I must admit that I don't
think this canonization is
Pope Francis is canonizing two popes this weekend and in all likelihood he will be joined by his predecessor, Benedict XVI, for the ceremony. Two popes honoring two popes. It is historic moment. It is also, I believe, a mistake of historic proportions. I am not saying that the two honorees were not good men—though I do wonder if they possessed sanctity to the heroic degree that sainthood requires—but the canonization is at best the right thing for the wrong reason. I say at best, because I am not convinced that it is even the right thing.
I am not the only one who has reservations about this canonization. The wing-nuts on the left have raised objections to John Paul’s being declared a saint because of how the sex-abuse crisis was handled during his reign, including his own support for the late Marcial Maciel, the disgraced founder of the Legionaries of Christ. The wing-nuts on the right object to John XXIII because he called the Second Vatican Council which is responsible for the dramatic changes in Catholicism over the last fifty years. Personally, neither of those arguments hold much water for me; my objection is that this canonization has nothing to do with the heroic holiness of either man but is a political ploy to try to put together again the Humpty-Dumpty of First-World Catholicism. I say “First-World Catholicism” as the Church in Africa, Asia, and Latin America is still intact while in Western Europe and North America there are two Churches, both claiming to be Catholic. John Paul is the mythic hero of the one; John XXIII the mythic hero of the second. The irony of this canonization is that neither myth is well-founded in history and the tragedy of this canonization is that it is too late for such a symbolic act to effectively restore the unity of the Church.
In future entries we will look more closely at these two to-be-sainted pontiffs, but first: what do I mean by saying that in the developed world there are two distinct Churches, each claiming to be Catholic? We can sometimes see this by looking at two adjacent parishes that each manifest a different face of Catholicism. I will give you an example, though I am blocking the name and town of the parishes other than to say that they are in Fairfax County, Virginia. A friend of mine is preparing an article for a major journal and while she has given me access to some of her research, I cannot use it until the article is published. She has cleared this draft, however, and has agreed to let me give some of her conclusions as long as I don’t identify the places.
Parish A is a parish of 2500 families and comprises two communities: one English speaking and the other Hispanic. While there are a variety of joint activities—including Holy Week Liturgies—and while there are a number of families that participate in both communities, there are for all practical purposes two parishes meeting under the same roof. The Hispanic community is exceptionally active with two vibrant weekend liturgies in Spanish, one Saturday evening and the other Sunday afternoon with an average attendance of about a thousand between the two masses. The English speaking community has six liturgies: one on Saturday, four on Sunday morning, and one Sunday evening with an average attendance of about two thousand between the six masses. The music at the English liturgies is all contemporary music with piano, guitars, sometimes flute, violin, or bass. The Sunday evening liturgy has a contemporary music ensemble that is particularly good. There is no Catholic school but an extensive CCD program for about 1500 kids. There were 35 catechumens or candidates in the RCIA this past year, disproportionately from the Hispanic Community. There is only one priest assigned to the parish but he has an extensive staff of over a dozen qualified laypersons for religious education, adult faith formation, social justice, youth ministry, liturgy and music. There is also a full-time priest for the Hispanic community. There is a lay administrator for finances, facilities, etc. The parish has a particular emphasis on social ministry with outreach to the large immigrant population in the area and to senior citizens. Cursillo, Just Faith, Little Rock Bible Study and other activities are building blocks of a strong parish community as well as are “work camps” both for older teens and for adults that take parishioners to Appalachia to build homes for the poor. A ministry to the bereaved includes funeral planners, a “Resurrection Choir” and a team of parishioners who will prepare the luncheon after the funeral if the family wishes. There is an extensive Adult Faith Formation program with nationally known speakers as well as speakers from Catholic U and Georgetown. The parish rolls show that parishioners come from 72 different zip-codes, some coming over thirty miles on Sunday and even crossing state lines.
The parish directly north of parish A, we will call it parish B, has three priests and four lay staff, including the principal of the Catholic School. The school is noted for a good education and is a draw to the parish. The pastor handles administration and leaves the bulk of pastoral work to his two associates. Parishioners participate in a local Catholic food pantry but other than that activities tend to be the more traditional: Legion of Mary, Catholic Daughters, Secular Franciscans, and the Nocturnal Adoration Society. There is an RCIA program but I was unable to find out how many catechumens or candidates they had this Easter. About 1500 people attend Mass there each weekend. There are seven Masses each weekend and three each day. There is a weekly Sunday Latin Mass but all the liturgies tend to more traditional music and worship style. There is no Spanish Mass despite a significant Hispanic population in the area. Funerals are celebrated in purple or black vestments with the traditional Requiem Mass format, though (mostly) in English. While 80+% of Sunday Mass goers tend to live within a five mile radius of the Church, the Latin Mass does draw some from Washington DC and other nearby towns.
Parish A respondents said that they see the parish as a community that supports each other in a life of discipleship: service, faith formation, and community all of which came together in Sunday Eucharist. Parish B respondents said that the primary role of the Church is the Worship of God and that their focus is Sunday Mass attendance (or, for some, daily Mass). They saw outreach, social ministry, adult education, participation beyond Sunday Mass, etc. as “elective.” When asked what they expected from a homily, parish B respondents wanted clear teaching on issues of faith and morals; parish A wanted something that was “spiritually uplifting” or “awareness of the presence of the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.”
When my colleague polled people at each parish she asked—among other things—had they ever attended Mass at the opposite parish, that is had parishioners of parish A ever attended Mass at parish B and had people from parish B ever attended Mass at Parish A. About twenty respondents at parish A said that they had once been parishioners at parish B, but had drifted over to parish A because it offered a more stimulating Catholicism. An additional five respondents at parish A said that they were actually parishioners at parish B to have their children in the Catholic school, but preferred to come to Mass at parish A. Most of the respondents at parish A said that they would not go to Mass at parish B as it was too “pre-Vatican II.”
At parish B, a common response was “Parish A is not a Catholic Church.” when pressed for what they meant, many said that the liturgies at parish A were “too wild,” or that the priests who came in to weekend Masses or the speakers for the adult ed programs were “heretical.” Six respondents said that they lived in the boundaries of parish A but preferred parish B as it was “more faithful to the magisterium” or because parish A was “too political.” Despite these two churches being only about seven miles distant from one another, and each having regular parishioners living in the territorial bounds of the other, there is very little flow back and forth between the two parishes.