EARLY IN THE NEW YEAR I went to the office of the Board of Education to see Dr. Jacob Greenberg, then superintendent in charge of personnel, regarding a teacher. In his office I met Mary Riley, his assistant. Since Dr. Greenberg could not see me at once, Miss Riley and I began to talk.
She had been a high-school teacher for years. Loved and respected by all, she represented a type of teacher becoming increasingly rare, as though they were being systematically eliminated from our schools. She was a woman of poise and dignity whose love of God permeated all her relations.
I felt relaxed as I sat there talking with her, listening to her and looking at the picture she made with her soft gray hair, her warm blue eyes, the quiet good taste of her dress. I was somewhat surprised that she would talk to me for I knew that my activities and the doctrine I had spread had been offensive to her. But she was smiling and saying she was sorry they no longer saw me at the Board. I explained that I had been having a lot of trouble.
She knew. “That’s putting it mildly,” she said. “But don’t let anyone stop you, Bella. You still have a lot of friends. We don’t like communism but we do admire one who struggles to help human beings as you always have.”
I was moved by her words, for it was not the kind of talk I had heard of late. She went on to speak about the Interracial Council that she had founded in Brooklyn, and of which she was still a moving spirit. And I had a feeling that I was close to the edge of a new world, one in which acts of kindness were carried out anonymously and not used for publicity purposes. Some days later a package came from Mary Riley. It contained books and magazines dealing with a variety of things Catholic, such as the medical missions in Africa, the Interracial Councils, and youth shelters. There was also a book by a priest: James Keller’s You Can Change the World.
As I read the title my thoughts went back to Sarah Parks, my teacher at Hunter College, and the books she had given me that had quickened my interest in the communist movement. Those books had been in praise of the change in the world brought about by the Russian Revolution which at the time I had considered an upheaval necessary for the improvement of the social conditions of the Russian people. I knew now that glorification of revolution and destruction of lives in the hope that a better world would rise were fatally wrong. I thought with sadness of Sarah Parks — her bright intelligence wasted because she had no standard to live by, of how in the end she took her own life rather than face its emptiness.
I thumbed through Father Keller’s book. It was almost primitive in its simplicity and I was caught by its personal invitation to each reader — a call for self-regeneration. It seemed addressed to me personally. This was a new call to social action. This was no stirring of hate to bring about social reform but the stirring of the flame of love.
I could not stop reading the book. I sat there in the quiet of my office and I felt all through me the truth of Father Keller’s saying: “There can be no social regeneration without a personal regeneration.” As I read I felt life flowing back into me, life to myself as a person. Within the Party I had been obliterated except as part of the group. Now, like some Rip Van Winkle, I was awakening from a long sleep.
Father Keller did not leave me with a sense of aloneness or of futility. “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness,” he had written. To me, who had begun to feel that evil was ready to envelop the world, this was life itself. 1 was grateful to Mary Riley and grateful to the priest for his words of life.
Not long afterward I was in the Criminal Courts Building defending a youthful offender and I ran into judge Pagnucco, formerly of the District Attorney’s office, who had interrogated me during the Scottoriggio investigation. We talked about the measure of individual responsibility for criminal acts. He mentioned Father Keller’s words on that subject and I said I had heard of him and admired his work. The Judge asked me if I would like to meet the Maryknoll priest.
Next afternoon 1 met the judge at the office of Godfrey Schmidt, a militant Catholic lawyer, and a teacher at Fordham Law School. I remembered him vividly as the official in the New York State Department of Labor who had prepared the case against Nancy Reed, the girl who had lived at my apartment for a time and whose mother was an owner of the Daily Worker. I thought of the violent campaign the Party had organized against him, the gruesome caricatures of him in the Party-controlled papers, and how they called him “Herr Doktor Schmidt.” Now I listened to Godfrey Schmidt talk of America and its people with obvious sincerity, and I had an overwhelming feeling of shame that I had participated in that campaign of hate.
Father Keller came in with another friend and Mr. Schmidt invited us to lunch together. I looked at the priest in frank appraisal and found myself interested in the harmony and peace of his face and in his keen understanding of the problems facing men and women of our day. As he and the other men discussed various matters, I realized why these three talked so differently from the little groups I had been with at tables like this in the communist movement. Here there was no hatred and no fear. We talked of books and television and of communism too, and Father Keller referred to the latter as “the last stage of an ugly period.”
