A Special Honorary Unsubscribe
Over the years I’ve been accused of being “anti-Christian” so much that what gets lost is what I really am: anti-hypocrite.
So when I see a man (or woman) “of the cloth” that actually walks their talk, well, it’s so refreshing that I go a little ga-ga over them, no matter what their denomination. They are kindred spirits whether we agree on the specifics of their religion or not.
Such is the case with long-time reader Tom Carten: he was a Roman Catholic priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross, which was established in France in 1837. A few years later the order established its American branch at Notre Dame, Indiana, which is where I finally met him — but more on that in a moment.
I was first aware of Tom as a reader who upgraded to Premium in 2003. A year later he burst into my inbox with a comment expressing his displeasure over how some readers were trying to influence my work. At the time, I didn’t know he was a priest, and his first note never even suggested it. This is his entire comment, verbatim:
Unlike your writer from New Hampshire, I personally don’t give a rat’s @ what you do with my premium subscription money. Just keep the stories coming and keep them good.
I also don’t give the rest of the rat’s anatomy what your political leanings are, who you hired or anything else. If I wanted a bland e-letter, I’d say so. I want something outrageous and opinionated from someone who doesn’t give a **** who’s offended. (For purposes of offense, “****” is defined as starting with the letter “s.”)
Of course I immediately liked Tom: say what he means, and mean what he says, with full clarity. And apparently I kept the stories coming and good, because he continued as a Premium subscriber for the rest of his life.
A Taste of Fr. Tom
At the time he was a professor at Kings College in Wilkes Barre, Penn., but soon retired. King’s College was founded in 1946 by CHC priests, as well as brothers from the University of Notre Dame. Tom founded “The Radio Home Visitor” show at the campus radio station, WRKC, in 1974: it still runs today, and is the oldest radio reading service for the blind in the U.S.
Tom mentioned in 2015 that he had been in a retirement home for Holy Cross priests at Notre Dame since 2013. In addition to spending time as a radio announcer, and quite some time writing a newspaper column in Wilkes Barre; he continued his duties as a priest “who thinks spirituality should trump religion.”
Next sentence: “(Most of what we do is poo-bah; just love one another and the rest will fall into place.)”
“It’s SO simple,” I replied to that, “yet SO many don’t grasp it. Even (or is it especially?) the wear-Christianity-on-their-sleeves types, who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.”
“So here’s an interesting question for you,” I continued. “I’ve long noticed that among my readership, there has been an over-representation of what I now call ‘The Three Cs’ — Cops, Clergy, and Counselors (aka lawyers). I won’t ask you about the first and third, but why do you think that so many clergy like This is True? Especially considering that one way to look at it is, it’s ‘about’ the worst in human behavior?”
“I’ve been thinking about this most of the day,” he finally replied. “First, I want to stock up on Zero Tolerance stories as inventory for when I run into the idiocy and want ammo to blow the idiots away. Or at least let others know what fools these people are. I’m a good writer and I think in one newspaper column where I worked on the side I sort of devastated and destroyed a very inhumane ruling by a nearby city’s mayor about his horrid treatment of illegal immigrants: forbidding residents to give them food or water, clothing or housing, not even a ride to the bus terminal to get out of Dodge. Shortly after the piece appeared, he backed down. TiT’s influence helped.”
Wow. But he wasn’t done.
“Second, I like stories about dumb people. WWJD (What Would Jesus Do)? Probably roll his eyes.”
“Third, the Honorary Unsubscribes let us know that there are celebrities who are famous for being famous … but they haven’t done s**t to improve the human race. Your honorees may be fairly unknown, but they made the world better for having been here. It’s an example, as well as an inspiration, for us to keep on with our efforts to improve this planet whether we get a medal or not. None of us will get an H.U., but it doesn’t matter; it matters that we made a difference.”
Oh, I don’t know about “none of us,” I didn’t say back.
“And fourth, I like seeing people get their comeuppance.”
My take was, the man is supremely human.
Here is where I really started to admire Fr. Tom. Also in 2015 I wrote a little about autism, which “is linked to higher intelligence, and genius and autism may share a genetic link. So? So maybe it’s not a great idea to try to ‘breed out’ such ‘undesirable’ traits as autism.”
Fr. Tom quickly replied: “I have Asperger’s, which is a higher level of autism but still there. I am glad nobody did a ‘breed me out’ and I certainly do not want to be cured. My brain processes information differently from neuro-typicals and I often wonder if it is the cause of my synesthesia — I see colors connected to everything. For instance, each day of the week has its own color: Wednesday looks like the color of celery, Thursday looks like the color of plums, Monday is white, etc. In sound, each musical instrument has its own color and the orchestra as a whole is just a beautiful painting. Peoples’ names are colorful or dull, depending on the letters and their arrangement because each letter has its own color, just as numbers do. Voices, the same. Everything is so colorful; I say to the normals, ‘You people go to concerts in black and white; I see the colors connected to the music. I feel sorry for you.’”
He also had a delightful sense of humor.
“One of my students at King’s College,” he wrote in 2018 after one of the “freak of nomenclature” (weird names) stories in True, “Monica Forskin, told me she wished she could get married soon. But not to one of our student radio announcers, Tony Kopenis. Monica Forskin Kopenis just didn’t make it with her.”
He had a little “Thought for the day” signature at the bottom of his emails. My favorite was:
“You must pay for your sins.
