|Notre Dame du Cap in the|
heartland of what was once
French and Catholic Canada
I am spending a vacation week in French Canada—my first return here in almost fifty years. The area is stamped with its Catholic heritage. Place names: Sainte Anne, Saint Benoit, Notre Dame du Cap, Saint Sebastian, Sainte Madeleine, l’Ange Guardien, Saint Luc. Streets are named after saints, bishops, nuns and priests. Every significant ville has its Couvent des Ursulines, invariably now a museum. Driving along route 138 north of Quebec the towns are dotted with their charming 18th century church steeples. But the Catholic faith—vibrant only a few decades ago—is now all but dead. This is not only the story in Nouvelle France, but in Old France as well. And Spain. And Germany. Ireland is falling fast into the crevice of a post-Christian banishment of God from the culture. And we are not far behind.
This is not simply a Catholic problem. Calvinist Holland and Switzerland, Lutheran Denmark, Norway and Sweden, Anglican England, Baptist Wales, Presbyterian Scotland all find their empty churches turning into discothèques and restaurants and senior centers. God simply is not relevant to contemporary culture.
The problem is not, of course, God. And while contemporary culture may be the challenge, it is not the problem. The problem is our reluctance to have enough faith to be able to strip away the cultural accretions we have added to our faith over the centuries and shape the essentials to speak the Good News of the Kingdom of God in the language of our Postmodern culture.
I write of “accretions” and “essentials.” The Gospel remains the Gospel across the centuries and cultures. God so love the world that he sent his only Son that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. God did not send his son to condemn the world but rather that the world might have live in him. That message remains ever valid. The problems are the layers of gilt that we have applied to the lily in God’s name when they really have always been more to our fancy. We don’t need the gilt. The Lily is enough the way God made it. And God has given us a rich heritage that, remodeled to present its best face to our world, can be an invaluable tool for re-evangelizing our Postmodern culture.
What aspects of our Catholic heritage speak best to the contemporary world?
1. A sense of mission. Mission challenges people today. Many feel a need to make a difference in bettering the world. For some this may be the challenge of turning back the negative impact we have had on our environment. For others it may be making a difference in third-world nations. For still others it might be making a difference in our inner-city public schools. The campaigns are as varied as are the interests. One Catholic Church that has been enormously successful in attracting people of all ages and backgrounds is the Church of the Nativity in Burke VA. A huge part of the glue that binds this community of faith is the passion for the people of Haiti which their late pastor, Father Richard Martin, encouraged. They have made a huge difference. The parish’s Operation Starfish has, since 1998, built over 1300 homes along with schools, clinics, sewing co-ops, fishing co-ops, small businesses, and vocational training centers in 10 “Nativity Villages” in Haiti. Under Father Martin’s leadership and with his drive to make a better world in some very concrete and demonstrable ways, the parish tripled in membership. This is only one example of how a sense of Mission can energize people and give them a reason to be plugged into Church.
2. A sense of community. The old sitcom Cheers featured a bar “where everyone knows your name.” The increasing isolation in today’s society is counter-balanced by a longing people have to belong to groups where others know them and they know others. Really know. Connect. So often today people are no more than a cog in the impersonal wheel of life. Gone are the days when one worked for an employer who knew them and cared about them and their families. Today people migrate from employer to employer, leaving no impact and forgotten within days after their leaving. The Church needs to be far more personal. As Catholics we have maintained the heritage of community over the individualism of Protestantism, but too often community is only a theological concept and not a tangible reality. I have seen churches that are genuine communities. Within the last year I attended the funeral of a friend at an impossibly large church in Northern Virginia. The sanctuary seats over 1200, though the funeral was held in the more intimate “Day Chapel” that holds maybe 200. I was amazed to see how people rallied around my friend’s husband and children. The chapel was packed. There were a full set of volunteer ministers: Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, readers, cantors, servers. A squad of parishioners prepared and served a lunch for us—all 200—after the Mass. People milled around, talking to us out-of-towners and welcoming us to their “parish family.” Given the size of the parish, it is not rare for such funerals to happen three and four times a week but an inclusive community makes this possible. And I want to highlight inclusive. I noticed that at this parish there are regular meetings for AA and other 12 step programs including for those with compulsive sexual behaviors. “And we have gone out of our way to welcome the LGBT community,” the pastor told me when, writing this blog, I called for more information. There are support groups for the divorced and remarried as well as for singles, widows, and others who need the affirmation of a Christian fellowship. While many of their neighboring parishes are withering on the vine, this Church (the pastor asked me not to reveal it’s name because of its gay-friendly policy in a people-hostile diocese) is growing steadily.
