In the parlor of my rectory where I meet with most of my spiritual directees, and others who come to me for counseling or instruction, there is a crucifixion scene, (see photo at right).
Among the many things means, it is for me something of a paradigm of the Church at her darkest moment. How tiny the Church had suddenly become. Gone were the crowds of Galilee which followed the Lord. Gone were the crowds of Palm Sunday shouting Hosanna. Gone were all but one of her first bishops, St. John. One of them (St. Peter) had followed at a distance, and then three times denied he knew the Lord, the rest of those first bishops fled to God knows where.
And now the tiny infant Church was gathered around her Lord at the foot of the cross. Yes, there is the Church, so tiny; only St. John, Mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary Clopas, and perhaps one other. So tiny now, so few.
Yet here was one of her greatest moments. The bride of Christ, the Church mystically united to her groom.
And strange, though even in this reduced and horribly suffering condition of the Church, Satan’s back was being broken, his power undermined. It is almost a Trojan Horse incident. For, even as Satan gloats over his apparent gift, a surprise waits within, a hidden power that will send him reeling.
And small though the Church has become, she will gain two surprising converts that Good Friday: the good thief, and the centurion. Perhaps not a bad day for a Church reduced to five or six: two converts, plus the breaking of the back of Satan’s power.
I often point to the statute in my parlor. For many come to me at times with great struggles, perhaps feeling defeated, or at least discouraged. I point and remind them that, for those with faith, there is something about being in the crucible, something about the cross that is pregnant with victory. Satan still has his incursions, and his apparent victories. But they are only temporary, they cannot stand. His back was broken Good Friday, and not by a large and triumphant Church, but by a tiny and suffering Church, the Church in the crucible, The Church at the foot of the cross with Christ her groom and head.
Many of us who share this blog together, are often dismayed at the condition of the Church today, and even more, the condition of culture. For those of us who are little older, our discouragement is deepened by the fact that many of us can remember a time when things at least seemed to be greater repair. Our families were largely intact, our churches filled, people seemed generally more able to make commitments and keep them…
The list could go on, but you get the point. Things were far from perfect, but things did seem to be more orderly, and the basic fundamentals necessary for culture, civilization and for the Church were more in place.
Yet, our mind should never stray far from that Good Friday afternoon, the Church so reduced, betrayed by most of her members, even her leaders; yet never more powerful.
There have been days of triumph of the Church, only to see collapse! And then, Victory again! The early days were so marked by suffering and martyrdom, and then suddenly the Edict of Constantine and the Church emerged victorious. Resurrection!
And yet, finally set free, Arianism reared its ugly presence and so many other endless fights ensued, perhaps necessary, over basic doctrines of Christology and the Trinity.
And then the sudden loss of the western flank, as the Roman Empire collapsed and moved to the east, as so-called barbarian tribes swept in to what we call Europe today. St. Augustine was so troubled that he wrote the City of God trying to explain how his beloved Roman Empire, finally having embraced the faith would now fall. St. Jerome, depressed, went to live in a cave. The Cross again.
But the Church struck up a conversation with those barbarians, and began to convert them, first in small numbers, then in waves. Resurrection!
And then, just as things seemed to be improving, all of North Africa, the great cradle of the Church, was lost, almost overnight, laid waste and mowed down by the edge of the Muslim sword. There were once 500 bishops in North Africa, some of the greatest Fathers of the Church had lived there: Augustine, Cyprian, Tertullian, Athanasius, and so many others. And now the great North African part of the Church lay beneath the sand. The Muslims made it across Gibraltar and into the Portugal and Spain before they were turned back. All of Asia Minor so beautifully evangelized by St. Paul, was also lost, lost to the Church! The Muslim invaders made it all the way to the gates of modern Vienna before they were turned back. The Cross again.
But now that North Africa was tragically lost, Europe began to flourish as a kind of Christian civilization was built there: Universities were founded, hospitals too, and the great cathedrals rose. Something called the great “Medieval synthesis” took hold. Resurrection!
