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.”
Even her occasional errors and speculations have a carefree feel, and her instructor responds with equally breezy corrections. It is as though the truth appeared so solid and impregnable that no one on either side of the lectern is terribly worried. Why was the New Testament alone not a sufficient source for Christ’s teachings in the early Church? Because “there were not enough copies to circulate among the people,” Virginia answers, implausibly. The instructor, who probably wanted her to say that the New Testament books were written after the Church came into being, simply noted in the margin “written late.” Why did the Gospel of John use the term “Word” for the Son of God? Mom’s answer: To show “in a way that the Son is a person of God so closely in union with the Father to be One since our words are so closely united with ourselves.” To this the instructor only cheerily remarked “Hmm!”
Later, in the full bloom of adulthood, Virginia Cerna became a teacher (of biology), a wife, and Mom. The play of mind that I detect in her blue book persisted throughout the years I knew her. For reasons that were never clear to me, she loved the writings of abstruse Catholic philosopher Teilhard de Chardin. I see her now as the kind of student Christian colleges today strive so hard to produce. Given a sound Christian education in the liberal arts, she kept it with her throughout her life, developing and being developed by it.
She also remained a Catholic. The confident faith that my mother expressed in her religion exam never left her. Indeed, her faith has always seemed to me to be something she had acquired easily and retained easily. God seems to have showered her with many graces that smoothed her spiritual road and kept her on it. But these are assertions that no blue book, however revealing, could ever prove.