During the 19th century, Irish immigrants settled in Glens Falls, a small city along the upper reaches of the Hudson River in east central New York. The men supported their families by working in the city’s paper and textile mills. On their way home on payday they stopped off at a saloon for a convivial hour. Tradition reports that when their wives complained to the pastor of St. Mary’s, known locally as the Irish Church, he rode out to the mill one Saturday. As the workers emerged, he flourished his riding crop and relieved them of their pay envelopes, which he then delivered to their wives.
As a clunky but currently chic phrase would have it, that was one way of “doing church,” but not the only way. Over the course of centuries, there have been many other ecclesiastical styles, just as there have been many ups and downs in the journey of what Augustine called the pilgrim city of Christ the King.
Sometimes in some places parish life was reduced to a flicker; at other times in other places it flourished. When Peter Canisius, an early Jesuit, was sent in 1552 to preach in Vienna, he found that most Viennese had given up the practice of Catholicism and for 20 years no priests had been ordained in that once Catholic city.
By contrast, parish life was vigorous in Philadelphia 400 years later. At the Church of the Gesu, for example, the Swiss-born pastor, Burchard Villiger, S.J., was in the confessional every morning from five to seven. Church services were frequent and crowded—partly, perhaps, because Father Villiger had decreed that sermons were to last no longer than 25 minutes!
Of course, the church in the United States today looks neither like the church of 16th-century Vienna nor like the church of 19th-century Philadelphia. It looks like itself. From the point of view of a sociologist, the Catholic Church in the nations of the Atlantic community appears nowadays to be in crisis, and in many ways it is. But to the eyes of faith this church is more than an organization of great antiquity. It is also a community sustained and guided by the Spirit, a people of God to whom Christ is always present as he promised he would be: “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of time” (Mt 28:20).
To be sure, as the Second Vatican Council said in its “Decree on Ecumenism” (1964), Christ “summons the church as she goes her pilgrim way, to that continual reformation of which she always has need, insofar as she is an institution of men here on earth” (No. 6). Particularly in troubled times, the church is prompted by the Spirit to renew and reshape itself in response to changing circumstances.
In the United States, the most publicized recent effort at reshaping is the one-year-old movement called Voice of the Faithful, which draws its membership predominantly from the laity. It began with a meeting in Boston on July 20, 2002, following the revelations of sexual abuse by priests. Now it has 170 affiliates worldwide, and its focus has been broadened. It describes itself as remaining within the mainstream of church tradition and teaching, but points out that many streams flow into the mainstream. There is an echo here of what the first famous Christian schoolmaster, Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-ca. 215), wrote: “There is one river of truth, but many streams fall into it on this side and that.”
Last month, on Fordham University’s Bronx campus, V.O.T.F. held its second large gathering since the Boston conference, and the agenda included many more topics than the abuse scandal. Most of the reflections were about ways in which bishops, clergy and the laity can work together for renewal. The meeting itself embodied a conviction of Pius XII, who in a consistorial address in 1946 said that “lay men and women occupy the front ranks in the life of the church; through them the church is the vital principle of human society.”
If renewal is to succeed, it must be energized by a spirit of unity. That is a truth forcefully expressed by Ernest Hello (1828-85), a minor figure in the Catholic literary revival in France at the close of the 19th century. In one of his brief essays, which were like flashes of lightning, this devout and rather reclusive thinker wrote: “Hell struggles to break the unity of those who believe.... It makes unparalleled efforts to establish coldness between Catholics...for coldness is in the moral order what paralysis is in the physical order.”
On the other hand, if the people of God follow Paul’s advice to the Ephesians and wear for shoes an eagerness to spread the Gospel of peace (6:15), they will be equipped to make their way across however many millennia are yet to come until the pilgrim city reaches the land of glory.