New World Catholics
Catholic Revivalism: The American Experience, 18301900, by Jay P. Dolan (University of Notre Dame Press £7) Catholic Pentecostalism has had a far greater impact in the United States than in Europe. This may seem strange to those who have thought of American Catholicism before Vatican II as conservative, formal and ultramontane.
Jay P. Dolan, who teaches at the University of Notre Dame shows in this important study how the contemporary Pentecostal Revival is as much part of the tradition of American Catholicism — its evangelical strain — as the triumphalism which peppered the American landscape with great neo-Gothic churches and colleges.
Professor Dolan looks at the revival movement in general and parish missions in particular during the formative years of the American Catholic community — the middle years of the 19th century.
This was the period of the great migration from Europe and a crucial time in the sur
vival of a transplanted Catholicism. The strength of that survival owed much to "the popularity and pervasiveness of evangelicalism in the American character," The methods used by the missioners, many of them immigrants themselves, owed something to missions in the Old World.
One Passionist, after his sermon on death (which formed part of the shock treatment of each mission), placed a rope lround his neck and a crown of thorns on his head, and then, while he knelt at the foot of the 'crucifix facing the congregation, begged pardon for his sins.
Such baroque excess was unusual, and the missions, while always retaining a strongly sacramental emphasis, were closer in character to their homespun American Protestant counterparts with their concentration on personal conversion, family life and sound personal morality. Drink and dancing were condemned with particular vehemence.
Vehemence was an essential part of each preacher's skill.
The message was simple, "repent and be saved, or cise" but it had to be driven home.
On one occasion a Redemptorist, Henri Giesen, was so elo quent in his description of hellfire that his booming voice roused the firemen at a nearby station who rushed off to church to put out the fire that Giesen's oratory had fabricated.
This book is full of such interesting and amusing sidelights, but it is far more than a collection of diverting anecdotes. Its implications are many. It shows the links between the Catholic and Protestant sides of American Christianity in a great evangelical tradition.
It reveals the originality and missionary drive•of the pioneer clergy who created a new and vast Eccles& Americana. It suggests that the strength and the weaknesses of Catholic life and thought in America were largely conditioned by the aspirations of the revival.
Overall it demonstrates the diversity of Catholic life. As the author puts it: "To tell the story of American Catholicism and not include what was perhaps the most popular religious movement in the 19th century does not do justice to the richness of the American Catholic experience."