When he invited me to his office to meet some of the Christophers I accepted. I found myself returning again and again to that office, impressed with the spiritual quality I found there. On my first visit to the Christopher headquarters a dozen of us were busy in the room when the chimes from the nearby Cathedral rang the noon hour. Everyone stopped working and recited the Angelus. I caught, here and there, remembered words of prayer I had heard long ago. “. . . Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” I heard, and “. . . the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. ”
I did not know the response and I stood silent. But I was deeply stirred to hear young men and women pausing in their work to pray together, here in the most materialistic city ever raised by a materialistic civilization. And I felt how true of this believing little group were the words: “And dwelt among US.”
My association with the Christophers showed me how little I knew of my Faith and made me realize that I was like a dry tinder box and that I wanted to learn. Seeing the Christophers at work stirred a memory of the flame I had in my youth, the desire to help those in trouble, the sense of shame at any indignity to a human being. I smiled ruefully in recalling that I had thought the Communists the modern prototype of the early Christians, come to cast greed and selfishness from the world. The Communists too had promised an order and a harmony of life. I knew now that their promises were fraudulent, and that the harmony they promised brought only chaos and death. Yet I knew too that I had to get the difference between the two clear in my own mind before I took any further steps. I had to know, and for myself.
I prayed now every day. I rose early in the morning and went to Mass at the Church of Our Lady of Guadaloupe, near where I now lived on West Seventeenth Street. I felt excitement when I turned east from Eighth Avenue and hurried up the church steps to hear the Brothers sing matins before Mass. As I watched the faces of the morning communicants, I envied them and longed to be one with them, and when each returned from the altar I felt a warm glow merely in being close to them. I thought of this continuous Sacrifice on the altars of thousands of churches all over the world, wherever there was a priest to bring the Mass to the people.
The anti-clericalism which had been a part of my thinking for years dropped from me completely when I watched the lights turned on each morning around the altar of Our Lady of Guadaloupe and when the candles were lighted and I saw the priest offer the Sacrifice. I felt myself inescapably drawn to the altar rail, but I still sat in the darkness of the rear pews as a spectator. I was not ready, I told myself. And I had a dread of dramatic gestures. But as the days went by I knew the sense of strain was leaving me and I began to feel an inner quiet.
I found myself reading, like one who had been starved, books which the Communists and the sophisticated secular world marked taboo or sneered at. I found St. Augustine and the City o f God infinitely more life-giving than the defiant modern professors who wrote The City of Man. I found St. Thomas Aquinas and I laughed to remember that all I had learned of St. Thomas was that he was a scholastic philosopher who believed in the deductive method of thinking. Now, as the great storehouse of his wisdom was opened to me, I felt rich beyond all words.
One day at lunch with Godfrey Schmidt I explained that I must learn more about the Faith. As we walked down Park Avenue, he took me into a bookshop and bought me a prayer book. Next day he called me to say that Bishop Sheen was in town and had agreed to see me again. This was like a joyful summons from an old friend.
With Mr. Schmidt I went to East Thirty-eighth Street, to the offices of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, and rang the bell. Bishop Sheen opened the door himself and I saw the silver cross on his chest, the smile in his eyes, but this time I heard a welcome home in his greeting.
And so I began to receive instructions in the Faith. Something strange was apparent to me in my behavior — I who had generally been skeptical and argumentative now found that I asked few questions. I did not want to waste one precious moment. Week after week I listened to the patient telling of the story of God’s love for man, and of man’s longing for God. I listened to the keen logic and reasoning that have lighted the darkness and overcome the confused doubts of others of my group who had lost the art of reasoned thinking and in its place had put assertive casuistry. I saw how history and fact and logic were inherent in the foundations of the Christian faith.
I listened to the Bishop explaining the words of Jesus Christ, the founding of His Church, the Mystical Body. I felt close now to all who received Communion in all the churches of the world. And I felt the true equality which exists between people of different races and nations when they kneel together at the altar rail — equal before God. And I came to love this Church which made us one.
I read often long into the night. There were so many things I had to know. I had wasted so many precious years.
Easter of 1952 was approaching and Bishop Sheen said that I was ready. I had no baptismal record and a letter of inquiry to the town in Italy where I was born produced none, though I was reasonably certain I had been baptized. So it was decided I was to receive conditional baptism.