And then, all of this to begin to erode with the rise of Nominalism and the Cartesian revolution it would eventually usher in. With intellectual confusion, came an epistemological revolution that severed the connection of the mind to reality, ushered in radical doubt, decadence, the rise of the individual autonomous self, and the rejection of any lawful authority within the Church. The revolution that some called the “Reformation” led to a break of unity, and the Church was once again firmly cast to the foot of the cross to search her own soul and begin a counter reformation. Ecclesia semper reformanda (The Church is always being reformed). The cross again.
Yet even as a million people left the Church in Germany in the Lutheran revolt, our Lady ushered in nine million Mexicans at Guadalupe. Resurrection!
Back in Europe, as wars, rebellion and confusion raged the Church was wracked by division, more Protestant revolts, and the hundred years war. A great darkness was gathering there that would lead to the bloodbath known as the 20th Century: two World Wars, bloody ideological revolutions, an iron curtain and an almost complete loss of faith. The lights were going out in Europe. The Cross!
Yet, even so, faith began to take hold in the New World, And, though early persecuted, waves of immigrants escaping Europe brought the Catholic faith to the United States in numbers too big to ignore. Even though Europe was racked with confusion and doubt, many fled from there and found in America a remarkable synthesis of faith and culture held in tight knot ethic communities built around parish churches….(With healthy persecution besides!) Resurrection!
But even America could not ultimately withstand the decadence of Europe and its decline in the post Cartesian centuries. America was eventually drawn into two European World Wars, and the poison of modernism reached our shores. And now there seems to be bewildering, almost demonic decline. The cross again!
And, suddenly, Africa is abloom again. There is a 7,000% increase in the number of Catholics in Africa in the last fifty years. Resurrection!
Yes, it would seem that the Church must often find herself back at the cross. Yet even as we are there now in the West, we must never forget that the Cross is pregnant with victory.
Many look to the Church now with ridicule and declare that we are done and defeated. But they have not studied history, nor do they know the power of God, and that the Cross is pregnant with victory.
Even within the Church there are naysayers who point to glory days and, in fear, announce great woe, and seek to assign blame for the current decline. “Things have never been worse,” they declare. But they too have not studied history (things have been far worse) nor do they seem to remember the power of God.
That the Church is at the foot of the Cross in many ways, at least in the West, in hard to deny, but the Cross is pregnant with victory. Just you wait and see!
Ecclessia semper reformanda! Sed Christus Resurrexit tertia die! Semper! Ubique!
There’s a common thread among many traditional Catholics (and some left-wingers too) that “the Church has gone down the tubes.” This seems to be a basic set point in too many conversations, and if one runs too far afield from this view they are “one of them” or are “off message.”
But I want to say to all the negative ones: the Church is a Bride, not a widow.
I have, in twenty-five years as a priest, found a great deal of affinity with traditional Catholics. I love the Traditional Latin Mass (and have celebrated it since 1989), chant, polyphony, traditional churches, stained glass, and I toe a line in rather strict conformity to the Church’s teachings and Scripture’s admonitions. I preached Hell and Purgatory even when it wasn’t cool.
But in recent years I have found my relationship to many (not all or even most) traditional Catholics tested and strained. I say “tested” because I have found that if I do not adhere to a rather strict, and I would say “narrow” line, I am relegated to be thrown out of the feast, and there in the “outer darkness” to wail and grind my teeth.
It would seem that for some, I am required to bash bishops, lament that the Church has “never been in worse shape,” and that every single solitary problem in the Church today is “due to Vatican II” and the “Novus Ordo” Mass. Stray too far from this, either by omission or commission, and I am in the hurt locker, the penalty box, and relegated to being no better than one of “them.”
