It was 1958, and as I recall, it was an unseasonably warm day for San Francisco. The Bay Area was typically much cooler for that time of year. Our local parish Church, St. Thomas the Apostle, was packed for the Good Friday services, and since this was before the Second Vatican Council, the somber proceedings were conducted in Latin, which lent a timeless and mysterious air to the theater.
All of us from 1st through 8th Grade at the adjacent Catholic School, coincidentally named St. Thomas the Apostle, were forced to attend the 3-4 hour long holy ritual commemorating the passion and death of Jesus Christ. This involved squeezing into narrow pews, and then kneeling, standing up, then kneeling again repeatedly as the various droning litanies were recited and requisite prayers offered up to the invisible Father, Son, Holy Ghost, and the numerous saints and blessed ones.
As a highlight to the ceremonies, Fr. Barron the Pastor (formerly an army chaplain) led the congregation through the Stations of the Cross –also known as the Way of Sorrows or Via Crucis — a consecutive series of painted images depicting Jesus Christ on the day of his crucifixion, as things went from bad to worse for him, culminating in his famous death.
There were 14 of these pictures lining the Church walls, and Fr. Barron, accompanied by a costumed retinue of altar boys and various clerical functionaries, stopped in front of each picture of Jesus for far too long, it seemed to us, in order to recite tedious and incoherent prayers, while an obnoxious incense was being waved back and forth by a smirking altar boy, nearly smoking out the people who happened to be in the adjacent pews as each station was attended by the formal crew.
The ordeal began at 12 Noon, and ran at least through 3PM, the time God was finally killed on the cross. I began the event feeling a lot of sympathy for the poor guy, but by the end of the production, I just wanted them to finish him off so I could get the hell out of that building. Is this what I had to go through every year, just to get some stupid Easter basket filled with a lot of fake colored grass and stale candy?
In any case, it must have been a combination of stinking incense, the endless moaning chants, the tragic story being played out at each station, the crush of kneeling bodies crammed together in the pews, and the exceedingly stuffy atmosphere, but at around Station #12, I fainted. I remember feeling increasingly dizzy, and then suddenly it was lights out.
Sometime later I was groggily coming to outside on the Church steps, and a nun was staring down at me with a mean look, accusing me of faking it. I assured her that was not the case, but she thought that she had me figured out, and so pulled me up by my sweater and marched me back inside. The rest of the assembled parishioners, including my classmates, were either appalled or amused, and I recall a blur of funny looks and whispers as I was summarily shoved back into my pew.
Fortunately, I had missed the actual crucifixion, so that was one upside to the debacle, and now I only had to sit through another hour of Mass and Communion in order to complete the ritual and finally get released. My initial religious sentiments had long since been replaced by some serious questions regarding the sanity of what I had been forced to endure, as well as the rationale behind the event. As I walked slowly down the hill and home that day, I had a lot to ponder.