On April 7th, the anniversary of my mother’s birthday, I was baptized by Bishop Sheen at the font in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Mary Riley and Louis Pagnucco stood on either side of me. Godfrey Schmidt and a few other friends were with me too.
Afterward Bishop Sheen heard my first confession. He had noted that I was nervous and distraught in making my preparation, for I had to cover the many years in which I had denied the truth. I meditated on the mockery I had made of my marriage; how I had squandered my birthright as a woman; on my twisted relationship with my parents; on the exaggerated pride of my mind; and on the tolerance I had for error. He realized my despair and said comfortingly: “We priests have heard the sins of men many times. Yours are no greater than those of others. Have confidence in God’s mercy.” After hearing my confession he granted absolution. His Pax vobiscum echoed and reechoed in my heart.
At Mass next morning I received Communion from his hands. And I prayed as I watched the flicker of the sanctuary lamp that the Light that had reclaimed me might reach the ones I loved who still sit in darkness.
It was as if I had been ill for a long time and had awakened refreshed after the fever had gone. I went about my work with a calm that surprised me. I seemed to have acquired a new heart and a new conscience.
Outwardly my life was changed not at all. I still lived in a cold-water flat on a street of tenement houses, but now I could greet my neighbors with no feeling of fear or mistrust. I was never to be lonely again, and when I prayed there was always the Presence of Him I prayed to.
As order and peace of mind returned to my life I was able to face intelligently the difficult ordeal of appearing before governmental agencies and investigating committees. I dreaded hurting individuals who were perhaps as blind as I had been and who were still being used by the conspirators. I dreaded the campaign of personal abuse which would be renewed against me.
Now I formulated and tried to answer three critical questions: Does my country need the information I am called upon to give? Will I be scrupulous in telling the truth? Will I be acting without malice?
I knew that the information which I had might be of some help in protecting our people. I knew also that honest citizens of our country were uninformed about the nature of Marxism and I recognized now that in the best sense of the word to “inform” means to educate. As avenues of education are blocked and twisted into propaganda by the agents of this conspiracy, my country needed the information I had to give.
But I dreaded the ordeal of testifying, when letters, telephone calls, and post cards of abuse came to me after my first appearance before the Internal Security Committee of the Senate. There was one interesting turn to the abuse: the bulk of it was in biblical terms — “Judas Iscariot,” “thirty pieces of silver,” “dost thou betray” were the most common expressions used. Quite a few quoted from the Gospel of St. Matthew the words telling how Judas Iscariot hanged himself and the writers ended with the exhortation, “Go thou and do likewise.”
Now I saw in true perspective the contribution that the teachers and the schools of America have made to its progress, just as I was sadly aware of the darker picture some of the educators and the educated among us have presented. Justice Jackson has said that it is the paradox of our times that we in modern society need to fear only the educated man. It is very true that what a man does with his knowledge is that which, in one sense, justifies or indicts that education. A glance at the brilliant scientists who served the Hitler regime, and the Soviet scholars who serve the Kremlin, a look at the men indicted for subversion in our own country - all lead us to re-estimate the role of education. We are told that all problems will be solved by more education. But the time has come to ask: “What kind of education?” “Education for what?” One thing has become transparently clear to me: rounded education includes training of the will as much as training of the mind; and mere accumulation of information, without a sound philosophy, is not education.
I saw how meaningless had been my own education, how like a cafeteria of knowledge, without purpose or balance. I was moved by emotion and my education failed to guide me in making sound personal and public decisions. It was not until I met the Communists that I had a standard to live by, and it took me years to find out it was a false standard.
Now I know that a philosophy and movement that devotes itself to improving the condition of the masses of our industrial society cannot be successful if it attempts to force man into the mold of materialism and to despiritualize him by catering only to that part of him which is of this earth. For no matter how often man denies the spirit he will in an unaccountable manner turn and reach out to the Eternal. A longing for God is as natural a heritage of the soul as the heartbeat is of the body. When man tries to repress it, his thinking can only lapse into chaos.
I know that man alone cannot create a heaven on earth. But I am still deeply concerned about my fellow man, and I feel impelled to do what I can against the inhumanity and injustices that threaten his well-being and security. I am aware, too, that if good men fail to so love one another that they will strike vigorously to eliminate social ills, they must be prepared to see the conspirators of revolution seize power by using social maladjustments as a pretext.
