If some of the Catholic bad news has you in the spiritual doldrums of late, read on because things are not nearly as dark as they seem. You might think that’s a delusional statement for a priest to make today, especially one who just marked seventeen years in prison for crimes that never took place. As I have written before, in the Solar system of Church life, I often feel as though I’m writing from the Oort Cloud, that cast-off rocky debris field circling our sun far out beyond the orbit of Pluto. Sometimes life out here lets me see a bigger picture. This might be one of those times.
I think most reasonable Catholics can easily see through the ridiculous publicity stunt I described in “SNAP’s Last Gasp” last week. From a public relations standpoint, SNAP did immeasurable harm to its own cause and purpose, and to those wounded Catholics who once looked to SNAP for support and solace – only to find there the empty void of vengeance.
Just who are these people? When the Catholic League issued its report, “SNAP Exposed,” an interesting demographic was also exposed. Attendance at SNAP’s annual conference in July represented just barely over one percent of U.S. accusers who obtained settlements as a result of claims against Catholic priests spanning a fifty year period. The Catholic League report showed that the majority of the 110 to 130 people attending the 2011 SNAP conference were between the ages of 55 and 65, with many older than that. There were few under 55.
They were teenagers in the 1960s which turned out to be an important point. The participants spent a weekend hearing presentations from contingency lawyers and SNAP leaders. The presentations were described in “SNAP Exposed” as “a very high level of hatred and anger towards the Church.” It all seemed an apt summation to a decade of hearing the same miserable dirge over and over again. “The Church has done nothing to protect young people.” “The Church has done nothing to heal our pain.” “The Church has done nothing to reflect American values.”
It’s not easy to juxtapose this hostile gathering with one that took place just a month later. During the week of August 15, upwards of one million Catholic teens and young adults – the very people SNAP says the Pope has corrupted – descended upon Madrid, Spain from around the world to cheer for the Holy Father with thunderous applause. These young people celebrated their faith as committed Catholics, and challenged the values inherited from the “me first” generation – from the very generation who now comprise SNAP. What took place at World Youth Day represented the future of our faith staking out its position in the world as what USA Today’s Anna Williams called “Catholic millennials.”
Anna Williams is an editorial page intern for USA Today, and a recent graduate of Hillsdale College in Michigan. She attended previous World Youth Days as a participant in Cologne, Germany in 2005 and Sydney, Australia in 2008. Covering the opening of World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid in August, Anna Williams wrote for “The Forum” in USA Today (”For these Catholic millennials, faith trumps relativism,” August 15, 2011). What she wrote was a compelling analysis of the state of affairs among young people of many faiths today, and she got my attention.
THE CATHOLIC SPRING
These amazing events all occurred at the same time. Thousands of young people throughout the Middle East have gathered in protest, one nation after another, for courageous demonstrations of what we have come to call The Arab Spring. They have protested and confronted the repressive regimes that hold them back as persons and societies. They have expressed their largely Islamic faith in a way that calls forth hope for democracy and the inherent rights of mankind.
What happened at World Youth Day in Madrid, then, could rightly be called “The Catholic Spring.” Over one million Catholic youths gathered in solidarity to affirm their faith in Christ, in their Church, in their Holy Father, and in their resolve to contribute to a better world. As Anna Williams described it in USA Today:
“Young people don’t need another meaningless affirmation of their worth. They want an explanation of how the world is and a mission that involves changing it. Their question is no longer, ‘What will make me feel good?’ but ‘What will make me a good person, and how can I do good for the world?’”
It’s also difficult to juxtapose this gathering of young Catholics with some almost simultaneous gatherings of another sort. Hordes of youths in Philadelphia, Chicago, Wisconsin, then London and surrounding cities in England, gathered to ask and answer only the question inherited from the 1960s: “What’s in all this for me?”
Theirs was no high purpose to bring about social change or to express a belief in anything beyond themselves. They gathered only to loot, to destroy, to demand, to show the world an example of gross human selfishness and social degradation. They should hang their heads in shame in light of what their peers of faith – both Catholic and Muslim – were up to as they looted. Theirs was a demonstration of what happens when all faith is removed from the human equation. It was an utter disgrace, and if SNAP and others of their selfish ilk have their way, this is the future of the very young people they claim to want to protect from the Catholic Church.
The events of the Arab Spring and of World Youth Day painted a far more hopeful picture of a resurgence of activism and a respect for traditional religious practice among youth of all faiths. Young people in Philadelphia and London should pay some attention to this.
Anna Williams, a self-described “member of this strange millennia cohort” of faith cited a 2007 analysis of the emerging faith of committed youth published by U.S. News and World Report:
“Fidelity to the Church is more important to [young Catholics] . . . Evangelical Christians . . . are reciting the Nicene Creed. Jews – and not only Orthodox Jews – are obeying religious and dietary laws more closely and using Hebrew in Synagogues. Muslims are more strictly embracing the Islamic calendar of prayer and fasting.”
Anna Williams is crystal clear on the reason for such an “Orthodox Spring” arising among young people, including the million-plus Catholic youths who greeted their 84-year-old Pontiff with roaring cheers heard round the world. “The answer comes down to this,” she wrote:
“1960s-style liberation – from moral codes, family obligations, religious commitments – has betrayed us . . . So our baby-boomer parents partied hard, yet in so many cases left us only the hangover: heartbreak, addiction and broken homes, rising rates of teenage depression and suicide. The anything-goes religion of the late 20th century cannot prevent, or even explain these consequences.
