Sunday, June 19, 2011

History: An Evolving Past

President-elect Obama and Family distribute
Thanksgiving food baskets at Saint Columbanus,
Chicago, November 2008 

I am in Chicago for some meetings and, at the invitation of a friend, attended mass at Saint Columbanus Church on the South Side.  Saint Columbanus was built just over a century ago to serve the needs of the an up-and-coming Irish-American middle class that were building large and gracious brick homes in the newly developing Park Manor section of the “City of Big Shoulders.”  Today, Saint Columbanus is a almost entirely African-American parish.  The Archdiocese of Chicago has invested heavily in renovating the facilities so that Church and School can continue to serve the community.  The magnificent neo-Gothic church, a church of Cathedral design and proportions, today hosts not the soberly silent Latin masses of a century ago with devout immigrant women fingering their rosaries but vibrant African-American style liturgies where Catholics whose forbearers were here long before the Irish sway and clap to Gospel tunes.  I suspect the old Irish of a century ago would look with disapproving astonishment on today’s liturgies, but the changed circumstances reflect the changed demographics of American Catholicism. 
Andrei Rublev's ion The Trinity
I sit here typing today’s entry in the kitchen of a rectory where a friend of mine is pastor.  A group of seminarians have stopped in on their way to a meeting—two Vietnamese, a Mexican, an Irish-American, an African-American, and a Pole.  The associate pastor in this parish is Lithuanian and there is a priest resident here—a hospital chaplain—who is from India. The priest saying the eleven o’clock mass as I write this is Filipino.  We are in a very different Church than the one I grew up in half a century ago.  One of the seminarians is reading aloud an article in the Archdiocesan newspaper about the Cardinal and the “Rite of Calling” for Lay Ecclesial Ministers.  What is a “Lay Ecclesial Minister.”  We didn’t have those growing up.  A Filipino lady stormed into the kitchen about a half hour ago.  For the feast, Trinity Sunday, the pastor had put a large copy of Andrei Rublev’s icon, The Trinity, in the sanctuary with candles and flowers.   “Why do they have wings?” she demanded and then “And they all look like each other!”   When informed that the icon comes out of the Orthodox tradition, the woman said she would call the Archdiocese in the morning about “that heretical picture.”  Well, it is true, “in the day” we never had icons.  But you know, things change.  My Irish grandmother thought that Pius XII had fallen into heresy when he reduced the communion fast to three hours.  She had suspect a weakness in the faith when water was permitted but was absolutely convinced of it when she could eat breakfast at eight and receive communion at noon. 
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) wrote: To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.”  Now here is a man ahead of his time.  Fidelity requires change.  As the world changes we ourselves, both as individuals and as a Church, must change if we are to keep our eyes and our heart fixed on Christ.  We cannot help but that the ground beneath our feet is changing and just as we must shift our position as the seasons pass from one to another if we are to keep our eye on the sun, so too as the world changes, we must continually shift to keep the focus on Christ. 
The ground is shifting.  The Catholic Church in our country is no longer a mostly-white Church.  Spanish and Vietnamese are the first language for a significant percentage of our Catholic populace.  There are considerable numbers of Creole, Portuguese, Korean, Tagalog, Igbo, Malayalam, French, Mandarin, and Cantonese speakers.  Catholics coming from Kenya, India, Cuba, Brazil, Nigeria, Palestine, and China, and bringing with them traditions from their native countries just as the Irish, Italians and Germans did a century ago. History is not about the past—history is an uninterrupted story, a continuous unfolding of the past into the future, the Eternal Grace of a God who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.          

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