Springtime in Pottersville
“Even so then, at this present time also, there is a remnant saved according to the election of grace” – Epistle of Saint Paul to the Romans (11:5)
I recently found myself standing before an old Catholic church and school building in the middle of New York. The abandoned structures were fairly typical of scores of churches and schools financed by immigrant dimes and nickels in the northeastern United States during the latter half of the Nineteenth Century.
If I’d looked around a little more I probably would have been able to figure out which nearby building had once housed the convent in which the teaching nuns had lived. The impressive stone facade of the church, along with the red-brick school building, was obviously built to withstand the test of time. The immigrant Catholics who’d raised these towering steeples were certainly not rich. But they understood they were housing the Real Presence of our Lord, and thus sacrificed a great deal to make it happen.
Sadly, many of these Catholic complexes, built in urban neighborhoods, have long since been turned into apartments or community centers or simply shuttered. Those that remain open could be much needed oases of light in a desert of urban blight, but, alas, are locked most of the time, their campuses hauntingly silent.
I closed my eyes and imagined the energy and activity that once defined these places a hundred years ago: the children of immigrant Irish or Italians, dressed neatly in school uniforms, Baltimore Catechisms in hand, in the tow of young nuns in full habit or chasing after good-natured priests in cassocks. I can hear the children’s laughter and the bells ringing, and smell the incense lingering over the holy sacrifices offered daily. I can see and hear and feel the lives of my forefathers that once bustled in this now-dead place. These men actually made things in America. They used their hands and toiled for long hours, six days a week. Their wives made due with little, despite considerable hardship and suffering.
While our culture today points to the “Greatest Generation” as that comprised of good guys, loyal wives and wise-cracking World War II soldiers, I would humbly submit that the previous century’s immigrants who eked out a hardscrabble existence in a country that neither valued or appreciated them, raised large families in chronic poverty and persevered in building their faith— may well be more deserving of the accolade. The sacrifices they expended are literally carved into the brick and mortar of their churches and schools that still stand, if empty, today.
So, what went wrong?
In the century that separates us from the hope and optimism of the Christian people who laid the cornerstones for these buildings, something dreadful happened.
Like almost anyone born after the Second Vatican Council, I am a “convert” to Tradition. I was born in 1971, the high-water mark of optimism following the Council. The new Pentecost was in full bloom. No change was off-limits, even to that which had been previously considered unchangeable. The very foundations of Holy Mother Church shook from the tremors of novelty and transformation. The new theology was all the rage, even if it was boring, bland and modern. To see the physical manifestations of this theology, one need look no further than the churches built in the early 1970s. Even architecturally, the human element of the Church was running from everything that had come before.
Like almost all of my generation, I spent most of my life completely ignorant of the fact that traditional Catholicism existed. Like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, we genuinely believed that the shadows of Catholic reality – existing in new and heretofore unrecognizable forms – were the real thing. We did not know that the priest used to face the altar during Mass, for example, or that the prayers were once offered in an ancient tongue. We never knew that priestly vestments were anything other than those polyester bed-sheets, or that Communion was distributed in any other manner but in the hand and to folks dressed in Led Zeppelin tee-shirts and ripped jeans.
The things that I now love so much about the Faith are the same things of which my generation had been kept utterly ignorant. We’d been robbed of our birthright and given a modernist mess of pottage in its place. Are we angry about that? You bet!
Even long after my re-version to the Catholic Faith, after years of reading the Church Fathers and the Lives of the Saints, I still did not know about the real thing. Re-version to the modern Church can be a confusing experience. I had read of great men and women of faith who were ready to sacrifice their lives for our Lord, but what I encountered in reality was modern Catholics who seemed to be going through the motions. My enthusiasm ran into the strong headwinds of aging hippie priests who told me the Church I was reading about didn’t exist anymore. My RCIA teacher informed me that “purgatory” is a doctrine on the way out and artificial birth control is not wrong so long as I didn’t believe it was wrong for me.
It was almost as if there was a conspiracy of silence by the vast majority of Catholics about how things used to be. The very meaning of what it meant to be Catholic had been radically altered, but nobody told us. It is only by the grace of God that a few of us managed to discover a whole new world of traditional Catholicism. When I first participated in the old Mass—when I first heard Gregorian Chant—I understood that this Catholicism of old – the constant and changeless Catholicism – was precisely what I’d been missing my whole life. I also understood why men and women from previous generations had suffered so much at the thought of losing it. I was grateful to God when I discovered that authentic Catholicism was being preserved by the spiritual equivalent of the survivors of a nuclear war. In the midst of an utterly broken and immoral society, men and women of good will were preserving the soul of the Catholic Faith.