For Anna Williams, the solution for Catholic youth in the first decade of the 21st century has been evident. The solution is the great adventure of orthodoxy evident in The Catholic Spring seen in young Catholics throughout the Western world – including In our seminaries. They reject the assumptions Of the 1960s in favor of the creeds, practices, and moral codes that defined religious life in the Catholic Church for centuries. Why, Anna Williams asks, are these million young Catholics at World Youth Day so happy to be Catholic?
“Because they’ve recognized that the Church’s teachings are, in fact, true, and because freedom lies in self-sacrifice.”
GOOD-BYE, GOOD MEN
I have heard priests my age and older disparage this trend among young Catholics, and especially among young priests. I’m not sure that I fully grasp what’s behind it, but I have first hand experience of it. In “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” I described my seminary days in the 1970s. I was assigned to what was then the nation’s most liberal Catholic seminary, Saint Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore.
I had spent the previous five years as a Capuchin so the prevailing “wisdom” of my diocese was that I needed a more “progressive” experience of Church to be a diocesan priest in a Northeast diocese. I was a good student, and excelled academically, and that’s what seemed to be a top priority for seminary administrators then. That alone kept me off their radar screen and their constant suspicion of signs of orthodoxy.
I wasn’t considered a traditionalist by any means, nor was I liberal. But my name ended up on a sort of inside “blacklist” when I became involved in an incident in my second year. The seminary students became aware that Pope John Paul II was to visit Washington, DC – a mere hour’s drive from Baltimore – in 1979. We also became aware that the seminary rector, a priest of my diocese, had declined – on our behalf – an invitation for seminarians at St. Mary’s to participate in a special Mass for seminarians with the Holy Father.
The rector was using the papal visit for his own personal protest, and imposed that protest on the seminarians who represented some thirty-three dioceses across the country. Shockingly, many seminarians contacted their own bishops and dioceses but they chose not to intervene or interfere.
Most people today cannot imagine this bizarre scenario. Priesthood candidates from the nation’s oldest Catholic seminary were openly barred from accepting a direct invitation to meet with the Holy Father and attend a Mass for seminarians. The matter resulted in a seminary-wide protest of our own. It seemed to come as a shock to the rector that the allegiance we felt to the Pope outweighed our tolerance for the rector’s strange snub of him.
A meeting of the students and faculty was called, but the rector took a hard line. Any seminarian from St. Mary’s who traveled to Washington for Mass with the Pope would face academic censure, including unexcused absence from exams – which just happened to be scheduled for the same day as the Pope’s visit – and would not be permitted to make them up.
We were not impressed, and we were not backing down. I was among many seminarians who signed a petition seeking the removal of the rector during this incident. The lines of demarcation seemed to be drawn then. The more liberal seminarians refused to sign the petition. The more traditional seminarians all signed it. I signed it because I saw this as a matter of fundamental justice.
Catholic seminarians were being blacklisted for having a Catholic identity and an expressed allegiance to Rome. Because I was “academically fit,” I continued and survived there, but for defending the right of traditional seminarians to be traditional, I suffered the consequences including entirely untrue labels of being an alcoholic and being psychologically unstable. There was no basis in fact for any of these labels, but this was a common retaliation by seminary administrators who wanted to bar or delay the ordinations of more orthodox seminarians.
Michael Rose wrote of this in his landmark book, Good-Bye, Good Men (Regnery Publishing, 2002). The Catholic sex abuse crisis today had its origin in the events described in this book. As I read Michael Rose’s chapters about polarizing and blacklisting orthodox seminarians in the 1970s and early 1980s. I marveled at his accuracy. Openly gay seminarians were pushed through while openly orthodox seminarians were labeled with all sorts of red flags that could bar them from ordination. My red flags came about solely because I protested a ridiculous and scandalous boycott of the Pope.
Those priests who criticize the trend toward orthodoxy that has flourished among younger priests fail to recognize that it merely reflects a growing counter-cultural trend among young people. These detractors also fail to notice that the empty alternative to the growing religious fidelity among young people is what just took place over four days of terror in London. Our New Age suspicion and dismissal of tradition, fidelity, and orthodox faith in Western Culture has put its very progeny at risk of destruction. Would you rather see your own sons and daughters among the thousands who looted in London in August or among the million who joined in solidarity with the Pope in Madrid that same month?
I, too, was a teenager in the 1960s, and I embraced all the counter-cultural empty promises for a free and better world. Today I see this much as Anna Williams does. The youthful Catholics of World Youth Day were a sign of our greatest hope for The Catholic Spring that is indeed upon us. As a millennial Catholic, USA Today’s Anna Williams represents the future of American Catholicism. We can only hope that she is also the future of American journalism as well.
The Catholic League journal, Catalyst, also carried a report on the global Catholic Church in September (”Catholic Church is Booming“). The report profiles recent findings by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. On a global scale, the Catholic population over the last forty years has increased 75 percent. Latino Catholics, who once defected en masse for evangelical faiths, have increased 40 percent. In the last decade, believe it or not, global Mass attendance is up 15 percent.
By the way, the “Catholic Church Booming” report appeared in Catalyst just above its newest endorsement of These Stone Walls – which I just now realized wasn’t intended as an example of how the Catholic Church is booming.
The sixties are indeed over. I can never seem to hold on to my delusions!
Fr. Gordon J. MacRae is a Spero News columnist, and a prisoner in the New Hampshire State Prison. Read about him at www.TheseStoneWalls.com.