I believe I'm living proof that God has a sense of humor.
For one thing, She allowed my priest recruitment ad to run in college newspapers and on billboards in the early seventies. It took what is usually a blasphemous phrase, took away the blasphemy and pointed out the desperate need for more good priests in the Albany Catholic Diocese and beyond. It didn't solve the problem, but it got plenty of attention.
Even earlier, when I was an altar boy at St. Patrick's in Troy, teamed up with a little red-haired classmate serving the 9 a.m. “Children's Mass,” God showed Her humorous side. After mass one Sunday, the pastor, Monsignor Hunt, approached my mother and told her, “Your son will make a wonderful bishop someday.” Naturally, my religious mother was thrilled. It was one of her favorite stories.
Of course, I never became a bishop. But the other altar boy did – he's the current bishop of the Albany Diocese. Did the good monsignor have the wrong boy in mind? Or talk to the wrong mother? Or was it a cosmic joke?
I turned my back on “The Church” at the end of the sixties. But it wasn't through with me, as you'll see in the following stories.
Holy Bordello, Father!
An unusual suggestion for the Bishop's residence
I came back from New York City in 1975 depressed in the middle of a recession.
Thirty-six years old, failure on every front, no money, forced to move in with my mother. No advertising agency jobs available.
The only offer I had was from the priest who was the head of the Communications Department of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese. He wanted an assistant. He knew me in high school, where we were classmates, although not buddies.
He also knew me from a public service campaign I had written for the diocese a few years earlier, trying to help recruit college men to the priesthood with the tag line, “For Christ's Sake, Be a Priest.”
He offered me the job, and I took it. I didn't have much choice. It didn't pay a lot, and I didn't have a car, but I got to work taking three buses every morning, from Troy to Albany.
As I learned the routine of the job, my boss and I spent lots of time together, and early on, he invited me to dinner at his residence, which happened to be the Chancery, also the home of the Bishop of the Diocese. It's a beautiful, early 20th century mansion overlooking Albany's Olmsted-designed Washington Park. We dined, with the Bishop, in the formal dining room, where we were served by a woman of a certain age who was summoned by the ringing of a bell. So much for being the servants of the flock.
The next day, when I expressed my awe at the surroundings and the treatment, my boss told me of a plan to raise money – a lot of money – to pay for his dream of expanding the communications department.
His plan, and to this day I don't think he was kidding – was to turn the Chancery into a house of prostitution! I don't know how he knew it, but the place would have had the perfect layout, so to speak, for a house of ill repute: Formal rooms on the first floor, lavish bedrooms on the second, and maid's quarters above that.
Of course, the plan never got to fruition, but he may have actually proposed it, because shortly after our conversation, he was whisked away to Rome for what was called a “theological update.”
When he returned, he didn't talk as much as when he left, and when I asked him what he learned, he only said, “We have to start from the beginning.”
Whether he was talking about the department, the Diocese or the Roman Catholic Church, I honestly don't know. I didn't push for any more answers.
Sister Margaret Hottie
“Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.”
I believe that's an accurate quote from St. Augustine's racy “Confessions,” and it probably crossed my mind when she walked into my office at the Catholic Communications Department in Albany.
I know you want me to describe her, but first I have to tell you about the office that I was assigned to. The entire building had been a Catholic maternity hospital, and my office had served as the chapel. The transom over my office door hadn't been changed – it was a modern stained glass creation, rife with religious symbolism. I sat facing the door, and every time I glanced up at the “God rays” coming through the transom, I thought of the Supreme Being's sense of humor.
How did a fallen-away, or recovering Catholic, manage to find a job selling Catholicism? It had to be a great, celestial joke. Or, I thought, maybe I'm just getting back all the money I had dropped into the thousands of collection baskets in all the churches that I faithfully attended Sunday after Sunday and Holy Day after Holy Day, from kindergarten to young adulthood. If that were it, then when the karmic books were balanced, I'd be out of there.