Last week on the blog was especially hurtful. All I did was quote what I thought was an interesting statistic, that the average number of priests per parish in 1950 was “1” and that in 2013, the average number of priests per parish is also “1”. There are many interesting questions that can be raised about this number. Perhaps there were more ethnic parishes then, perhaps church closings now are a factor, perhaps many of us remember the Northeastern Urban experience, but knew little of the rural experience back then which balanced our reality. Yes, there have been closings and declines of late, but overall there are 17K parishes nationwide today, slightly more than in 1950, and double the number of putative Catholics. And at the end of the day, the number averages out to “1” priest per parish. More here:  and here: 
Anyway, while one may dispute how helpful or illuminating the statistic is, the real grief came to me with just how hostile and even nasty some comments (many of which I had to delete) were. There were personal accusations against me, there was a bevy of bishop-bashing, and Pope-bashing statements, and any number and variety of venomous attacks against perfectly legitimate Church realities, liturgical forms, and the Second Vatican Council itself.
Wowza! What a hornet’s nest. And all over a simple statistic that I found interesting. But it would seem that many found the statistic troubling, and generally seemed to find it, (and me) “off message.” It didn’t fit into, or help the narrative that some wish to cling to that the “the Church has gone down the tubes.” It got so bad and wearying in the combox that I finally had to shut it down. I was having to delete more comments than I approved.
It was even more discouraging since I have never shied away from talking about the need for reform and what does trouble the Church today. We have covered quite a lot of the “what ails the Church” territory here at the ADW Blog. I am no cheerleader for the Church of Wonderful. There are problems, and we discuss them.
But that said, the Church has not gone down the tubes, and things were not all wonderful (or all bad) before 1965. And frankly, we have NO WAY of knowing if the Second Vatican Council “ruined things” or saved things from being even worse. Those who say they do know, are just speculating, and some are also engaging in a post hoc-propter hoc fallacy. The fact is, we are where we are today, and we need to live now, and move forward. All the blame, bickering and murmuring generates more heat than light.
I was pleased to read an article by Jeff Mirus over at Catholic Culture.orgbecause he says well what I have tried to say here, namely, that we are not without problems, but things are getting better, and there is a lot to be excited about today. Here are excerpts from what Mr Mirus writes:
A few of our readers seem intent on rebuking me for not taking every possible opportunity to condemn bishops for their weak leadership, as if my job is to be a whistle blower. Of course, I’ve offered my fair share of criticism, and that is unlikely to end any time soon. But it is probably true that I was quicker to criticize when I was younger…..
I suppose most readers are familiar with the tale of woe which haunted the Church, especially in the rapidly declining West, after the call for renewal in the 1960s was distorted to justify a neo-Modernist accommodation with rampant secularism. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, we rapidly lost our Catholic institutions—religious communities, dioceses, parishes, schools, social services—to a false and highly accommodated vision of the Faith….But that is simply untrue today…..The institutional Church, in the West generally and in the United States without question, is substantially healthier now than thirty years ago….
Today the institutional effort at genuine renewal is palpable. There are notorious holdouts—especially among women religious, the Jesuits and the universities they influence (along with others like them), wide swaths of academic theologians, and some sectors of Catholic health and social services. But most dioceses have better leadership now than then, the seminaries have been largely reformed, the priesthood substantially revitalized, and the push for both the recovery of lost territory and a new evangelization is both very real and very strong. Happily, this is no longer your father’s Church. 
Well said! I remember how awful it was back in the 70s and 80s. Things are so much better today. I am sorry if this insight is “off message” but I am quite convinced it is true.
Mr. Mirus goes on in his article to cite a particular case of the Dominicans, and how reform has blessed them. And to his focal instance I can add that there are great new seminarians here, and younger priests overall who love the Church and are solidly formed. The seminaries are in better shape, and many new and reformed religious orders of men and women are coming alive and and making their mark.
