Ah, the complex relationship between American Catholics and the institutional Church. On the occasion of Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to the U.S., the New York Times recently printed an essay, “The View From My Pew.” The essay contrasts the author’s attitudes toward the Pope with those of his parents, and posits his relative detachment as how Catholics in general now regard the Pope. Clearly the author loves his faith, and loves his Church, but there was something simultaneously overstated and understated about the essay.
The author has great discomfort (with a whiff of guilt?!) over the fact that things in the Church today aren’t the same as in his parents’ day. It’d be interesting to hear to what degree he has equal discomfort with the fact that things in society generally aren’t the same today, either. For example, the relation of the individual to social structures and hierarchies has certainly changed a lot from, say, 60 years ago. There’s a complex story there, and certainly a lot to give concern, but it’s not all bad.
Another point: The author’s comment he “must have lost track of the second papal visit, that of John Paul II in [October] 1979,” seems a bit off. Here’s the opening of TIME magazine’s cover story of that visit:
JOHN PAUL, SUPERSTAR
… John Paul II thrilled the U.S. with a glorious pilgrimage that won hearts—and challenged the nation … Only the rarest leaders inspire that kind of confidence in the basic goodness of humanity. As he led his triumphant seven-day journey of joy through the U.S., Pope John Paul II confirmed what his earlier tours of Mexico and Poland had intimated: after only a year in office, the Pontiff is emerging as the kind of incandescent leader that the world so hungers for …. He was a man for all seasons, all situations, all faiths, a beguilingly modest superstar of the church. … The humanitarian pastor delighted in the happiness of his flock, and he became one with them. Children were his special favorites, and he swept them up lightly in his brawny arms. … In one amazing scene, perhaps as memorable as any that 1979 will offer, John Paul’s hearty baritone voice rumbled “Woo-hoo-woo” over the loudspeaker at Madison Square Garden; he was giving the Polish equivalent of “Wow!” as 19,000 youths rocked the arena with nine minutes of spontaneous, frenzied cheers.
Americans of all beliefs and all backgrounds teetered on tiptoe to get a glimpse of him and roar their approval. … The Pope drew enormous crowds: 400,000 for a rainswept Mass on Boston Common, 1 million for a Mass in Philadelphia’s Logan Circle, half a million at Grant Park in Chicago….
Against this context, it seems a bit of a stretch to extrapolate the author-as-college-student’s preferred focus on small-college basketball in upstate New York (in the pre-season, no less – this was October) to society at large.
There’s a point here, though, and better exemplified by some of John Paul II’s later visits to the U.S., e.g., to the NY and Baltimore in 1995. (Granted, these were much smaller-scale trips.) That time, the context was a still-vigorous but aging pope and a tension that had grown over the years between many American Catholics and the Vatican. I don’t recall much about this trip, which seems to illustrate the author’s point.
On the other hand, the author doesn’t mention another, more recent time when I’d guess many American Catholics did feel close, or at least closer, to that Pope: when John Paul II was dying, publicly and — regardless of what one thought of him or his papacy — with undeniable strength and grace. The televised funeral Mass a few days later was another such time: even confined to a TV, it was simply one of most amazing things I’ve seen.
But back to the main point. The essay is on target in talking about what’s been termed elsewhere as the “loss of ‘thick’ Catholicism”*: the high-water mark of a rich traditional Catholicism that apparently infused one’s daily life, one’s family, and often one’s neighborhood. These days we’re in a transitional time, and of course that means we don’t know what we’re transitioning to. And within the strongly individualist pull of contemporary American culture and its tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater, that’s not necessarily a comfortable place to be.
But as the Vatican II generation knows, tradition and ritual, much as they may be or may have been treasured, aren’t the Church. And from post-modernism’s insights, we know that meaning and significance of symbols are contingent and changing.
So the key is what are the fundamental tenets of our faith, and whether and to what degree we act on them. Here, the essay indirectly suggests much, but never actually says anything. (Characteristically Catholic reticence, about faith as a private matter?) The author’s only other discussion of Catholic faith is focused on political and moral aspects, which is pretty typical for a newspaper piece.
There’s more of merit to the essay than I’ve discussed here, but it’s late – buenas noches. _____________________________________
* William J. Bausch, Brave New Church: From Turmoil to Trust (World According, 2006), pp. 53-60.
[PHOTO UPDATE: Click here to see a photo of Benedict XVI, taken by Tim Peach in Yankee Stadium.]