American Catholic Panorama: From April 14, 1962

Some day you would like to write a book about Catholicism in America as you have known it. You keep putting it off, and the relentless years keep passing. The book will probably never be written. But as time goes by, experience broadens, understanding is enriched, complexity becomes more evident. The result is that this year's unwritten book is better than last year's, and next year's promises to be the best yet. Thinking about it, though, is like paging through an album of yellowed snapshots, watching yourself age while the perennial youth of the Church becomes ever more verdant.

The first impressions begin in the parochial school. You can evoke certain sights, sounds and smells from the past and take satisfaction in the knowledge that they are part of the present life of your children: "...with liberty and justice for all, goodmorningsister"; the clink of heavy rosary beads and rustle of black veiling; the exultant swell (combined frequently with a sense of deliverance from captivity) of "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name”; the sudden spring of a May altar; the clinging sweetness of funeral incense hanging on in a church, like the presence of death, after the mourners have left; the special shouts of schoolboy encouragement when one of the Sisters takes a turn at bat; the pastoral eloquence of a report-card compliment; the shattering realization that there is disorder in the universe when ink is spilled on a nun's immaculate white bib.


(You recall such things and realize, all these years later, that because the school was attached to a parish church, with its baptisms, weddings, funerals and liturgical markings of the Christian year, life, love and death seemed as natural as breath; you were steadily exposed to their claim on man—and you even knew, if only in a dim way, that the manifestations of the liturgical cycle taking place at the altar were tied in with the life around you because they celebrated a greater birth, a more inclusive love, a more terrible death, and yet held out the assurance of resurrection.)

You remember, you remember:

A small boy having his first doubts about the power of prayer, and the power of the American idea as well, when the Sister, bitterly resigned, said that the defeat of Mr. Smith proved that none of you should ever hope to be President of the United States—and so soon after her announcement that the Pope is always an Italian....

The Servite high-school teacher, freshly returned from ordination in Rome, speaking with astounding familiarity of such storied places as Saint Peter's Square, the galleries of Florence, the village of Assisi, the processions of Lourdes, even repeating the gossip of the College of Cardinals. The young priest's conversation was full of ecco's and arrivederci's, though he was as native to Chicago as the rest of you. You got the impression that, like him, you too "belonged" wherever Catholicism flourished. Though he did not know he was teaching the lesson, through him you first learned that the Thing you knew best in its big-city American manifestation wore a thousand different expressions and yet somehow transcended them all....

A few years later the scholarly Jesuit, taking a satisfaction that was just this side of smugness in the knowledge that the Thomistic wonders being discovered at the campus on the Midway, the cause of a nationwide academic uproar, had been a Catholic possession all along....

Still later, another clerical scholar, this one a Dominican of international reputation, telling your class in Fribourg that there are no theologians in the American Church but only teachers of theology, a young Jesuit named John Murray being perhaps an exception....

Remember the stain of tears on Jacques Maritain's cheek when he said, with infinite sadness, that the fiery chaplain at Princeton simply did not see what harm he was doing, so blinding was his zeal, nor did he realize how long it would take to undo it....

Then—where, oh where is that Sister who blasted your boyhood hopes?—recall a plane landing in Houston, Texas, in September, 1960. The Senator is saving a voice badly bruised by the unrelenting schedule of his campaign. He has been scribbling notes to you. This one reads: "It is rather hard for a Harvard man to answer questions in theology. I am sure my answers will cause a good deal of heartburn at Fordham and B.C." Later, your heart goes out to him, caught in the clerical squeeze-play, when he walks up to the platform and faces his inquisitors. One on the campaign staff, a non-Catholic, whispers to you as the Senator steps to the mike: "Who are those nuns who pray that Notre Dame wins? We need them now."

