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“I Know Nothing!”

I received a report of what a recent and devout “revert” (a one-time Catholic who has returned to the Faith) suffered through when assisting at Mass in a large Midwestern diocese she was visiting.

To me the most annoying thing wasn’t that none of the parishioners she spoke with knew where the tabernacle was located (hint: not in full view within the church, which is what the regulations insist on). And it wasn’t that the priest skipped the introductory rites and ad libbed his way through much of the liturgy (a violation of rubrics). And it wasn’t even that there were liturgical dancers (forbidden without exception and, honestly, quite rare nowadays).

No, the most annoying thing to me was that the parishioners simply accepted it all—partly, no doubt, out of ignorance (“Father says this is the way it’s supposed to be, and he’s the priest, after all”) but largely out of apathy too.

Why don’t Catholics stand up (or should I say, kneel down) for their liturgical rights? Is their religion so inconsequential to them that they’ll accept anything rather than put up a fuss? Often the answer seems to be yes.

When Henry VIII and his successors began supplanting the ancient Faith, some Catholics rebelled, many paying the ultimate price. Most Catholics just went along, and in a few years they weren’t Catholic any longer. They were willing to put up with just about anything, and they weren’t willing to oppose the innovators—a story that has been replicated throughout Church history.

We see it reenacted all around us today and not just in liturgical matters. Like people outside the Church, most Catholics think in lockstep, if they think at all, when it comes to religion. They go along to get along. They don’t want problems, and they don’t want to be problems. Like Sgt. Schultz in the old Hogan’s Heroes television series, their response is, “I see nothing—nothing!”

In many American dioceses—but not all, thank God—there are a few especially flaky parishes in which the liturgical mafia has had its way. Like shopkeepers who are afraid not to pay “protection,” parishioners who sense that something is wrong are afraid to speak up. They are isolated from one another in the anonymity that passes for community in most parishes. If they do speak up, the parish establishment shoots them down, labeling them “divisive” and isolating them further.

Especially in rural areas, there may not be another church these parishioners can attend, so they look for ways to maneuver within the interstices of parish life. Fortunately, this seems to be much less of a problem than it once was, but in some areas it remains a seemingly intractable problem.

Let’s ask Lenin’s famous question: “What is to be done?” Ultimately, I suppose, it comes down to episcopal backbone. Bishops are not only the chief teachers in their dioceses but also the chief rulers, but some of them seem to choose not to rule—or at least they choose not to crack down on rank liturgical disobedience. This has been the case for decades in some places.

Not many bishops can claim they are ignorant of what goes on in the parishes in their charge—in some dioceses orthodox Catholics have been complaining for years, sending fat dossiers to the chancery, to no (apparent) avail. I put “apparent” in parentheses to allow for situations in which abuses indeed are being handled, very slowly, behind the scenes. We should be fair to dioceses that are trying to deal with entrenched problems.

On the other hand, in some places the faithful have been told, for years now, that the situation is being addressed behind the scenes, but, when no visible progress can be seen, lay folk can’t be blamed for concluding that this assurance is little more than window-dressing—which, alas, it so often probably is.

For years I’ve used the expression “the Bing Crosby Church” as shorthand for a condition that once was common: the attitude—widespread among both clergy and laity—that the Church chiefly belonged to the priests, so “let Father do it.” (Crosby famously played good-guy priests in several movies, such as The Bells of St. Mary’s, in which he really did seem to be able to manage everything on his own.)

In the era of the Bing Crosby Church, laymen had their places, and they were expected to remain in them without complaints and without particular expectations from higher-ups.

I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m pessimistic about the current state of most dioceses. I’m not. So far as I can gather from visits around the country, things are improving in most places and have improved notably over the last decade or two. On the other hand, I don’t want to be mistaken for someone who thinks everything is hunky-dory. (It’s been many years since I last fell off a turnip truck.)

There are good signs. One is that some dioceses seem to have no problem at all with vocations. Several not only turn out plenty of priests, but they seem to be turning out priests who know the Faith and the rubrics and who understand that the liturgy is the public prayer of the Church, not the private prayer of those in the sanctuary. The success of such dioceses gives the lie to the notion that there is a shortage of vocations.

There never was a shortage, of course. As Archbishop Emeritus Elden F. Curtiss of Omaha wrote years ago, wherever there is a perceived shortage, you can be sure to discover that orthodox seminarians were weeded out before ordination. I know of several cases, fine young men who, years ago, would have been considered prize catches for any diocese, but they were told that they “don’t have a vocation—at least not for this diocese.”

Archbishop Curtiss saw manifest injustice here, and he was right, but I take a long-range view. The pool of priestly candidates is becoming more and more orthodox. In a few years the orthodox will control the seminaries because there won’t be enough heterodox priests to go around; already this is happening.

You no longer hear, as often as you once did, that good candidates are turned away on spurious grounds. The renaissance already is here, even if it isn’t yet manifest everywhere.


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