‘‘I wouldn’t have believed it myself if I wasn’t standing here,” Bruce Springsteen said on November 8, 1996. The crowd cheered; they knew what he meant. Thirty-three years after graduating from St Rose of Lima School, Springsteen was back in his hometown of Freehold Borough, New Jersey; back in his alma mater’s gym on a Friday night. “Right under the cross, too,” he joked – although it was delivered with more than a hint of truth. So goes Springsteen’s Catholicism: sincerity coupled with sin. The iconic rocker with a dizzying list of accolades – 20 Grammys, an Oscar, a Tony, untold devoted fans – was back at the place that most formed him. Yet he never truly left.
“In Catholicism, there existed the poetry, danger and darkness that reflected my imagination and my inner self,” Springsteen wrote in his 2016 memoir, Born to Run. More than anything else, the tension of Springsteen’s Catholic upbringing – and its complex resonance through his life – has sustained his art. Letter to You, released in October 2020, is Springsteen’s most spiritual album yet, and reveals that he is one of the essential contemporary Catholic artists.
The St Rose of Lima concert perfectly captured Springsteen’s brand of Catholicism: visceral, penitential, profane. A charity concert on “The Ghost of Tom Joad” solo tour, the $30 tickets were capped at 1,300: packing the gym with only borough residents. The money went to the school’s Hispanic centre, meant to help low-income families. Residents brought their families, and they sat next to priests and nuns – some who taught Springsteen years earlier.
The St Rose of Lima concert perfectly captured Springsteen’s brand of Catholicism: visceral, penitential, profane.
“Ready for a night of sin and redemption?” Springsteen asked the crowd, who bellowed “Bruce” between songs. “I’ll handle the sin, and Father McCarron will handle the redemption on Sunday.” Always a storyteller, Springsteen told the crowd: “I’ve got a job to do”, and did it: soulful, moving acoustic renditions of a set that included “The River”, “Born in the USA” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad” – which he dedicated to his teacher Sister Charles Marie. “She really taught me a lot about kindness. She was very lovely and very compassionate.”
Sincerity and sin: they live together in the Catholic soul. They especially coexist in New Jersey: land of immigrants, steeped with cradle Catholics for whom Springsteen is a folk icon. A working-class craftsman. One of us. I’ve lived my entire life in this state; town-to-town, it is Catholic to its core (our great state legend is the Jersey Devil; we’re raised to take evil seriously). New Jersey Catholics – many of us Italian, Spanish, Irish, and Portuguese – are a sentimental, superstitious bunch.
We are drawn to story, but we are especially drawn to language – the conduit and tenor of story. “It’s pretty overt,” Springsteen has said of Catholicism in his work. “It informed my language.” That religious language for Springsteen was the Latin Mass – in which he participated as a (self-admitted) lacklustre altar boy.
Here he shares some similarities with the novelist Don DeLillo: the Bronx-raised son of immigrants, whose rearing with the Latin rite both contrasted with and lifted the Italian slang he heard on Arthur Avenue. DeLillo’s love for sentences is a musical, typographical love – the type of love one inherits after hearing what a different, ancient tongue can do to celebrate faith. Springsteen is the same: he can spit the Latin lines from the long-shelved rite as if he was still a nervous parochial school kid.
Sincerity and sin: they live together in the Catholic soul. They especially coexist in New Jersey: land of immigrants, steeped with cradle Catholics for whom Springsteen is a folk icon.
What’s essential to realise about Springsteen is that he is a Catholic often singing to other Catholics: those Catholics might be practicing, lapsed, wayward, or maybe even disgusted. But like him, they know the language; they know the gestures. They know of sin and confession and redemption. One doesn’t need to be Catholic, certainly, to love Springsteen – and that speaks to not only his talent, but the pared down appeal of the faith’s tenets and culture.
In a 2016 appearance on the The Late Show, Springsteen reminisced about his Catholic childhood with Stephen Colbert, one of the most visible Catholics in American media. Springsteen described the magic of live concerts; how he and the audience must work together to “manifest something”. When done well, he explains, the experience is “transcendent”. Colbert asks: “Transubstantiation?” Springsteen laughs: “I’m not sure what that means!”
A moment of epiphany later, Springsteen nods and remembers the name of the doctrine, but the exchange is rather revealing. In the late 1980s, the sociologist and novelist Fr. Andrew Greeley was one of the first to ponder Springsteen’s Catholicism. His early albums like Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ didn’t catch a wide audience – until Born to Run started a streak of critical and popular knockouts, including “Born in the USA” and “Tunnel of Love”.
