An extraordinary e-mail from a Pennsylvania Catholic reader awaiting the bombshell grand jury report on priest sex abuse there, which will be released either today or tomorrow. She’s writing about Catholics, but what she has to say applies to all Christians in post-Christian America:
A “spiritual healing Mass” by the International Fraternity of Priests was held last week. Most of the priests present were Americans, however several were from the Caribbean and Africa. The difference between them could not have been more clear. The American priests were flippant, jovial, irreverent, constantly in motion and restless, clapping and pumping their arms in the air, full of slapstick light-heartedness.
The priest from Trinidad who delivered the homily was a sharp change; solemn, reverent, head bowed, voice grave and kindly; myself and the other Americans I was with all instantly gravitated to him. There were no self-congratulatory jokes or substance-less “enthusiasm.” What he said in his homily was challenging, memorable, and profound. I wish I didn’t have to qualify this as not an indictment of all American priests, but one cannot seem to make an observation without someone else taking personal offense and offering a counter-example, as if one swallow a summer makes. Not all US priests are irreverent or seem to feel a constant pressure to behave like a sitcom character; but many are, and many actually celebrate those very characteristics while the pews empty.
Later in the evening one of the jokey American priests shared the anonymous healing requests submitted by attendees. About three times thickly veiled references were made to the current sexual abuse scandal; his voice dropped a bit to convey seriousness. The attendees all politely cheered, as they did each prayer request, though there was some emphatic nodding.
All in all, the evening was well-heeled and well-dressed, a collection of people no doubt suffering in many ways, no doubt in need of healing, but coming together in an atmosphere of almost self-congratulatory worship. The music was particularly depressing: mushy songs that occasionally bordered on heresy, seeking emotional exaltation and release. We were diving deeper into our own feelings and desires rather than looking outward to God. I can sing along to plenty of bad hymns; I have heard guitar music done that is an aid to contemplation and devotion. This was religion feeling transmuted via advertising aesthetics. It was entirely manipulative, turning healing and belief into a product for consumption to validate the believer’s “brand.” Is this not the story of 20th century religious development?
A few evenings later around 11 o’clock I was leaving a parish festival in a residential neighborhood. Families with young children and older couples walked along quietly to their cars. About 25 yards behind me two women in their late teens walked behind me. I say walked when contorted is more accurate. They howled obscenities and threats, gyrated, leered. The neighborhood has a bit of juvenile delinquent activity, so I ignored it and kept walking to my car as these women were quite capable of violence. One saw me put my head down and gave a mock charge at me, cursing. Their attention span is short if their rage is not engaged, so by ignoring them they lost interest and did not continue pursuit. People in the neighborhood have complained about the church bells being rung; I wonder if any of them had any thoughts on the shrieking profanities in the street? A bell-less world may be more miserable than they realize.
Can you imagine an older person saying something to these young women? A figure of authority meeting these young women crying out for limits in their abandonment? I cannot; I was too cowardly to do so myself. I see it all the time, and it’s frightening. There but for the grace of God go any of us. Children left to a revolving series of adults, surrounded by the constant drone of advertising and pop culture, a nihilist society that offers them nothing but self-gratification, and adrenaline can be, after all, a form of pleasure. Shock value has its appeal.
Theology on Tap does not help these tormented souls. There are parishes working very hard to help those who are lost, but this problem has dwarfed the ability of any bureaucratic program to heal them. They are on the fringes, not loitering around after Mass waiting for a kind word. Is the faith of the Church made visible, constantly, to these people? Perhaps our laity has already retreated too much, not into the Benedict Option but into the brunch or ToT option, where like-minded people celebrate their faith over the fruits of this world. I know a lot of these people (and to some degree am one myself); while their faith is beautiful, I do not think any of them know how to talk to someone in the grips of the culture of death, fueled by the death music of XXXTentacion. Heck, I used to think I was good at that, but the changes of the pop culture in the past ten years have overwhelmed me.
