Recently my sister passed along to me a curious artifact from the history of our family: one of our mother’s college blue book exams, dated November 26, 1946. The school is Incarnate Word College, San Antonio, Texas, now a university of the same name. The course is “Religion”. Virginia Cerna was then just nineteen years old–a decade away from marriage and motherhood. The instructor marked the exam “quite good” but, in those pre-grade inflation days, she received only an A-. Even so, someone in the family (her own mother?) must have been especially proud of this exam to have preserved it. For me, these 70 years later, the exam offers a poignant glimpse into both my mother’s young faith and the state of Catholicism in mid-twentieth century America.
Through six pages and fourteen short handwritten answers, Virginia replies to her instructor’s questions about the Bible and the Catholic faith. Her handwriting is fine, in the old-school way, though subject to the vagaries of the fountain pen (the ink grows progressively lighter to the end of question 5, then becomes and stays dark from question 6 to the end). Her answers are confident though far from brash. She writes in the serene tone of mid-century American Catholicism, before the Church’s years of doubt and dissent began. “The only finally reliable way to fix the Canon of the Bible is on the authority of the Church,” she begins her answer to question #4–restating a Catholic tenet as it undoubtedly appeared in the question itself. “The beginning of John’s gospel deals with the Incarnation and the proof of Christs [sic] nature–both God and man,” she replies to question #6. “This is very important because if Christ were not divine and human the bottom of our religion falls through.” Continue reading