Sunday, February 19, 2017

Advice to a young seminarian - part 12

Continued from last week…

Last week I ended by noting that two out of three young people in this country still identify themselves as members of a religious group. If one makes the criterion for membership actually participating in religious activities and living in a certain way, then I suspect that religion in general and Christianity in particular is a rare phenomenon among anyone under 25 years of age. When I was young, 60 years ago, people were Catholic or Protestant, and a very few were Jewish. That’s what you were. There were no options. The very few who didn’t participate in a religious community in some way were pitied. They were odd. Those who professed atheism or some exotic eastern religion were feared and ostracized. 

Then came the council in 1962. I was 12 years old. They were glorious heady days. We were returning to the days of the early Church. Liturgist simplified the liturgy because, of course, that’s the way the early Christians prayed. They turned the altars around because, of course, that’s the way the early Christians prayed. Everything was about a return to the first glorious days of Christianity. I have since come to think that much of the vaunted return to early Christianity was historical and scholarly nonsense. In one sense, however we have returned to the first days of the Church. We are a small and much persecuted minority. According to the sociologist, Dr. Rodney Stark, by the end of the first century there were perhaps only 10,000 Christians in a population of 60 -70 million inhabitants of the Roman Empire.

No one was a Christian because of social pressure. One was Christian because it was true. My priesthood was fashioned out of a Christian culture. Yours will be fashioned out an anti-Christian culture, just as was the priesthood of the apostles. This is the whole difference. I think that we the clergy and especially the bishops live in a fool’s paradise. We somehow think that there are people who by nature and birth are Catholics. It’s just not true. No one is born a Catholic. No one ever was. When I was young and the Church started hemorrhaging members, older clergy and my seminary teachers were fond of saying, “They’ll be back. When they have kids of their own, they’ll be back.” That was fifty years ago, we are now into our third generation of former Catholics. They aren’t coming back. There is a certain nostalgia that many have about sacraments of initiation. Parents still want their children to be baptized and receive the three C’s (confession, communion and confirmation), but they are less and less interested in getting married or buried in Catholic ceremony and they aren’t at all interested in Sunday Mass especially if it interferes with a sports program. 

Perhaps I’ve already said this, but it is rare for a bishop to see an empty church. They usually visit a parish for an event, and the church is full. The whole extended family comes for confirmation and the party afterward. They probably won’t be in church next Sunday, or the Sunday after that. In an immigrant parish, there is still a lot of life and a few young people, but after a generation in the government schools where they are taught that religion is at best ridiculous and at worst evil, the newly arrived will be just as jaded as their new country.

We must face the facts. The 2nd Vatican council did restore us to the days of the early Church, and perhaps that is what the Holy Spirit intended. We are a small persecuted minority in the modern world. Sure, the press still notices when something interesting comes out the Vatican, but in general no one is paying attention to us. The average Target-shopping, pizza-eating, sports-watching, twice-divorced, shacking-up, normal human being pays no attention to what we, the clergy, say or do -- unless it’s on a police blotter or the evening news. They love a good scandal that validates their complete disinterest in us. The Roman mobs noticed the Christians only when they were being thrown to the lions. The modern mob notices us only when we are being thrown under the bus, sometimes for perfectly good reason. 

Don’t get me wrong. The church is flourishing. Asia and Africa are filled with vital convinced Christians. So is South America, but there the vital convinced Christians tend to be ex-Catholic evangelicals. The Church is dying only in the developed world. So, what does this cheery assessment have to do with the diocesan priesthood?

The diocesan priest in the future must be as much apostle and evangelist as pastor. Until we stop assuming that people are born Catholic and until we become adept at bringing people to conversion to Christ, the Church will continue to die in this country and other “developed” countries. Right now, we are wasting our time quibbling about moral and liturgical questions about which no one on the real planet is concerned. I am not saying these things don’t matter. I have an increasing tendency to traditionalism as I age. What I am saying is they don’t matter to those who aren’t Christians, and fewer and fewer are Christians. 

