Friday, December 30, 2005

Historical Notes

At the end of a crazy day, I thought I'd wind down with some words about one of the loves of my life, an angle of the biz I don't often get to talk about here.

For as long as I can remember, I've had an abiding fascination with the history of American Catholicism, particularly the period extending through the 19th and early 20th centuries. If you've never looked into it, take a chance -- you might just fall in love (and realize that a lot of what you see on the blogs and in the news everyday is by no means new). If the recommendation alone isn't advertisement enough, then know this: the colorful disagreements between colorful bishops which marked the era make their modern successors look like tired shades of beige. Not to mention that in the good ol' days, fisticuffs were far from just a feared possibility -- they were to be expected.

Uh huh.

The coming year is cause for excitement as it brings us that much closer to the Big Bicentennial. They say the American hierarchy was founded in 1789 with the appointment of John Carroll, previously the mission superior of the United States, as the first bishop of the newly-erected diocese of Baltimore, which initially encompassed the entire territory of the thirteen original states. But the US episcopate really began in April, 1808, when the mother diocese was subdivided with the creation of new Sees at New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Bardstown, Kentucky (which was later transferred to Louisville) and Baltimore was raised to the dignity of a metropolitan see. So we've got a big East Coast celebration coming up in two years' time.

(And for those who really like this stuff, the only current American cardinal whose episcopal descendancy is of the Carroll line? None other than Roger Mahony, of course.)

I've always been pretty tough on the mitred ones around me, hammering home the message that their people have a right to know what came before them and how their local churches were built, literally, from the ground up. Think about it: An incalculable amount of devotion, hard work and herculean sacrifices of time and treasure (mostly from people who had little of either to spare) are what made this tapestry what it is, though it looks tattered now, and not just at the fringes. And, spoilt as we are, we still take it for granted, don't we? Maybe if we knew a bit more about where it came from, how it happened, this superhuman story of something the waves of immigrants knew in their bones was bigger than themselves, it'd do us all some good to take a breath and reflect on it.... And just maybe, if some among us knew what went into building it, we wouldn't be so eager to take a hammer to all that goodness given by our forebears over time, you know?

(As an example, at its founding the diocese of Philadelphia was served by a grand total of 12 priests, who were responsible for the whole of Pennsylvania and Delaware and the southern half of New Jersey. Don't talk to me about today's wimpy "priest shortage" -- that's a priest shortage.)

The first 150 years of the hierarchical story on these shores -- from John Carroll's appointment to the installation of (Catfighter of the Ages) Francis Spellman as archbishop of New York -- was a pioneering time in a dynamic, expanding place. The American experiment and Catholicism were never the most natural fit, and it was not a monolithic trajectory by any stretch.

Nor did it need to be, nor should it have been.

One of my tricks over time is, when trying to look into a diocese and figure out how it hums along, to look at its roots. Even after 200 years or thereabout, something of the initial culture of the place remains and everything else was just built on top of that. This is true especially in these days, when a bishop is lucky to have 20 years in one place. In eras past, as there was no retirement age and an ordinary would only step down under extreme circumstances, they just went on and on and on, and it was those long reigns -- among so many others: Dennis Dougherty's 33 years in Philadelphia, John Glennon's 43 in St. Louis and John Mark Gannon's 46 years at the helm of the diocese of Erie -- that built cultures whose shades remain in a powerful way in parishes, schools and chancery offices even to our own time.

At the beginning, different approaches developed in the new local churches, which were often left for months or more without the presence of bishops who had to travel expansive stretches of territory by carriage. And they really couldn't maintain mega-administrations, either, as all hands had to be out in the field. So the priests and people were, to a great extent, left to their own devices. This sense of autonomy and independence remains strong in the South and the West. The French settlers who had gathered in Kentucky created a very opulent, refined Catholic sensibility, one which continues to pervade the entire culture there. And in Philadelphia, New York and Boston, the Irish immigration brought with it a sense of the church being "under siege" -- in the case of the 1840s, at the hands of the oppressive English. Two centuries on, those sees are still marked with the sign of the siege mentality -- the English have only been replaced by the media, the liberals, the faithful, whoever. You get the idea.

Laypeople holding parishes hostage and threatening to take over everything? Been there, done that (viz. Hogan Schism). Same goes for church-burnings en masse, renegade clergy and religious, lean times, all orientations behaving (very, very) badly, loving Rome, hating Rome, not caring about Rome, bishops who were pro-slavery, anti-infallibility, saintly and, of course, the just plain nuts (who are always with us). All of it, all of it, all of it -- this is nothing new. Indeed, like the Italians, we have seen it all before in our own land.

Well, those who came before have seen it.... But how much have we learned?