If you are one of the scores of people who still get the tiny, dead-tree-pulp edition of The Baltimore Sun on Saturdays — the cartoons are now in the SPORTS section, because there’s no logical place to put them — then you may have seen a sad little page of religion content this morning in the all-purpose news section. If you hit the auto ads, you went too far.
This page contained two features that were clearly run together intentionally, to create a mini-package of Catholic content for this heavily Catholic city and state. There was a news story and a column.
We’ll take the news first, which was a short story about the funeral of the famous priest Father Joseph C. Martin, the “wounded healer” who turned his own alcoholism into an internationally known ecumenical ministry to others who struggled with the same disease and temptations.
I wrote about the obituary for this famous priest the other day, noting that a fine feature story about his death failed to connect his struggles with the actual details of his priesthood — which still strikes me as rather strange.
You see, one of the “first things” advocated by your GetReligionistas is that coverage of major religious events should — believe it or not — include some of the religious content and themes from those events. While it is bad to drench coverage in thick fogs of insider theological language, it is also bad to keep veering away from the obvious religious images and themes in these events, or to include tiny bites — unexplained — that may leave readers puzzled.
Sure enough, the funeral story is full of inspiring and human details about the priest that focus on his ministry in a totally neutral, secular way. Well and good. And at the end of the piece we actually get two snippets from the sermons.
The Rev. Thomas O. Ulshafer, provincial superior of the Society of Saint Sulpice, described Father Martin’s initial role as being a teacher of young seminarians. … Speaking of Father Martin’s addiction to alcohol, he said, “He turned a cross into a new life.”
Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien ended the funeral by saying, “If Joseph Martin is not in heaven, I don’t think any of us has a chance.”
Read that quote again about “the cross” in Martin’s life. You just know that this friend and superior said more than that. Yes, as a veteran journalist, I know that the reporter was working with a very small amount of space — in this small, small, small, small edition of a shrinking newspaper. But does that “cross” reference make sense standing alone? You also know that the archbishop did not make a reference to salvation and heaven in a stand-alone, throw away line.
I am sure Catholic readers understood the context. But what about those who do not know the code? Didn’t they need at least one or two other sentences? And the actual content of a funeral Mass may deserve to go higher than the final lines?
Right below this news story was a column by veteran journalist Jacques Kelly which, in the print edition, ran under the nostalgic headline: “Remembering when confession was routine Saturday occasion.” The column was inspired by a glimpse of a city bus with an advertisement for the local branch of the national “The Light is on for You” campaign to encourage Catholics to go to confession.
Read it all, but here is a sample of the newspaper’s nostalgia for old-timers:
The ad caught me off my guard. It was saying to Baltimore’s Roman Catholics during Lent: Get up and go to confession. Confess to a priest. ‘Fess up — and seek spiritual advice from someone trained in giving it.
Confession, Reconciliation, Sacrament of Penance — whatever its name — went into a sharp decline after the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. It was certainly a major part of my religious education and one of the practices that pointed up the differences from our Presbyterian and Methodist friends. Only the highest of Anglo-Catholic Episcopalians made confessions — and, to my eyes, not nearly as often as their Roman cousins.
In the Baltimore of the 1950s, confession was a part of Saturday afternoon. You’d see the shoppers take the Charles Street bus home and drop into SS. Philip and James, where a little green light about the size of a Christmas tree bulb would be on. The green light (meaning the priest was in residence) was built into the little room, the confessional, where you told all. In those days, there were often lines of penitents — without the help of an advertising campaign.
So what changed?
This is a huge story, friends, one linked to all kinds of issues (like major politicians, Democrats and a few Republicans, who want to receive Holy Communion while openly rejecting crucial Catholic doctrines). The statistical collapse of confession in the United States and the icy Western world has been stunning and raises all kinds of questions that journalists can pursue.
Is confession now optional, with the link between confession and Mass broken in Catholic doctrine and law? Did Vatican II actually teach that? Oh, and are these two sacraments still linked to eternal issues of salvation? Does this issue matter? Or is this simply a sad little change in Baltimore culture?
In all fairness, the Sun did run a much better piece on this confession campaign a few weeks earlier, hooked to coverage of Ash Wednesday. It also noted that this is not simply a matter of old vs. young. In fact, it seems to be old and young vs. the Vatican II-defined Baby Boomers (and others caught in the middle).
The church directs Catholics to confess serious sins at least once a year, but actual participation has declined in recent decades. In a survey last year by the Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate at Georgetown University, more than half of American Catholics agreed that going to confession and performing acts of contrition and penance reconciles one to God, but nearly two-thirds said they could be good Catholics without observing the sacrament at least annually.
Still, there is an apparent revival in interest among younger Catholics. While those born before 1943 are most likely to go to confession at least once a year, those born in 1982 or later come next.
So, who goes to confession these days and who rejects the church’s teachings on that sacrament? American Catholics? Roman Catholics? Pro-Vatican Catholics? Lots of questions, here, many of which are linked to the news.