If you have already paid, please disregard this notice.”
The Gloves Come Off
In February 2018, this story ran in True:
“You guys are misunderstanding again,” Natalie Richard told her daughter. But it wasn’t the sixth-grader who was mistaken: Kanesville Elementary School in West Haven, Utah, really does have a policy that at its Valentine’s Day dance, “no” is not an acceptable answer. “We want to promote kindness, and so we want you to say yes when someone asks you to dance,” said district official Lane Findlay. Students aren’t required to attend the school’s event, and Richard was able to get the principal to mention the rule on a permission slip. But she couldn’t get him to let girls say no. “Sends a bad message to girls that girls have to say ‘yes’,” Richard said, and it “sends a bad message to boys that girls can’t say ‘no’.” Students are asked in advance to list five schoolmates they’d like to dance with, and Findlay said if a student was uncomfortable with a request, that “can be addressed.” (AC/KSTU Salt Lake City) …It can be addressed more easily by letting them say no.
Father Tom Replied:
I was in a ‘Can’t say “no”’ situation and decided I was darned well going to say no to a big shot. Shut the f***er up it did. Several of us were at a backyard picnic with a former mayor and current imbiber. I asked for a 7-Up or ginger ale. Jerkoff shouted out loud, ‘What’s the matter, Father? Aren’t you man enough to drink?’ I yelled back, ‘I’m man enough to say no!’ A quiet dropped out of the sky for a moment, then things went on as usual. I had the feeling they [the other guests] were waiting for someone to shut him up.”
Again that’s verbatim, and here’s where it gets really important, Father Tom includes his specific advice from his teaching days at, yes, a Catholic school:
I always told the female students at the college that is alright, nay, necessary for them to say ‘no,’ and in whatever voice level is appropriate. Match [the] boy’s level, then increase as necessary. If it’s an adult, start louder and report. If a person in authority over you, go higher and then drop by the newspaper and TV station. Keep a written record of ALL threats, boys and higher, no matter how incidental; paper trails are important from the first moment.
Hopefully he said all of that in earshot of the male students at the college, as a reminder to mind their manners.
See what I mean by a man of the cloth walking his talk — and, even more importantly, encouraging others to do the same? I don’t care if you’re pious, atheist, or somewhere in between, it’s important for kids of any age to have that knowledge and permission to have full ownership of their bodily and sexual autonomy.
I have been merciless about priests who talk the talk …while molesting altar boys. So you bet I’m happy to fully acknowledge one of their brothers who knows the walk is much more important than the talk. To act otherwise is hypocritical — and WWJD with a hypocrite?
In July 2018, Kit and I spoke at the Mensa Annual Gathering (convention) in Indianapolis, and I asked Tom if we could drive up to Notre Dame to meet with him. “I would be delighted,” he replied. His body and, worse, his mind were failing him, but he was trusting enough that we would see him, not his disabilities.
We visited, and he treated us to lunch there in the Holy Cross Father’s Home at the edge of campus. We then sat outside in the garden, chatting and expressing thanks for our years of online correspondence and thought exchange. And as we drove away a few hours later, I sighed and told Kit, “We should have gotten a photo with him.”
We knew it was unlikely we would ever see him again, and sure enough I had popped him an email last summer checking on him, and never got a reply. It finally occurred to me to check Google News and, sure enough, I found that Tom died from Covid-19 on Christmas Eve in 2020. He was 78.
I will truly miss our chats.
Tom’s Last Words
In late 2016, Tom was feeling his mortality. “I can still write like the pro I was,” he wrote, “and when The Time Has Come, they will find limericks I have written overnight in the casket.”
“When I have gone, don’t be blue;
From heaven I will think of you.
If they doubt I made it through
Miracles I will perform, so
They will learn, that This is True.”
P.S.: Another Bit of Tom’s Wisdom
In 2018 I had asked readers to weigh in on celebrities who were important in our lives …until it was revealed that they committed a serious moral transgression, such as Bill Cosby when he was convicted of rape. Tom weighed in there:
The work stands on its own. Bill Cosby may, in his personal life, have been somewhat of a lower-than-low example of humanity, but his work as America’s father and all-around inspiration to people through television has pretty much no equal. We probably look down on him because, while we have sinned, at least we didn’t do that to people.
Along that line, when the authorities brought the prostitute to Jesus and wanted him to pronounce her to be stoned, he idly played with the dirt on the ground and said, “Let the one who has not sinned cast the first stone.” He didn’t mean stealing a loaf of bread; he meant screwing a whore, perhaps this one. Well, they all snuck off.
Lots of people in the past and present are up to their necks (or belts) in doing the nasty. Either we didn’t know it, or we just put it aside and say, “They’re only human and what they left for us more than makes up for their dalliances.”
A long time and some distance helps bring perspective: treasure the work, overlook the failings of the worker. We have jails to separate evil-doers from those who they harmed or might yet harm. The wise among us says, “Yet, for the grace of God, it could have been me.”
Rest in peace, my friend.
Note: Some of the details here were gleaned from “Father Carten, Beloved Priest, Radio Host, Writer, Dies at 78” from the Wilkes-Barre Citizen’s Voice, 26 December 2020, and from the web site of King’s College.
The Honorary Unsubscribe entries usually reside on that site, but as this one “breaks the rules” I published it here instead, which also allows readers to comment.
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