If Dogma Won’t Save Us, Nothing Will

Remembering Fenwick and Fr. Regan in the 1940s: “There was a reason for burning incense. Father James Regan knew it and explained it.”

By James Bowman, Sr. ’49 (originally published The Alumni Wick Magazine, spring 1985)

Father Jim Regan, O.P. taught at Fenwick High School for 29 years and was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame posthumously in 2002. His picture first appears in the 1943 yearbook and every year afterwards through and including 1971. Fr. Regan was born to eternal life in the year 2000.

At Fenwick in the middle and late ’40s, there was this bald, big-eyed priest, always with the armful of papers and pencil, walking along the corridor taking everything in, or sitting as study-period prefect in the library, also taking everything in. He looked like he knew more than he was saying.

A freshman might know him from the servers’ club, where this priest made the point that the incense better be well lit so the smoke could rise high and full. Why? Because smoke rising stood for prayers rising to heaven, that’s why. The freshman had never thought of it that way. There was a reason for burning incense. Father James Regan knew it and explained it.

For the senior who had him for religion, the message was much the same: there’s meaning in religion you haven’t even thought of. Gospel passages were memorized, such as “Behold the lilies of the field, they neither reap nor sow, etc.” with its punch line, “Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and its justice.” He said lines as if he meant them, and knew whether you knew them by use of the daily quiz.

Fr. Regan in the early 1940s.

That’s what all those papers in his arms were, daily quizzes from four or five classes. There was a lot of tedious work correcting those quizzes. But if he didn’t correct them and get them back, the senior didn’t know where he stood. Lots of them didn’t want to know, but that’s another question.

He quoted a lot from Time Magazine. A man bet he could drink a quart of absinthe in one gulp and live. He did it and died. Nice, obvious mortality for 17-year-old ears.

Or the story of Franklin D. Roosevelt riding in an open car in the rain without a hat on, to make the point that he was vigorous and capable of leading the country. It was one of the anecdotes Father Regan used to point up the Gospel saying, “The children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light.” That is to say, followers of Jesus don’t work as hard at following Jesus as others at achieving their worldly ambitions.

Father Regan intended to make points with his seniors. He was very serious about it (entertaining too), and he had a plan: if dogma (doctrine) won’t save them, nothing will. He meant to inundate us with church teaching. He believed in church.

Skip Mass to go fishing on Sunday?

He could be stunned by disbelief or disloyalty. The student who said it was O.K. to miss mass on Sunday to go fishing, became the center of his attention. How could this be? Whence came this creature into our midst, or this idea anyhow? Skip Sunday mass to go fishing?

Not histrionics by the aggrieved father, but genuine amazement (though played out for effect, to be sure). We heard about it in his high-pitched voice, fast-paced speech (mind and lips working at high speed) and windup pause and slight smile for effect. Silence spoke as well as words.

Fr. Regan in the early 1970s.

Discipline … seemed secondary to the business of the classroom or study hall, the classroom especially. It was basically a college-style classroom, senior religion under Father Regan: daily quiz, return of the previous day’s quizzes and extended discussion of missed answers.

He repeated questions time and again until enough of the students got them right. The quizzes were teaching devices, not just checks on retention. Then lecture. The 42 minutes went fast, and up and out we went with books, gym bags and the rest to what the next 42 had to offer, which was rarely better and usually not as good.

He took religion seriously, aided and abetted by the school’s policy which put it on a par with the other four subjects. He took the Scriptures seriously, extracting meaning from gospel sayings that we’d heard from pulpits for years, thinking they had no meaning.

He used the classroom for what it’s good for: indoctrination and motivation. Counting on his students’ faith to supply the impetus, he would put the question about daily mass: what else can you do daily that is worth as much? Time and again, he asked it in those quizzes. He couldn’t force you to go to mass, but he could drill you in the reality of faith, forcing you to choose.

That’s not bad. It took a lot of work and commitment to the life he had chosen. It’s a lesson for us all. It was then for us 17-year-olds, and given a little thought on the matter, it is now, too.

Read more recollections of Fr. Regan from alumnus James Loverde ’64:

About the Author

In addition to being a member of Fenwick’s Class of 1949, Jim Bowman is a long-time Oak Parker and former newspaper reporter. Mr. Bowman wrote the “Way We Were” column for the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine as well as corporate histories and other books, including books about religious issues. His eighth book, Illinois Blues: How the Ruling Party Talks to Voters, was published in 2016.

Read more about him.

One Reply to “If Dogma Won’t Save Us, Nothing Will”

  1. Jim Bowman adds: His saying about dogma comes back to me, including recently as I labor through my book about worship and liturgy, about which I blog at Dominus Vobiscum: Notes from a mass-goers underground.

    Fr. Regan’s memory remains with me. I also wrote about him in Company Man: My Jesuit Life, 1950-1968:

    In senior year at Fenwick High, in Oak Park, a Dominican school, we had a religion teacher who pushed the envelope for us with a taking-Scripture-seriously approach. Even friend Bill, skeptical toward the church in ways I was not, found this teacher, Father James Regan, OP, worth the entire $150 annual tuition, so engaging were his classes, which he taught half from Scripture and tradition, half from Time Magazine and other news outlets.

    For instance, discussing Jesus’ saying that the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light, Father Regan brought up Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigning hatless in the rain in an open car, trying harder to gain his earthly crown than we to gain our heavenly, to use the language of that day’s piety. Such an argument struck home for the adolescent listener with half an interest in discovering the meaning of life. It was the sort of thing that got [my friend] Brad and me off to church on weekdays.

    More specifically, Father Regan asked repeatedly in daily quizzes until it had sunk in to his satisfaction, What’s priceless within easy reach every day? Holy Communion, of course. For the believing 17-year-old, it made perfect sense, especially for me who as a grade-schooler had gone to daily mass with my parents during the war, praying for the return of my brothers. It was a matter of home-fires burning with relentless piety, including nightly family rosary.

    Combine such home and family experience with formal instruction in a school atmosphere that drove home Catholic viewpoints [dogma] and exuded faith and prayer, and you had a formula for encouraging the religious bent.

    P.S. – Doing well, by the way. Wife of 51 years Winnie and I live now on N. Side, close to four of our six, including grandsons.

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