In 1936, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, February 11th was a momentous day for devout Catholics. The apparition of the Mother of God at Lourdes to a simple peasant French girl was celebrated de rigueur in the uncomplicated household I called my home. For nine mornings and evenings, a Novena, we devoted ourselves to this powerful Celestial protector called Our Lady of Lourdes. Under the strong will of my Irish Grandmother and the sweet but unyielding direction of the Holy Cross Sisters, all of us (with the exception of my Jewish father), dutifully attended Mass each morning and services at night where we heard stirring sermons on God’s power and His desire to gift us provided we asked Him through the Great Lady we called Our Blessed Mother.
We made our petitions which ranged from requesting good health or a steady job to finding my beloved lost dog, Mickey Finn. We lit candles with a little prayer. After waiting on long lines we went to “Confession”, received absolution from our sins and resolved to amend our sinful ways. We dropped our nickel or dime in the poor box and felt very good about ourselves. We felt kinder to our fellow human beings, lied less and helped to clean up after dinner.
The huge Paulist Church was literally packed each Novena night. Unless one came reasonably early, standing room was the only option. The side chapels were crammed with folding chairs. The men sat on red pillows placed on the steps leading up to the great Sanctuary where we would witness the Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament at the conclusion of each evening ceremony. Faith was rampant. The Grace of Jesus fell like rain. Out of such a socio-religious matrix came the Greatest Generation, those who survived the Great Depression and the suffering of World War II.
Within such a matrix, however, it was easy to be actively religious. It was easy to incorporate one’s spiritual beliefs into daily life. But it was taken for granted that there was something to incorporate. Our meaningful spiritual life presupposed a whole structure of religious doctrine which we, as children, year after year, learned daily from religious Sisters. These “Nuns” had a special kind of infallibility which was “ Sister sez…..” beyond which there could be no question. Sister told us we would have a serious obligation to worship God each Sunday through the Holy Mass. We would receive Jesus in Holy Communion, not as a symbol but the Lord Himself. We could have our sins forgiven through the sacrament of Penance. We would have reasonable certainty about the Truths of the Faith through the leadership of the Pope, the Vicar of Jesus Christ on earth and the successor to Peter the Rock.
We could pray to a dazzling array of saints who were scholars, doctors, soldiers, beggars, married, single, rich, poor, Japanese, Irish, African and American--- all ready to help us in times of grief, fear or puzzlement. The Sisters taught us to aspire ourselves to such spiritual heights and to believe that it is possible for us, too, aided by the grace of the Lord we worshipped. Life made sense while we acknowledged absurdity and weakness. The large answers were clear even if the crosses remained difficult and painful. Catholicism for us was more than a Creed or philosophy. It was a pervasive way of Life. Affectively, we were close to God.
Unless one has been living in the Gobi desert for fifty years it is obvious that there has been a change in the Catholic way of life. On Feb. 11, 2006, 70 years later, there was hardly a mention of Our Lady of Lourdes. Today the great Paulist Church is hardly ever packed to the doors. There is merely a sprinkling of communicants. There are no more Holy Cross Sisters to open the young souls to the glories of the Faith. There is open and sometimes heretical dissent from the core Teachings of the Faith. Nearly one third of Catholics don’t believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Unbelievably, some priests doubt the Truth of Transubstantiation, alleging that Community building is more important than Faith. “Visits” to the Blessed Sacrament are rare. Making the Stations of the Cross as a devotion is a quaint anachronism. To see some adult “making his beads” (saying his Rosary), even in the case of Religious, might raise some “progressive” eyebrows. Catholic leaders, including Popes, are categorized and dismissed as Neanderthal, former young Nazi or mere Italian bureaucrat.