We are asking the world the wrong questions. Until we get comfortable with a much more basic question, nothing will change. That basic question is “Are you saved?”  To which question the world will answer, “From what?” The whole question should be, “Are you saved from death?”  We have learned to postpone death, to hide death, to forget death, but no one, so far, can avoid death. We hold there is one exception: Jesus of Nazareth. 

You will have to be an apologist for the hope of eternal life. Your priesthood will demand so much more than mine has demanded of me. You must be steeped in Scripture and in history, but above all you must be steeped in Christ. You must be holy, not just to appear pious, but to be genuinely holy. It was said of the first Christians, “These men have been with Jesus.” When I was lad, a good priest was perhaps a good administrator, or very pastoral, or a good preacher.  None of these things will be enough. 

Your task will be to offer the world a way to escape death, and this you can do only if you yourself have escaped death, and the only way I know to do that is to radiate the presence of Christ. To do this you must dedicate yourself to prayer, study and charity. As the end of my life draws near, and I see yours just beginning, I think I would have lived my life very differently, had I the chance. I would try much less to impress people, and I would try much harder to immerse myself in Christ. I would try to be less the church man and more the saint.

When your life draws closer to its end, may it be said of you, “He has been with Jesus.”

P.S.  Study history. Start with three books: Dr. Rodney Stark’s “To Bear False Witness,” Mike Aquilina/Jim Papandrea’s “Seven Revolutions” and Crocker’s “Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church”. These three books will help you dispel much of the anti-Catholic mythology you will be taught in Catholic schools and in state school.  As for bible study, start with Jeff Cavin’s Great Adventure. Self-appointed scholars hate it, but his premise is before you tear it to pieces with avant-garde scholarship, you must know the story and the timeline.  It’s what in the olden days we called Bible history. Also, learn some Ancient Greek and Hebrew. It’s easier than you think and it is wonderful to be able to see what the text is actually saying.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Advice to a young seminarian - part 11

Letter to Robinson K. Russo, a young seminarian, continued:

Last week I said that the Church I knew had been slowly eroding for perhaps half a century. Perhaps I misspoke. The erosion has progressed at breakneck speed. It's just that we were slow to notice it. The whole thing can be blamed on people like Alexander Graham Bell and Henry Ford and that crowd of reckless progressives. I would push the great unravelling back even farther to that notorious speed demon, Richard Trevithick (1771- 1833), an inventor from Cornwall, England who pioneered steam-powered rail transport. It was he who built the first locomotive railway powered by steam.

At this point you may well ask what does this have to do with the diocesan priesthood?  Let us think rather of the “parish” priesthood. With the birth of the steam railway, commenced the beginning of the end of the parish, hence the end of the diocesan priesthood as I have known it.  The parish developed in a world where it was expected that very few would travel more than a few miles from the place they were born, at least until Trevithick started mucking about with steam engines. He was a mining engineer and knew he could devise something to make it all go faster. Then he realized that the steam railway could do more than just haul coal. 

To prove that rail travel was faster than the horse, he started something he called the “steam circus.” For one measly shilling, you could ride this marvelous vehicle that Trevithick claimed was faster than a horse. It might have been, but the tracks were prone to breaking down and the thing ran on a circular track, going nowhere. The London public was unimpressed. The horse still seemed like a better bet. Horses occasionally bit, but the steam engine tended to explode.
Scientific types are rarely prone to acting sensibly and leaving well enough alone. In 1830, the Stockton and Stokes stagecoach company challenged Peter Cooper and Tom Thumb, his little steam engine, to a race. The steam locomotive did splendidly until a belt on the locomotive slipped off its pulley. The horse race was lost, but the point had been made. Just a few years after its invention, the locomotive was actually faster than the horse.  We haven’t slowed down since.

So, what’s my point? Years ago, when I was aspiring to be a hippy, I had a patronizing conversation with my mother, intending to console her for how difficult I must have made her life with my odd clothing, political views and habit of coming and going without warning. I said, “Our generation must be very hard on you.” She countered, “Oh no! We were much harder on our parents.”  My thunder had been stolen.