Add to this many great new lay movements, publications, EWTN, and its nationwide radio affiliates, Catholic Answers, and some great new and reformed Catholic Colleges. I am humbled too, and gratefully pleased at the wonderful caliber of converts from the Evangelical denominations who bring with them love for Jesus and the Scriptures, and are so enriching us with a zeal for the faith, and who make up a great percentage of our most effective apologists.
Every day I also meet many younger adults who are alive, focused and enthusiastic about the faith, and who do not want to make the same mistakes that their parent’s generation made. Some are turning to traditional forms, other to more contemporary worship, but either way, they are alive and eager for the truth and to spread it.
I have little doubt that our overall numbers may continue to drop in the Church for a while more. But the reform is in place, underway, and deepening. And the Holy Spirit is accomplishing this in many varied ways. We’re getting our “mojo” back and I am happy to see it.
Again, sorry if this is “off message” for some. But I speak to what I see and experience and I don’t think I am wrong. I walk in the wide Church and see a lot of variety, and what I see looks better every day.
All of us ought to be careful about ingesting too much of a steady diet of negativity. It tends to make us negative, even hostile to the good and surprising work of the Holy Spirit.
Rejoice with me! We’ve been through a lot, and there are sure to be more troubles (for there always are), especially as our culture has not recovered in many ways. But God is faithful and his Church is ever young. Great reforms are underway and seem destined to continue, perhaps in spite of us!
Again I say, rejoice! The Church is a Bride, not a widow!
It is a common notion that the number of priests has plummeted in this country. Many speak of the halcyon days when there were four and five priests per parish, and the seminaries were packed. And while some of these memories are accurate, they are drawn from a time in this country that was very brief.
The fact is, the number of priests per parish spiked sharply after 1950 and has now leveled back to the levels of 1950 and before.
Note the graph at the upper right from the Center for Research in the Apostolate (CARA). It depicts the number of priests per parish. In 1950 there was an average of one priest per parish. Last year there was an average of one priest per parish. Welcome to 1950.
Mark Gray, writing at the CARA blog says:
There was about one active diocesan priest per parish then as there is now. The late 1950s into the 1970s represent an exceptional period in American history when there were significantly more active diocesan priests available than there were parishes. Age and mortality has and continues to diminish the size of the diocesan clergy population. Although ordinations have remained stable for decades, these are not sufficient to make up for the number of priests lost each year to retirement or death. 
Frankly, even in the glory days, America did not produce the number of priests we need to fill our needs. Back in the 1950s through the 1970s a tremendous number of FBI (foreign born Irish) priests were enlisted to meet American needs. My own diocese had a large number of them brought in, beginning in the 1950s.
Many ethnic groups in the Urban North also brought large numbers of priests to serve them from overseas. Today there are many dioceses that rely on Nigeria and other booming Catholic countries to supply extra priests.
It is true, most American Seminaries were bursting at the seams especially after World War II. But that boom would seem to be as short as it was impressive. Here on the East Coast, Roland Park in Baltimore and St. Charles Borromeo in Philadelphia had more than 500 seminarians in mammoth buildings that looked like Versailles as you drove up.
But as the graph shows, the spike was sudden and has settled back to the more common US experience of about one priest per parish. Again, according to the CARA study:
Nearly one in five U.S. parishes do not have a resident priest pastor. Seven in ten have a diocesan priest serving in this capacity and religious priests serve as resident pastors in 11% of parishes. In 17% of parishes a priest is serving as a non-resident pastor…in 2.5% of all parishes, due to a shortage of priests, a deacon or lay person is entrusted with the pastoral care of a parish…[who]….must still do their best to arrange for priests to be available for Masses and other sacraments.
Priests cannot be in two places at once and there are only so many hours in a Sunday. We have a good understanding of how many parishes there are in the United States and how many priests are available. The map below (click for full size) shows the number of active diocesan priests subtracted from number of parishes in each diocese…. In 60% of dioceses, those marked in yellow and red, there is no surplus of diocesan priests active in ministry relative to the number of parishes in the diocese. The green areas on the map have more active diocesan priests than parishes. 