Few Catholics go to Confession. Many believe it doesn’t really matter what religion one professes. Some Catholics support abortion programs believing one’s immediate conscience trumps revealed Truth. Many Catholics support Same Sex “marriages” while others practice homosexual behavior with a mindset justifying illicit sexual pleasures. And of course, these persons often blatantly announce that –yes they are Catholics who go to “Church” often, have their children baptized or married in the Catholic manner and send in an occasional check for charity. They apparently see no dis-connect between their personal lives and the abstract Catholicism they murkily profess. This is, at times, publicly manifested in the cases of “Catholic” politicians who bristle whenever Bishops challenge them in the public forum.
What happened? Of course, there are many possible variables which have contributed to this sad state. The possible list is long. I suggest that one measurable variable which has fed into the decay is very weak religious instruction. But one suspects that many modern Catholics don’t even know what traditional religious instruction means. In their traditional ability to joke about their own weaknesses, my Jewish family told me this relevant story. A rich Jewish entrepreneur wishes to have his new Jaguar blessed. He approaches an Orthodox rabbi for the blessing who asks innocently: “What’s a Jaguar?” A Conservative rabbi similarly responds: “What’s a Jaguar?” But a hot shot/modern Reform Rabbi responds: “What’s a Blessing?”
Many modern Catholics will innocently wonder “what’s traditional religious instruction?” They usually lack the warm flexibility and confidence of the Jewish soul which has been refined in the furnace of bigotry and hatred. The Jew learned to laugh at himself in his quest for survival, seen tragically in the example of the Russian and Polish stettles. Not so with the modern sad Catholic, who might, in fact, be in objective heresy or schism. He is defensive and dour. His anger and depression is getting more widespread. A psychologist might wonder whether or not we are witnessing a colossal unconscious adolescent rebellion against a parental figure!
Some years ago, a columnist of the liberal National Catholic Reporter, himself the recipient of the riches of Catholic tradition, nostalgically pined for the glory of his religious youth. He watched the so-called religious education of his children, with dismay, where the dominant instruction core was not the Eucharist or grace or prayer or Lourdes but rather an elusive goal of “self esteem.”
Under the influence of so many Catholic educators, some of whom I met in my own graduate psychology work, the Religious ed. Programs focused on “feeling good about your self.” It was implied that a warm navel gazing stance would be more helpful for happiness than an awareness of life’s purpose and the means of reaching eternal happiness with God and inner peace in this life.
This columnist wrote of the Catholicism of his youth which was taught like a Gorilla triumphantly thumping his chest. He compared this past glory with the present state of religious instruction which features rills and rocks, running streams, sheaves of wheat flowing in the wind, quasi-animism and which, effectively, focuses, not on God , the Lord and Master, but on the self. The result is an uninformed, pallid, pale “religious” pablum.
Such an enormous disservice to the Catholic people is staggering. And the weakness is not confined to the laity alone. The New Oxford Review (April, 1997) challenged a Catholic bishop of Colorado who announced that he would never, in the future, preach against any kind of sin from the pulpit, lest some one might be offended!!! To speak of abortion or homosexual acting out for him is now out of bounds. He can’t challenge any sin because it might damage some one’s self esteem. The sinner might feel rejected or guilty! He is saturated with the “new” Catholicism but alas, what happens to those who look to him for guidance? Where is the call to repentance? Where is the awareness of the “Cross” so deep in the Faith and devotion of ’36?
We thank God for teachers like Bishop Fabian of Nebraska who will not be silent about sin. Thank the Lord for Dr. James Dobson and Billy Graham and C.S. Lewis who teach the deep truths of God. The Catholics of ’36 were raised on the simple Baltimore Catechism and have been condemned ever since as being underdeveloped and rigid. In spite of actual limitations of such a religious formation, Catholics of that time knew something of their Faith and they acted on it. By comparison with today’s disorientation and desert wandering, l936 looks “pretty good.”
Will we ever see the vigorous, enthusiastic Faith of my youth? Oh, yes, but not in our time since it will take a generation to erase the excesses and mistakes of the recent past. We need real teachers who, truly informed, are not afraid to speak God’s truth. We need real people who value goodness above popularity. May Our Lady of Lourdes protect us.