Life & Soul

The American Church is showing us the way

Archbishops Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia processes with fellow bishops outside the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark (CNS)

Well, for the first time possibly in the whole of my Christian life, I didn’t celebrate the feast of the Ascension. I don’t mean I missed Mass. I mean it didn’t make the calendar, unless you count hearing an Anglican canoness speak of it on Thought for the Day just as I was leaving for the airport.

The recapitulation of Christ’s Paschal Mystery in efficacious signs is this year incomplete for me, thanks to a decision by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales some years ago to move the feast of Our Lord’s Ascension from its biblical date to a convenient Sunday, a decision made without consultation or appeal.

How did I come to miss the feast? Because I left England early on Thursday of the sixth week of Easter. The Anglicans, and even the BBC, seemed to think it was the Ascension, but the Catholic Church in England which comes to us from the Apostles had moved it to the following Sunday. By then I had been in the United States for three days, and there Sunday was the seventh Sunday of Easter, and not the Ascension. The Ascension was the Ascension, you see. So I missed it altogether. To my mind, this is further confirmation, if any were needed, that transferring the feast is a failed experiment, fracturing catholicity and derailing tradition.

On a happier note, my travels brought me to Philadelphia, where I attended an ordination in the Cathedral Basilica of Ss Peter and Paul. Like so many American metropolitan cathedrals, this is large: 250ft long and 209ft high to the top of the cross on the cupola. But since it was built in the mid 19th century it has been dwarfed by skyscrapers, which make it appear like some minor parish church. Only when you go inside do you get a sense of its noble proportions. Its seeming familiarity was explained by the fact that it is modelled on San Carlo al Corso in Rome. The cathedral is dark inside because at the time of its foundation there was sectarian strife in the city, so the windows were set at clerestory level for fear of vandalism, following the destructive Know Nothing riots of 1844, protesting against Irish immigration.

The Diocese of Philadelphia was created by Pius VII in 1808 and today numbers about two million Catholics, which sounds vast to English ears, but is actually a significant decline from a peak of four million in the 1950s. Coming from the Old World, one can be a little smug about the antiquity of our civilisation. But it is worth remembering that the American Church predates our own restored English hierarchy by some 70 years. We were still missionary territory, as far as Rome was concerned, when a self-governed American Church was laying the foundations of huge and populous dioceses on the East Coast and Blessed Junípero Serra was establishing his chain of missions in California. The Catholic Church in England is as the basilica to the skyscrapers: old and venerable and of quality, but pretty small.

There were seven men being ordained for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. I think my friend Daniel was the youngest, at 26. From high school he went to Steubenville, the Catholic university which has become a byword for orthodox spiritual and human formation of students. America is far ahead of us in promoting a culture of vocation. This was evident at the ordination. The sight of the serried ranks of seminarians serving or seated in a body in choir dress is itself a powerful recruitment tool; more powerful, certainly, than the custom in England, where seminarians are indistinguishably merged into the congregation dressed in lounge suits and the sanctuary is full of altar girls.

Archbishop Charles Chaput delighted in the ordination of a class of seven, but cautioned the assembled congregation: “I am retiring twice as many priests as I ordain.” He exhorted everyone present to pray and listen to God’s will. He has made a personal pledge to double the number of priests being ordained for the diocese, and to this end placed an auxiliary bishop in charge of the city’s beautiful St Charles Borromeo Seminary. He knows the truth of the saying: Spes messis in semine – the hope of the harvest is in the seed. In Daniel, at least, I am sure the archdiocese has a priest who will bear much fruit.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (29/5/15).

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