For the past seventeen days, I’ve been on a speaking tour in the U.S. that’s taken me to Boston; Denver; South Bend, Indiana, the home of Notre Dame; Anaheim, California, for the annual Los Angeles Religious Education Congress; Simi Valley and Whittier, both in the sprawling L.A. area; and finally Detroit, for a multi-parish faith formation event.
Frankly, it’s all been a bit exhausting - although it’s probably been far more so, actually, for my Crux colleague Elise Harris, who actually had to sit through all those talks.
In effect, what the experience has offered is a crash course in the state of American Catholicism in early 2019. We’ve spent time with cardinals, bishops, religious, theologians, lay activists and ordinary rank-and-file folks from one end of the country to the other, in a variety of settings - places that seemed to lean both “left” and “right,” official venues and decidedly unofficial ones, both small parishes and vast ballrooms.
For what it’s worth, here’s my bottom line: I’m coming away more bullish about the prospects for the Church in the U.S. than I began.
In Boston, we reconnected with the “Church in the 21st Century Project,” an initiative launched in 2002 that’s become one of the country’s premier forums for smart conversation about the Church. I took part in an event hosted by Jack Dunn, BC’s Associate Vice President and university spokesman, featuring myself and Jesuit Father Matt Malone, editor of America.
Along the way, Dunn quoted from a 2018 piece by Malone on why he remains a priest after the latest wave of the abuse scandals that broke out over the summer. America is often seen as fairly liberal, but what Malone had to say wasn’t at all political.
“This summer reminded me of something my father, a retired firefighter, said to me after the 9/11 attacks: ‘Those firefighters who died in New York,’ Dad said, ‘died running into the building. When there’s a fire, Matty, and lives are at stake, somebody has to run into the building’.”
“I remain a priest,” Malone wrote, “because somebody has to run into the building.”
Over and over during the past 18 days, I’ve been struck by how many American Catholics still seem willing to run into the building.
In Denver, I spoke at a presentation of a biography of Father Luigi Giussani, founder of the Communion and Liberation movement in Italy. The audience was composed mostly of ciellini, as members are known, who showed up despite the fact the event had been delayed two days due to a massive blizzard.
By conventional measures, Giussani’s disciples would be seen as fairly “conservative,” but what struck the casual observer about the group that night was their good spirits. These are people, many relatively young, clearly inspired by their faith and seeking to do good - and, just as importantly, maintaining a decent sense of humor while they go about it.
Notre Dame, of course, is arguably the premier crossroads of American Catholicism - home, as the old joke has it, to the “unchurched, the churched, and the over-churched.”
Every time one’s on campus, it’s hard not to be swept up into the bustling energy of the place. While Harris and I were there, a professor’s book on religious freedom in Islam was being presented; I was giving a talk on the cultural gap between Rome and America at Holy Cross; there was a conference on Oscar Romero and El Salvador’s gang violence featuring Father Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the founders of liberation theology; and a screening of the pro-life movie “Unplanned” was being hosted along with a panel discussion with directors and writers, hosted by the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture.
That, by the way, was all within a 24-hour span. It’s tough to come away from even a random sampling of happenings under the Golden Dome with the conclusion that the American Church is out of energy.
Then we were off to the Religious Education Congress, America’s largest annual gathering of Catholics - usually drawing somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 people to the Anaheim convention center just across the street from Disneyland.
For sure, there are people with bones to pick about the congress. Some people think its roster of almost 200 speakers leans to the left, a legacy of the Cardinal Roger Mahony years in Los Angeles. Others think its liturgies can be a bit vapid, its keynotes a bit breathless, and its cost a little prohibitive.
Still, what one can’t deny is this: The congress brings together thousands of Catholics who aren’t at all in denial about the agonies of the Church, but who also aren’t willing to be stopped by them. There’s a positive energy, a sense of possibility for the faith in the here-and-now, that’s infectious.
Here’s how Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles - who, it should be said, was kind enough to interrupt his hotel breakfast on Sunday to talk to us - put the point: “At this challenging time in the life of the Church, it’s beautiful to see the faith of the people and their commitment to become missionary disciples.”
In Simi Valley and Whittier, I took part once again in the “University Series,” a multi-parish enterprise that offers a galaxy of adult faith formation opportunities during Lent. It’s the brainchild of an entrepreneurial local priest by the name of Father David Heney, and each year I’m astonished at the numbers and the interest the thing generates.
Finally, in Detroit I took part in an initiative called “Onward to the Kingdom,” which brought nine local parishes together for a week-long series of events March 23-28. Today I’m speaking to a group of parish minsters, all of whom have chosen to give up a day of their lives to try to get better at what they do. (Whether I can actually help with that, of course, is an entirely different question.)
All along the way this month, Harris and I have been confronted with the carnage of the clerical abuse scandals. We’ve seen anger, consternation, confusion, perplexity, and every other emotion imaginable, and only a delusional personality could think the Church hasn’t been badly damaged by it all.
As one man in Whittier asked me Monday night, referring both to the Vatican and also the American hierarchy: “How the hell could they have let it come to this?”
Still, the narrative about American Catholicism in our time would lead one to expect pain, anger, and disillusionment. The surprise is how much more there still is - how much energy, good will, creativity, and drive is still in circulation, sometimes in places you’d least expect it.
Bottom line: Yes, Virginia, the Catholic Church in America is down … but at least judging by 18 days in March, it’s definitely not out.