By Jesuit Father Richard Leonard
In recent decades, the Vatican has condemned the books of a number of United States theologians and writers. Whatever the arguments for these measures in individual cases, I have never been able to reconcile the portrait of the U.S. Catholic Church as radical or maverick with my experience of its parish life. As a native Australian who has visited, studied and worked off and on in the U.S. for nearly 24 years, I am always struck by the difference between the views of some high-profile Catholic academics and the reality in the pews.
In my experience, the U.S. Church is one of the most faithful Catholic communities in the world. The Mass attendance rate is among the highest of any developed country. The ethnic and social diversity is as rich as the age range. U.S. parishes, by and large, have not lost parents with young families.
Reflecting the wider culture, U.S. Catholics tend to be enthusiastic and generous. And because money is allocated to paying for liturgy directors and well-trained musicians the Sunday Mass is often celebrated with reverence and joy – and with the full, active participation of the people. U.S. congregations want to like the homilist and are generous in their response.
Moreover, for all the criticism from some U.S. Catholic commentators that the present Pope is confusing the faithful, every time I mention Francis and his leadership of the Church, there is affectionate acclamation.
There are some tensions and contradictions in U.S. Catholicism that still unnerve me. I am never comfortable when I see national flags of any country, including the Holy See’s, present in the sanctuary. The weekly prayers for the men and women serving in the defense force always bring me up short, – but we need to be careful that our prayers do not inhibit us from critically engaging with every conflict upon which our nation engages.
Cardinal Robert Sarah would be pleased to see the number of people who choose to receive Communion on the tongue, which is their right. The number of Catholic children who are now home-schooled is said to be at an all-time high. This makes me nervous; I have met too many adults who have told me they regret their parents’ decision not to allow them to attend school.
Before or during almost every Mass I attend, there is a pro-life prayer. These express valuable statements of our faith, although sometimes they lack pastoral sensitivity. At the same time that we defend the rights of the unborn, we should be reaching out in mercy and compassion to the women sitting in the congregation who have been through an abortion. It is not either/or; it is both/and.
I was touched by the honors bestowed on Billy Graham after his death by a grateful nation. But the proud and public religiosity of this great country only adds to the deep obligations that following Christ demands in regard to the poor, the vulnerable, refugees and the uninsured.
When I ask about gun control at the “coffee & donuts” that follows almost every Sunday parish Mass, I am always shocked at how more than a few Catholics argue strongly for the right to bear arms. A week ago, I was shown a gun that a parishioner had brought to Mass. I did not feel safer.
The constant wrangling over gun control has helped me see the underlying violence that permeates the U.S.: It’s present everywhere in the world, but it seems closer to the surface here because of the gregarious way North Americans explore their feelings and issues in public. And it has helped me to understand the violent tone that characterizes Catholic bloggers here. Their camera and their keyboard are their weapons of choice. Their character assassinations and wild assaults on those they perceive to be the enemies of the truth are inexcusably ugly and uncharitable.
I love the U.S. and I love U.S. Catholics – but I am pleased that for all of us it is in God we have to trust.
Jesuit Father Richard Leonard is the author of “What Does It All Mean? A Guide to Living Lives of Faith, Hope and Love” published by Paulist Press.[[In-content Ad]]