Remember, remember....The little girls all raising their hands when the curate asks how many intend to be nuns....Rumors that the prettiest nun had once been offered a Hollywood contract, and the perennial fiction that Father gave up a big-league career to enter the seminary....The high-school metaphysician triumphantly demanding to know whether God can make a stone so big He cannot lift it. How does Father get around that one?....The shock passing through the room like an electric current when the first one in your class announces boldly that he has lost the faith. There will be others later.....The big retreat and one of those worldly-wise, too-traveled missionaries ("At a boys high school in Phoenix last month…") letting it be well understood that he knows a great deal more about the Facts of Life than his adolescent congregation, for whom the same Facts seem to be making all the difference between a Catholicity worn easily throughout childhood and a Catholicity become a sudden burden....The common agreement, rarely a complaint, that religion courses are the easiest to pass, require the least work, are taught by the least proficient professors, and seem to have nothing to do with anything else in the course of studies.

The boy grows older. Remember, remember....

The breadline stretched along Mott Street and wound around Canal Street, little fires
blazing along the curb in the pre-dawn. You are going to early Mass with Dorothy Day. A few men stop the two of you to complain about the way life has treated them; most are busy keeping warm.

The Catholic Worker house in Chicago closes at the beginning of the war, but what is to happen to the old men, unemployable even in the wartime boom? You bring one of them to the Little Sisters of the Poor. Questions. The nun sits there writing notes. "Any income at all?" "No." "Any insurance?" "None." "Anyone who might be willing to take care of him?" "No one." Your blood pressure goes up with each new social-worker quiz. It subsides abruptly when at last she smiles: "Then he is the most welcome of all…."

The crowd is gathered around a home said to be the scene of heavenly visitations. Reporters have pulled out the Ethelbert Nevin stops, describing the simple faith of the expectant people, their shameless prayers, their thrilling conviction that mountains can be moved. The actual crowd you smell is not the devout assemblage of Breton peasants described in the news columns. This is a gang and it wants action (in the Las Vegas sense). They won't be back tomorrow if there is no performance tonight. Nothing happens. “The miracle" disappears from the headlines....

The parish church near the big Army installation in the South. The Catholic magazines on the rack have been dutifully censored. Articles about the race question have been clipped, like an unnecessary growth on the body of Catholic thought. That way, the pastor reasons, his parishioners will not suffer doubts and will still be given the benefits of Catholic reading…

So many different kinds of parishes you have been involved in, but not really, because somewhere along the line you discovered, at first to your dismay, that though you were to get your name in the American Catholic Who's Who, you were destined to remain always an Outsider....

Remember, remember.... The big church near the Catholic Worker house, once the pride of the Chicago Irish. When you are going there, the Irish have already moved on. The church is almost empty even at ten o'clock Sunday morning.... The suburban crowd fulfilling their Sunday obligation in a barn-like hall, with no "consolation" but only the stark religious reality that a Carthusian might seek (as the Poor Clares break their nocturnal rest, like young mothers arising for an early feeding). But the parishioners are not Carthusians, they are Long Islanders and the magazines are beginning to be full of their desire for comfort, their need for sense-satisfaction. Yet they keep coming to the dreary hall in ever greater number—and isn't that a kind of wonder?.... The church in Beverly Hills. One of the nation's Our Lady of the Cadillacs. Here and there a movie star in the pews, but the congregation is well behaved or at least blasé—there is no gawking, no special distraction....The transient parish near the railroad station, with its odd impermanence, priests and people like ships passing in the night....The little frame churches in rural America, gifts of the Extension Society. You leave them with a feeling that Catholicism belongs to the cities, Protestantism to the countryside, for there is always a sense of a "Protestant" atmosphere. Obviously a silly idea when you think of wayside shrines, rogation days, etc. But why do you have it? . . . The Broome Street chapel on the lower East Side of Manhattan. When you knew it, the parish took in a single block. You cannot forget the priest, a white-haired Italian who looked like a holy-picture saint. "Be a good man or woman as the case may be," he tells you in the confessional....The sheer perfection of Fr. Ford's Corpus Christi on Morningside Heights and the startling realization that the priest preaching is Martin D'Arcy, S. J…A particular Sunday, the Feast of Christ the King, at the Mission in Santa Barbara. The Franciscans are singing with the kind of free-spirited sweetness that only Franciscans should be encouraged to indulge in, the sermon is excellent, and it seems that Paul Blanshard himself would see the Point were he here....The overdressed church where novena devotions are carried on over a mike throughout the Mass, and the ushers keep running up and down the aisles to take up third and fourth collections, while the congregation drones "Mother, Dear, O Pray for Me." Do, Mother, do....The Negro parish where the only pale face in the church, were you not there, would be that of the priest....

