Only something unthinkably bad could make Slate and National Catholic Register cover the same story in the same tone, featuring the very same image. It may be time to start thinking, ’cause that thing has happened. Now that a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School has claimed 27 lives, 20 of them belonging to children, media of all persuasions are touting St. Rose of Lima church as an oasis of sanity and hope.
On December 14, only a few hours after the shootings, Slate’s John Peters reports, the church, which stands within walking distance of the school, was already full, with the crowd “spilling over to the lawn.” He goes on to relate the Mass in detail, from the opening hymn, “Be Not Afraid,” to highlights from the priest’s homily. (One line, “We’ve got 20 new angels today. I don’t know about the six adults,” gets a laugh.) The Register’s Joseph Pronechen follows up the next day, describing the continuing prayer vigil, which drew out-of-town visitors unknown to any of the victims.
Capping off both articles is the same photo from Getty/Pool images: a man kneels in a pew at St. Rose’s, clutching the bridge of his nose to dam up his tears. Other pictures from St. Rose, or of a generally religious flavor, are turning up all over the Internet. The Huffington Post is running a 139-photo slideshow, where visitors can see St. Rose parishioners holding hands or candles, scrawling messages to the victims or kneeling before makeshift shrines. It includes a photo of two “unidentified nuns,” looking solemn and shell-shocked.
Not since 9/11 and its aftermath has Christianity supplied the symbols and vocabulary to soothe and unify a broken-hearted nation. Then, the Christlike figure of FDNY chaplain Fr. Mychal Judge, carried by firefighters from the crash site, gave human particularity to the heroism of hundreds. When workers found a 17-foot cross of steel beams in the wreckage, New York City Mayor Giuliani ordered it placed on a pedestal. It’s served as a memorial to the fallen ever since; in 2006, it was moved from a spot by St. Peter’s Church to the National September 11th Memorial and Museum.
In that moment of crisis, those images formed part of an unofficial civil religion — Rousseau’s term for a vaguely defined supernatural justification for broadly defined standards of good behavior. The 1942 film Mrs. Miniver concludes with an Anglican priest celebrating Mass in a bombed-out church. To wartime audiences, liturgical Christianity served as a shorthand for everything that wasn’t fascist. In the words of Franciscan friar Brian Jordan, the 9/11 cross stood for “hope” “faith” and “healing.” Jordan of course found these qualities in a specific belief system, but by speaking so open-endedly, he seems to have been aiming at those who rejected that system in whole or part.
But even in that short time, a lot has changed. Less than six months after the Towers collapsed, the Boston Globe broke the story of predatory priests and enabling bishops. Drawing moral ammunition from these revelations, and from the 9/11 hijackers’ religious motives, a new wave of would-be secularizers has been fighting to drape all symbols of faith, no matter how ambiguous. Even the World Trade Center cross has come under attack. In 2011, a group called the American Atheists filed suit to have it removed from the museum. For these folks, any religion is ipso-facto uncivil.
Over the same period the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been working to make its message ever less ambiguous, even to the point of dissolving partnerships with charitable institutions that dispute Church doctrines. When the Leadership Conference of Civil and Human Rights backed Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court, the Bishops’ Conference withdrew. This past spring, the bishops announced a doctrinal assessment of the Girl Scouts. (Okay, nobody called it that, but the term captures the white-glove stringency with which the investigation will likely proceed.) Just recently, Pope Benedict approved this line-drawing. According to his his motu proprio, Catholic charities can no longer receive money from, or publicize the activities of, organizations that “pursue ends contrary to the church’s teaching.” If the official Church was ever willing to join a broad-based love-fest, it’s not anymore.
These past three years, mutual Church-World antagonism has gained a height unknown since Al Smith ran for president. When the secular media reported new (in the sense of previously unknown) incidents of priestly sex abuse, their Catholic counterparts complained of malicious ill-treatment. They were by no means always wrong. When President Obama approved the contraception coverage mandate of the Affordable Care Act, along with its narrow conscience exemptions, the bishops condemned him as positively anti-Catholic. In the run-up to their Fortnight for Freedom, their tone ranged from counter-revolutionary to other-wordly. In America, as it was, there just didn’t seem to be much room left for the Catholic Church, as it was.
Now, just a few weeks after elections that tended to favor contraceptive users, marriage minded gays and lesbians and the non-religious, the mourning rituals at St. Rose have placed Catholicism and its trappings in a positive light. To see pictures of grief-stricken Newtownians bowing their heads in prayer, and say, “What superstitious sheep,” would take one cold-hearted SOB. Shoot, it’d take Bill Maher. No, if the media in general have an axe to grind with the Church, they’ll have to grind it somewhere else.
At the same time, offering its grounds — and, in the construction of shrines, its symbols — as sops for human despair might be the one remaining act that allows the Church no opportunity to separate the wheat from the chaff. Imagine a priest buttonholing the guy in the Getty image and saying, “Hey, you — yeah you. Pound sand, fella. I saw that Facebook meme you posted in support of marriage equality. What? You want to be a wise guy with me? Okay, now youse can’t leave.” I can think offhand of a few Catholics who might enjoy the spectacle, but I have a hunch it’s a satisfaction they’ll have to defer for the time being.
It’s unlikely that this ghastly episode will lead to a widespread religious revival. On the other hand it’s perfectly possible that seeing or experiencing the Church’s healing influence could bring a few lapsed Catholics home, or even carry some seekers through the door. The real question is: are we making a memory? Will these written and visual accounts of the Church at its least combative and least exclusionary embed themselves the the nation’s consciousness as one of those march-on-Selma moments that people will sigh over even after alliances have broken down?
National Catholic Reporter’s Jamie Manson has suggested that the Catholic Church is becoming a sect — well, the Amish have been a sect forever. In 2006, when members of an Amish community offered forgiveness to a man who shot ten of their children, the world gasped in admiration. No Amish congregation reported a flood of catechumens; indeed, I’d bet gun sales and electricity consumption among Pennsylvania Englishmen increased following the incident. But their witness made the nation that much prouder to have them around.
Just this morning, a bomb threat forced St. Rose to evacuate during a Mass. Apparently, there’s no rest for the wicked. Let’s hope the World remembers there’s none for the righteous, either.