America Comment

America’s Catholic enclaves have vanished. But I can imagine a beautiful future

When I think about the future of the Church in America, I like to close my eyes. When I do, I see Marian processions, like the ones held by the Latino Catholics one neighbourhood over from me, but integrated and teeming. I hear the Angelus bell like the Islamic call to prayer. I see the Divine Office being celebrated as a regular part of parish life.

I see lay leadership and even some oversight in the day-to-day administration of parishes. I see more poor people than rich, but I see them all worshipping together. I see people in and around the church at all hours.

I see unlocked church doors upstairs and a pay-what-you-can café downstairs. I see an unassuming but welcoming place to sleep. I see and hear a variety of liturgical aesthetics, but a profound reverence for the Eucharist. I smell incense hours after the most recent Mass. I see public fliers for Eucharistic Adoration, not just for fundraising events. I hear children before I see them – before, during and after Mass. I see the elderly helping with childcare and children helping with eldercare. I see a pastor and his assistant priest, taxed but not overwhelmed by their duties.

This may be too optimistic, but it’s the kind of imagining that Church leaders, lay and ecclesial, must attempt. The Church’s sluggish reflexes are easily mocked, but the Church at Her best isn’t so much flat-footed as sure-footed: Her languidness is (usually) not sloth, but the natural result of Her rootedness.

Time and again, the popes have brought ancient wisdom to bear on contemporary situations: Leo XIII in response to the Industrial Revolution, Pius XI and Paul VI in response to artificial contraception, and Francis in response to the ecological imperialism of capitalism supercharged by technology. Even more strikingly, consider the explosion of Catholic artistic and intellectual life during the Counter-Reformation, with a simultaneous revival in spiritual life – rooted in tradition and tailored to changing circumstances.

The American Church, though, doesn’t need a replica of Trent (or of Vatican II). Rather, we need the Church to reckon with the reality of an American society where a genuinely Catholic culture seemed once to exist, at least at a local level, but then slipped away in a single generation.

My family has lived in Pittsburgh for several generations, and we’ve been Catholic for as far back as we can figure – at least as far back as 1843, when the Diocese of Pittsburgh was raised. While Scotch-Irish Presbyterians owned the mills that made the city famous, Catholic labourers, including my ancestors, kept them humming.

A century later, the rugged cityscape was a patchwork of ethnic enclaves, each organised around a parish. Some neighbourhoods had more than half a dozen parishes within two dozen blocks. The mill workers gave of their modest means and plentiful skills to build cathedral-style churches. Pittsburgh was the epitome of urban Catholic America.

My parents were raised in these neighbourhoods in the 1950s and 1960s. My mother says she didn’t have a non-Catholic acquaintance until after high school. My father tells of the social event of the winter season: Christmas Midnight Mass, where dapper boys escorted their belles to the pew.

The Church, in the proper form of the local parish, was the centre of life. The Church in America, especially in the industrial belt from the Midwest to New England, has been grappling with the unwinding of this system for more than half a century. Migration patterns emptied the old neighbourhoods. New suburban parishes tried to recreate the neighbourhood culture, but the geography of sprawl made it nearly impossible. As the children and grandchildren of the first suburbanites increasingly left the Church, a hard truth was revealed: Catholicism in the United States had for some time been largely social and cultural, rather than spiritual. Once the former anchor was lost, the latter became adrift.

Millennial Catholics in America were raised amid the expectation of apostasy. For most of my peer group, the lesson was clear: each successive generation takes the Faith less seriously. It seemed obvious that we would be the ones to cut ties altogether.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, most of my friends who strive to live the Faith are converts or reverts. My wife and I, for instance, both spent time away from the sacraments during our young adulthood. Others have harrowing stories of drug use and spiritual experimentation; some just gently faded away from Christ and His Church. We all – even those who never left – share something that distinguishes us from recent generations of American Catholics: the knowledge that we freely chose the Church. In an age of apostasy, those who stay or enter or return do so with full freedom and genuine commitment. That means younger Catholics see the Church very differently from the previous generation. We have minimal loyalty to the Church’s ancillary institutions and bureaucracies. The stigma of “pre-Vatican II” traditions means little to us – and so does the allure of innovations since.

What we know for sure, because we have experienced it firsthand, is this: a gauzy cultural Catholicism is no match for the corrosive power of secularism. A family or parish or diocesan culture in which the Faith does not permeate all aspects of life will create, at best, Catholic-themed secularists or, at worst, a new generation of ex-Catholics. This means reverent Masses, yes, but it also means prayer throughout the day for laity as well as clergy; it means making the corporal works of mercy part of regular parish life; it means making practical financial, legal and professional decisions as full-time followers of Jesus, not as part-time secularists. It is good for Christmas Mass to be the social event of the season; it is not good for it to be only that.

The American Church is haunted by memories – cherished by Her present generation of leaders – of teeming Catholic enclaves that can never be recreated and of a promise of renewal that never came to pass. At a young adult “listening session” in my diocese, a friend remarked that the Church’s liturgical tradition is deeply valued by young Catholics and asked about opportunities for nourishing that passion. The facilitator, a deacon who came of age around the time of the Council, was flummoxed at the idea of tradition-loving youth and extolled his parish’s new drum kit, before suggesting that incorrigible traditionalists could attend the diocese’s one Latin Mass church. If only the Church can appeal to contemporary tastes, the thinking goes, we can have vibrant, mainstream communities once again.

But the post-conciliar era has ended. Rapprochement with the surrounding culture has failed. Young Catholics can’t be fooled: we have spent our entire lives among the casualties. As long as the imagination of the American Church is limited by unrealistic nostalgia and vain innovation, though, the best we can hope for is a smoothly managed decline into irrelevance.

In the first days and years of the Church, entire families and towns converted to Christ based on the radical example of the early Christians – their selfless commitment to charity and justice, their confident trust in and love for each other, their total reliance on God. It is a failure not just of imagination but also of hope that so much of the American Church finds itself utterly confounded by this century when our fathers in the faith moved boldly within the Jerusalem of Caiaphas and the Rome of Caesar.

The vision with which I began is comparatively milquetoast: there’s no communal living, no liquidation of property, no courting of martyrdom. It simply imagines a world in which the Church – not just in isolated families and communities but as the united Body of Christ – acts as if She has a tradition of liturgy and charity and spiritual integrity whose attractiveness is timeless. It imagines a Church that acts like She believes what She teaches.

This is the 21st-century American Church that many, many lay people and clergy – especially but certainly not exclusively younger ones – would build if we could. The question is: will those to whom we owe piety and obedience permit us to do so?

Brandon McGinley is a writer and editor based in Pittsburgh

This article first appeared in the November 2 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here