Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Catholicism Without Apologies 3: American Catholicism, Thanksgiving, The Joy of the Gospel, and More....

My first ‘View from the Pew’ column appeared in The Catholic Voice in December 2013. My original idea was to write the column in the form of a diary, with several subjects per column, each linked to my personal experience. I moved away from this idea in later months.

December 2013
This year, I spent the week of Thanksgiving in Richmond, Virginia. It was a relief to get away, if only for a few days, from the Irish media’s non-stop campaign against the Catholic Church, not to mention its incessant cheerleading for abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage. I have been in Richmond many times, but I had never been in America for Thanksgiving before.

St. Benedict's Church in Richmond Virginia

Richmond has a strong Catholic presence. The parish of St. Benedict’s is a vibrant and traditionally-minded Catholic community, a home to many young people who take their faith very seriously. It’s a treat to go to Sunday Mass and to see many young parents with babies and infants in the pews, to hear Latin being used so extensively in the liturgy, and to feel the presence of a whole Catholic culture and way of life.

In Dublin, it seems to me, Mass-going is mostly an individual activity. But in Richmond, whole families go to Mass together.

One evening, a couple of years ago, I attended a “Theology on Tap” event in Richmond. This was a Catholic talk given in a local bar. The speaker was a young man who had converted from Presbyterianism to Catholicism, after deep study and reflection. The place was packed with young people, mostly in their twenties. When the speaker asked for questions, there was no shortage of them—and they were thoughtful, theologically literate questions, too. I couldn’t imagine such a scene in Dublin—and bear in mind that Richmond is a fraction of Dublin’s size.

Of course, it’s easy to idealize. Although America seems much more friendly to Christianity than the Ireland of today, Stateside Christianity is often skin-deep at best.

To take an example, I was pleased to come across a stand of Christian books in a supermarket in Richmond, and couldn’t help remarking how unlikely such a sight would be in a supermarket tin Ireland. But, flicking through some of the books, I quickly realised they were little more than standard self-help books with a sprinkling of Scriptural quotations. The motivational books of the “mega-church” pastor Joel Osteen (Every Day a Friday, Become a Better You), crowd the bookshops, and seem to be Christian only in the most nominal sense imaginable. And it’s clear that a lot of church-going and church adherence in America is a matter of tribalism or identity, as was the case in Ireland until recently—what might be termed “bumper sticker Christianity”. 

But the difference between the Irish and the American attitude to religion is still a meaningful one, in spite of all this. It can be seen in little things—like the way words like “God” and “Jesus” roll effortlessly off the tongue of Americans, while they seem to stick in the throat of Europeans, even religious Europeans. It can be seen in the unselfconsciousness with which Americans will say grace in a restaurant, or indeed in their own house. It can be seen in more significant things, too—like the thirteen per cent increase in applications to US seminaries in the last ten years, a stark contrast to our own dribble of new seminarians.

I put all such broodings aside, however, as I determined to enjoy my first American Thanksgiving.

When I was younger, I actually thought Thanksgiving was the American equivalent of Christmas. And, until I experienced it at first hand this year, I had a foggy idea of what it actually involved. I knew it involved a big dinner, and lots of people frenetically trying to traverse great distances to be with their families, as in the wonderful movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles.  But what else was there to Thanksgiving?

Not a whole lot more, as it turns out. Thanksgiving seems extraordinarily close to being a holiday for the sake of a holiday.

We made an enormous turkey dinner in the afternoon, and in the morning we watched (on television) the big Macy’s parade from New York, followed by the final of the National Dog Show, which is always televised on Thanksgiving.  (How delicious quaint is that particular tradition?) An American foxhound called Jewel was the deserving winner this year.

Jewel, champion American foxhound

Perhaps just as interesting as Thanksgiving is the day that follows it—Black Friday, so called from the fact that many shops don’t go “into the black” until that day of the year. It is not only the biggest shopping day of the year in America, but a scene of pandemonium in many stores as bargain-hunters rush to pick up the best buys.

Unfortunately, Black Friday is no joke, but a very disturbing spectacle of consumerism gone mad. My wife wisely advised that we should stay inside that day, but we watched internet videos of shoppers literally fighting and trampling each other for the bargains, all over the nation. A few years ago, a Wal-Mart employee actually lost his life in the Black Friday crush. And this year a man was stabbed, in the very State I was visiting—over a space in a shop’s car park.

If you ever find yourself wondering whether Christians make too much heavy weather over “consumerism”, or whether claims that shopping is used to fill a spiritual vacuum are rather far-fetched, just look at “Black Friday”.