So many memories, places, different kinds of work, modes of worship, different manifestations of the Thing that makes them all one....Priests- priests in the rectory, the classroom, the gym, lecturing to Newman clubs, scurrying with briefcases into chancery offices, chanting the office in choir, delivering scholarly papers to academic societies, walking the last mile with convicts, orienting GI's to their new life, playing salon abbé at fashionable cocktail parties, correcting proofs for diocesan papers. How would you account for them all in the book?

Or nuns. Nuns in the schoolroom, the hospital, the laboratory, the orphanage, the poor family's kitchen, outside Gimbels waiting for alms, moving silently behind cloistered walls, managing retreat houses, taking up parish censuses, writing poetry, administering colleges and social-work projects, washing the bodies of forgotten old women, scrubbing a bishop's floor—and don't forget the one you knew who lobbied for an FEPC law in Washington. It is not true that they all look alike—though, on a subway, when they cast their eyes down that way, it might be so.... Don't forget the monks. The hermits of the Big Sur as well as the much-publicized Trappists, the sophisticates of Portsmouth and Saint Anselm's as well as the gnarled lay brothers of a hundred monasteries—Salesian, Premonstratensian, Capuchin, Carmelite, Augustinian, Jesuit, Redemptorist, black-, brown-, white-habited men of God. You will have to account for them all.

Remember, remember.... The Holy Name Societies you have known, Catholic Action groups. Third Orders, Vincent de Paul Societies, Catholic War Veterans, the Serra Club meeting you spoke at, the Catholic Poetry Society, the National Catholic Educational Association convention you attended in Atlantic City, where the nuns looked like an invasion of sea-birds along the boardwalk. And why has no one ever asked you to join the Knights of Columbus?

Don't forget. Don't forget.... The press: America, the Sign, the Catholic World, CrossCurrents, Spiritual Life, Our Sunday Visitor, Jubilee, Novena Notes, all those Franciscan publications (why are they lined up on the "conservative" side so often?), Worship, the diocesan papers, including such different cups of tea as the Brooklyn Tablet and the Indianapolis Criterion.

Get it all in. Put it all down.

Remember, remember.... The boys hawking Father Couglin's Social Justice outside the churches; and Bishop Sheil wiping away the spittle of a woman who contemptuously spat out "Rabbi!"....The editors at the Catholic Press Association convention dutifully going up to the head table to get their copies of the “documents" the junior Senator from Wisconsin had waved like a flag throughout the talk; and the Catholic conscientious objectors, who refused to take cover during an alert, being hauled away in a police van.... The ever so proper tea dance at the nuns' college; and the harassed young curate trying desperately to keep order at the parish youth center in the slums.... The rosy monsignor sopping up the ladies' flattery like a sponge; and Msgr. Higgins challenging Paul Blanshard at the seminar on religion and the free society.... The sprightly military hymn to Christ the King enthralling the mammoth youth rally; and the silver laughter of that twisted girl in Yonkers who found her apostolate in pain and suffering.... The retreat preached by an awesomely intellectual priest to a handful of writers, artists, critics and aesthetes; and the time you wandered into Saint Francis Church on 31st Street and heard a visiting Passionist tell his congregation of middle-aged women that were Mary filling out a passport application, she would surely list her occupation as Priest's Housekeeper.... The Park Avenue matron wringing her hands over Bishop Sheen's latest stellar convert. "Of course, I am glad to see her in the Church, but I wish she were more like that Dorothy Day. Miss Day knows her place and stays in it"; and the earnest young radical suggesting a new order of beatnik friars.... The nervous politician enquiring about how he could "reach" the bishop; and the busy Washington office-holder studiously leading a discussion of De Regimine Principum.... Cardinal Spellman standing on the steps of the cathedral as the St. Patrick's Day parade swings up Fifth Avenue; and the lonely pastor in South Dakota taking his evening meal at the town's one diner.... The policemen guarding the home of an unwanted Negro in Cicero, Illinois; and the burning zeal of Friendship House workers in neighboring Chicago… The Maria Monk pamphlets that poured into Kennedy's campaign headquarters; and Msgr. Murray patiently explaining a knotty theological problem at a meeting of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.... The fiery anticommunism of a dozen Communion breakfast orators; and the low-key recital of their prison ordeal by two Maryknoll nuns returned from Red China.... conversation about Catholicism with James T. Farrell that stretched far into the night; another conversation, same subject, almost as long, with a Jewish convert from the University of Chicago....

