Priestly Personality and Unity

Priestly Personality and Unity April 14, 2011

My friend Fr Christopher Smith writes here about the five different Catholic parishes in a Southern town called Verdae City. The town is fictional, but I recognize it. The five parishes have very different ‘styles’ of Catholicism.  There is one pastor who he says “Keeps the old timers spellbound with sermons about English novels.” This is untrue. I know the priest he is talking about and the man never refers to English novels in his homilies. He may insert the odd quote from T.S.Eliot, e.e.cummings and Gerard Manley Hopkins, but never ostentatiously. He drops them in surreptitiously–as a little doggie treat to the cognoscenti.

Fr. Chris thinks the vastly different styles of the five parishes reflect the personalities of the pastors, and that the people shop around according to whichever style of liturgy they like (and by extension) which pastor they like best.I agree that this happens, but I must disagree with him on another point. I think he is saying that ecclesial and liturgical unity has been broken as a result of this, and unless I have misunderstood, I think Fr Chris is saying that before Vatican II the liturgy unified Catholics much more and it didn’t really matter which parish you went to in town, it was pretty much all the same, and Catholics were unified across parishes.

Was this true? I don’t know. I was born in 1956, I wasn’t there, but when I talk to the old timers they say things like, “Geesh, Father you should have been a Catholic in Reading Pennsylvania in the 50s. All the parishes were different. There was the Ukrainian, the Italian, the Irish, the German, the Polish. They were all competitive. Everybody went to their own parish. Why one Irish priest wouldn’t even let one his girls marry a boy from the Ukranian parish even though they were all Catholics.”

So is the distinctiveness of individual parishes something new? I doubt it. It’s just that people chose along ethnic lines rather than their taste for music by either Haugen or Haydn. Furthermore, priests were strong characters back then too, and people would often (if they had the means) go to different parishes because they liked a priest or the school or the youth worker better.

Then talk to the old timers about the liturgy. “It was a low Mass every week. We just went there and sat in the cold and said our beads while Father muttered through the Mass as fast as he could. The sermon was awful if you could hear it at all. The liturgy was sloppy. The servers negligent and we were just doing our duty.” I know this is a sour memory of the past, and it wasn’t all that bad, but at least people are making an effort now to involve the people and make the religion real for them–even if at times those efforts end up being either banal or highfalutin.

So, I’ll pick nits with Fr Chris on those matters, but the rest of the article is worth a read and certainly all he says about the vertical and horizontal in religion is good stuff, and I can’t really quarrel with Fr Chris. After all, he’s the one who, for my first Mass (which happened to fall on Gaudete Sunday) got me dressed up in a rose fiddleback chasuble. The only thing he forgot was to get a photograph of it for posterity.

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