I believe that the primary requisite for a sober appraisal of the present challenge of communism is to face it with a clear understanding of what it is. But it cannot be fought in a negative manner. Man must be willing to combat false doctrine with the Truth, and to organize active agency with active agency. Above all there must be a new birth of those moral values that for the past two thousand years have made our civilization a life-giving force.
Today there are unmistakable signs about us that the tide is turning, in spite of the fact that we have been so strongly conditioned by materialism. The turn is so apparent that I, personally, am filled with hope where once I despaired. Many of the molders of public opinion in our country are still geared to capitulation and compromise, but among the people the change is very clear.
As I have traveled about the country I have seen evidences of this. I have seen men and women determined to set principle above personal gain. I have seen fathers and mothers study the school problem to help education from contributing to the training of a fifth column for the enemy. I have seen housewives in Texas, after a hard day’s work, sit down to a course of study on the Constitution of the United States, and I have heard them explain what they learned to their children, determined that they shall not be robbed of their heritage.
We have increasingly seen in our country the rise of social and civic harmony in communities peopled with those of different national, racial and religious backgrounds. The men and women in these communities have set their hearts and their wills against the insidious work of the Communists who seek to pit one against the other to provoke racial and religious conflict.
I have seen groups of workers in trade unions meet and pray together as they plan for the safety of their country. They are determined that the union which is necessary in their struggle for daily bread shall not be used as a mechanism for the seizure of power.
But it is among the young people that I find the most arresting signs of change. This despite the fact that the newspapers and magazines are replete with horror stories of the decadence and unbelievable cruelty and criminality of some of our youth.
I have talked with young men returning from World War II and Korea who have gone back to the little towns all over America determined to make of their homes a citadel of moral strength in the face of the forces that promote the disintegration of family life. I have seen intelligent, well-educated young men and women band together and move into slum areas in our big industrial cities, dedicated to light the flame of love as neighbors and friends of the unfortunate.
I was invited one night to supper by the young people at Friendship House in New York City’s Harlem. I found them outwardly not very different from those I had met in the communist movement. The difference was that they were dedicated to a belief in justice under God and therefore could not be used as puppets by men bent on achieving power. The difference, too, was in their relation with their neighbors and those they sought to help. In the communist movement I was conscious of the fact that we promised the material millennium to all who joined our cause. Here at Friendship House they kept before all the primacy of the spirit, and those who came to them were helped more effectively because of this.
In the colleges, we see signs of a new type of student. I have noticed a change in college religious societies which in my day were formal and social with only a gesture in recognition of God. There now emerges a new phenomenon. Students are beginning to realize that the training of the mind is of little value to man himself or to society unless it is placed in the framework of eternal truths. Once again we witness an insistence upon the union of knowledge of the things of the spirit with those of the world. There is a growing demand that they no longer be severed.
I was particularly struck with this new type of student one evening last year when I spoke at the University of Connecticut before the Newman Club. The Club, which was housed in the basement of the chapel, was alive with activity. It had a library and a social center, and it had the guidance of two priests trained to understand the dangers facing the young intellectual in a society steeped in paganism.
That evening I had stayed so late in answering questions that Father O’Brien asked three young men to drive me to the train in New London. As we rode through the Connecticut hills it began to snow. I asked the young man who was driving what he was going to do after graduation. “Serve Uncle Sam, I guess,” he replied. In his voice was no bitterness, no resentment — and I thought with sudden sadness of his possible future and that of all our young people. Then one of the boys said quietly, “Why don’t we say the rosary for peace?” He started the Credo and there in the darkness of that country road, with the soft snow falling, we said the rosary for peace.
I was aware as I rode home that night that men such as these can change the world for the better, so much were they filled with love, so selfless was their zeal. I know that even if the Communists were sincere in the glittering promises they make, they would be incapable of fulfilling them for they cannot create the kind of men needed for the task. Whatever apparent good the Communists have achieved has come through human beings who despite the harsh materialism taught them still retained a memory of God and who, even without realizing it, drew on the eternal standards of truth and justice. But their store of such men is dwindling, and in spite of their apparent victories men schooled in darkness are doomed to defeat.
New armies of men are rising, and these are sustained not by the Communist creed but by the credo of Christianity. And I am keenly conscious that only a generation of men so devoted to God that they will heed his command, “Love one another as I have loved you,” can bring peace and order to our world.