But now, standing in my office doorway, under the holy transom, was the sexiest woman, in the hottest outfit, that I had seen since my last casting session of knockout New York models. Remember, this was in 1975, and the fashion for young women was “I've got it, I'm flaunting it, and you can't do anything about it.”
Well, I couldn't do anything about it – not voluntarily, anyway. Involuntarily was another matter; so I stayed seated to hide my interest.
She was so buxom, so beautiful, with a skirt that, were it an inch shorter, would have been a belt, and she said, “I thought I should introduce myself. I'm Margaret Takemehererightnowonyourdesk.” That's what I thought I heard, or wanted to hear, anyway.
I don't know what – or who – possessed me, but I looked her in the eye, trying not to drool, then silently and slowly – painfully slowly – slid my eyes down her body, and just as slowly back up.
She stood there the whole time. And when our eyes finally met again after I had sucked in every delicious curve and line, she said, “That's Sister Margaret Takemehererightnowonyourdesk.”
And I said, dejectedly, “I know.”
That was the last time I remember seeing her. She never came back to my office, although I did start receiving “From your secret friend” greeting cards, which Barbara, our office manager, said came from Sister Hottie, but I refused to believe it. It was better for all concerned that I believed someone else in the office was just teasing me.
Unfortunately, unless Sister Hottie is reading this, we'll never know.
How I Put A Catholic Communications Department Out of Business
After just a few weeks at my new job at the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese, my boss told me he was being sent to Rome for a three-month theological update, and I was to run the department by myself. I panicked. I still had mike fright from impersonating John Lennon on a 50,000 radio station twelve years before, and it would be my responsibility to voice a weekly religious radio program for the Sunday morning “religious ghetto” slot on a local radio station, interview teenagers on the moral (or immoral) meanings of popular songs, edit their comments into one minute radio spots, and record a brief “Religion in the News” program and distribute all of these to local radio stations every week. I had never done anything like this before, but I did what I could.
To begin, I had to sit in the recording booth with the tape running, and talk into the microphone in a continuous cold sweat until I was over my mike fright.
It took several days, and even then, I was not comfortable. I gathered the news, recorded the programs. I was still so nervous that between the time I started recording the religious news program and the time I ended it, I would forget that I had just changed my name back to the original family name. So, I would start the program as Frank LaPosta Visco, and end it with my birth name, Frank Visk. If anyone was listening, they never noticed.
I found a way not to sit in the studio with the teenagers. I would play the popular songs for them, then tell them to just discuss the lyrics among themselves. Later, I edited their comments into an abbreviated version of the song they were discussing, and had a lot of fun doing it. A very creative experience.
But my liberalism started to show through, especially in a series of programs I wrote and produced for the Sunday morning slot, and I think it was just too much for the institution. It was a simple idea: humor in religion.
I took one of George Carlin's early routines about people blaming disasters on God, a parody of the lives of the saints called “Saint Fidgeta, Patron Saint of Nervous Children,” and a reading from Catholic author C.S. Lewis's “Screwtape Letters,” and produced a series of programs. They aired at about 5 to 6 am on local radio, and believe it or not, they started to get response from people who had been out partying on Saturday night – probably the very people we should have been trying to reach.
But that, plus my irreverent attitude in general, put an end to things. The day I came back from my first vacation, my boss and our secretary were looking very glum. I pressed them for what was wrong, and they finally told me that the Diocese was taking our funding away and giving it to the Ecumenical Communications Office. My response surprised them. And me.
I was actually relieved, and downright happy that it was over. I had done what I thought was right. And maybe I had an effect on some souls out there. And then, as if by magic, the hot local ad agency of the mid-seventies called and wanted me -- enough to double my salary and give me a company car.
During the last weeks of the existence of the Communications Department, visitors were surprised by the additional two letters I added as a prefix to our front door sign.. Until we left for good, the sign now read, EXCommunications Department.
Next time: Back in the ad game.