Monday, July 7, 2014
A reflection on priestly life -- part 2
A disclaimer: the following section, if improperly understood, is easily the most discouraging thing I’ve written in a long time. The parish censor said, “It sounds like you’re saying we should just sell all the real estate and move to Rio with the proceeds.” Not so!! I think the Church is entering into one of its most glorious periods in its history. I just heard about a friend of mine — a priest in Africa — who the Sunday after Easter baptized six hundred children and married 250 couples. The Church is growing by leaps and bounds everywhere but in Euro/America. This should cause us to ask questions, not simply to try and sustain things as they collapse.
My whole point is that the Church in this country must become what it was designed to be: an intentional society. We must disabuse ourselves and the secular world of the notion that the Church is the vendor of religious and charitable services.
I love Catholic schools. They are a central part of our life as Catholics, but I suspect that the way we are doing them now is a surefire prescription for their extinction. Catholic schools as well as Catholic churches must become intentional. Now they are taken for granted. I believe that the only reason to send a child to a Catholic school is because you want them to be a Catholic, and the only reason to teach in Catholic school is because you want to bring people to Christ and the Catholic faith. As Jesus said, “Be hot or cold or I will spit you from my mouth.” Rev. 3:16
Letter to Ann T. Clerikuhl continued….
The Catholic Church of popular imagination no longer exists, at least in any part of Europe and the United States with which I am familiar. The moguls of Hollywood and the Bureaucracy of Religion do not seem to have noticed the death of a system that endured for a thousand years, but the pastors of parish churches are painfully aware of its passing. I am writing this just as the canoe goes over the waterfall. It used to be fairly common to say, “The Lord be with you” and to hear absolutely no response from a congregation was full of generic, white Americans. But I just celebrated (?)had a wedding at which about two hundred people of an ethnic group famous for its devout Catholicism responded to my greeting with dead silence. They seemed to have thoroughly accepted the secular dream of Amerika and “…knew not the Lord”. (“After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the LORD nor what He had done for Israel.” Judges 2:10)
At a recent funeral in another parish, the deceased was being waked in a church and the family had not put the traditional rosary in the hands of the guest of honor, they had however put a glass of whiskey in the coffin. Don’t they know that whiskey is flammable and should not be left out when there is a danger of exposure to an open flame? I have had 16 funerals in the past two months. I and my fellow pastors are burying a “whole generation (which is being) gathered to their ancestors” and their children know neither the Lord nor do they donate to the church!
The grand edifice of hospitals, orphanages, schools, churches, seminaries, convents, nursing homes, soup kitchens, charitable organizations, rectories, monasteries and universities seems nothing more than a water-soaked sugar cube that manages to hold its external form for the moment, but is really about to dissolve. It seems so substantial so unchangeable, but as more and more dioceses declare bankruptcy, as more and more schools close, as more and more religious orders flicker out of existence, and leave their assets, hospitals, schools and nursing homes to lay boards who know not the Lord. A priest I know is desperately trying to make his parish school a Catholic school once again. He insists that the children attend the weekday morning mass. The parents are furious. They are paying good money for a private school education and resent the time taken from the curriculum for an outdated ritual. He is also trying to reintroduce the children to the regular practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. One of the teachers was overheard saying, “Confession? I haven’t been to confession in twenty years!”
In California, a Catholic school teacher recently married his long-time, same-sex partner. He was fired. A Los Angeles judge ruled that he can sue the school. This part of the insanity doesn’t much bother me. What bothers me is that former students of St. Lucy’s Priory High School in Glendora, California are protesting vociferously, demanding that the school reinstate the teacher. They have supposedly collected 48,000 signatures to that effect. St. Lucy’s school is over. If the teacher prevails in his law suit, St. Lucy’s will no longer be a Catholic school by definition. If the protesting students and their irate parents pull out the school will die. This is just the first of a thousand such debacles.
If we were able to immediately dismiss all teachers in Catholic schools who did not practice their faith or were in irregular relationships with any and all genders, the Catholic school system would deflate like an old circus balloon. (I am not talking about your parish school, father, sister, teacher or parishioner. Your school is the exception. It is the city set on a hill, a light in the darkness. I am talking about the next parish over, St. Delilah’s.)
There is a diminishing community of believers who are asked to dig deeper and deeper to support a crumbling edifice that does not reflect their faith. Most everyone thinks that unless something is done, the thing cannot hold together. I maintain that the point of no return has passed and we might as well stop kidding ourselves. The thing has not held together.
For forty years we have failed to teach the faith in its fullness. We have encouraged a kind of experimental Catholicism and the experiment has failed. People somehow think it is my job as a parish priest to keep things going. I have had so many friends, other priests, whose spirits were broken when they had to close a school. When the collections keep shrinking due to the narcissism of the generation that knows not the Lord, and when the pastor has to find five or six hundred thousand extra dollars a year to make up what the low tuitions don’t cover, he has no alternative but to close the school. He can’t pay the salaries any longer.
Parishioners are irate. It is the priest’s fault that the school is closing. It has nothing to do with the fact that most of the graduates and their parents don’t go to church on a regular basis and when they do they toss a buck in the basket and resent even that. It has nothing to do with a failure to encourage children to join the convents and monasteries that sustained the Catholic school system with devoted nuns and brothers who loved the Lord and taught the faith. The parents’ guild has offered to have bake sales to help out. What more can they do? Have you ever tried to bake and sell a half million dollars’ worth of cookies in a world where people have 1.9 children per household? No, it is clearly the priest’s fault. We have sowed the wind and now we reap the whirlwind. Perhaps I am wrong and things really are just fine. On the other hand perhaps I am right and we need to go back to the drawing board.
I sound pretty grim, don’t I? I am not grim at all. These are wonderful times in the Church. We are returning to the Church of the first centuries, persecuted, and even hated, but those who believe are committed and vibrant. The Church is growing like never before, and people are joining themselves to Her not for the sake of an old familiar habit, but because She is the home of Jesus Christ Her Lord.
The Catholic Church, the steeple towering over the tiny village nestled in the hills of rural France or Italy or Ireland or Ohio is pretty much gone. It still exists in Hollywood and in the imagination of those raised on sitcoms and old movies, but it is a fantasy and fantasies don’t fund schools and orphanages. I remember a young woman in my former parish who made an announcement at the “inclusive” Mass inviting people to march in support of the right to abortion. Being more traditional in my understanding of the Liturgy I was not welcome to say the “inclusive” Mass. That was the Sunday I ended the “inclusive” Mass. In the firestorm that followed, the above-mentioned woman railed at me, shouting that I had no right to tell her what to believe as a Catholic. She was born Catholic. I corrected her saying, “You weren’t born Catholic. You were baptized Catholic.” In that moment, I understood the problem at the heart of the current crisis.
For many if not most, the faith is a kind of ethnicity. As we lose our ethnicity, we lose what we thought was faith. Her ethnic background was Irish. She didn’t believe a thing that the Catholic Church taught, but to admit that she was no longer Catholic meant that she was no longer Irish. She would have no reason to drink green beer on St. Patrick’s Day or to sing the old songs and pretend that she was part of something that stretched unbroken from the distant past to the uncertain future. She wanted none of the moral demands that Christ makes, but she still wanted the old steeple to cast its shadow over the churchyard where her ancestors lay buried. She wanted a myth with which to ornament her life. She didn’t want me as her shepherd in the faith. She wanted me to be the keeper of old memories.
I have no interest in that job. I want to be a priest. It is time to remember once again that the church is an intentional society. You cannot be born Catholic. You must become Catholic.
Next week: I am far from finished with this harangue.