On February 17, 1925, at the age of 44, Monsignor Angelo Roncalli was sent into ecclesiastical exile for his outspoken discomfort with the growing power of Mussolini and the Fascist Right in Italy, at a time when the Vatican was attempting to work out a concordat or agreement with Mussolini. [The Concordat was completed in 1929.] Biographer Peter Hebblethwaite describes this era of Roncalli’s life as “Ten Hard Years in Bulgaria,” [pp. 55-69] though his next foreign assignments would be even more challenging. As you might imagine, there is an official record of Roncalli’s meeting with the Cardinal Vatican Secretary of State where the assignment was made. There is also Roncalli’s recollection given many years later, where he quotes the official’s advice: “I’m told the situation in Bulgaria is very confused. I can’t tell you in detail what is going on. But everyone seems to be fighting with everyone else, the Moslems with the Orthodox, the Greek Catholics with the Latins, and the Latins with each other. Can you go there and find out what is really happening?” [p. 55]
Before he left for Bulgaria Roncalli was summoned to meet Pope Pius XI, who at least softened the blow by appointing him an archbishop. Pius had been a diplomat in Poland before his election as pope, and he confided to Roncalli that it would help his mission to quarreling Bulgarian bishops a great deal if he was a bishop himself. [p. 56] It is a curious way for a future pope to rise to the episcopacy, but so it was. Roncalli was depressed with his assignment, and his journal reflects this. At the same time, one of his guiding beliefs was “the path to peace lie in obedience.” He was comforted, too, with the knowledge that his close friends in the hierarchy knew he had been dealt an unfair hand. On the day before he left Rome, Roncalli spent the afternoon with a close friend, Giovanni Montini, and together they formulated the pastoral possibilities of his assignment. Montini would be elected to the papacy in 1963, succeeding Roncalli, as Pope Paul VI.
Bulgaria was indeed in a bad way. It had chosen the wrong side in World War I and its political and economic status was in disarray. Terrorist attacks were common, and a particularly devastating explosion killed 100 and injured 1000 at the ancient church of Svata Nedela just prior to Roncalli’s arrival. The new apostolic legate sought permission from King Boris to visit the victims, but the synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox objected on the grounds that his visit meant “imperialism and proselytism.” There were only 62,000 Catholics in Bulgaria—divided between the Latin Rite and the Uniate Rite—and the delegate decided to visit as many of these churches as possible in an arduous circuit of some of the poorest regions of the country. He acquired a bit of the local language and brought an interpreter with him. Over time his outgoing affability won him the title of “Diado” or “good father” among the Catholic population.
Roncalli recommended to Pope Pius XI that the nation’s Catholics should have a single bishop, and his candidate was approved and ordained. Roncalli remained in the country, first to establish a national seminary for the training of Bulgarian candidates, and then—a more challenging task—to begin overtures of friendship and unity with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the official state religion. It was here, according to Hebblethwaite, that the future pope learned the principles of ecumenism, the first being that “one could not expect to begin a dialogue with condemnations. Friendliness in Christ was a starting point, along with a capacity to listen and learn.” [p. 60]
Amid this effort, a devastating earthquake wrought severe damage to the region where most Uniate Catholics lived. Roncalli went to the scene immediately and engaged in fundraising for the victims. But as his 25th anniversary of ordination approached, he feared that his stay in Bulgaria might extend indefinitely, and he became depressed. He quotes St. Francis de Sales, “I am like a bird singing in a thicket of thorns.” [p. 63] He had to confront the fact that, like so many men in his position, he did aspire to higher responsibility and recognition in the Church. It did not help that rumors circulated of his possible promotion to the See of Milan, though it is unlikely that Mussolini, now exercising greater influence in Church affairs, would have approved.
It did not make Roncalli’s life easier when King Boris, an Orthodox, married a Roman Catholic woman with a papal dispensation, and then proceeded with a second grand Orthodox wedding. Pius XI felt betrayed by the king and by his apostolic delegate. Because he was ordered to express Vatican dismay over the king’s behavior, Roncalli was banned from the court for a year.