There is more that can be read at the CARA blog that analyzes these numbers more deeply. But data like this reminds us that our knowledge of history is at time inaccurate since it is based on a rather narrow sliver of our own experience. That the Catholic Church in America grew enormously in the first half of the 20th century is indisputable. This was due to large waves of immigrants from Catholic Countries in Europe that were in one crisis after another. But even at the center point of that remarkable period of Catholic growth, the number of priests per parish was not so high as we remember, and even after it spiked (nearly doubled) between 1950 and 1960, it did not last, and a long leveling back to our current numbers has restored us to the mid century mark.
And yet, 1950, would be a year most Catholics think of being a high water mark. It was not, at least in terms of the number of priests per parish. Yes, welcome to 1950.
Many of us who are a bit older, say age 50 and older, remember a time when the Church, at least in terms of numbers, seemed much more vigorous. And those who remember even longer, who were born before 1950 and lived in the northern cities, remember a time when Catholic parishes were like enormous factories, some as large as 10 to 20,000 members with 15 or more masses celebrated on Sunday, all before noon.
The great influx of Catholic immigrants from Europe brought exponential growth to the Catholic population of this country making Catholicism the single largest religious group by far. And those Catholic immigrants huddled together largely in ethnic parishes which actually created ethnic neighborhoods, knitting together both faith and culture, seeking survival in the land, that at times, seemed hostile to them and the Catholic faith. All this made Catholics fiercely loyal to the faith and made the parish, the hub of the community, the center around which all else revolved.
Alas, this vivid reality receded between the 1950s and the 1980s, leaving large structures behind, difficult to maintain, which are now being closed in large numbers. Sweeping social changes, a cultural revolution, and the slow assimilation of Catholics into the wider American culture led to the demise of the system, that is hard not to admire for its organization, and effectiveness.
How things collapsed so quickly, is a matter for some speculation, but even in genius of the system of ethnic Catholicism, there were probably the seeds of its own destruction that were sown. For the fierce clinging of Catholics to their faith was as much due to ethnicity as it was the Catholic faith.
Ethnicity, made of many Catholics a kind of collection of fiercely independent groups whose allegiance to the local bishop, and connection to the wider Church, was often secondary and tenuous. At some point, fierce independence, comes home to roost.
Add to this, that ethnic identities which defined the first several generations of immigrants, tended to fade by the 3rd or 4th generation. It would seem however that the fiercely independent attitudes did not so easily fade. And thus, we still see that, among many Catholics today, their Catholicism is somewhat secondary, tucked under their political views, and world views.
As we shall see in the description below, and as most bishops know, shepherding Catholics is like herding cats. And this struggle is not all that new. It was well on display even in the glory years. Despite the outward appearances of deep unity, there were many fissures just under the surface.
As a brief study of this, I would like to quote somewhat extensively from the first chapter of a book by John McGreevey entitled Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the 20th Century Urban North wherein he rather vividly describes the strength of the immigrant church, but also describes some of the more negative trends within that vivid and powerful system of ethnic Catholicism. And while his overall book focuses more on the African American Catholic Experience, perhaps his writing in the first Chapter on the wider ethnic experience, might provide something of a opportunity for us to reflect on the roots of some of our modern struggles to maintain unity and discipline in the Church.
As always, the author’s work is in bold, black italics, my (Few) remarks are in plain, red text. I have reworked the order of some of his reflections, and am excerpting a much longer chapter. I hope you’ll find his description of the Urban Ethnic Church as thrilling and vivid as I do. The excerpt is long but well worth reading.