3. A recovery of our mystical tradition. The fine points of doctrine do not interest most people under sixty today but there is a deep interest in the spiritual journey. X-Catholics are turning to Buddhism, Hinduism, Wicca, and New Age gimmicks when we have an incredibly rich and far more sound spiritual heritage in Francis de Sales, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius Loyola and his Spiritual Excercises, Meister Eckhart, Thomas à Kempis and his Imitation of Christ, Brother Lawrence, Elizabeth of the Trinity, and a host of other spiritual writers. How many of our clergy or religious today know anything substantial of this heritage? I have had dinner at Wolfington Hall with the Jesuits at Georgetown University, an experience nonpareil in both gastronomy and lively conversation. Jesus did figure in the conversations; Ignatius did not. Pity. There is a light here not to be hid under a bushel. For all the academic vigor of the Jesuits, please remember your first and most needed gift is the spiritual tradition of Ignatian Spirituality. You can educate the best but what we need you to pass on—that which only you can pass on—is that experience of Jesus which Ignatius has revealed. And you Carmelites—the rigors of your silences and fasts are wasted if you don’t pass on the profound path to heart where Jesus waits that Teresa and John have shown us. And who hears anything today of Francis de Sales and the Introduction To The Devout Life? I don’t want a Salesian pastor administrating my parish or a Visitation Nun teaching French—they need to bring out the treasures that belong to the Church and make them available to a world that wants to find meaning in their lives. I wish I could say that I knew any parish that was doing this, but the popularity of Richard Rohr and Richard Rohlheiser and Joan Chittester and Thomas Keating and the late Thomas Merton and John Main all testify to the powerful draw that the spiritual path has today.
4. We need a new path in worship. The Second Vatican Council called for the Liturgy to be adapted to the cultures it encounters in its outreach to the peoples of Asia, Oceania, Africa, as well as the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia. We are now encountering a radically shifted culture in the Developed World and we need to be open to adapting our rituals and prayers to that new culture. I am going to write more on this specific topic in a future posting but suffice it to say that neither a return to the frozen-in-time (which is radically different from “timeless”) farce of liturgical restorationism and the reestablishment of the baroque rite of the 1570 Missal, nor slapping the Band-Aids of “being hip” on the 1970 rite can meet the crisis. The central core, not of the ritual but of the Mysterium Fidei, can and must remain but we must not be afraid to deconstruct the edifice and from its ancient stones build anew.
There is an urgency in proclaiming the Gospel in the cultural vernacular. Saint Paul did it in the first century when he encountered the Greek Culture of the Mediterranean world. Patrick did it bringing the faith to the Irish as Bonfiace did to the Germans and Ansgar to the Scandinavians. Matteo Ricci tried to do it to bring the Gospel to the Imperial Court in Beijing and had he not been undermined by the Dominicans and Augustinians who were so locked in the prison of religion that faith was no longer a living reality, China today might be Catholic. The acculturated Gospel has made the Dancing Church of Africa come alive in faith, has sustained the Vietnamese in their years of limited freedom, and has shifted the center of gravity in the Catholic world from the tired North to the Global South. It can fan the embers of European and American Christianity in life again.