Joanna Bogle is a longtime friend of Catholic Answers whose stories have appeared in This Rock for more than a decade. She is a also contributing editor. This story was featured on the cover of the September 2004 issue.
A while ago I was accused of being a “Pollyanna Catholic.” You remember the story of Pollyanna? It was filmed in 1960, starring Hayley Mills, and I loved it. Small orphan girl goes to live with grim-faced aunt in grand house in American country town in 1912. Shown scant love or affection, she slowly wins everyone over by playing the “glad game.” Her father—impoverished missionary, widower, poor health—taught her this vital game: Always find something to be glad about. “You see, it works beautifully. You can always find something, but you sometimes have to search for it.”
Sound gruesome? On the contrary. As the story unfolds, you come to understand that here is real courage, rooted in a powerful New Testament message bequeathed to a little girl whose dying father knew that she would need it in the years ahead.
It is not always easy to be glad in the modern Church. Ugly liturgy? Well, we can be glad that at least we have Christ and can receive him in Holy Communion. Inane homily making cheap political points? Umm . . . we can be glad that we have ears and brains so we can talk about it and express our own ideas afterwards—might even stir us into writing an article. Cliché-ridden, feminist nun running some parish meeting, condescending to all opposing views? We can be glad to know that if this is the most distressing event of our week, we are more fortunate than those who have been battling hunger, famine, torture, or a child gone missing.
But there is a deeper point, and this was the nub of the criticism tossed toward me and others in the “Pollyanna” jibe. We had organized, among other events, a celebratory “Festival of Catholic Culture” at a big cathedral hall. It went well—bookstalls run by all the major Catholic publishers, displays from a wide range of Catholic and pro-life organizations, glorious music, activities for children, and top speakers tackling aspects of Catholic history, art and music. Over a thousand people attended, and the event has become annual.
The criticism came from those who believe (and it’s a sincere belief, which is why I’m writing about it and taking it seriously) that it is wrong—and positively dangerous—to behave as though all is well in the Church and thus to send too positive a message. The arguments run like this: Don’t talk up the good achievements of young Catholics; it masks the reality that over 90 percent of those attending our Catholic schools lapse in their early teens. Don’t celebrate the work of a fine Catholic school choir—remember that most of the members won’t be at Mass on Sunday. Don’t have speakers who concentrate on some aspect of liturgy or history—tackle the grim reality of dreadful parish “children’s Masses” that distort the central reality of the Eucharist and reduce it to a talkative meal. Don’t just celebrate pro-life speakers; demand action over immoral forms of “sex education” foisted on pupils at Catholic schools or appalling promoters of contraception and abortion who have been allowed to speak to Catholic audiences.
Is this gloom-and-doom approach the right one? Certainly, there is a value in telling the truth. (In Britain, where I live, at this point in the debate someone is usually bound to mention 1940, so I’ll do it now.) When things looked grim, and much of Europe was under Nazi domination, Winston Churchill promised the British people only “blood, tears, toil and sweat.” People responded well to the call—with a nobility and strength of purpose that has never been matched in the subsequent years—so to bear themselves that “if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’” These were thrilling words, and people thrilled to the situation they faced—bombardment, hardships, losses, and daily discomfort—with courage, tenacity, and faith.
Churchillian language has its place, but by 1945 people were tired of it. They wanted some decent comforts, social welfare, a change of direction. They voted Churchill out of office and believed that a whole new era was starting with a National Health Service and all sorts of public schemes for housing and community benefits.
In fact, Churchill’s glorious words worked because he was doing more than telling the truth; he was lifting up people’s hearts. He could see beyond the immediate dangers to the prospect of victory. His recognition of the facts included the reality of a worldwide empire, substantial reserves of men and support, the essential rightness of the cause, and the enormous possibilities of support from elsewhere, notably America. He also believed—correctly, at that time—in the united will and courage of a people conscious of their heritage.
Seek the Good and Build on It
Where does this leave us in today’s Church? We too need to lift hearts and rally people to a cause. And we need to be in for the long haul. This is not World War II, and it is not a case of a victory after five years and then a chance to relax. We do need truth and tough talk, but it’s got to be mixed with practicalities. Rhetoric will be empty if our bookshelves and concert platforms are too. We need books, music, inspiration, attraction. The Catholic way is to seek the good and build on it. There is a surprising amount of good around.
In no particular order, we can list, looking around the modern Church, a number of causes for quiet optimism:
1. New Catholic publishers making full use of the latest technology to produce books, DVDs, tapes, videos, and booklets that are of good quality but moderately priced and easily available via a variety of sources, including the Internet.
2. A new mood among younger Catholics—the JPII generation—whose delight in things like adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, honor to Mary through the rosary, and united expressions of faith at big events is taking an older generation by surprise. Why, these young folks even go to confession!
3. The new movements. Yes, I know, it is overly optimistic to place too much faith in them as universal panaceas, but they are thriving: the Neocatechumenate, Opus Dei, and in Britain the Faith Movement and Youth 2000 are all making their mark on the Church. This means tangible things—schools, youth groups, events, pilgrimages—creating an overspill into many aspects of Catholic life, individual and communal.