Finally, after a decade in Bulgaria, Roncalli was promoted to apostolic delegate to Turkey, though upon his arrival he was forced to visit the police and would be under surveillance for all his years in Istanbul. Hebblethwaite summarizes his challenge: “How to be Vatican representative in an Islamic country that was busily rejecting Islam and all religion as retrograde.” [p 70] Most of the nation’s 35,000 Catholics lived in or around Istanbul—Latins and a wide range of Uniates. Roncalli again adopted a program of uniting those in communion with Rome, making overtures to the Orthodox, and establishing good relations with the Turkish government. The third would be most difficult—and personally dangerous--under the rule of Mustafa Kenal, who adopted the name “Ataturk” or “Father of the Turks.” His goal was a model secular state, and both Islamic and Christian citizens were banned from wearing religious attire. Roncalli wrote to a friend that the ban was a difficulty for priests and friars, but that he was hopeful to avoid the wave of executions of clergy taking place in Mexico at the time.
Ataturk did not go that far, but he did close all Catholic schools as well as the diocesan paper. Roncalli’s biographer observes that the apostolic delegate was well equipped from his Bulgarian days to resort to populist, face-to-face pastoral care, and education of his flock. He even introduced Turkish language prayer into the liturgy, something of a statement that Catholicism was planning to live and thrive in Turkey for a long time. But soon his stresses in Turkey would become multiplied by the onrushing ambitions of Hitler and Mussolini and the opening salvo of hostilities that would lead to World War II.
On October 2, 1935, Italy invaded Abyssinia, in Hebblethwaite’s words “a coldly calculated and long prepared move against the last sovereign state of Africa” [p. 73] The aging Pope Pius XI defended Italy’s actions, stating “the hopes, the demands, the needs of a great and good people should be recognized and satisfied.” The invasion was highly popular among most Italians, representing as it did Mussolini’s determination to restore Italy to world power status in the guise of bringing civilization to a backward African nation. From his perch in Istanbul Roncalli was able to speak his mind about the action: “Enough: let’s hope and pray the war will soon be over because it is, after all, a war.” [p. 73]
In 1939 Roncalli met for the first time with Franz von Papen, a German diplomat and himself a Catholic, beginning a long and complicated diplomatic and personal relationship. At first Roncalli regarded Papen as a Catholic aristocrat, though British and Vatican intelligence saw him in a darker light; when Papen was proposed as German Ambassador to the Vatican, the newly elected Pius XII turned down the nomination. [I should note here that the interworking’s between Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and the Vatican before and during World War II are highly complicated. Hebblethwaite describes them as they impacted Roncalli, but an interested reader is advised to pursue the subject further. I am uncomfortable recommending specific texts as the subject is quite heated. I will say that many historians agree that Pius XII was more fearful of Russian atheism and totalitarianism than of Nazi nationalism. However, it is a stretch to say that Pius was fully conscious of Nazi intentions atrocities at the beginning of the War. In this context, Roncalli’s role as Vatican diplomat in Turkey—a neutral power and buffer between Germany and Russia—takes on a greater importance in this time span.]
During the War of Britain in 1940, Papen—representing Hitler—presented the argument to Roncalli that Germany had no desire to destroy England or France, that the goal of the bombing was simply to impel England to take German sovereignty and interests more seriously. Roncalli was not an ambassador—he was the Vatican’s apostolic delegate to Turkey—and thus he had no standing to refute or negotiate what he was told. He was, basically, a courier for the Vatican, who reported Papen’s assertion dutifully, regardless of what he himself thought of Papen’s assertions. However, the Vatican’s man in Turkey is not without opinions.
Hebblethwaite provides an intriguing and captivating narrative of Roncalli’s thinking as the War progressed. For example, early in the conflict, evidently believing that Hitler would at least subjugate most of Europe, he offers this view to the Vatican: “Despite the various estimates that may be made of Hitler’s character...there are still so many open possibilities, and the future could be rich with surprises. One of them could be that after the war Catholicism would become the ‘formative principle’ of the new German social order, rather in the way Mussolini had wisely endowed Italy with the concordat  and social legislation inspired on some points by the great teaching of [Pope] Leo XIII [r. 1878-1903].” [p. 83] The author comments that Roncalli fully expected to have to live with Hitler’s new order.
In 1941 Roncalli writes that he fully expected England to be “liquidated” given the union of Germany and Russia, and that Turkey, in this new order, could be guaranteed its independence. But Papen had misled him, and shortly thereafter Germany turned its offensive surge against the Soviet Union. It did not help that the British ambassador did not take Roncalli seriously enough to confide in him something of the Western aims of the war, information that might have at least balanced what he was receiving from Papen.
