Sunday, June 04, 2006

Crossroads, Day One

Here's the piece you seek.

After today, you're on your own finding the following parts -- I only have so much altruism in me to plug the Inky... For all its self-delusions to the contrary, it's not as if it's The New York Times or something. Let alone God's favorite newspaper, with which it shares an office.

Possibly the most touching part of today's coverage, however, is the paper's lead editorial today, which asks the question behind the weeklong, years-in-the-making package: "Why the Catholic Church?"

And here's a big snip:
As the series makes clear, the United States would be very different but for this, its largest single church, around 65 million, or 22.9 percent of us. What's more, 38.4 percent of those living within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (the counties of Bucks, Philadelphia, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery) are Catholic.

The series treats the church as a secular institution - but also as more than that, a community aspiring to the transcendent, thus transcending worldly categories.

As "Catholic Crossroads" shows, for millions of people Catholicism is identity: To be Catholic is part of what it means to be a Filipino, a Mexican, a Pole... indeed, an Angolan, a Congolese, a Timorese, a Brazilian. And Catholicism is still central to Philadelphia, a town it helped build, populate and character.

Catholicism is a tremendous edifice confronting tremendous stressors: fading in Europe, growing in Africa, healthy in the United States, but for how much longer? The headlines are familiar: sexual-abuse scandals, with little action by the front office; a history shadowed by the church's sloth during the Holocaust; fewer and fewer priests and nuns; schools and churches closing.

The Inquirer's series depicts the increasingly common collision between church and local culture. Whether it's the charismatic movements of South America, the local creeds and customs of Africa, or the democratic anything-goes American way of belief, the church finds itself changing and being changed....

It's often said that academe and the media treat the Roman Catholic Church pretty much the way they treat the White House, as though it were a secular, politically accountable institution. They do. And that's understandable. This, the most elaborately bureaucratic religion in the world, has a leader of matchless authority and worldwide name-recognition - perfect for TV, complete with vestments and triple tiara. And we get parades and the intoxication of ritual. There's even an operator's manual - the catechism.

The history of the church and of the West are closely intertwined. How to avoid mention of the wars fought in the church's name, the countries conquered, inquisitions launched, ranks of overlings and underlings as carefully crafted as Michelangelo's cupola of St. Peter's Basilica? Pens scratch on and on about the scandals, the swindles, the unholy deals with worldly power - the dissolute popes, the excuses made dogma, the rack and the stake.

But to speak only of these things is to see the facade and miss the hearth. As if the church were only Bernini's colonnades, not the thousands in St. Peter's Square; only the hymns and incense, not the prayers said amid them; the candles, not the hands that light them.

But then, that's exactly what's hard to write about. That's what escapes the academics and journalists - because that's what eludes us all. In its glory and grandiosity, its heavenward reach, the church reaches out, on behalf of everyone, toward that elusive, transcendent something. Which is? A question, the answer, and the hope behind the answer. In the Catholic Church, humanity has reared up a vast, regimented and yet homely, intimate expression of these things.

That's why non-Catholics, including those for whom there is no God, no Christ, nevertheless pay attention to the Catholic Church. Many thrill (as anyone would, at a great drama) to the convulsions in the church, the momentousness of the questions it encounters and navigates. For these are the questions everyone asks, whether they cry out by the Ganges, touch foreheads to the mosque floor, or walk beneath the stars, wondering. This church is founded on what eludes us, what words can gesture to but never capture - penetrating and impenetrable, always already there, already gone, slipping through the fingers, beyond the tongue, until the hands are raised and the tongue sings.

Befitting its subject, The Inquirer series is a journey around this country, this world, through history, through lives and consciences, in search of the things that elude sure definition. It's a journey everyone makes, inside and out of church, every moment. Much remains to say. Much always will. What else is more worth writing about?

And, there, you have the raison d'etre for what I do. Full time. In Philadelphia.

But, of course, if it's not in the Inky, then it never happened.... At least, that's what they tell us all the time.

So then, at long last, it's happening. Finally. And not a moment too soon, either.