4. Swift international communication makes available good news and information—from thriving churches in what is still called absurdly the Third World or from Rome—that can be used and put to good advantage where it is needed.
None of this means we can be complacent, but it does represent a list of human and spiritual resources that we can balance against the problems of our immediate situation: the shortage of priests, the fall-out from appalling scandals of priestly behavior, and the collapse of faith and morals among large numbers of Catholics who now regard cohabitation before marriage as the norm and occasional (say monthly) Sunday Mass attendance as evidence of great spiritual commitment.
Utilizing some of these resources is not too hard either, though it does require energy and a certain spirit of optimism. We need to work as do other groups battling considerable odds (the best example is the pro-life movement) and look for opportunities to do as much good as we possibly can, reaching the maximum number of people with the maximum impact. As with the pro-life movement, our attitudes matter: Sour faces, angry arguments, and too much use of jargon will work against us.
The Roof’s Fallen In
Are there pitfalls in trying to emphasize the positive, running an upbeat magazine, or arranging a get-together that aims at uplifting spirits and communicating the good rather than highlighting the bad and demanding episcopal action? One lady explained her case against our festival by saying that such an event might include some material that was not absolutely, 100 percent loyal to the full teaching of the Church.
This is a valid point, and it was on our minds when planning. We sought out all the positively good groups, movements, publishers, and organizations. We did allow a stall where the folks displayed a magazine that has often opposed the Church’s teachings, but they weren’t selling copies. They were only running a raffle with a crate of wine as the prize. (True, the names and addresses they thus collected could be sent material promoting their publication—a worry.) Because space is limited, they will in any case not be invited every year. It might be that we should avoid them permanently. There is a genuine and necessary discussion about this and related matters. We need wisdom, common sense, and a clear vision.
But the essence of the thing is to find ways of helping today’s Catholics survive and tomorrow’s to learn about the faith and build anew. All my adult life I have known that I was part of a devastated Church—the word is not too strong—where the roof and windows had been smashed and people were struggling against the elements to rebuild and make the house habitable again. The early 1970s were in so many ways tragic years in the life of the Catholic Church, when so much damage was done and so much wreckage left.
It seems to me that we can keep shouting “The roof’s fallen in!” and keep blaming those who allowed it to happen, or we can haul up a tarpaulin, nail some boards across the windows, and cook some food for everyone on a makeshift stove. Yes, I know the roof has fallen in. Here, help me hold down this corner of the tarpaulin, fetch the firewood, get those children washed and ready, tend those newcomers, organize something to cheer the old and sick. Yes, yes, I know you don’t like the tarpaulin. Sorry about the pattern on the makeshift curtains. I apologize for the lack of a tablecloth. We’re having to share mugs, and would you mind taking a turn at washing the plates and spoons?
Yes, yes, I know the roof has fallen in. Yes, I know the names of the people who smashed the beautiful old windows. Yes, I know it was a work of wicked destruction. Yes, we’ll get things repaired—we’re working on the fundraising. Yes, the tarpaulin does look a bit rough, doesn’t it? Yes, one day we hope to rebuild it as good as new—or even better. In the meantime, would you mind giving a hand? And keeping a chin up?
As Pollyanna would say, we can be glad that the walls are still standing and the foundations are as strong as ever. We can be glad that, with the roof off, in a strange way the superb structures of the foundations look clearer than ever, and we’d never have seen them otherwise. We have found good humor, courage, and skills among some of our damp, shivering people, and some of the children, having singing lessons in the corner, are making a gladsome sound. Goodness, people outside, in the driving wind and sleet, are begging to come in. Some of them may be glaziers, plasterers, painters, makers of decent furniture.
Thanks to the “Glad Game”
Being an optimist in today’s Church is being a realist. Our Lord never promised that the Church would survive in any one place at any one time. History already has shown us how the Christian communities of the Middle East fell under Islam. At the Reformation, half of Europe was lost to heresy, and in England, where heroic martyrs ensured that something was salvaged, it took four centuries before it could be displayed again. We must ask God for strength, learn from the past, and remember the Christian virtues that will enable us to keep on. Seeking “something to be glad about” is a form of daily courage that will serve us well.
For those who sneer at the Pollyanna story, the crucial bit comes at the end. As things work out, thanks to the “glad game,” old enmities are removed, a forgotten love is rekindled, a number of complicated local community conflicts are resolved, and things end merrily with a wedding and happy times ahead. There’s a bigger punch, too: Just as these things are working out well, Pollyanna herself sustains a serious injury and has to struggle to find any gladness in the news that she may spend the rest of her life a serious invalid.
Does she? Read the book or watch the film to get the story. I ain’t tellin’. But I will tell you this: Pollyanna wins, and the gripers and complainers know (and so does the movie audience as the credits go up) that seeking gladness and showing gratitude, in every season and no matter what assails you, is not only the noblest way to live but a way that actually achieves things one might have thought impossible. I’m glad to be a Pollyanna Catholic.