When the Catholic Herald team arrived to launch our 130-year-old magazine in America, I thought we were primarily on an intellectual mission to “convert” educated Catholics to the riches of orthodox Catholicism at a time when the US Church is in crisis. But what I didn’t expect was that we also ended up converting our guests to another cause altogether. As Richard Johnson of the New York Post put it in his Page Six column: “Conservative British Catholics came to New York and re-introduced the natives to the three-hour lunch.” He quoted a guest: “The Americans were quite surprised that wine was being served and many of them seemed to forget they were supposed to get back to work.”
He was referring to a highlight of our trip, a VIP lunch at the Knickerbocker Club for which we had 30 RSVP acceptances. At least that was the figure that Constance Watson, great-granddaughter of Evelyn Waugh, had confirmed with the Knickerbocker’s head of catering around 9.30am. But RSVP disaster struck at 11am, just after we had breakfast. Constance calmly said: “I’ve just checked the responses and we’re now up to 46.”
By the time guests began drinking champagne, the number had risen to 57. I am not sure what would have happened if we had been in an English club and shown up with almost double the amount of guests, but the Knickerbocker managed to seat all the guests, even if it meant a table being wheeled into the library.
Grace was said by Fr George Rutler, parish priest at St Michael’s Church in New York. The way that American priests say grace is different from in Britain. For example, at a (much-needed) recent fundraising dinner we hosted to support the launch of our US edition next year in cities like LA, Boston and Chicago, Fr Julian Large, provost of the London Oratory, said a beautiful grace in Latin.
But American priests like to get more personal. So Fr Rutler’s grace asked that we should pray for God’s support in our Catholic Herald mission to America. Like Cardinal Newman, Fr Rutler seemed to address God personally, almost asking for him to become a spiritual subscriber to our magazine.
Until I arrived in America, I didn’t fully realise the extent to which the Church is caught in a conflict between competing liberal and conservative factions. Our arrival coincided with the publication of a Vanity Fair story headlined “Pope vs Pope: How Francis and Benedict’s Simmering Conflict Could Split the Catholic Church”, which laid bare the infighting and intrigue. When I sat down for lunch in DC at the Metropolitan Club, the first question I was asked was whether I thought the American Church could survive the article.
At least I wasn’t asked what I had done to my hair. Having come straight from the airport, I had needed to “smarten up” before lunch. Seeing a hair brush in the gents, I naively used it, only to find it was a special brush for members who still used Brylcream. It took two days of manic shampooing to lose the John Travolta look.
While we had several of New York’s most respected priests – including Fr Roger Landry of the Holy See’s mission to the UN and canon lawyer Fr Gerald Murray, a member of EWTN’s “Papal Posse” – at our lunch, no bishops were present. The sad truth is that the senior ranks of the American Church – especially on the East Coast – are dominated by liberal progressives who, for political reasons, are not inclined towards promoting more orthodox priests (however talented, charismatic or well qualified).
Fr Murray is a case in point. At a time when the US Catholic church needs inspiring leaders and role models, he is the epitome of everything that is good about American Catholicism. He is fluent in French, Spanish and Italian, and even studied for four years in Rome. But his serving for a decade in the US Naval Reserve as a chaplain and being a commentator on Fox News mark him as a conservative. If only the American Church had more priests like him, it wouldn’t be in such a state.
This politicisation of the Church may also account for the drastic fall-off of new priests enrolling at St Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, founded in 1896. In 1982, when the Brooklyn-born Fr Gerald was ordained, there were more than 100 priests in training. Now the number is a third of that.
The highlight of my week was Fr Gerald’s Sunday Mass at Holy Family Church on East 47th Street, followed by a small party afterwards in the basement – with a slide show – to celebrate the 34th anniversary of his entering the priesthood. In the Gospel, and excellent sermon, there were references to the dangers of “carousing” and “drink”. As a respectable chianti was passed around, along with birthday cake, I asked Fr Gerald if he had been sending out any sort of gently sublime message that the three-hour lunch we had hosted was sinful in any way.
“Certainly not,” he replied with his kindly smile. “Wine and Catholicism have always gone together.”