At this juncture the Vatican ordered Roncalli to Greece to negotiate for full diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Greece. But wartime conditions in Greece were so severe that his mission there became a largely humanitarian one—including negotiations on prisoner exchanges as the War began to swing in the direction of the Allies with German defeats in Russia and North Africa. More famously, he became aware of the desperate plight of the Jews. Many years later, when Pope John XXIII’s beatification was under consideration, Papen—of all people—testified that Roncalli “helped 24,000 Jews with clothes, money, and documents.” [p. 90] Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful in getting Vatican participation in wider rescue operations when he transmitted a request for assistance.
Hebblethwaite argues compellingly that the Vatican refusal to assist Jews escape to neutral countries was “worse than any of Pius XII’s ‘silences.’” [p. 91] And even Roncalli, after Mussolini’s fall and subsequent Nazi occupation of Italy, expressed dismay when a convoy of Italian Jews was dispatched to Palestine. “I confess that this convoy of Jews to Palestine, aided specifically by the Holy See, looks like the reconstruction of the Hebrew Kingdom, and so arouses certain doubts in my mind….” [p. 93] Roncalli’s concern—strange as it may sound today—was the appearance of gathering a Jewish nation with the purpose of restoring the messianic dream. As the author puts it, Roncalli’s practice was better than his theology, for he continued to rescue individual Jews as he could, primarily by providing “immigration certificates.” A 1962 book claims that Roncalli gave baptismal certificates to Jews, but Hebblethwaite does not hold with the claim.
In 1944, deeply impacted by the spectacle of war, Roncalli delivered his Pentecostal sermon in Istanbul. Mindful that the end of the European phase of the War was in sight, he exhorted his mixed congregation that the Spirit was still alive in the world, and that the future could only be built in universal brotherhood bound together by the Father in heaven. However, Roncalli would not be undertaking his post-war mission of binding in Turkey. On December 6, 1944, he was notified by the Vatican Secretary of State that he had been promoted to the position of Nuncio to France, one of the highest offices in the Vatican diplomatic corps, to a country deeply divided by its wartime identity.
I have long believed that one of the best ways to learn history is through biographies, and this applies to Catholic Church history. For the past sixty years we Catholics have identified ourselves as “Vatican II” Catholics, having been influenced by the Council of 1962-1965. The number of books written about Vatican II—pro, con, and in between—is endless, but to grasp the full vision of the Council, it is necessary to know the mind of the man who called the Council—what shaped him, his life experiences, and the factors which led to his momentous announcement of 1959. I was fortunate enough to come across Peter Hebblethwaite’s outstanding biography of Pope John XXIII, John XXIII: Pope of the Century [1984, 1994]. Aside from its insights into a pivotal era of the Church, the work unconsciously provides a blueprint for the unpacking of “Synodality,”
Peter Hebblethwaite was a widely recognized Church journalist and author in the 1970’s and 1980’s, sometimes nicknamed a “Vaticanologist” because of his network of contacts and interests in the workings of the Church. It is true that he died [in 1994] before more written sources and documentations were released, but on the other hand he was able to interview many clerics, theologians, and others who lived during John’s brief pontifical reign [1958-1963] including some of the most famous participants in the Council.
The mythical account of Pope John XXIII’s life—and it is amazing how many people who should know better still propagate it—is the tale of a career Vatican diplomat of modest talent at best who was elected pope at the age of 76 to “keep the seat warm” for a younger and more competent candidate to be groomed after the 19-year reign of Pope Pius XII [1939-1958]. The popular tale continues that John called the Council at the behest of modern European theologians who then proceeded to hijack the proceedings to create a modernist church that went far beyond what John intended.
What gets overlooked in such mythmaking is one obvious counterpoint: a man who ascends to the papacy at 76 has a long curriculum vitae of responsibilities and assignments that form the thinking of a man over many years. To understand John XXIII, one must meet Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, born in 1881 to a family of sharecropper-farmers in the Diocese of Bergamo, Italy. Although the life was exhausting, Angelo found time to serve daily Mass and to observe the development of Catholic Action groups which worked for the improvement of the peasants’ and workman’s lot in Italian society. Pope Leo XIII was elected during Roncalli’s youth, the pope who would write the highly regarded encyclical Rerum Novarum,  the first encyclical on the subject of social justice.
Young Angelo would write years later that he could not remember a time when he did not want to become a priest. He entered the seminary at age ten and took considerable time to adjust to separation from his family and to the rigors of the studies, as he was the youngest in his class. He began a journal at age 14, which he maintained throughout his life and even through his papacy. It is an invaluable historical source for the study of Pope John today. We know, for example, that he established a rigorous spiritual rule for himself by his fourteenth year. We also know that in his teens he intuited—probably from his priest sponsors—that the Gospel and social justice were important constituents of priestly identity. This development took place against the backdrop of the papacy losing control of the sizeable Papal States to the new secular Italian national government.