My grandmother was born in 1882 and, in her youth, wore stiff corsets, towering hats, and floor length dresses made of enough cloth to trick out a sailboat. Her daughter, my mother, was born in 1908 and grew up in the era of the flappers, the roaring twenties you know, speakeasies, bathtub gin and miniskirts.  All that was bad enough but it was that darn Model T Ford that Henry had made available to everyone that made life miserable. Henry was one of those scientific types who couldn’t leave well enough alone. His father used to come into our grandpa’s dry goods store in Detroit and complain that Henry would never amount to anything. All he did all day was hide in the barn tinkering with motors. Wouldn’t do a lick of farm work! (True story!)

Old man Ford was right. Henry should have done his chores and minded his own business. By making the horseless carriage available to the common man, Henry single-handedly created the traffic jam, oil shortages and war in the Middle East. Worse than that, he made a way for children to get farther away from their parents than a horse could carry them. My mother said they would pile into a “Tin Lizzie” (Henry Ford’s cheap motor car) and drive down to Toledo where they could get booze despite prohibition. Since that day until our own, no one has stayed in one place for very long. The neighborhood died, and with it died the parish, and the parish priesthood. It’s just that nobody noticed for about 50 years.

Another thing that Henry killed with his car was the idea of compulsory religious belief. People tend to believe what their families and neighbors believe. Since Henry’s horseless carriage and another bad idea, the heavier than air flying machine that Wilbur and Orville claim to have invented, you can get as far away from your parents and their values as you choose. Chicago used to be a collection of neighborhoods. People asked where you were from and a Chicagoan would say St. Rita’s or St. Ita’s, or some other church. Even the non-Catholics identified themselves by the Catholic parish they lived near. People knew one another so well that they would sleep out in the parks on hot summer night, as safe as could be. They were in their neighborhoods. They were home. But Henry ended that with the help of the Daley dynasty.

Old man Daley for some reason hacked the City of Chicago into little pieces by creating the infernal system of expressways that plague the modern city. You know, an expressway, where you sit for hours in your overheating car wishing you were home. Everybody decided to move out of the city and commute into work. The neighborhoods decayed, housing got cheap and then an odd thing happened, starting with the Old Town neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. The beatnik era of the 50’s happened and young people started moving back into the city where the rents were cheap. The point of moving back to the city after growing up in the suburbs was to get away from one’s parents. There are now whole neighborhoods in Chicago inhabited by young people who don’t want their parents to know what they are actually doing. Eventually young people get tired of it and move back to the suburbs, but they have lost their faith and their communities. Thank you, Mayor Daley.

Once again you are asking what has this to do with the faith. Simple: there is almost no social pressure for modern people to be part of a religious community because family and community itself are optional. This is true for Christians, Jews and Muslims. The minute one turns his back on the tradition that he brought to this country, he pretty much ceases to be religious.

I was shocked to read that one in three young people under thirty has abandoned religion. The shock is that so many, 2 out of 3 still identified themselves as believers in some sense. The freedom given by the transportation revolution has made it possible to leave the parish (remember that parish is a Greek word that really means neighborhood?)  So, if a diocesan priest can no longer be the same thing as parish priest, what will he be?

Sorry. Have to stop now. I’ll write some more next week.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Advice to a young seminarian - part 10

Letter to Robinson K. Russo, a young seminarian, continued:

In the dim mists of ancient history, when I was a boy, pastors were formidable people. They were the standard bearers of something that seemed utterly unchangeable, and they were not out to win any popularity contests. People actually believed that if you didn’t go to church on Sunday, (unless you were Jewish, and they are very nice people even though they eat a lot of garlic; now stop asking questions, Junior) You went to church on Sunday. Or else. Enough said!  If you didn’t like your pastor or if the choir director had a voice disturbingly like Jimmy Durante’s (not making this up either), you didn’t go to the next parish over. No self-respecting pastor in the Catholic Church would engage in “sheep rustling.” You could go to confession or mass in another parish, but last rites, marriage, communion, confirmation, churching (a ritual by which a woman was repatriated to the church after childbirth), house blessings, car blessings, any blessing at all, that happened in your parish. The parish you lived in. The parish that your street address indicated.