Remember, remember, remember people.... J. F. Powers stoutly resisting invitations to address the next meeting of the Francis Thompson Literary Society; Clare Booth Luce passionately defending Richard Nixon's Checkers special; Sen. Eugene McCarthy replying to the nun who asked if it wouldn't be better for a nice young man like Senator Kennedy to lose the nomination so he would not be forced to make "compromises"; Peter Maurin predicting that the Vincentian Fathers would find their true identity by opening houses of hospitality for the unemployed graduates of Jesuit colleges; William F. Buckley, fifteen years later, reporting on the burgeoning of campus conservatism at a Catholic forum; Fr. Gustave Weigel disputing amiably with Paul Tillich before a delighted Catholic-Protestant-Jewish-humanist audience; Mike Quill, on television, telling Mike Wallace that yes, he is indeed a Catholic but religious opinions have no place on a "peep-show"; Anne Fremantle announcing the discovery of the best young Catholic writer yet—can't recall his name; the youthful Ed Marciniak hurrying from the stockyards (where he handed out leaflets quoting Quadragesimo Anno) to make his first class at Loyola; Jane Wyatt admitting that when Fr. Peyton came to her with his idea that movie stars could be rounded up to say the rosary over the air, she thought the dear man was incredibly naive; Fr. Godfrey Diekmann, happy as a child, explaining the symbolism of the new Saint John's Abbey Church; Jean Kerr, even in a serious discussion of parochial schools, lighting one witticism on the butt of the last; William Clancy, on the "Open End" program, tapping Bishop Pike gently on the shoulder: "Don't worry. Bishop, I think you are invincibly ignorant"; Ed Willock—an unsung giant, too soon dead—explaining to a group of young matrons that he did not believe there was anything intrinsically wrong with washing machines.

So much to cover, so wide thc world—Notre Dame; the Commonweal; Gethsemane, Kentucky; the American Cardinals; the Christian Brothers; "No Irish Need Apply"; Barclay Street; Emmett McLoughlin; the American Ecclesiastical Review; the CYO; the "powerhouse"; the Mindszenty Society; the Laetare Medal; the National Catholic Welfare Conference; the Alexian Brothers; Louis Budenz; birth control law; Fr. Reinhold; the North American College; the Linacre Quarterly; Saint Benedict's Center; Eastern rites; the Glenmary Missionaries; the Christian Family Movement; Necedah, Wisconsin; the Military Ordinariate; the Pink Sisters; Fr. Keller; Liturgical Arts; the Grail; Senator McCarran; the Paulist choir; Harry Sylvester; Sister-Formation; the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation; Thomas Merton; the Legion of Decency; the Messenger of the Sacred Heart; Msgr. John Tracy Ellis; Ade Bethune; Sheed &Ward; Fr. Cinder; the Catholic Hour; the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists: etc., etc., etc., etc.

It will have to be two or three books. If it can be put off until the year after next, or the one after that, it might be monumental.

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Mike Evans
6 years 9 months ago
Write the book!! It will be a best seller!  Our collective Catholic memories in print for all to treasure.
6 years 9 months ago
Memories, Memories! I know John Cogley from the Commonweal and the Catholic Worker to which I have subscribed for over 50 years.
In 1960 I was the President of Young Democrats in Framingham, MA and went to DC in 1961 to work for the government and change the world.

Gilbert Wells, Azenhas do Mar, Portugal
Maggie Rose
6 years 9 months ago
a diego rivera panorama!! wow. so much in this listing stirred memories in my mind and my heart. what a wealth - life as a catholic in america. i am grateful both for my heritage and for my faith. 


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