We need good, holy priests, men, to go out and meet them and point them to the beautiful, to the God who alone can heal their hearts. Who is doing this? Or are we drowning our few good priests in bureaucratic paperwork?
What is the way of life that distinguishes us from the secular culture? I see very few differences, except a few more intact families and the means to commit to regular activities like youth sports. Who really believes the things it means to be Catholic? If being Christian means we have transformed our lives, have given up the world, who looks like that is really true? It’s gym clothes all the way down; the vestments of a culture whose highest good is “energy.” Energy for what, though?
The solution will not come from the laity, because the laity has been handed over to Wall Street and Madison Avenue long ago. I do not believe the solution can come from American priests, because they are either compromised themselves or under constant attack. The idea of bishops reforming things are a joke. The seminaries cleaning up their act? Only if enough influential lay journalists hammer them. That may do something, but unlikely.
The truth is, I think we are seeing the playing out of a chiastic pattern. Far be it from me to deride Constantine’s achievements, and I consider myself an integralist, but at the end we all may be paying too much attention to this world. The collapse of vestments signaled something quite real. The success of American Catholicism in the early 20th century was its downfall; it did not transform America, but was transformed by American values of expedience, materialist success, and ephemeral emotions.
When someone has fully placed their dependence upon God rather than our twitter celebrities, when someone rejects our norms and dons a sackcloth and ashes, then reform will have begun. We cannot compromise with this culture and maintain our faith. Its goods are blood goods, its works stand between us and God. Our desire for material comfort leads us to reject manna, and the repentance that allows us to throw ourselves upon God’s will. Whether its Catholic socialism or neocon free trade, our focus is perpetually on distribution and progress. Repentance, if we mention it, is something someone else should do.
If your faith depends upon standing shoulder to shoulder at your Catholic high school football game, your faith will be broken. If your faith depends upon being respectable, it will be broken. If your faith depends upon a genealogy of immigration that roots you in a rootless culture, I get it, but it will be broken. If your faith depends upon the world commending you for being compassionate, it will be broken, because who is defining what makes for compassion? I do not mean to put myself out of this equation; if Catholicism becomes the religion of 10,000 people in the world, intensely lonely and persecuted while the world offers wealth and peace, will I stay with the Eucharist? I pray I will, but I do not live my faith deeply enough to be completely rooted there.
We need a new St. Francis. Previously I thought we needed a new St. Thomas Aquinas, but I think I was wrong. The arguments of Aquinas are beyond us, drowning in plastic, unable to get a foothold. We need a St. Francis to simply open our eyes and kick us into re-encountering God once again. We need to change our way of experiencing the world before we can articulate it. We need someone who will go to the public square and hand his father back the dead fruits of the world. We need someone who recognizes we cannot be full upon bread alone; who fasts and preaches the goodness of Creation, not the glut of satisfaction after an Amazon binge. We need someone who seeks out God’s voice, rather than drowning it out.
Only a total rejection of the worship of the tools of man, of the works that are not God’s creation but our own, will bring renewal. We do not need more oatmeal mush or Rockwell-kitsch or felt banners or emotional highs or thinkpieces on utopias. The Kingdom of Heaven is here, if only we dare to put down the world, not compromise with it. We are dying of false highs and “offering it up” language. We need penance, real, severe, and public, to acknowledge that sin is not outside us but within us. Perhaps it really was a catastrophe to remove the need for fasting after Vatican II, particularly as the world had never known such wealth. We need our outward selves to match our inward selves. The laity, the bishops, the priests: we all need a new St. Francis to make visible the terms of the choice between the wealth of the world and the joy of God.
Sure, the Pennsylvania report will be a problem. But those who want the Church to be entirely conformed to the world can wait it out. The real problem is the laity has been misled, those who have the strength to be angry are outnumbered, and we ourselves are so compromised and dependent upon the secular apparatus that we do not even know where to find a sackcloth.
Extraordinary. Prophetic. Thoughts, readers?