Fr. Joseph F. Wilson
This past December 8th, (2002) was the first anniversary of my receiving into the full communion of the Catholic Church the rector of the local Episcopal church. He had for years watched sadly as one aberration after another had taken hold in his denomination, and finally decided that it was time to be received into full communion. He himself chose the date, and we planned a quiet Mass and profession of faith, but his congregation got wind of it and in a touching show of support showed up in great numbers. It was a lovely evening. Jack has happily settled in as a retired Catholic layman, and frequently expresses his deep satisfaction with the step he had finally taken.
I refer to him because of an incident which occurred a few months later. One of his young former parishioners was getting married to a Roman Catholic young man. The groom's parish priest had obtained a dispensation for the couple to get married in the bride's Episcopal parish church, right down the road from here, and he had agreed to attend. Jack also attended, out in the congregation in a jacket and tie, but he was quite surprised to find that the wedding liturgy in this Episcopal church included a Holy Communion service, and even more surprised to see that the Catholic priest concelebrated with the Episcopal rector. Afterwards, Jack introduced himself, and inquired of the Catholic priest, "Well, how is it that you were able to do this, Father?" And the priest just laughed and said, "Well, what are they going to do to me??"
It is an interesting scene, isn't it? There, in the pew, is sitting a man who had for the sake of the Truth withdrawn from his former ministry and entered the Catholic Church, having carefully explained to his congregation from the pulpit precisely why he was doing so, and here he returns to watch a Catholic priest in good standing concelebrate with a clergyman of a Reformation tradition - an act strictly forbidden - and the Catholic half of the congregation swarm over the communion rail completely ignoring the fact that the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church are nowhere in communion with each other. Stories like that are not hard to find in the Catholic Church today. Let me pull a few, at random, out of my own memory. There was the young couple who came to me one Sunday morning, shortly after I arrived here, to ask for a blessing: "You see, Father, we've been trying to have a child, and on Tuesday we have our first visit to the in vitro clinic." There was the fine young couple who had lost a child, one of a pair of twins, during pregnancy a couple of years before. Only later did I discover that the doctors had pressured them to consent to a "selective termination," the abortion of one of the children to improve the other's chances of survival - and that, confused, they had visited our rectory and consulted with a priest here, who had told them, "Go with the doctor's advice and God will be with you." There was the permanent deacon who filled two ciboria with unconsecrated hosts and stuck them in the tabernacle "so we'll be ready for the next Mass" (the pastor of the church I was visiting retorted, "Well, then we'll have a tabernacle full of bread, and that's not gonna do anybody any good at all, is it?"). There was the young-ish Sister of Mercy all enthused about the Colorado retreat she had been on: "There were Catholics, Jews, all kinds of Protestants, people from the Unification Church of the Revd Sun Myung Moon." There are the couples who come in waving annulment declarations and eager to be married in Church, whereas I had always presumed that they WERE since they had been receiving Communion all along. Catholicism is not all of these canons, rules regulations. Catholicism is not a list of things to be memorized, or a list of precepts to be observed and sins to be avoided. Catholicism is a deep, and wide, and fruitful way of looking at all reality in light of Him Who is the Word become flesh, Who dwelt among us, and redeemed us by His Passion, death, and resurrection. As I have asserted in earlier articles, once one really grasps this, it changes everything; everything is seen in a different light, and the Catholic Faith is seen as a seamless, beautiful, truthful unity. And I refrain from receiving communion with those with whom the Catholic Church is not in communion because receiving communion is not a private, but an ecclesial act, and to do otherwise is literally meaningless; and for the same reason I refrain from exercising Priestly ministry in such circumstances - it isn't mine, to do with as I please. And the life issues are intrinsically bound up with the Catholic vision of the sacredness of human life and the significance of sexuality, and the question whether something is merely a wafer or the true Body of Christ becomes of transcendent importance, not merely a factoid to be filed away and forgotten. These things are not mere rules and regulations; they are the expression of the Catholic, incarnational view of reality. This is the great Gift of the Catholic Faith, the deep, wide and fruitful way in which I see all things.
And once upon a time, within living memory, we could count on this being understood by Catholics. We could count upon even poorly instructed Catholics to instinctively understand that Catholic teachings, on which they had perhaps an imperfect grasp, actually expressed reality, and that the Church was the trustworthy custodian of Truth. This is no longer the case at all. In thirty-five years of "Renewal," we have gone from a situation where most Catholics by far faithfully assisted at Sunday Mass to one where the overwhelming majority do not - a sixty percent drop in Mass attendance over thirty years, and we have every reason to expect, now that the venality and corruption of our leadership has been exposed, that the decline will accelerate. Those who neglect Mass and the sacraments seem, by and large, to regard faithfulness to the sacraments as a non-issue - I cannot begin to estimate the percentage of those receiving Communion at weddings and funerals who are obviously unfamiliar with receiving the Eucharist. We have just come through a tragic, scandalous year for the Catholic Church in our country. Months ago, on the editorial page of The Wanderer, I pointed out that this clergy sexual abuse scandal, as horrible as it is, is but one of at least a dozen areas of crisis afflicting the Church here. I instanced such areas as Liturgy and Worship, vapid and content-less catechesis, secularization of Religious communities, the travesty which passes for seminary formation in most places, the widespread rejection of Catholic moral teaching, the loss of our colleges and universities, the acceptance and practice of degrading and dehumanizing contraceptive procedures in Catholic hospitals - the list is long, and these have been areas of crisis for two whole generations at least. As we come to the end of the scandalous year 2002, I look back, I look around me, and I wonder: where is the alarm? Where are the cries of the watchman on the walls of the City? Where are the shepherds, raising the cry and rushing to the defense of the flock? Shepherd-wise, this has been a pretty sad, sorry year. I cannot improve upon that inspired phrase of Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz (who is the Exception that proves the Rule, by the way, and may God grant him long decades of perfect health and strength!), who referred to "this hapless bench of bishops." We had those strange months of February, March, April when the entire country was gazing at the bishops in appalled fascination, realizing that they really, truly did not grasp the horror of this problem of the sexual abuse of children. Then we were treated to the pathetic spectacle of the Dallas meeting, that risibly transparent exercise in damage control during which, oddly enough, the most prominent and wealthiest bishops' conference in the world apparently forgot to pack canonists in their luggage with the tooth-brushes and extra cuff-links, and came up with a sexual abuse protocol which didn't pass canonical muster in Rome. We had the ongoing, continuing revelations, especially in Boston, culminating in the December resignation of Bernard Cardinal Law.
