InFormation (2021) Moments in Time 

Reflections: "You are not Passionist material."

Jack Dermody Most seminarians did not end up taking vows or becoming priests and brothers. Some left because they wanted to, maybe for a different career or a woman. I told my parents that girls were my reason too, but that that was a lie. "You are not Passionist material," said the student director one day in 1961. I did not fight back or even think to. I was only 15, for God’s sake. I left in June in my junior year of high school.

Looking back, maybe I should have demanded reasons for the decision and argued against them. With a few more years in the Passionist biosphere, I could have chosen to leave on my own because I did like girls and my brain would never accept theology as rational, even on a spiritual level.

Selfishly, extra time there would have balanced my psyche a bit. As it was, it took me a good five years to overcome the grief of being ousted. I began to feel centered again in a seminary-like Peace Corps training camp in 1966. Idealists like me crammed into that former army camp south of San Francisco. It was heaven. Fierce community. Foreign languages. Agriculture lessons. Daily soccer. A romance on the side. Nights and weekends in San Francisco. One strange thing happened. I ran into a former rector of the seminary in a bar near the camp. It might have been one of those messages from the universe if you believe in that sort of thing.

Here’s the story: I chose the Passionists as a seventh-grader. I was not recruited. A lavender and black vocation brochure showed up in our Catholic school classroom and non-diocesan Passionist preachers with bright minds, good stories, and wicked humor wandered in and out of our parish once in a while on Sundays and week-long missions. The Passionist Order looked like it would deliver the community that I craved, a lively village I never had in my own family at home.

I am an adopted person.

If you read stories about growing up adopted, you learn we crave community, acceptance, an honest origin story, and even our own identity. We don’t know where we came from and our adopting parents cover up scores of secrets with scores of lies. Until I "ran away" to the seminary, I was a prisoner of an over-protected universe without friends, sports, extra-curricular activities, or much fun at all. Adopting Mom was a narcissist and a cruel one at that. I didn’t fit the image she had purchased: the grandson of a cardiac surgeon, the son of a medical student, and a nurse. I was expected to be a genius destined for power, influence, and wealth. I wasn’t interested at all in engineering, business, medicine, or the law . Only a professorship or the priesthood seemed to qualify as decent second choices to Mom. Dad, by the way, had long given all control of the children to her.

The Passionists offered and delivered a perfect community for a traumatized soul. A careful and successful educational program. A regimen of study, chores, as well as free time for conversation, games, music, sports, hiking, and breathing in lush Midwestern landscapes and seasons.

Unfortunately for me, I interpreted the seminary’s code of "no special friendships" as no real friendships at all. It made sense from my warped nurturing to befriend nobody. It was easy to oust "that weird kid" who probably seemed too introverted for mission work and, by the way, who stole a lot of candy bars and would never own up to it. In addition, I’m convinced I inconvenienced the spiritual director by asking him to interpret sexual dreams and to determine if I was misinterpreting red lines between venial and mortal sins.

The seminary nevertheless delivered the community I dreamed of. We the students teamed up and competed hard in sports. We skated on frozen ponds. We beautified the premises with shovels, brooms, mops, and brushes. In the rec room, some of us mastered ping pong, pool, and pinochle. We achieved harmony in music. We delivered believable plays on stage with believable roles in synergistic casts. We hiked all over tarnation, crossed creeks and rivers, and got lost in trailless forests.

Mother of Good Counsel Preparatory Seminary in Warrenton, Missouri, made sense. It was the cult I craved. I belonged. I felt centered. But I was no more prepared to face the secular world so quickly from that transcendental society any more than I was able to cope with the primal wound of being ripped from my biological mother’s womb. Caretakers tossed me directly into a foster-orphan arrangement for a few months. I was subsequently delivered in a Hail Mary pass to my adopting mother who expected to assuage her infertility. She might even win her own chance to raise the next Dr. Salk or Moses and be awarded at least a mention in some gold-bound Who’s Who book that really mattered.

Only recently, after 75 years, have I begun to be at peace with myself, with a less foggy self-identity and fully participating inside several communities that nurture and make sense—for real.

One of my communities has been the Passionist Alumni Association to which I became drawn a long 60 years after the ousting. Heck, this is my alumni association. No lettermen’s jackets or Prom King crowns, mind you; these are old men now who, like me, can gratefully look back on the seminary as a powerful influence and–especially–an indisputable launchpad into lives full of great expectations and sweet fulfillment.

What’s different for me all these years later? I’m enjoying the communities that put up with me; I am less fearful of rejection because it’s smart to turn the energy of fear and anger into the healing energy of love.

I have found my real origin story through genealogy and a bunch of ridiculously helpful people. My identity—whatever it is—is preceded and butressed by generations of people, each one of whom have loved someone, struggled, and eventually died to produce the human being that I am.

Jack Dermody (Posted 24 Jul 2021)