Page 8, 17th December 1976

17th December 1976
Page 8
Page 8, 17th December 1976 — Why the Church has taken a real bashing in America

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Locations: Dayton, Oxford


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Why the Church has taken a real bashing in America

I HAVE just read an appalling account of the state of priestly vocations in the United States. It appears in a sensible and not ostentatiously radical magazine called America, which is run by the Jesuits of the United States and Canada. It's pretty depressing if you depend on statistics for your faith.

The American Church has certainly tak-en a real hashing. A bishop and a Jesuit Provincial have been among those who quit the priesthood. (I am told the ex-bishop still keeps his coat of arms over his fireplace.) An old-fashioned, rigid, highly authoritarian Church in a swift-moving, tormented and genuinely democratic society, the loosening of disciplines occasioned by Vatican Two; these were traumatic and bewildering. It was as if an automatic compass had been snatched away from them and they were told to use their eyes.

A Fr William Ferree, who is a Marianist from Dayton, Ohio, has been doing some research. He has produced a pamphlet with an 18th century sort of title! "The Extent and Depth of the Present Crisis of Vocations in the Church."

He has been researching it for two years. I take it that his figures apply only to the United States. In Ireland, for example, the figures have taken a spectacular turn for the better.

Since 1962, he writes, vocations to the diocesan priesthood have diminished by more than 50 per cent. Vocations to religious orders and congregations of priests, sisters and brothers have been diminished in an even more terrible way. He says the decrease here is 90 per cent.

His description of the situation comes in a coruscating shower of mixed metaphors. He calls what is happening a massive haemorrhage, an empty pipeline, a time-bomb whose delayed action will be fully felt only 30 years from now when

the present organisations have no more troops to call up.

But, through the glittering fog of words one sees what he means. And his pamphlet is a statistical report rather than an analysis of the causes of the manpower crisis.

Nobody blamed

Immediately after the war, inside the United States, there , was a rush of young men into the sternest sort of monasteries.

It did not last lung, and most of them did not stay long. The late Thomas Merton was one of these. There was no such rush for the cloister during or after the Vietnam war.

The pamphlet does offer one explanation. It amounts to the fact that the young have grown older for their age. He does not blame changes in the liturgy, the Second Vatican Council, Popes John or Paul; in fact he blames nobody but attributes it all to the changes in the times.

He says that the culture of the day does not encourage men and women under the age of 25 to make any sort of lifetime commitment.

Some time ago I met a priest in this country who loved the old Church and accepts the new with an occasional sigh which does not imply even spiritual disobedience. He was in charge of a place that gave shelter to young men with a view to their entering the priesthood. His line was the same as the American's. Young men today develop earlier and make their final choice later. In addition, their choices are not as final as they were before.

A school-leaver may prefer work or a university before entering the "pipeline" of the

priesthood. They choose after having sipped at the pleasures of the permissive society. Nothing is taken for granted and everyone else's ideas are suspect until they have been tested.

This represents the result of a long process of change.

Children were once given to the Church in recompense for the sins of their parents even soon after their birth. Men and women used to join the ordered ranks of the Church because it offered the best chance of security and a career or because the social approval of religion was overwhelming.

A long time later, children chose or were chosen for the priestly rank. People like Pope John began their careers in what we used to call junior seminaries. These are out of fashion now.

It is true that two of the most powerful and wise personalities I ever knew now both dead entered a monastery, one at the age of 16 and one at the age of 17. Indeed a monastery, with its strains and demands, is a good place for a good man to grow up in. But that idea, too, is now out of fashion.

So now we have, more and more, what used to be called late vocations. The American in the Jesuit magazine suggested that it would he a good idea to encourage the acceptance of men over the age of 25. This seems very odd, since from St Augustine of Hippo downwards, the Church, though it does not encourage the sowing and reaping of wild oats, has always been agreeable to this.

The Beda College in Rome is the British monument to the idea of late vocations. I cannot see anything particularly revolutionary about this.

I once went to seee the Prior of the toughest monastery in England (which is a disputable point, but they do not like publicity even my sort). He had been "received" after the war by the future Cardinal Heenan and had then gone for the hardest.

He seemed a cheerful, very happy man, but we talked, not of spiritual matters, but of the British Army. He had been an officer in the Durham Light Infantry during the war one of those superb regional regiments which have vanished like the spire of Old St Paul's. I trust I was not an occasion of even the smallest sort of sin of nostalgia.

Then again, and more than ever today, the blissful and tragic years of youth are not usually conducive to consideration of the Four Last Things.

The most practical recognition of this I found in the Coptic Church in Ethiopia. There and I think I understood what I was being told boys at the age of puberty no longer even expect to receive Communion. It is taken for granted that they are sinning like mad. They may return to the sacraments in mature middle age passion presumably spent.

The only exception to this was the Imperial Family. They underwent a more binding form of marriage and took Communion from their priests in their wild and wonderful churches.

There was a practicality in this that we should not copy. But it does contain a sliver of psychological and social truth.

Translation pitfalls

RECENTLY the Association for English Worship met at that Aylesford Priory, less beautiful but more holy than when 1, as child, lived there off and on.

Fr Peter Levi, an archaelogist and poet of the Society of Jesus, was one of the speakers at this conference. He talked about the use of English and the sort of English that has been used.] was not there, and have only got reports. He seems not to have taken the fashionable and illiterate line of railing against the present translations. King Alfred unified the language for political purposes. The Normans destroyed it for the same ends.