As he later matured and began his ministry, Angelo came to believe that the loss of the papal states was ultimately a good thing for the Church, that by getting out of civil entanglements the Church could focus upon what he saw as its primary purpose, the spiritual saving of souls and what today we would call evangelization. Spreading the Gospel would be much unencumbered with statehood off the table, in his view. He was not the first person to think this way, and this was still a minority position; the papacy fought to maintain its influence in Italian civil life. As late as 1948 Pope Pius XII taught that Catholics could not vote for Communist or Socialist candidates in Italy’s civil election.
Angelo’s superior performance in the minor seminary and the sponsorship of respected churchmen brought him to Rome for his major priestly studies. He enjoyed the seminary and the study of theology; he was not brilliant, but he was dogged, and he showed aptitude for history and research, something to remember as his story unfolds. He developed a deep love for Latin and believed that the Church was best served by reading the writings of the saints in the Latin tongue. Even as pope he repeatedly read the reflections of Pope Gregory the Great [r. 590-604 A.D.] in Latin. [As pope, he issued Veterum Sapientia in February 1962, decreeing that all major seminary courses were to be taught in Latin. As it turned out, virtually no American professors could do this, and the decree died a quiet death.]
His seminary years endured a major interruption. He was drafted into the Italian army for a year—an interruption he hated—but he proved to be a particularly good soldier, particularly as a sharpshooter, and was raised to the rank of sergeant. It was his first encounter with the “locker room world” of men and sexuality. But he returned to the seminary with renewed zeal, completed his doctorate, and passed his ordination examination, conducted by Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII. After his ordination he returned to his home diocese of Bergamo, but he was not destined to stay there long.
Father Roncalli’s early years as a priest coincided with the crisis of Modernism. At the turn of the twentieth century Pope Pius X [r. 1903-1914] issued multiple condemnations of Modernism, an openness to current ideas which conflicted with strict interpretation of Church doctrine and discipline. See the Encyclopedia Britannica’s description of Modernism to understand what church life was like during Angelo Roncalli’s early priestly years.] Roncalli demonstrated a remarkable courage here—one which could have led to his excommunication, or more likely, to the end of a promising career. After one of Pope Pius’s broadest condemnations of Modernist trends in 1907, the young priest and Doctor of Theology delivered a public lecture at the Bergamo seminary in which he defended the study of history as a method of developing greater understanding of the Scripture and the development of the Church as institution. I suppose that nothing less could have been expected from a man who loved history.
However, like nearly all priests of his time, Roncalli took the new “Anti-modernist oath” as priests and seminarians would take as late as the 1960’s. Having talked to men ahead of me who took the oath, I get the impression that most did so as a general act of loyalty to the pope without endorsing its provisions. The biographer Hebblethwaite seems to imply that Roncalli in 1910 approached the oath in something of the same spirit. [p. 34] His biographer observes that “[F]rom the whole tragic episode Roncalli drew the conclusion that there were other and better ways of dealing with ‘error’ in the Church.” [p. 36]
When World War I broke out in 1914, and the following year Roncalli was drafted. The drafting of clerics [which never occurred in the United States; priests volunteered to serve as chaplains] is a good illustration of the continuing stress between the Church and the Italian State at this time. This second round of service proved to be highly influential upon the future pope; there is an entry in his journal—too long to cite here—that describes his powerful feelings of pity and affection for the young men whose confessions he heard for hours at a time and whom he accompanied at the hour of their deaths. In his journal he admits to crying like a child in his tent while at the same time reflecting upon war and the Church’s position in the struggles between states. [p.40] Years later, Roncalli was instrumental in the defusing of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
After the War Roncalli became the spiritual director of a seminary and slowly but surely a popular speaker. His wartime experience had deepened his love for his country and its future. He was a staunch supporter of lay action—the courage and sacrifice of his soldiers strengthened this conviction, that Catholic laity had rights to form the society in which they lived, including its pollical direction. His reputation on behalf of Catholic action eventually won him a position within the Roman Curia as national [Italian] director of Society for the Propagation of the Faith, an organization which raised awareness and funds for the foreign missions. A review of the literature about the Society in 1922 pictures a society in disarray and disagreement, and Roncalli’s appointment coincides with Pope Benedict XV’s demand for a restructuring.