And you contributed financially to your proper parish using collection envelopes, thus enabling the parish to publish a quarterly report naming names and disclosing amounts. It made for fascinating reading at breakfast. “I see the Van Skinflints only threw $2.85 cents into the basket at church last quarter. Hm...”  It was a truly captive audience.  And the pastor! There were two types of diocesan pastors in my youth. The irremovable and removable kind. If a priest was an irremovable pastor, he could only be removed with papal permission.  If he was a removable pastor, he could only be removed with papal permission. Yes, you read correctly. The irremovable pastor could only be removed for, heresy, immorality or insanity, proven by a canonical church trial. A removable pastor could be removed by the bishop, but he had the right to appeal his dismissal to Rome. By the time Rome ruled on the case the local bishop might have already gone to his eternal reward, helped along by a novena or two to St. Joseph, Patron of a Happy Death. Priests had what they call tenure in the academic world. It is said that when an old professor finally receives tenure at a university, he is no longer expected to think, or even to teach class for that matter. On occasion the same thing happened to pastors. Most of the pastors of my youth were good and holy men who loved the Lord and the people they served. But every so often you got one who was not as interested in the Gospel as he was in third race at Hialeah. 

The Christmas, Easter and All Souls Day collections were the personal property of the pastor, as well as all stipends for masses and other religious services offered to him or his assistant priests. If the pastor was assigned to a “plum,” that is a well-to-do parish, he could become a wealthy man indeed. If the bills were paid, and there were three or four assistant priests, which in those days there were, the pastor whose commitment had weakened over the years could spend much of the year down in Boca Raton, only coming up for the major Holy Days. This was called “hanging up your stole” (The stole is the priestly emblem worn while officiating at sacraments.)  If you had a good and zealous pastor who worked himself to death in the care of souls, you could count on never retiring. He intended to die in his rectory. If you had a profligate pastor who was usually “on retreat in a warmer climate” he may not die in the rectory, but his corpse would most certainly be brought back there for burial. You only left your rectory feet first in those days.

This sounds like an awful system. It really wasn’t. If you had a good pastor, you had him for his whole life, 'til death did you part. If you had the other kind, he was hardly ever there, and the religious life of the parish was run by the assistant pastors, and generally they were young and idealistic. There was a certain stability in the system. It was your parish. He was your pastor who probably taught and believed the Catholic faith and that was that.

I remember when it changed. I believe it was in 1972 that the young progressives in the priest senate, petitioned Cardinal Cody to ask the pope for an indult to violate the canon law that appointed pastors for life. The young progressives realized that the changes they thought must happen in the liturgical and moral life of the Church would never happen if the “old barons” as the pastors were called, were not forced to give up the reins of power in the “plum” parishes. They say that Cardinal Cody smiled and said with his slight southern drawl, “If that is what you want my sons, I will petition the Holy Father.” He left the hall smiling, and the pope granted the indult.

This left the diocesan bishop without any check on their practical authority. Before this, the old guys would be playing poker on a Wednesday afternoon, complaining about the bishop. They would decide they weren’t sending in their “cathedraticum” until the bishop saw things their way. (The cathedraticum is the money sent by the parishes to maintain the bishop and the diocese.)  In effect, they would unionize and go on strike. Remember, they could be removed only by canonical trial for heresy, immorality or insanity? Refusing to cough up money was not reason for removal. The bishop had to know his pastors well and to hear them clearly.

Thus it was that the stability of the parishes was healthy not only for the pastors, but it was actually healthy for the bishops. The bishops had to listen to the pastors, and the pastors, if they were at all decent, really knew and loved their parishioners. They loved the parish, they did their best to make sure it flourished, because it was their home, their family, and that was where they would die. It was the church from which they would be buried.  The parishes flourished, the schools flourished, and the diocese flourished. 

As Chicago went in those heady days after the council, so went the nation. As the nation went, so went the world. When Chicago imposed limited terms and mandatory retirement for pastors, the rest of the Latin Catholic world was not far behind. It all seemed to be swept away in a moment, but in fact it had been slowly eroding for perhaps half a century at least.

Next week: things aren’t like they used to be, but then again, they never were.