Generally, the narrative about institutional Catholicism in America is that it’s in decline, and it’s easy enough to understand why. For instance, last year the Pew Research Center found that the number of Catholics in America had dropped 3 million since 2007 and the total Catholic share of the population went down from 25 to 20 percent.
Moreover, Catholicism often also appears divided and demoralized, struggling with internal fractures over women, LGBT issues, the leadership of Pope Francis, and any number of other matters.
Without for a second denying that those features of American Catholic life are real, I will simply say this: “Decline” is definitely not the impression about the American church one would have taken away from Christ Cathedral in Orange County, California, on Friday night, Oct. 14.
That evening, Bishop Kevin Vann of the Diocese of Orange, in tandem with Catholic Relief Services and Crux, hosted a fundraising dinner to support relief efforts for the Aug. 24 earthquake that struck central Italy, leaving almost 300 people dead and essentially wiping out the small town of Amatrice, birthplace of the fabled amatriciana pasta sauce.
To call the evening “remarkable” would be to traffic in a rather severe understatement.
For one thing, the setting was jaw dropping. “Christ Cathedral” is the new name for the Crystal Cathedral, the iconic soaring glass church and surrounding structures built under the late Rev. Robert Shuller, one of America’s best-known televangelists. It’s the world’s largest glass structure, and the whole compound is, frankly, worth the trip entirely by itself.
The Diocese of Orange acquired the property when the operation went bankrupt as Shuller aged and eventually died in 2015, which means they got it for a steal by the standards of Orange County real estate, although the costs of renovation and deferred maintenance remain daunting.
But walking around the grounds, including the patio outside the remarkable Cultural Center where our dinner was staged, certainly doesn’t give the sense that this is a diocese in a downward spiral.
Friday night, well over 500 people turned out at the cathedral, and they represented a cross-section of the American Catholic world — CRS people, priests and nuns of all stripes, lay ministers and social activists, members of movements, and so on, spread across a wide variety of ethnicities as well, including Hispanics, Filipinos, Vietnamese, whites and others.
The centerpiece of the evening was penne alla amatriciana, provided by a local chef and restauranteur named Sir Bruno Serato, owner of the Anaheim White House, coupled with wines with special labels printed just for the event by Elysabeth Nugyen, a local wine distributor.
Maria Elena Infantino, a world-class singer and performer born and raised in Italy who recently played the Vatican’s Palazzo della Cancelleria, sang snappy, upbeat Italian numbers as people lined up for heaping plates of salad, amatriciana and pesto pasta, before the crew rolled out tiramisu for dessert.
Video messages of support for the evening played out across the large screen on the stage from an impressive cross-section of ecclesiastical heavy-hitters, including Cardinals Timothy Dolan of New York, Sean O’Malley of Boston and Donald Wuerl of Washington, as well as Archbishops José H. Gomez and Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Cardinal Dolan was especially impassioned, promising both to donate to the relief effort on the behalf of his archdiocese and to have a plate of amatriciana to join the dinner in spirit.
Bishop Vann spoke during the evening, as did my Crux colleague Inés San Martín, while I served as the Master of Ceremonies, doing my best to live up to the SoCal tradition of Oscar hosting by trying to keep things both loose and moving along.
The pièce de résistance of the night was a surprise video appearance by Pope Francis himself, filmed by San Martín when the pontiff was en route to Georgia and Azerbaijan at the end of September.
As Francis made the rounds at the beginning of the flight, she explained to him what would be happening at Christ Cathedral in mid-October, and he happily supplied a brief fervorino captured on her smart phone.
Here’s what Francis, who later visited Amatrice himself on Oct. 4, told the crowd at the Orange County dinner.
“I thank all of those who have gathered to help these territories that have suffered the earthquake,” he said.
“These are gestures that create closeness,” he said, adding, “May God pay you back in abundance.”
Needless to say, the pope brought down the house.
Donations to the relief effort rolled in through the night, including a $6,000 contribution from a local financial company, a woman who bid $10,000 to share a dinner with Vann and Chef Bruno, and a couple that, completely out of the blue, offered a $50,000 matching grant in honor of Bishop Vann.
I would submit that anyone who knew nothing about American Catholic fortunes, but who sat through the night, would come away feeling Catholicism in this country is a dynamic, diverse and caring community, which also knows how to have a great time while doing God’s work.
In other words, the experience of that Orange County evening utterly defied the media narrative about Catholicism in our time. There was no angst, no indication of hand wringing or turning out the lights, and no apparent division at all.
Rather, the overwhelming spirit was unity in coming to the aid of people who obviously need the help, coupled with genuine pleasure in one another’s company.
Perhaps the problem with the narrative about the Church in the States, therefore, isn’t so much that it’s wrong, but that it just isn’t the whole story. If you’re in any doubt, ask the people of Amatrice about to benefit from the vitality and can-do spirit on display in Orange County.