[From the late 1800s through the middle part of the 20th century] successive waves of European immigrants peopled a massive, and impressive church largely in the northern cities of America. In 1920, Catholics in Chicago could worship at 228 Catholic parishes… [The area of the city called] back of the yards area physically exemplified this. There, residents could choose between 11 Catholic churches in the space of little more than a square mile: two Polish, one Lithuanian, one Italian, two German, one Slovak, one Croatian, 2 Irish, and one Bohemian.… Their church buildings soared over the frame houses and muddy streets of the impoverished neighborhood in a triumphant display of architectural and theological certitude. Yes, I have always appreciated that older Church buildings to reflect a time of greater theological certitude. And while one may criticize the presence of opulent church structures in poor neighborhoods, the immigrants eagerly built them and thereby demonstrated a kind of priority of the faith which is less evident today.
[Even as late as the] 1950s, a Detroit study found 70% of the city’s Catholics claiming to attend services once a week, as opposed to only 33% of the city’s white Protestants , And 12% of the city’s Jews. Catholics really used to pack the Churches. I remember as a youth if you were late for mass you had to stand in the back.
The Catholic parishes, whether they were Polish, Italian, Portuguese or Irish, simply dominated the life and activities of the community with quite popular and well attended programs. Yale sociologists investigating in the 1930s, professed amazement at the ability of priest to define norms of everyday social behavior for the church’s members.
The Catholic world supervised by these priests was disciplined and local. Many parishes sponsored enormous neighborhood carnivals each year. Most parishes also contained a large number of formal organizations including, youth groups, mothers clubs, parish choirs, and fraternal organizations–each with a priest moderator, the requisite fund raisers, and group masses. Parish sports teams even for the youngest boys shaped parish identity, with fierce (and to outsiders incongruent) rivalries developing in sports leagues between parishes. CYO rivalries were still legendary even into the 1980s in many areas.
These dense social networks centered themselves around an institutional structure of enormous magnitude. Virtually every parish in the northern cities included a church (often of remarkable scale), a convent, a parochial school, a rectory, and occasionally, ancillary gymnasiums or auditoriums. Even hostile observers professed admiration for the marvelous organization and discipline of the Roman Catholic Church which carefully provided every precinct, Ward, and district, with churches, cathedrals, and priests. The parish I attended as a youth in Glenview Ill (North Chicago) had a rectory that was externally a replica of Mt. Vernon. The parish plant took up a whole city block. Every grade of the parochial school had its own separate building. There was an indoor pool, a credit union, a large indoor “playdium” that allowed for everything from roller skating, to basketball, to volleyball. The Church and convent were also magnificent.
Brooklyn alone contain 129 parishes, and over 100 Elementary schools. In New York City more generally, 45 orders of religious men, ranging from the Jesuits to the Passionist Fathers, lived in community homes. Nuns managed 25 hospitals. The clergy and members of religious orders supervised over 100 high schools, as well as elementary schools that enrolled 214,000 students. The list of summer camps, colleges and universities, retreat centers, retirement homes, seminaries, and orphanages was daunting. Absolutely incredible numbers. And remember its just Brooklyn being described.
St. Sabina in Chicago was a typical example of an immigrant parish. The parish was founded in 1916 upon request by Irish-Americans. The male members of the 7000 member parish were mostly policemen, streetcar operators, lower management persons, and teachers. Within the tenure of the very first pastor, the parish erected a church costing $600,000 and contracted the work to members of the parish to provide jobs during the depression. They built the school, convent, and rectory as well as founding a staggering array of athletic, religious, and social organizations. By 1937 the Parish plant also included a community center with a full basketball court that seated 1800 people. Attendance at rollerskating shows often climbed to over 10,000. Parishioners packed the church and a hall for 11 separate Sunday masses, and ushers organized large crowds at multiple Friday evening novena services. $600,000 in the 1930s was an enormous sum of money, almost 9 million dollars in inflation adjusted dollars for 2013. I am presuming that the 600K was for the whole plant, not just the Church.
