Life & Soul

Hope is already emerging in the US Church

I promised myself I wouldn’t write about the abuse crisis again this week. But if you are in the United States, as I am, there’s no escaping it. It’s all anybody in the Church is talking about, including Pennsylvania’s bishops who met last week not far from the conference I was attending.

I spoke to one of them. He is committed to doing something to address the crisis but is not sure how to equip his priests to do so. He has already reinstated the traditional Ember Days and mandated days of fasting in his diocese. He was personally named in the grand jury report and mauled for his handling of some of the situations in his diocese. He claims that the cases predate his tenure and he had limited scope to influence their outcome. He is facing calls for his resignation.

There is enormous anger among good and faithful Catholics. While large numbers of cases date back a long time, almost everyone I speak to knows at least one priest who has been revealed as an abuser in the last 20 years. One woman told me that her last three parish priests had all been removed because of allegations which were later substantiated.

The same bishop who called to discuss how to respond to the crisis has recently closed two thirds of the parishes in a once massively thriving and populous diocese. The vocations he needs for the future will have to be men of outstanding faith, courage and integrity to survive what is happening here.

For reasons of convenience, I went for Sunday Mass at an ordinariate parish in a town which used to have eight Catholic churches, but now has only two. The ordinariate church is attractive, with fine stained glass and statues and a sanctuary as the builders intended it, with a raised high altar and the tabernacle in the centre.

I had never been to Mass in the ordinariate usage before, but it was without doubt the most dignified and reverent celebration of the liturgy I have encountered in the United States. Some of this was due to the rite which was a rather compelling mixture of the Tridentine Rite and a few elements from the Book of Common Prayer, such as the Prayer of Humble Access. I have to say that the archaic diction and sober piety of Cranmer’s prayer book have always left me cold because they sound as though God is being addressed as a Tudor monarch.

However, that was the only thing that made me feel I was somewhere strange. I felt the irony that even with these elements, which were very explicitly designed for a reformed, Protestant liturgy, the ordinariate Mass seemed more recognisably in continuity with Catholic worship before the Second Vatican Council than the Mass of Paul VI – not unlike the Dialogue Mass which followed the Council.

I certainly preferred the ambience to the average American liturgy, where phalanxes of lay people must be in the sanctuary animating the congregation. Mass here was celebrated ad orientem. The priest wore no microphone. This fact alone alerted us to the different orientation of prayer. This was primarily about the priest and congregation being heard by God, and able to listen, not about the need to hear every word amplified as though at a show. The congregation knelt for large parts of the Mass and for Holy Communion, which lasted far longer than would be tolerated in a diocesan church. The sermon was excellent. There was even the Last Gospel and a reverent silence before and after.

The congregation included about 70 souls, including many young families. The elderly were in the minority. It wasn’t as diverse as I think a diocesan parish would be, but there were some African-Americans there and in the US people still tend to dress smartly for Mass, so it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking they are all very middle class.

Later I met a friend of mine, a young priest, for supper. Before he dropped me back at my lodgings at about 9pm, he told me that en route there was a church that had Perpetual Adoration. So we stopped and spent a few minutes in prayer in a chapel that was actually an extension of the presbytery and accessible at all hours.

Like everything about the US, there are extremes of scale. With 3,400 families in a parish it is possible to have a rota of people always watching before the Blessed Sacrament. The crisis here is profound, but some of the spiritual remedies are already, and powerfully, emerging.