When the first draft of this book was written, in the mid-1970's, Vatican II's consequences for the Catholic Church were still being worked out. I assumed then that the Catholic Church was another world, if not "wholly other," then certainly very different from the practices and attitudes I imbibed from my childhood Methodism. My brief encounters with institutional Catholicism in my hometown did not persuade me otherwise. St. John's, Sacred Heart, St. Mary's, and Holy Name, the parishes to which my high school classmates belonged, were places to which I was rarely invited; and, on those few occasions I did enter these local representations of the Vatican (for my cousin's wedding and for a classmate's funeral), I didn't get beyond the clanking of the censer, the smell of the incense, the Latin, and the frequent kneeling and standing.
In 1968 with the aggiornamento1under Pope John XXIII's leadership I was the toast of the town... Brooklyn, that is. I had been elected the president of the Protestant Council of Churches for the Borough of Brooklyn. Ecumenism filled the air. One of my celebratory duties as the Borough of Churches' official Protestant was to kiss (a holy one) the newly installed Bishop of Brooklyn, Francis Mugavero, in the chancel of the huge basilica, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, while thousands of Catholic laymen and not a few priests looked on in wonderment and, maybe, a little envy. It was a heady time. One of the associate priests of the local parish church befriended me, showed me how to play stickball, and treated me to seafood dinners at a nearby Italian restaurant. I preached and read Scripture and prayed in several Catholic churches as congregations visited back and forth in a whirlwind of Week of Christian Unity observances. We sang "A Mighty Fortress" and "They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Love" as the sisters of the parish school played their guitars. The Christian clergy from Brooklyn on either side of the Vatican divide gathered regularly at a Catholic Youth Center at the base of the Whitestone Bridge to discuss theology and impress each other with their wit and wisdom.
But after God welcomed Pope John XXIII into his more stately mansions (a choice room, I would expect), his successors began a slow but steady retreat from the frontiers of faith Bishop Angelo Roncalli2 pioneered... or, at least, encouraged. Still the reforms that were put in motion could not be rescinded. The Roman Catholic Church today, especially in its American incarnation, shares similarities of practice and problem with mainline Protestant churches. I should have assumed as much in 1975, but my involvement with my own congregation did not allow the sampling of the life and witness of the Roman Catholic community. My good friend, the pastor of a Catholic parish in Valley Stream, New York, vigorously insisted, when he heard of my plans for retirement (reviewing worship services), that I should include Catholic services in my rounds of critiquing. I discounted his insistence as being his kindness and friendship, flattering an old pastor on the way out.
I have reason to reconsider. Among the books I've recently read is one by Peter Steinfels, senior religion correspondent for The New York Times and a faithful Roman Catholic worried about the present state of his church. The title tells it all: "A People Adrift."3 He provides an in-depth analysis of the institutional church in the new millennium: the hospitals and schools; the religious orders; the priesthood; and the episcopacy. He treats head-on the current agony over priestly sexual abuse of children. He supports, without the usual fanatical rhetoric, the Catholic opposition to abortion. He struggles to find a way for the Catholic church to remain true to its two thousand year tradition while engaging issues modernity has laid upon the altar: the celibacy of the priesthood; the ordination of women; the acceptance by most Catholics (contrary to Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae) of contraception; the loss of priestly and religious vocations and the emergence, perhaps the ascendancy, of lay leadership; and the continued erosion of parochial schools.
Steinfels is even-handed in his presentation of the wide range of opinion on hot issues. But he clearly favors a reasoned and deliberate pursuit of the Vatican II initiatives, not a return to the "cocoon" Catholicism of an embattled church in a Protestant country during the pre-World War II years. He sounds an alarm; but he is no alarmist.
In his chapter on the priesthood, "Around the Altar," he sounds a note that harmonizes with the concerns I have raised in my book. In fact, he neatly summarizes the main theme of that book in his chapter charting the course of the church in this new century: "Pastoral effectiveness is a responsibility of leadership."4 I couldn't have said it better! Steinfels observes, as if having read my Reviews on this website, "The quality of a parish's worship can be usefully examined under four headings: presiding, preaching, participation, and music."5 (St. Suburbia, here I come!)
Nor are we alone in this conviction. Andrew Greeley, the Jesuit priest for all seasons, sociologist and novelist, writes in a recent issue of The New York Times6: "If priests really want to improve their image, they should... make every effort to upgrade their work - especially their sermons."
I find this insistence upon the quality of worship, especially the preaching, surprising... and not a little hopeful. Like many Protestants I was ignorant of Vatican II's elevation of the preaching of the Word. In fact, for years I had falsely described Catholic worship as sacramentally focused. The sermon was secondary. Steinfels corrects me. Elucidating Vatican II's consequences for Catholic worship, he writes:
The old Mass had been defined as offertory, consecration, and Communion--all focused on the elements of bread and wine and their presentation, transformation, and reception. One could arrive late, after the gospel was read, for example, or after the sermon was preached, but before the offertory. Although such tardiness was frowned upon, the latecomer was not considered to have actually "missed the Mass." By contrast, now the scripture readings and the homily were held to be integral parts of the liturgy. The "liturgy of the Word" preceded and paralleled the "liturgy of the table," the latter, in effect, the liturgy of the Word made flesh.7
And to think that for the past forty years I have been under the illusion that the parity of Word and Sacrament was a Protestant idea Catholicism would never buy into!
So maybe there is life after retirement for a pastor-preacher. Critiquing worship is an appropriate service to render the modern church. And there's no charge!
1. Vatican II's Italian word for that Council's purpose, meaning "to modernize." Pope John XXIII used it to express his hope for the Catholic church, that it would open itself to the world and let the winds of the Holy Spirit blow forth.
2. Pope John XXIII's pre-elevation name.
3. "A People Adrift" (The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America), by Peter Steinfels; published by Simon and Schuster, 2003.
4. Steinfels, ibid, page 356.
5. Steinfels, ibid, page 184.
6. The New York Times, Wednesday, March 3, 2004, page A23, Op Ed feature, "For Priests, Celibacy Is Not The Problem," by Andrew Greeley.
7. Steinfels, ibid, page 171.