A New Pope, But Same Old Church


I was born a Catholic. The first Pope I remember was Pius XII. When he died in 1958, the College of Cardinals elected Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli to be his successor. He became Pope John XXIII. What the College of Cardinals were looking for then, and still are, was someone who would maintain the status quo. What they got, unexpectedly, was a reformer Pope, like none who was known in their recent memory, and who has been unparalleled in his desire to bring the church into the 20th century. While he did not succeed, he did bring it into a more reasonable form. Most notable was changing the mass from being said in Latin to that of the local population. Other changes, what nuns could wear, the addition of lay members as servers, allowing for changes in how the mass is celebrated. But John XXIII died in 1965 and since then there has been a succession of very conservative Popes. These Popes have been deaf to the cries of the 1 billion plus Catholics throughout the world.

A Pope is an absolute ruler. He is answerable to no man on earth, only to God. A Pope can speak ex cathedra, which means, he can arbitrarily change church law without advice from anyone and there is no mechanism to reverse his decrees, short of his dying and a new Pope coming into power.

When I was young, Lawrence Massachusetts had 14 very active Catholic Churches and their associated parishes. The masses were well attended, and the churches were relatively healthy. Today there are only 2 Catholic Churches in Lawrence even though the city’s population boasts of just as many who claim to be Catholic now as did then. And Lawrence is not the exception but the rule. American Catholics have deserted their church in droves. Why? The answer is both simple and obvious, people who must live in the 2013 world are being led by men who still think like it was 1813.

In 2012 the Archdiocese graduated exactly one man, Patric F. D’Arcy, from its seminary. That number is by no means an anomaly. For decades now dioceses all over the United States have had to tell aging priests they could not retire because there was no replacement. Not having a replacement would not be so bad if that priest were also not the only priest in that parish. But that is exactly what is happening. This knowledge I gained through first hand contact with a priest in Oklahoma City. There are parishes in the United States that have no priest at all assigned because of the extreme shortage. These parishes are serviced by a visiting priest. How well can he know the people of that parish and attend to their needs?

Several years ago I was privileged to visit Poland.  Polish Catholics are very active and their churches well-attended and healthy.  I am at a loss to explain the differences between Polish Catholics and American Catholics.  I think it possibly, and likely, that Polish Catholics have only been free of Communist rule for 20 years and are still in that honeymoon phase where they can openly attend their church without worry about what the government might do to them.  But while there I also learned that a Krakow Catholic church had sent a priest to a Massachusetts parish that was experiencing a desperate shortage of priests.  That priest, however, was made to feel persona non grata and soon returned to Poland.  He was not made to feel that way by the parishioners but by the diocese in which the church was located.  Poland has an abundance of priests.  Is the American Catholic Church too vain to accept help?

One thing that probably drives more Catholics permanently away from their church is the church’s stance on divorce.  Unless you can get the church to annul your marriage, something money, not truthfulness, can attain, then you are not allowed to remarry in the Catholic Church.  The divorce rate among U.S. Catholics is probably identical to that of the rest of the population.  The U.S. divorce rate right now stands at about 50%.  The Catholic Church has immediately disaffected half of its starting population. It is small wonder that so many churches have had to been closed.  Why would anyone go back to a place that has rejected them?

A Boston Paulist Priest, Jac Campbell, now deceased, started a program, “Landings,” in the late 1980s to invite “lapsed Catholics” back into the church.  The program was meant for all Catholics who had left the church, but was clearly targeting that one group.  I attended a “Landings” seminar in the early 1990s, and while I was touched, and at least briefly returned to the church, I understood that regardless of how welcoming the Paulist fathers are, the rest of the church is not following suit.

“The Paulists seek to meet the contemporary culture on its own terms, to present the Gospel message in ways that are compelling but not diluted, so that the fullness of the Catholic faith may lead others to find Christ’s deep peace and “unreachable quietness.” Paulists do not condemn culture, nor do they try to conform the Gospel to it. Rather, we preach the Gospel in new ways and in new forms, so that the deep spiritual longings of the culture might find fulfillment in Jesus Christ. To this end, Paulists use printing presses, movie cameras, and the Internet to give voice to the words of Christ – the Word Himself – to a new generation of Americans.

The Vision of the Paulist Founder

The founder of the Paulists, Isaac Hecker, was a spiritual seeker, a wandering soul. He lived for a time in Transcendentalist utopian communities where he consulted the leading thinkers of his day. Though a seeker, he became a man of conviction: once he found the truth in the Catholic Church, he gave his whole life to it. His only desire was to proclaim the truth to others so that they too could find their true selves as North American Catholics.”  http://www.paulist.org/who-we-are

In Boston at least, the Paulist fathers are some of the most liberal priests anywhere in the church.  To their credit, they openly welcome gay Catholics to their masses.  They are active participants in the “Landings” program.  They make lots of room for divorced Catholics and Catholics of all sorts regardless of who they are.  They are, in my opinion, exactly the face the entire Catholic Church needs to put forward if it ever hopes to meet the needs of all its people, and not just those who will give in to its absolutist ideals, its impossible demands.

We have a new Pope and he has a great opportunity.  He can allow the church to wallow in its 19th century ideas through the 21st century, or he can be an advocate for all the people of the church, not just the select few.  With Pope Francis I we have some hope because he was renowned for working with the poor in his native Argentina.  But he is also known to be extremely conservative.  The question is, is he happy with the way things are?

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