[The Catholic system of neighborhood-based parishes had little equivalence among the Protestants.] When examining the splendidly organized system constructed by Roman Catholics, Protestant analysts bemoaned the parochial chaos in the fragmentation of membership which the Protestant groups had experienced. The general Protestant lack of geographical parish made it impossible to know who should be responsible, or to hold anyone responsible for the church and of any given area. Synagogues faced similar dilemmas. Most synagogues drew members from a broad area, and competed with neighboring synagogues in terms of ritual and programs.
[In the immigrant years, the Catholic parish made, cemented, and ruled over a local neighborhood]. An observer noted how the church building occupied an entire block, adding that the buildings resounding bells, with its immense throngs of worshipers, with its great tower so built that illumined it reveals by the night the outlines of the cross help define the area. Put another way, The neighborhoods were created not found. For the parishioners, the neighborhood was all Catholic, given the cultural ghetto constructed by the parish. Yes, the Church was the true hub of the community.
Catholics enacted this religiously informed neighborhood identity through both ritual and physical presence. A powerful indicator of the importance of the Catholic parish was found in the answer of Catholics (and some non-Catholics) to the question “where you from?” Throughout the urban North, American Catholics answered the question with parish names–Visitation, Resurrection, St. Lucy’s, etc. All of this meant that Catholics were significantly more likely to remain in a particular neighborhood than the non-Catholics. [And Catholic neighborhoods resisted strong demographic shifts and swings much longer than other urban neighborhoods]. This naming the neighborhood for the parish was common in Chicago.
For American Catholics, neighborhood, parish, and religion were constantly intertwined. Catholic parishes routinely sponsored parades and processions through the streets of the parish, claiming both the parish and its inhabitants as sacred ground. Catholic leaders also deliberately created a Catholic counterpart for virtually every secular organization. The assumption was that the Catholic faith could not flourish independent of the Catholic milieu; schools, societies, and religious organizations were seen as pieces of a larger cultural project. The instinct that faith and culture must be intertwined is a sound one. It is clear that as Catholic culture waned, so did the faith. More broadly, as a Judeo/Christian culture in the US has waned, so has belief and practice of the faith.
[Catholic life was also for deeper in daily life that most Protestant expressions]. Where both Jews and Protestants emphasized the reading of text, Catholics developed multiple routes to the sacred. Theologians describe this as a “sacramental” imagination, willing to endow seemingly mundane daily events with the possibility of grace. When asked, “Where is God?” Catholic children responded “Everywhere!” God was most visible during the mass, when the parish community shared Christ’s body and blood. But God was also visible in the saints lining the walls of the church, the shrines dotting the yards of Catholic homes, the statue of Mary carted from house to house, the local businesses shuttering their doors on the afternoon of Good Friday, the cross on the church steeple looming above the neighborhood rowhouses, the priest blessing individual homes, the nuns watching pupils on the playground while silently reciting the rosary, the religious processions through the streets, and the bells of the church ringing each day over the length of the parish. A magnificent description of sacramental imagination here. It is the genius of Catholicism and we have lost a lot of it to our peril. Thankfully we have recovered some of it in recent years.
And Yet, McGreevy goes on to describe some of the fissures that would later come home to roost, namely, a fierce independence and almost refusal to live in the wider Church.
Each parish was a small planet whirling through its orbit, oblivious to the rest of the ecclesiastical solar system.… All parishes, formerly territorial or not, tend to attract parishioners of the same national background. The very presence of the church and school buildings encouraged parishioners to purchase homes nearby helping to create Polish, Bohemian, Irish, and Lithuanian enclaves within the larger neighborhood.
[But] The situation hardly fostered neighborhood unity. Observers noted that various clergy had nothing but scorn for their fellow priests. Pastors were notorious for refusing to cooperate with (or even visit) neighboring parishes. A Washington Post reporter agreed, “the Lithuanians favored the polls as enemies, the Slovaks are anti-Bohemian. The Germans were suspected by all four nationalities. The Jews were generally abominated, and the Irish called everyone else a foreigner.”A kind of extreme parochialism
Most of the parish is also included parochial schools staffed by an order of nuns of the same ethnicity as the parish in which they served. Eastern European newcomers resolutely maintained their own schools instead of filling vacant slots in nearby Irish or German schools. Yes, and even I, born in 1961, remember how Irish and Italian Catholics were barely on speaking terms with one another. In one parish I knew, an Irish girl married an Italian man. There was quite a set-to about it and the couple could not worship in either of their home parishes, but had to find a third.