Carols and stories survived. Chaucer revived this language but had no followers.

When England entered the 16th century, she has no epic tradition. The translated Bible became the first work of universal interest in our language.

The Wycliffe Bible, written by a Master of Balliol College in Oxford in the 13th century, was officially condemned by the Church. Yet even the saintly and simple king Henry VI had a copy. Fr Peter's favourite English version on literary grounds is the Tyndale Bible. This was a translation by William Tyndale in the early 16th century. He came from Gloucestershire and ended up by being burnt for heresy in the Low Countries.

Fr Peter found this the best of all the early versions. The trouble was that vernacular translations were associated with ecclesiastical revolution. I think that this association still lives in the minds of many good people.

There have been many versions since, and they still keep coming. Now we face special contemporary difficulties of class and style.

The unity of educated language has been broken. Society is no longer coherent. A little more understanding for recent translators is in order. These include such people as Belloc and Mgr Knox. They both failed.

Our present English liturgy is to my mind noble for its ignoble time. And like any arrogant journalist with more column space than taste, 1 am not prepared to argue this in detail.

New sort of altar bread

TALKING of Communion, we used the new sort of altar bread at Mass last Sunday in place of the familiar paperthin white wafers. I think I have only come across it once before.

Clearly it is more expensive and more trouble to make, but it really is still unleavened bread, and after Mass one small girl said how much she preferred the brown to the white.

There was a Time Magazine story about the changes in the Catholic Church which followed the Council. The altar had been turned round, and watching the Mass a small boy complained, never having seen it before, that the priest was eating at the altar.

You can do all sorts of things with unleavened bread, which simply meaas that no yeast is used in its making. There are several sorts available in the Middle East, and cowboys and Australian wanderers and Boy Scouts over camp fires in England used to make it, Probably the best known form in this country is the Jewish Matzo. This comes in large, flat oblongs and is delicious and easy to buy for your table. It is kosher Jewish.

I suppose a thoroughly modern priest could use it, but he would really have to be careful about the crumbs. It has a crisp explosive quality that can be embarrassing and rather noisy.

Christ must have used one of these flat breads at the Last Supper and to break it, not cut it, would have been the most natural thing in the world. The Orthodox, however, use leaven bread because of the change wrought by the Redemption.

1 cannot sec that any high principle is involved in what bread you use, but there seems to me to be a seemliness about these thicker and darker Hosts that greatly commends them for use on the altar.' '

Avoiding the professionals

SOME friend sent me a parish magazine. Now these seem to me to be admirable productions. They represent one of the chances that the People of God have got of getting away from the insistence and arrogance of the professionals who are people like me.

This one came from Basingstoke. Someone is work

ing uncommonly hard over it. Especially in a large parish, they can serve a most practical purpose of unifying and informing the people.

The temptation for amateurs and I know nothing about the lay-out of the printed page

is to jazz the whole thing up until the pages all but dance in front of your tired eyes. Also, simplicity is cheaper.

The Basingstoke Catholic News is an admirable parish job

and, I gather, sells more copies at 4p than even the Catholic Herald.

But I notice one item about leprosy which asked for money for lepers but only gave the name, no more, of St Joseph's Overseas Aid Fund and it suggested quite small con tributions. I have never heard of it, and they did not give the

address. But their appeal, which is probably crystal clear to Catholics in that swiftly growing town, struck an old cracked bell inside me.

Many years ago, I visited a leper colony in Nigeria. Now

Christians have long had a special horror of this disease, almost as if it were a living punishment by the Living God. Which it is not.

When a politican wishes to be as rude as he can about someone whose ideas he detests, he calls his hated one "a leper". There are more pain ful diseases. It is the image of living death that men fear and will not face.

It certainly once existed in

Britain, though on a very small scale. But it still flourishes in a belt across the world which can he demarked as exactly as the major earthquake zones.

Calm, superb and sensible

This colony was run by Scottish Presbyterians. They were calm and superb and sensible. There were the horrors, of course, upon which my two trades have taught me to look without too much blenching.

There were black men standing in wards, lost to the world, motionless, the ternporary victims of the current treatment. We walked round them as if they were pillars, and I did not like that."

But an apparently happy boy of about 15 was introduced. He had the slightly leonine facial features which is one of the symptoms of the disease. We talked. He said he had been learning about England. I asked if I could see his exercise book. The doctor missionary said "No" to him.

The disease is transmitted by long contact, not by infection, and the patients are taught not to have contact with those who are at least physically "clean."

But 1 reached for his exercise books. And the man said "No" again. And it became one of those confrontations on a pavement when each individual steps in the same direction to avoid the other.

Everyone involved meant well. I got the most pain out of the encounter. There was this terrible tearing apart feeling that I must not reject the child or undermine the expert or seem to be afraid.

Journalists, with the best will in the world, can be appalling. My Basingstoke magazine writes that there are still 20 million lepers in the world. Can this really, God save us all, be true?

But the Scotsman was right. I was silly. And I think the poor boy was being rather naughty.

If you want to know about this rare disease, read the life of that very great and uncouth saint, Peter Damien. He was chaplain to a leper colony on an island near Hawaii. One day, after years of diminishing horror, he started his sermon not as "Dear Brethren", but as "Dear Fellow Lepers." In the end they took his body back to Belgium in a battleship and the King of the Belgians was on the quay to greet it.

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