This festival of greed is also eating into the holiday the day before, as shops open earlier on the Friday morning, or on Thanksgiving Thursday itself, denying their staff the opportunity to spend the day with their families and friends.

Such naked exploitation was one of Pope Francis’s targets in The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium), the apostolic exhortation on the New Evangelisation, whose release was the week’s big Catholic news.

Knowing what a travesty the media would make of the Pope’s carefully-considered words, I decided to ignore the coverage, download the document to my smart-phone, and read it for myself on the plane back to Ireland.

I wonder if people who don’t read Papal documents realize what they are missing? Or whether non-Catholics ever suspect what intellectual pleasures there are to be found in the study of the Faith? Some recent Papal encyclicals—like Blessed John Paul II’s Faith and Reason and The Splendour of Truth, or Pope Benedict’s In Hope We Are Saved, are deliciously meaty extended essays worth reading again and again, as much for enjoyment as instruction.

Apart from a few hours of sleep, I spent the entire flight home mulling over The Joy of the Gospel. I don’t mind admitting that a few passages moved me to tears.

When Pope Benedict retired, I was distressed and anxious. I suspect the gentle Bavarian will always be my favourite Pope. But who could fail to see an initiative of the Holy Spirit in the arrival of Pope Francis, and the astonishing outpouring of enthusiasm and energy he has sent through the Church, and through the whole world? It’s extraordinary how many churches already have his image hanging over their main entrance.

The Joy of the Gospel is the strongest expression yet of a theme that the previous two Popes often raised—that is, that mission and evangelisation should be the central goal of the Church, that (to quote the document) her “customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.” And it is brimful of this Pope’s oft-repeated theme that it is better for the Church to take risks, and to find new ways to take the Gospel to the world, than to sit tight on the laurels of tradition and triumphalism.

It resounds with this Pope’s trademark pithy phrases. “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter…an evangeliser must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral.” “Evangelisers…take on ‘the smell of the sheep’.”God asks everything of us, yet at the same time he offers everything to us.” “Nor is it fitting [for a homilist] to talk about the latest news in order to awaken people’s interest; we have television programmes for that.” “The Church urgently needs the deep breath of prayer”.

The document is over two hundred pages long and covers an impressive range of subjects, all connected to the central theme of evangelisation. It is freely available on the internet and I encourage you to read the whole thing for yourself, even if it takes a few sittings. It is simply impossible to write a brief overview of a document so deep and many-sided.

One thing, however, that I will mention about The Joy of the Gospel is its civil, even genial tone. All too often, traditionally-minded Catholics (like myself) fall into the trap of taking the term “the Church Militant” to mean that we should be abrasive in our presentation of the Gospel, that we should pull no punches and mince no words, that we should almost exult in offending modern sensibilities at every opportunity. This is not Pope Francis’s attitude, any more than it was the attitude of his two illustrious predecessors.

Michael Voris of Church Militant TV. Well-intentioned, often right, but....

In this document, the Pope has warm words for other religions (especially Islam), for lapsed Catholics, and for the non-religious. He calls for evangelisation to be a dialogue rather than a full-frontal assault.

And there is no mistaking his attitude towards those who put all their hope in a fervent return to tradition. He criticizes “those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelising, one analyses and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying”.

Above all, the message of the document is a call to evangelisation by all Catholics, both lay and clerical, learned and unlearned. “I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelisation in their respective communities.”

This puts me in mind of an idea of my own. It bothers me that a walk through Dublin city centre on a Saturday afternoon is likely to pass Muslim street preachers, Evangelical Christian street preachers, Mormon street preachers, and every sort of street preacher except Catholic. Surely there is room for a Catholic stand outside the G.P.O….but perhaps, instead of hectoring and embarrassing passers-by, a rotating raft of speakers could simply read aloud from the four Gospels, while having Catholic pamphlets and books available for those who enquire further. I submit this suggestion to the proper ecclesiastical authorities, who would need to give it the necessary sanction and supervision.


I arrived in Dublin in time to attend the eleven o’clock Mass in Our Lady Queen of Heaven, the airport Church. Watching the priest bless the Advent wreath beforehand, I felt a deep sense of comfort. How could the frenzy of consumerist society, or the spin cycle of the Irish liberal media, ever prevail over the gentle and ancient rhythms of the liturgical year? The white and pink and purple candles, so simple and gracious, seemed like a symbol of something infinitely more enduring than all the furious forces that seek to snuff out the light of faith in Ireland, America, and everywhere else that it shines.

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