Of course, his resignation was unavoidable; we know that because it actually occurred. Remarkably, there have been no others. There is a bishop in the Northeast who knowingly appointed to a pastorate - last June, SIX MONTHS into this tragic public scandal - a priest who had been involved with the law because he had had sex with a male teenager. The parish found this out from the newspaper, and there was, of course, an uproar. The Bishop defended the appointment, pointing out that the teen in question had been eighteen and thus the diocesan sexual abuse of minors policy had not been violated (and who can deny the relief that flooded the hearts of all upon hearing this? Were I a father of teenaged boys in that diocese, I'd be greatly consoled). And that Bishop is still a Diocesan Bishop, still shamelessly clings to crosier and throne as of this writing. But, quite apart from the sexual abuse scandal, it is the broader picture which interests me, as it did in my earlier article. Where is the leadership? Where are the shepherds? Quite apart from the current scandal, just pretending for a moment that it doesn't exist: How is it possible that our bishops are not sounding the alarm over the truly alarming state of the Church? For how long do we stagger forward with a catechetical crisis that has produced two whole generations laboring under the most abysmal ignorance of even the most basic teachings of the Faith (I heard recently of an Eastern Orthodox priest one of whose parishioners was marrying a young man whose family was active in the local Catholic parish; this priest was staggered to discover the groom's utter ignorance of the ten commandments and virtually every other teaching of the Catholic Faith)? I continually hear horror stories from Catholics gritting their teeth through vapid homilies and trivializing liturgies in their parishes; do none of these stories reach the bishops? A bishop in the Northeast held, a few years ago, a Diocesan Eucharistic Congress. I'd have ordinarily lauded him for this, but unfortunately I knew that as he was lugging that monstrance all over the campus of a local Catholic university, the nun in charge of liturgy at his seminary was teaching the seminarians that the goal to which we should aspire is the elimination of daily Mass, because "it detracts from the centrality of Sunday Eucharist." That is what was happening IN HIS SEMINARY!!! The same seminary still teaches in Moral Theology courses the "fundamental option" theory, which was discussed and dismissed at length by the Holy Father in 1993 in "Veritatis Splendor."
The tragic decline of the institutional vitality of the Church in our country is quite evident to everyone who has eyes to see. In my own diocese, the Diocese of Brooklyn, the Official Catholic Directory claims a Catholic population of 1,815,000. We have 217 parishes, 379 diocesan priests active in the diocese: 160 are eligible to retire in the next ten years; sixteen priests died this year. We have eighteen major seminarians studying for the diocese: over the next five years we can only expect three, sometimes four ordinations a year, if everyone perseveres. But quite apart from the numbers, there is the far deeper crisis of Faith and catechesis. How shall a young man present himself for Priesthood if he doesn't know the basics of the Faith? How shall a young Catholic family pass on the Faith if they do not know it? What am I supposed to say, as a priest, to the fine, upstanding, orthodox and informed young Catholics of my acquaintance who travel across several parish and even diocesan boundaries in order to worship in a parish where the priest does not clown around on the altar and preach heresy from the pulpit? As a parish priest, I am painfully aware that, try as I might to preach and teach Catholic doctrine faithfully, my teaching is contradicted in the next parish and by the next priest who will replace me. How is it possible that we do not see our chief Pastors in crisis mode over the situation in which we find ourselves? I close with an anecdote. A dear friend who is a respected journalist was corresponding with a member of the hierarchy, a generally well-regarded Archbishop who had taken exception to some of my friend's writings about the sexual abuse scandal. They had an extended email correspondence, which I read, and at one exasperated point my friend pointed out that it seemed pretty clear that there were members of the hierarchy who had put the perceived institutional good of the Church and suppression of scandal above the protection of defenseless youth. At which the Archbishop indignantly exploded, responding that he could not see why my friend would remain a Roman Catholic if he really thought that.
My friend replied, very thoughtfully and calmly, that he was a Catholic, and would remain so, because the Catholic Church is the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ, because of the truth of the Faith, the sacraments, the Blessed Virgin, etc.
I think that story is quite remarkable. Where I come from - the third planet from the sun - no one becomes a Catholic, or remains a Catholic, because of the Bishops. I certainly don't!! It is thoroughly dismaying to see what a completely different view of the sacred realities which we are all supposed to cherish in common is held by the chief Pastors of our Church. It is astonishing how removed they are from reality, how insulated from the cares and concerns of priests and people. In the thirteenth month of this particularly painful scandal, in the thirty-seventh year of the appalling, devastating crises gutting our Church, I raise my voice to ask: Where is the outrage? Where are the alarms? Where are the shepherds?
This article appeared as an editorial in the January 23rd issue of The Wanderer.