Secular critics lauded Springsteen’s particular gift for capturing the American mythos, but few touched his spiritual core. Greeley argued that the rocker “engages in this ‘minstrel ministry’ without ever being explicit about it, or even necessarily aware of it, precisely because his imagination was shaped as Catholic in the early years of life”.
To non-Catholics, this might seem rather trite. Once a Catholic, always a Catholic – sounds like a papist recruitment slogan. Yet Catholics know that perhaps even more than doctrinally, the cultural pull of Catholicism is significant. In many ways, Springsteen was the prototypical Catholic artist. He was born to a Catholic family, and raised and educated in the faith. He was naturally sceptical, and yet respectful of those who genuinely cultivated his faith. He became lapsed, but as he got older, returned to something that nears conventional practice.
Perhaps more importantly, the furnace of artistry perfected Springsteen’s Catholicism. “There’s no greater well to draw on than myths of Catholicism. Everything is in there.” Springsteen has been clear to distinguish between faith and religion. It is an apt tension, a rich one, and yet even his forgotten theology reveals to him that in Catholic belief, there is no distinction. The Church might be wounded. The institution might sin. Yet at his core, he can never truly leave it.
Catholics know that perhaps even more than doctrinally, the cultural pull of Catholicism is significant.
Which explains why now, more than 50 years since he started recording, Springsteen is still playing Catholic songs. Shortly before the release of Letter to You, Springsteen told the incoming freshman class of Boston College: “I consider myself primarily a spiritual song writer. I make music that ultimately wants to address your soul.” In the album’s title song, he sings:
Things I found out through hard times and good
I wrote ’em all out in ink and blood Dug deep in my soul and signed my name true
And sent it in my letter to you
For Springsteen, the live show is Mass, but the recording is epistle – his usage of second person turns the audience into himself, and vice versa. This letter was written in the figure of prayer: “Got down on my knees / Grabbed my pen and bowed my head.” Springsteen often sings from that vulnerable place; the song is rife with fears, doubts, “hard things” and “all my pain”.
In “Last Man Standing”, he depicts a journeyman singer and his band. “When you were hard and young and proud / Back against the wall running raw and loud”. The settings are prototypical New Jersey: Knights of Columbus and the Fireman’s Ball Friday night at the Union Hall Black leather clubs all along Route 9. That’s the same Route 9 as his iconic “Born to Run”, the song that vaulted Springsteen into stardom. “At night, we ride through mansions of glory / In suicide machines”, he writes:
Sprung from cages out on Highway 9
Chrome wheeled, fuel injected and steppin’ out over the line,
Route 9 spans the entire state, offering Springsteen escape north and south – but Catholic Freehold remains his nexus. Springsteen’s verses are steeped in nostalgia, tempered by the reality of his professional and personal struggles. What Catholic artists offer us is not theory and theology, but the pain of practice. Life is often a mire; a chaos that only finds pattern and purpose through God.
Likewise, in “The Power of Prayer”, his verses portray romantic love, but the divine and spiritual in Springsteen are not metaphors for the secular. Love, like the manifest communal experience of his shows, has a particular origin:
They say that love of comes and goes
But darling what, what do they know
I’m reaching for heaven, we’ll make it there
Darling, it’s just the power of prayer
The album also includes a song long known to Springsteen fans – as a bootleg. “I Was the Priest” was originally written a few years after he graduated from Freehold High School, and reads like the type of yarn whose allegory would only come naturally to a Catholic artist. “There’s a light on yonder mountain and it’s calling me to shine / There’s a girl over by the water fountain and she’s asking to be mine” the song begins, before including Jesus decked “in a buckskin jacket, boots and spurs so fine”.
The divine and spiritual in Springsteen are not metaphors for the secular
Here “sweet Virgin Mary runs the Holy Grail saloon” and “the Holy Ghost is the host with the most, he runs the burlesque show”. Mary Magdalene is there, too: “serving Mass on Sunday and she sells her body on Monday”.
Is this profane? Maybe. Is it heretical? No: it’s the type of Catholic light-hearted raunch that is the result of living and suffering with faith for years – and sometimes being disappointed by the church. Belief is messy.
For one born and raised in the faith like Springsteen, there’s no leaving it behind. From his first album to his latest, Springsteen has confessed to the congregation: he’s a sinner. His songs are his penance, and the beauty of such art is that we get to feel the hard-worn grace ourselves.
Nick Ripatrazone is the author of Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction (Fortress Press)
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