FIRST PERSON | The Priest Who Made Me an Atheist

I’ve been an atheist for more than forty years, but I didn’t arrive at that position by taking the light and easy path. I was born into a decidedly Irish Catholic family. In fact, my father was a former seminarian who apparently had a change of heart about the priesthood when he saw a neighbor girl helping her father paint their house across the street. She was fifteen, he was seventeen. Four years later they were my parents.

Truth be told, I was a great little Catholic. I went to church each and every Sunday for eleven o’clock mass and spent an hour each Saturday morning, nauseous following a long bus ride, listening to nuns and other people who were deemed knowledgeable prattle on about all kinds of terrifying and stupefying nonsense. They said things like people who were not Catholics were going to hell, that unbaptized babies went to limbo, and that there was a god who watched me all day and night and even knew what I was thinking at all times. It really did not help foster one’s imagination or sense of self. It also concerned me at age nine, as I was experiencing my first schoolboy crush on a girl named Linda who was a Lutheran and was (according to my learned elders) already damned but didn’t know it. The parish I went to was in a wealthy area of suburban Long Island. When I was very young they built a grand new church with a big rose window and heavy bronze doors and it had lots of seats that were always full on Sunday morning. Years later I came to find out that the rose window and the doors had been donated by one of the members of the parish. His name was Carlo Gambino.

So, I did it all, I believed it all, and I followed the script to the letter because having questions, never mind asking questions, was just not the thing to do. But the world around me was changing; the sixties were in full swing. Older guys were going off to college and coming back with long hair and bushy beards. There was a terrible war that young people hated, along with stale norms they rejected. Under my ten-year-old feet I could feel the earth moving, and I wanted to be part of it.

In 1970 something else happened that rattled things a bit. My mother, who was herself only thirty-two at the time, took me to the church one evening to hear a new concept album that was getting a lot of attention called Jesus Christ Superstar. The guy who played Jesus was Ian Gillan, the lead singer of Deep Purple. The next day I bought the album (which was considered very controversial at the time) and listened to it over and over again in my room, immersing myself in the lyrics and a lot of great rock music.

Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice painted a very different image of this person I had been kneeling before each Sunday, the guy hanging above the altar at St. Rose’s Church. I began to see him as a man with passions and with doubts, a misfit who suffered for being misunderstood by the people around him. He was perhaps the original hippie, and to my anxious young mind he was, in many ways, like me and, moreover, like who I wanted to be. With this new image of Jesus I could stick with the script I’d been given by my all-too-Catholic father and still be part of the revolution that was happening in the streets and the universities of America. In time I began to feel that the Roman Catholic Church had it all wrong, that there was something tangible and very real to this new-fangled Jesus, and it wasn’t at all the church’s version of the story. Theologians even debated over it. I felt I had found something.

By the time I was fourteen my parents had resigned themselves somewhat to the changing culture. The Summer of Love had happened, along with Woodstock, and The Beatles had just broken up. As the sixties came to an end my parents made a major concession and let me grow my hair over my ears and wear bell bottom pants. But I was still going to mass every Sunday. I was still listening to nuns and nuts on Saturday mornings. After starting high school, I had graduated to the Wednesday evening Confraternity of Christian Doctrine Classes (CCD). The first night, a big bear of a man walked in. He had long hair and a lush beard. He was only in his early twenties and he had his collar on backwards. He was not yet a priest but a brother studying to be a priest. He introduced himself as Brother Frank Pizzarelli and he immediately had my full attention.

What happened over the next year was a liberation like no other I had ever experienced, and a cathartic time the degree of which I’m not sure I’ve experienced since. Brother Frank didn’t care that the elders of the parish weren’t thrilled with his being assigned to our church. He managed to strip away all that encrusted religious hardware and teach us something about ourselves.

It was a long time ago, but there are two things he did that I carry with me today. One weekend he took the couple dozen of us on a two-day retreat to a camp called Yulan in the hills of Upstate New York. I don’t recall much in the way of religious doctrine coming up over those days. What I do recall is walking in the house that Sunday night, barefoot and a bit grungy and feeling like a million bucks. My parents’ immediate reaction was to be aghast, and I fought hard against the sting of that and from being deflated from the high I was feeling. The people who took part with me that weekend became close friends and we spent all of our time together for a couple of years, even after Frank was done with our class.

The other strong memory I have of Brother Frank happened on Ash Wednesday. We were all supposed to make our confession to the priests and have our foreheads marked with ashes. The priest would of course recite “ashes to ashes, and dust to dust,” as a brutal and unsubtle reminder that we came from nothing and one day we would be nothing once again. Awful stuff. Someone once said that Roman Catholics were taught to not hate, but actually we were. In so many ways, we were taught to hate ourselves.

Brother Frank let us know that we would not be taking part in the obligatory ceremony that evening—that we would make our own ceremony of sorts. He gave each of us a small slip of paper and a pencil and he asked us to write down just one thing about ourselves that we would like to change, to make better. We each folded our paper and he went around the room and collected them all into a small metal bowl. Then he sat in the midst of us, and he set the papers on fire. When the fire had gone out he went from one to the next and anointed out foreheads with a bit of those ashes, saying that he forgave us but that it was much more important that we forgave ourselves.

Frank Pizzarelli did something else for me. He gave me permission to love myself for who I was, and he gave me permission to think. I did a lot of that in the years that followed, including ending my attendance at the masses and in the classes later on. In the midst of my higher education at Stony Brook University in the sciences, psychology, and philosophy, I decided I could no longer believe in a god. It hasn’t left me empty or bereft of hope. Quite the opposite—it’s been liberating.

For many years, I continued to correspond with Father Frank Pizzarelli, who was running a school for at-risk youth on Long Island. I wanted him to know that I had become a poet and a doctor and that, despite many challenges and my atheism, I was a happy man. Pizzarelli was also teaching English at St. Joseph’s College, and one fine day when I was nearly forty, he invited me to come and speak to a few of his classes at that Catholic school. He wanted me to speak freely and explain to his students how it was that I became an atheist. I told them it was Father Frank, and I explained myself at some length. I can report that he seemed oddly pleased.

Fifty years have gone by since I first encountered Frank Pizzarelli; both of us have become gray old men. But I look him up once in a while and take great comfort in something. He’s still at it, working at the place on Long Island he founded in 1980 called Hope House. He’s still doing priestly things, saying mass and the like, and trying to make the world a better place in small and profoundly meaningful ways. I’ve also tried to make myself useful to others. I call myself a humanist and I’m a certified humanist celebrant, performing ceremonies that were previously the purview of priests but for people like myself, people who find no gods in this life. I believe that Father Frank and I agree on much more than we disagree about, that we share the same concerns, face down the same issues, embrace the same resolve, and maybe preach the same hopes but through a different lens and in a different voice. There is something beautiful in that, something comforting, sincere, and reassuring. We each believe something deeply that the other cannot, and it’s alright.