So, there I was, standing before an example of the old Catholic church that can be found in any New York neighborhood, pockmarked by urban rot. I began visualizing what once was, while lamenting what has been so tragically lost. A thought occurred to me just then: Maybe we’re all living a nightmare. Maybe we will wake up tomorrow to see reality as it should be and as it once was. In our churches perhaps we’ll again see the ancient liturgy of our fathers offered in all its glory once again. Our schools will teem with wide-eyed children taught by faithful sisters. Convents and monasteries will again be filled with holy men and women storming the gates of heaven with their prayers and sacrifices for the world. Our bishops will fearlessly proclaim the unique salvific power of our Lord and his one true Church. They will educate Catholics and non-Catholics alike on the social kingship of our Lord and the Catholic vision of social order. Our seminaries will be filled with devout young men anxious to offer their lives for the greater glory of God. Orthodox Catholic colleges will educate young people in mind and soul in the greatest traditions of the Church’s intellectual life, and these young men and women will again become the seedbeds of a society based on faithful Catholic families and vocations.
Large families centered on faith will become the norm again as they always were – with mothers raising their little ones, fathers supporting them by hard work. The Church’s missionary work will be reignited as Protestantism continues to collapse, resulting in numerous adult baptisms again becoming a regular Easter occurrence. Our Church will again lead the way against divorce, abortion, obscenity and contraception.
Yes, I can see it: I can see a bright, vibrant society. It happened before; it could happen again. But first we must face the hard facts. We live in a world where every single measure of Catholic life is in abject decline. Instead of life, we see death. Instead of vibrancy, we see decay. Every day we’re made to witness the diabolic assault against our Lord’s holy priesthood that shakes Holy Mother Church to her very core. Bankrupt dioceses, shuttered schools, and empty seminaries tell the real story—it’s been a disastrous fifty years since the opening of the Second Vatican Council!
Standing before that venerable old church building, I was reminded of It’s a Wonderful Life. In that fabled film, George Bailey is provided the opportunity to see the value of his life through a vision of how the world would have been had he never been born. The homey town of Bedford Falls is thus transformed into the seedy, shameful Pottersville—a dark place much like the whole modern world today. The moral of the film is that the good we do in life, however seemingly insignificant, reverberates over time to change the world. The vision of a locked church and a padlocked school reminded me that we’re all living in a spiritual Pottersville, almost as if the Catholic Church had never been born.
It is hard to meet an intelligent, Mass-going Catholic today who still denies the Church is in crisis. Most recognize the decline but still refuse to lay blame at the feet of those who had the audacity to arrogate to themselves the power to change virtually every aspect of the Church’s identify in less than a generation. What took millennia to organically grow through rites and rituals and ideas and Tradition –while nurtured by the hands of saints – was deemed anachronistic by an imperious generation of churchmen who thought they knew better. In time, when the age of novelty is far passed, our descendants will no doubt marvel that these men got away with it.
But even today with the wreckage of Catholic life so evident, and a “cause and effect” of that wreckage so obvious, many good Catholics recoil at the notion that the changes brought about by the Council are the cause. They seem to miss the forest for the trees. Instead of an honest appraisal of the reality around them, they cling to the idea that if only the Council were implemented correctly things would get better; or if the new Mass were only celebrated reverently the liturgical crisis would end. But if we look at the crisis in the Church as a whole, the problem is clearly not one of execution, but rather of principles.
What is the use of quibbling over whether a more honest translation of the new Mass will cure its many ills when the fruits of the whole experiment have proven so disastrous! I stood before that shuttered Catholic church because the liturgy for which it was built ceased being offered there, and the clear Catholic doctrine that used to be preached from its pulpit is no more. This was not a mistake made on the margins; rather, it was a wholesale change in direction with cataclysmic effects. We took the wrong path, and when one takes the wrong path and realizes it the only solution is to turn around. There is no other choice. Indeed, a remnant in the Church is doing exactly that right now, working their way back to the right path and begging shepherds and fellow sheep to do the same.
They say we are experiencing springtime in the Church, and indeed we are. But not the springtime promised or anticipated. Springtime is necessarily a period of rebirth – and we are witnessing the rebirth of the Church in the most unlikely of places. It is not happening at ordinary Catholic parishes. It certainly is not happening at meetings of regional conferences of bishops. It is happening, however, on the dining room tables of home-schooled families. It is happening at afternoon Masses offered in inconvenient places according to the ancient form. It is happening among large families that reject artificial birth control and its surrogate— “natural family planning”. It is happening among teenaged girls wearing veils in churches. It is happening with young priests discovering the fullness of their priesthood in the old Mass. It is happening among fathers who embrace their role as head of the household and single providers. It is happening among mothers who once again are the hearts of Christian homes. It is happening among families that pray the rosary together. Simply stated, it is happening among those who view the traditional Faith as the single most important part of their lives. It is happening, and, to the extent that any of us are a part of it, we can take heart in knowing that the revolution has failed. God will not be mocked much longer.
Instead of the Orwellian “springtime” that was as manufactured as the liturgy upon which it was based, the real “springtime” is an organic movement of the faithful who are coalescing around the ancient traditions of Christianity. And as miniscule as it may seem at the moment it is growing, and it is growing at a time when the world thought it long dead and buried. Like the mustard seed of the first century, the Christian men and women of the remnant of faithful Catholics are again at work in the vineyard.
So while we may live in Pottersville for the moment, it won’t be forever and all hope is certainly not lost. Rebuilding Christian civilization is going to be difficult and it’s going to take time but, Deo Gratias, it has already begun.