesters ago, while I was doing laundry at an extremely unfashionable time in my dormitory, a group of ten hulking athletes who lived in the same building asked me to go on a reconnaissance mission for them. The laundry room is always a good place to plot conspiracies because the washing machines and dryers drown out voices very well. They were talking about the campus Gay/Lesbian Alliance, not a popular subject among straight students. Whenever the topic is discussed, it is usually dropped after a few brief statements and another subject quickly introduced.

These men were having a conference about it. They wanted me to spy on the Alliance meeting and report back to them whether or not their roommates were members. They had always thought that their roommates were unusual people, but now they were terrified that the men with whom they spent most of their waking and sleeping hours might be gay. Now that the Alliance was advertising meetings and seeking official recognition from the Student Assembly, it was taken more seriously than before.

“Why don’t you go?” I asked them.

They backed off, clutching boxes of detergent, shaking their heads and murmuring excuses.

“What if one of them thinks I’m cute?” one of them asked. “What if he comes after me?”

“I have a class then anyway,” another said. “I can’t miss it.”

I laughed because I knew how many classes this person was failing because he never showed up.

“What if they think I’m gay too?”

“What about my reputation?” I asked.

“You don’t have anything to worry about. Everybody knows you’re not gay. They’ll think you’re covering it for a newswriting class.”

I winced. That was the class over which I had become so despondent that I had written to Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, the Gonzo journalist, and offered to send him a case of beer if he would consent to be my final journalism project—complete with taped interviews, rough draft, and notes, of course. (I never received a response from him, by the way.)

“No,” I told them. “Only if you paid me.”

They pulled out their wallets and handed me roughly fifty dollars, a bizarre action for people who haggled with Domino’s Pizza delivery men over the price of pizza and Coke on every possible occasion. They also offered me unlimited access to their forbidden stashes of whatever beer they had hidden in their tiny refrigerators, if I decided that I needed alcohol to build up enough courage to go through with the mission. I refused; I would need all of my wits about me for this job.

None of these cowards would even walk with me across campus so that I could go to the meeting in some obscure corner of the mathematics building. As it was dark, I was not looking forward to walking alone, but decided that fifty dollars and a solemn oath to report on the people whom one of my procurers described as being “against God and the Bible” made risking assault and murder more attractive. On the way I wondered if I should tell the athletes if I actually found their roommates there. I had agreed to their terms, but what if one of them mercilessly beat up his roommate just because of my factual reporting? While I agree, that practicing homosexuality is a sin, I do not approve of “queer bashing.”

I was saved from this dilemma upon arrival at the meeting. There were four members and two faculty advisors, all of whom were well known for telling anyone who would listen that they were homosexual. One of them recognized me and asked me with suspicion what I was doing there. I guess the athletes had been correct in that my reputation as a certified heterosexual preceded me. Very little happened at the meeting at all, as it was attended by a campus newspaper reporter, and the members wanted to be seen as friendly and non-threatening, but still socially and politically conscious. They told several self-effacing jokes about being gay, all of which struck me as rather macabre gallows humor. I wondered if I had ever encountered so many unhappy and terminally mixed-up people in my entire short but varied life.

I left early and found the athletes who had sent me on my mission waiting eagerly in the dorm lobby. I told them that their roommates were not there, but that all of the outspoken gay people they knew had attended. Through means fair and foul I managed to put myself on the Alliance newsletter mailing list. I signed all of the flyers and newsletters I received “With love, the Butler Gay/Lesbian Alliance” and mailed them to the university’s president, in the hope that he would benefit from knowing what the group was doing at all times. The rumors of my intrepidity and bravery that sprouted in the following weeks were ridiculously exaggerated and threatened to crystallize into legend, but I had enough laundry money for many weeks after the incident.

Although I like to think that St. Joan would have handled these situations similarly, I know that I fall short of her example very often, and I will never feel as dauntless as she. I doubt that I could face being burned at the stake with as much steadfastness or be able to lift a sword, let alone wield one fearlessly in battle. She is a role model who is a hard act to follow, with or without an edged weapon.


  • Kimberly J. Gustin

    At the time this article was published, Kimberly J. Gustin was a student at Butler University.

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