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A Most Grand and Excellent Google Search—Part 4

IMG_3775More interesting to me than the little book of Latin abbreviations was the story of Father Robert’s life, both because his early years were so similar to those of my character Brother Alphaios, but more-so for its trajectory, much of which was quite remarkable in mid-twentieth century America. In short, he was born in 1932. Entered a Trappist, cloistered monastery when he was seventeen. Professed as a monk some five years later and then as priest. Choirmaster for his brothers. Left the cloister after some eighteen years. Fell in love with the principal clarinetist of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. Resigned his collar and was dispensed from his vows by Pope Paul VI. Wedded the woman he loved and fathered a child. Became an instructor of calligraphy at Reed College. Was widowed only eighteen years into marriage. Petitioned the Church to return to the cloth. Was given papal dispensation, and once more became a seminarian and once more a priest. When retired, continued to serve numerous parishes when their clerics were ill or away. Passed away in February of 2016 at the age of eighty-three.

I would have liked to spend more afternoons with him, learned much more about his nature, his mind, his life. What was it that drove such a young man, little more than a boy, behind the high walls of a cloister? Or enticed him there?

What then was it, later, that prompted Father Palladino to leave the cloister? He told me it was the changes made to the Catholic mass (from Latin to English) and the modernization of the Church’s music by Vatican II in the early 1960’s. He didn’t elaborate, but mustn’t it have been more than that? Something deeper, closer? I would have liked him to explain it more, to lay it out for me.

How conflicting, yet how very dear must have been his love for the woman Catherine Halverson who became his wife. And his love of the Church as well, for after her death he again became its servant.

How did he become a calligrapher, I asked, and when? What took his interest in that particular direction?

The monastery had a rule of silence, he replied. Other than reciting the mass and singing the divine offices, speaking was permitted only with the explicit permission of the abbot. We couldn’t talk, he said, so…we needed the signs.

Okay. It had to be something more, though—perhaps a respect for long tradition? An innate compulsion toward beauty? Perhaps it came naturally to him, just as there are others who are especially gifted in song or science.

He told me resigning the priesthood, even to marry, had been a profound personal loss, that he’d never gotten over the sense that it was spiritually wrong for a man to have to choose between a loving marriage and family or serving the Church as a priest. He hoped, fervently, that the Church would relax its position on the matter, and do it soon.

Nearly a year has passed since that afternoon, yet all these thoughts still arise. Strangely, though he’d practiced his craft for years and years, I learned little from Father Palladino about letterforms and the language of them. My purpose for visiting him was not accomplished, yet I left his little farm knowing I’d received a gift far greater than any I could have contemplated. This man had lived through, and confronted head-on, one of the largest doctrinal changes in the two thousand-year history of the Catholic Church. He’d lived his life standing tall, believing devoutly, loving deeply.

He passed away on February 26, 2016.

Before I could fulfill my wish to visit him one more afternoon.

Robert Palladino was a good man and an interesting one. He was a conscientious man more than most.

STILL TO COME: A postscript you won’t want to miss.

Photo by J.S. Anderson: Detail of St. Xavier del Bac, Tucson, AZ

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