In a couple of my speeches in Italy, I’ve favorably mentioned my old friend Father Joe Wilson, of the Catholic diocese of Brooklyn. He was a source of merriment, consolation, and wise counsel for me when I lived in that fine city. He’s written a fine piece about what it’s like to live this hellish scandal a second time as a Catholic priest. It appears on the site of David Virtue, the Anglican commenter and longtime friend of Father Wilson, who had asked him in an email how he was holding up. Here are parts of the priest’s answer:
So this really is no surprise to me at all. The Church took a wrong turn in the 1960s. The results have been catastrophic. Stubbornly, I would even say psychotically, we insist on ignoring reality and talking incessantly about renewal. Hundreds, literally, of once flourishing Religious communities have faced the fact that their institution is coming in for a sad landing. Dioceses which once ordained classes of thirty or forty priests a year are over the moon today if the Bishop ordains four. The once proud network of Catholic colleges and universities extending across the land is almost completely secularized, the presence of the Religious who founded the schools a dim memory, the students more likely to have seen The Vagina Monologues on campus than taken a course in Catholic Theology. The Catholic divorce rate is indistinguishable from that of society at large; mainstream cultural attitudes towards fornication and homosexuality are frequently encountered among Catholics.
Now, you asked how I personally move forward?
It really is not very difficult. I bless God for a solid Catholic upbringing thanks to good parents and really, really wonderful priest mentors when I was young. I was fortunate to grow up in
a house of three Teachers (parents and grandmother), which was like growing up in a library, and encountering and reading Chesterton and Belloc and Mauriac and Cardinal Gibbons and Monsignor Knox as a youth, even before high school. Most importantly, to be raised to live in a relationship with the Lord Jesus, to glimpse the nature of His Church despite the Puff the Magic Dragon spirituality I encountered, to be devoted to His Mother. If you’ve encountered the spiritual works of Dom Columba Marmion, you’re not likely to be too impressed by a paperback about butterflies coming out of cocoons.
Over this past Summer I began with great profit to read systematically through the wonderful writings of Saint Teresa of Avila, a great Doctor of the Church on the sixteenth century. We have spiritual works and many letters of hers, suffused with her lively personality. She founded a reformed branch of the Carmelite Order; her nuns would live very simply in small convents and focus on prayer behind their cloister walls.
She wrote a book on prayer for them called “The Way of Perfection”, and at the beginning of it she says something so pertinent to our situation today that it startled me. Right at the start of the treatise she says to her sisters, Why do you think I founded the Reform? It is because of the state of the Church, those dreadful Lutherans up there in the North who are rejecting the Mass and the authority of the Church, the people who are confused, the courageous priests who are attacking the heresies… Women like us cannot go to the front of the battle lines, but we can found oases where Jesus can find welcome and rest and home in a world which has forgotten Him. And that is what our convents shall be, where we dwell with Him. This from a cloistered nun!
And there, she draws us right back to the one thing only that is necessary, doesn’t she? We persevere in the place in the vineyard where He had put us, we watch, we pray, and look for the day when He raises up a Dominic, a Francis, a Teresa of Avila, and the renewal begins. We look for holiness, we try to open ourselves to grace, we try to make of ourselves a cloister for Him. The scandalous failure of our leadership really does not surprise me at all; most of our bishops are anything but leaders. When Mass attendance falls from 88% (1965) to perhaps 14% today (and clearly they are doing their damnedest, literally, to drive it lower) and there is no visible sign of concern let alone panic, but a constant chanting of the mantra age of renewal over fifty years; no question raised, Can we have done something wrong???, it’s hard to take them seriously. There is a great gent named Frank Walker who runs the invaluable canon212.com blog, covering the crisis in the Church (a must read every day twice a day at least), who startled me out of my wits recently by quoting something I said in, I think, 2004 in an article: “Watching the bishops’ conference in action is like viewing the film of a train wreck over and over again. With bright-colored clowns hanging out the train windows, waving and blowing kisses. One only wishes one had a tomato.” That about sums it up.
But look at everything I have been given: the grace of Baptism, my daily Mass, the daily Liturgy of the Divine Office, the privilege of absolving sins, knowing the Gospel, preaching the Gospel, pointing the way to the Lord Jesus, encouraging others to strive for the Kingdom, the incredible, astonishing riches of the Catholic spiritual tradition… All of this a gift, given by the Lord Jesus, through His Church. And how often have I read the stories of His saints who lived in troubled times and admired their witness — isn’t it a privilege to live for Jesus in such times?
Well, it looks like we do today. This is not really a surprise at all. And that is why I am prepared. In my left trouser pocket are my rosary beads; in my right cassock pocket, a tomato. Always ready.
Why did I bring Father Wilson up in Italy (including in my speech in front of Archbishop Gänswein? Because of something very wise he once said to me and others gathered in my Brooklyn apartment around the turn of the millennium.
We were having dinner and drinking lots of wine, as we did in those days, and a couple of us guys were doing our usual bitching about how awful the institutional Catholic Church was. The homilies were terrible, the masses were irreverent, parish life was dead, the usual. We were really bad about that back then (and let me warn you: that’s a deadly temptation, to only speak passionately about the Church in griping). Father Wilson could usually be counted on to affirm our whining by offering several actual real-life stories to make the point.
But at some point that night, he said something to us that I’ve never forgotten. Paraphrased, it went something like this:
Guys, I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong. The Church is just as mediocre as you say. But you are in so much better shape than my parents were. They had to raise me and my sister in the late ’60s and 1970s, when everything had gone to hell after the Council. They knew they couldn’t trust us to the parish. They both worked very hard to form us, and to give us everything we needed to be faithful Catholics. And it worked.
You have the same obligation to yourselves and your children. Thing is, you have it way better than my parents did. You have the Catechism, for one thing. You also have the opportunity to go online and have sent to your front door within a week a library that Thomas Aquinas couldn’t have dreamed of. And on the Internet, you can connect with people all over the country who are facing the same struggles as you, and who might be able to help you.
The point is, you’ve got all you need to compensate for the failures of the institutional Church. You just need to quit complaining and get busy.
I knew instantly that he was right. But I’m pretty sure I didn’t change one bit. When the scandal hit, it was too late.
That advice remains excellent today. The entire way of life of the Tipi Loschi from The Benedict Option is more or less a Father Wilson village. They’re not waiting around for the institutional Church to get its act together before they build an authentic Christian life for themselves. It is a glorious thing to behold. My stars, if I could get Father Wilson and Marco Sermarini together at the same table…