It was not until I was confirmed, at about age 10, that I got a chance to pick a name for myself—a second name, but still a name that, unlike my baptismal name, was my choice.
Confirmation was another one of those “when I call your name, march quietly up to the front of the classroom” types of ceremonies that the Catholic Church seems to love so much, except that in this case it was not just the front of a classroom that you would be marching up to, but rather the front of an entire church. And the person at the front of that church was not just Sister Philomena, handing out holy pictures of favorite saints, but the bishop in charge of the entire Diocese of Brooklyn, sitting on a throne in front of an altar waiting to “test” your Catholicism before God and everybody else.
A Catholic, Indeed!
The purpose of confirmation was that the bishop would “confirm” you in your faith as a soldier of the church. That meant, as best I can recall the explanation given us at the time, that if somebody decided he wanted to kill or torture you because you were a Catholic, you could not deny it just to get out of being killed or tortured. Denial meant condemnation to the eternal fires of hell, which, in the eyes of the church anyway, was a lot worse than the temporary inconvenience of being killed or tortured. You had, in fact, to “confirm” the fact that you were Catholic. That was it: “I am indeed a Catholic.” You had to be proud and happy to be chosen for martyrdom in this life. Those were optional words, “I am proud and happy to be chosen for martyrdom in this life,” that you could add after “I am indeed a Catholic.” You needn’t worry the person doing the martyring would get his comeuppance in the next life.
The confirmation ceremony, as Sister Philomena explained it, was simple. It would consist of her calling your name and your “marching quietly” to the altar at the front of the church, where the bishop would be waiting. He would first offer you his left hand and his ring for you to kiss. Then he might ask you your name, a few questions about yourself, the life of the saint whose name you were taking and what you had learned about your faith and the church while preparing for your confirmation. He would then cross your forehead with his thumb dipped in holy oil and “tap” you lightly on the cheek with his right hand. You would then “march quietly” back to your place, and that would be that.
That would be that, according to one of the older kids, John Doyle, unless the bishop’s right arm got tired and he decided to use his left hand, the one with the ring, to “tap” you. That could very well happen, John Doyle explained further, because the bishop was an old guy and old guys get tired very easily. John Doyle also advised me that I should go home and wash off all of that oil right away, because by the time they got to me it would probably be “full of germs.”
In preparing for confirmation, Sister Philomena drilled us for weeks on the kinds of questions we might expect the bishop to ask. We also had to research the life of the saint whose name we had chosen. The choice of names was restricted to those of duly authorized saints. I chose the duly authorized Paul.
On the morning of our confirmation, Sister Philomena assembled us in the church basement for one last drill. She peppered us with questions that the bishop would be likely to ask. Before marching us upstairs, she reminded us, one last time, to remember to address the bishop as “Excellency.” The only time that I had ever heard anyone addressed as “Excellency” was in a piece of dialogue in Dracula movies:
“Renfield, bring me the girl.”
“Renfield, draw the drapes. It’s getting light in here.”
Sister Didn’t Laugh
After Sister Philomena had settled us into our places in the pews directly in front of the altar, it was not long before my name was called. I rose and marched to the front and knelt before the bishop. I could see Sister Philomena off to his left. The bishop offered me his ring and I kissed it. There was no sign of blood. So far, so good.
“Good morning, my son,” he greeted me.
“Good morning, Excellency,” I answered.
“Are you ready to be confirmed into the holy Catholic Church?”
“Yes, Master,” I blurted.
“Excellency,” I corrected, glancing off at Sister Philomena. She did not look happy. Her eyes widened so that her eyebrows disappeared up under the starched whiteness of her wimple.
“What saint’s name have you chosen as your confirmation name?”
“Paul, Excellency,” I responded.
“An excellent choice. Paul was a great saint. He was one of the true fathers of the church. What do you know about Paul? How did he find God?”
“He fell off his horse and found God.”
“He fell off his horse?”
“I mean God pushed him. God pushed Paul off of his horse and blinded him for a while so he couldn’t get back on his horse.”
“And when he did get back on his horse, what happened?”
“Then he could see clearly. He could see like into the future and he could see God and God made him a martyr.”
“How did God make him a martyr?”
“His enemies crucified him. His enemies crucified him upside down.”
“And how did Saint Paul get to heaven?” he asked.
I had, I thought, been doing fine until now. Now I was stumped.
“Upside down,” I tried.
“Thank you my son. You may return to your seat,” he finished.
“Thank you, Master,” I said.
I actually did not choose the name Paul after St. Paul. I had decided, rather, that if I could not be Reynold, I could at least be Joseph Paul—as in Joseph Paul DiMaggio. My good friend Thomas Satterlee got to be Thomas Jefferson Satterlee, but he had to get a special dispensation from the pope in Rome.