My mother was a Sicilian Catholic with leanings toward Christian Science, and my father was an agnostic Baptist. My father was a comedy writer, and he had to become a Catholic in order to marry my Sicilian Catholic mother. So he'd met with the young priest and they traded jokes and theology, until the priest finally said, "Well, Jack, you're just a natural-born pagan. I'm going to give you a learner's permit, so you can get married. But any kid comes along, you have to send him to Catholic school. My father said, "Sure, sure, sure."
The year I was five, my father was kicked off the Bob Hope Show, for the excess of high spirits. He probably played a practical joke on Hope; he was given to those things.
So I was sent to Catholic school and [with more time on his hands] my father gave me these interesting questions to ask the nun every morning. And she was getting more and more shocked and finally, when I asked if Jesus ever had to go to the bathroom, she began to scream at me. I remember she lisped very badly and she yelled, "Sacrilish, sacrilish, blashphlemy and sacrilish!" She wrote on this great big sheet of cardboard "Jean Houston's Years in Purgatory" and every time I asked a question, "Sacrilish!" and out came another 100,000 years. By the time I turned six I had 300 million years of purgatory.
So I went home and I told my father who got hysterical laughing. And he threw me on his shoulders and he ran past the Sicilian neighbors who were all throwing up their windows saying (Italian accent) "There goes a-crazy Jack! Watch out you'll kill a-bambino!"
My father starts going, "Purgatory, purgatory, purgatory." I said, "Where we going Daddy?" He says, "To the movie, honey. If you've think you've had troubles wait till you see how they hog-tied a real saint. See what they did to poor old Bernadette."
And he took me to this picture called "The Song of Bernadette." Everybody was watching with this rapture because the theater was filled with hordes of Sicilian Catholics who were courting this picture with a worthiness due the Pope. Sitting next to me -- I'll never forget -- was an old lady in black with many holy metals on her chest and every time Jennifer Jones, who was Bernadette, would show up she would cross herself and say, "Oh, what a beautiful saint!"
Heady with purpose I start going home and my father says "Hey kid, come on, take my hand, are you mad at me?" I say, "Yes!" And he said "Where are you going?" I said, "Daddy I don't want to tell you where I'm going!" And he says "Well, why not?" and I said "Daddy, you would just laugh at me." and he said, "No I promise, I won't laugh." I said "Daddy, you can't help yourself." He said "No, I promise, where are you going?" I said, "Well, I'm going to go see the Virgin Mary. He said, "Really? I'll go with you."
And he grabs my hand, pulls me into this horrible Dorothy and the Tin Man routine, and he starts to sing as he skips down the street, "We're off to see the Virgin, the wonderful Virgin of Lourdes. We'll join the hordes and hordes and hordes--"
"Daddy, go away! And don't you follow me. This is the most important thing in my whole life!"
And I ran home and I ran upstairs to a guest room that had this very deep closet with a wall safe and I thought, "Boy, it really looks like a grotto." There was Chickie with her eight puppies and I said, "Oh Chickie please, please, please, I'm sorry I have to move you, but I don't want the Virgin Mary to step on you."
And she looked at me very kindly, [and after moving the puppies out of the closet], I fell on my knees and thought, "Boy it really looks like a grotto."
I crossed myself and I said, "Oh, Virgin Mary, please, please, please, show up for me. I want so much to see you I'll give up candy for a week -- two weeks, ok? Now I'm going to close my eyes and count to ten and then you be there, ok?"