A 1916 Census survey revealed 2230 Catholic parishes using only a foreign language in their services, while another 2535 alternated between English and the parishioners native tongue. Even small towns divided the Catholic population into Irish, Italian, and Portuguese parishes. Detroit’s Bishop Michael Gallagher, himself the son of Irish immigrants, authorized the founding of 32 national parishes out of a total of 98. In 1933, Detroit Catholics could hear the gospel preached in 22 different languages. A kind of Balkanized scene.
Episcopal attempts to quash national parishes, schools, and societies only strengthened national identities. After one conflict with the local bishop and the Polish community, one participant in the revolt noted that such revolts “gave proof that we will not permit anyone to destroy a national dignity, pride and traditions. Another statement from a Polish group warned of ominous consequences if Poles were to be “deprived of the care of a Bishop from among our own race.” Cardinal Medeiros of Boston was never really accepted by that Archdiocese since he was not Irish. And his painful tenure there is detailed by Philp Lawler in his Book The Faithful Departed. And his tenure (1970-1983) was long after ethnic rivalries had largely abated in the US. The fact is, most American Bishops knew they had a huge mess on their hands, and beginning in the 1950s began to limit the formation of National Parishes and even outright closed some that were smaller and contentious. Even to this day a few breakaway Polish National churches still refuse the authority of the local bishop.
Rather than face outright revolt, bishops working with national groups pastoral appointments generally assigned an auxiliary bishop were senior cleric to handle and mediate intramural disputes. Outright revolt was a real possibility. Rebellion against Church authority did not begin in 1968. It had roots going way back. True, dissent from Church teaching was rare, but the rebellion against lawful Church authority likely set the stage later for what that authority taught.
Despite Episcopal concerns… 55% of Catholics in Chicago worshiped at national parishes as late as 1936. In addition, over 80% of the clergy received assignments in parishes matching their own national background.
Overall the period of ethnic Catholicism is glorious to behold. I am sorry I largely missed it. Such a vibrant and tight knit expression and experience of the faith! But it would seem, there was also a dark side. A local unity existed to be sure, but it was only 8 blocks wide. The overall experience was of balkanized Catholicism and hyper-parochialism.
The fierce and proud independence of the ethnic parishes reacted poorly with the rebellion against authority that was coming in American culture. And today, many of the problems that existed then have only grown: the resistance to the authority of the Bishop, the insistence on a perfect designer parish, and the tendency to tuck the faith under other loyalties that have taken the place of ethnicity such as politics and worldview. These things were certainly simmering in the vibrant ethnic years. And sometimes they weren’t simmering, they were right out in the open. Shepherding Catholics is like herding cats.
Still, I am sorry I missed it. But but at the end of the day, we ought resist the notion of overly idealizing any era. Scripture says, Say not, “How is it that former times were better than these?” For it is not in wisdom that you ask this. (Eccles 7:10)
Ah the Immigrant Church in all her glory, along with all that was gory.
On my last vacation (back in February) I listen to the first ten episodes of a Church History Series by Fr. Michael Witt Assoc. Professor of Church History at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis. The whole series has over 40 hours of listening where he systematically goes through Church History in a very conversational manner. The talks are entertaining and memorable and given by a priest who clearly loves the Church. They can found here:
To get to the talks click on the upper left square. The talks are then listed on the left hand side of the screen and if you click on the talk you are given the the notes and the audio begins. You can right click on the sound horn and select the option “Save Link as” to download the talk to your computer. The talks are in mp3 format.