WE WENT BACK to visit a place that doesn't exist any more. Reunions are like that. They're like stepping back into a photograph, and for a few hours being there again.
We were high school freshmen that fall 30 years ago at St. Charles College Seminary in Catonsville. Today the buildings are a retirement community, Charlestown. Back then they were a minor seminary -- four years of high school and two years of college -- preparatory years before entering the major seminary at St. Mary's on Paca Street and Roland Park. Ironically, this seminary to prepare men for a celibate life was located on Maiden Choice Lane.
In reality, more men eventually chose maidens than ever made it to the Catholic priesthood. Of the 105 freshmen who entered that year, only seven were ordained. Of those seven priests, two left to marry and one abandoned Catholicism for a more "conservative" church.
Only 27 of us gathered for the class reunion in Baltimore recently. We retold the war stories. We remembered 90 beds packed together in dormitories that were too cold in winter and too hot in summer. We remembered rigidly scheduled days that began at 5:40 a.m. with prayer, Mass and meditation, and ended at 9:30 p.m. with lights out.
The minor seminary was a cross between a military academy and a monastery. Discipline, regimentation and obedience were the core. Studies were hard and intensive. Recreation consisted of organized teams, with every young man expected to play every sport. Once we arrived in September, we would barely see home again until the following summer. Once a month we could have visitors. At Christmas and Easter, we had a week off. At Thanksgiving and other holidays, we had a day off, when we who lived locally could go home and take friends with us.
Then came time for Joe and Dave to bring out their old films. We saw ourselves with red and brown and black hair, instead of the gray many now wore. We saw thin waists, 30 years before paunches. We saw ourselves as teen-agers and realized many of our own children are now older than we were then.
A bit of melancholy was mixed with the shock. There was Ken again. Ken had flown a hundred bombing missions in Vietnam and then was killed on a routine flight to London. There was Ken alive again, running and jumping. There was Mike cutting up and laughing, Mike who had died in an auto accident in Germany. There was another sports hero competing in our track and field events. He had died of AIDS.
Life had been easy for no one. As one man who had left the seminary after high school put it: "It was like leaving the 13th century and entering the 1960s. I wasn't prepared for the real world." Of those at my table who had married, about half were divorced.
We had gone different ways in religion, too. One was a Mormon. One had joined another church. The rigidity and discipline of the seminary helped some of us to be daily or weekly Mass attendees. The same rigidity and discipline had so turned others off that they hadn't set foot in a church for years!
The wonderful part of the evening, however, was that no one seemed to feel judged or put down. It didn't matter what anyone had done with his life. It mattered that we were there, and we were glad to see each other and wanted only the best for each other.
Having lived through what often felt like hell, the reunion was a bit of heaven. No guilt. No judgment. No one pretending to be better than anyone else. Just people who had lived through an experience that no one else would ever live again. As in the play "Brigadoon," we had stepped into a world that, once we left, we could never revisit.
All is different now. A housing development stands on the fields where cows grazed peacefully at the Wilton Farm Dairy. Today old folks walk where young folks then ran and played -- on Maiden Choice Lane.
Joseph F. Breighner is a priest of the Baltimore archdiocese.