Roncalli was unhappy with the appointment, and as is often the case, he found the situation as bad as, if not worse than, advertised. However, the position allowed him to travel the length of Italy meeting with the bishops in the name of a project close to the sitting pope. He also traveled widely in Europe to assist in coordinating the international efforts of the Society. [An annual collection for the Society is taken up yearly in all churches to this day.] Given his pessimism for the position and its problems, he was still successful in raising Italy’s annual collection more than 100%.
This success, however, would not help him with a grave new personal challenge, the rise of Mussolini and the radical right. Roncalli’s sympathies had for some years laid with Catholic Action and democratic reform, and he correctly perceived that Mussolini was inviting the Church down a road that could only bring it harm. Called upon in 1924 to deliver a eulogy for a bishop in his home diocese, Bergamo, he made an impassioned plea that the state not interfere in the ministry of the Church. It was a not-so-veiled address to Mussolini to cease his negotiations with the Vatican, which would end in the 1929 Italian Concordat. There would be no room for “Christian Democrats” in Mussolini’s Italy, and this label describes Roncalli’s politics as well as any.
On February 17, 1925, Angelo Roncalli was informed by the Vatican Secretary of State that he had been appointed apostolic visitor to Bulgaria. He would not return reside in Rome in an official capacity for 33 years.
Brian D. McLaren [1956--] is an interesting fellow. An English major from the University of Maryland, a theologian, and retired pastor of a successful nondenominational Christian church, Cedar Ridge Community Church which serves the DC-MD region, McLaren’s pulpit has stretched to limitless boundaries as a commentator, teacher, organizer, and author of twenty-five books in what Catholics would recognize as the study of “ecclesiology,” i.e., the nature, structure, and future of the Church. McLaren’s provenance is Christianity in its entirety, and his message endears him to many and not so much to others. The Great Spiritual Migration  reviewed here is the twenty-first.
Sometimes our enemies clarify us better than our friends. The Baptists are not crazy about him: “Like Fosdick and other liberals before him, McLaren has assumed authority over the Bible instead of placing himself under its authority. His understanding of Scripture frees him to see Christian doctrine as evolving, and himself as an instrument of this evolution. In this way he revisits and reinterprets whatever does not accord with modern sensibilities. He has denied the literal nature of hell along with its eternality; he has denied the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ; he has denied Jesus Christ as the only way to the Father; he has affirmed homosexuality as good and pleasing to God. And he continues to think and to write, meaning that his theological development is not yet complete.”
Turning the mirror around here, we can deduce that McLaren bases his theology on the Bible and preaches from it with authority. He is a student of the formation of the Sacred texts. He sees the Christian message continually unfolding to face the cultural challenges of the times. He is cautious about teachings which have been proclaimed too strenuously, too authoritatively, and often mistakenly. His “Christology” is broad and rich, much as the New Testament itself is broad and rich in its depiction of Jesus. He understands that God is not constrained to limitations of human thought and organization. He loves and respects all churches. He is compassionate toward those marginalized by traditional moralities. He remains open to God’s will for him.
A man with these credentials will never be totally at home with one “denomination.” Which is probably a good thing because he gives all our churches sometime to think about, whether we embrace every aspect of his missionary message or not. In this he is not far from Jesus, who told his disciples that “he who is not against us is for us.” It is worth mentioning here that I was introduced to McLaren’s work by a devout Catholic layman of my own Roman Catholic congregation. I was delighted to receive his recommendation but saddened by the realization that thoughtful religious texts are so rarely discussed or recommended in Catholic parochial life. My friend has had a highly successful career in financial management, and there are many in my church like him who have made their bones in every field of endeavor. But in the 26 years I have been a member of this particular Catholic congregation, there has never been a recommendation of a theological book or Scripture commentary text from the pulpit, nor any recommendations from the parish’s social media. Catholic bookstores attached to parishes do not sell texts aimed at college graduates or studious adults. It is painfully evident that Catholic preachers themselves do not read—either writings from professional theology or from current culture—but consistently default to two or three highly predictable sermon outlines. This shallowness of preaching is one significant factor why Catholics scout out other Christian assemblies to hear a substantive preaching of the Word.
Despite having at one time the largest religious education system in the world—i.e., the Catholic school system for elementary and secondary education—Catholicism never carried the torch for an adult education based upon fellowship, reading, and study. Consequently, Catholic writing in the United States does not measure up to Protestant or Independent Christian publishing. In fairness, “Protestants” [of all variants] outnumber Catholics about 4-1, meaning that in the Barnes and Noble Religion Section of the store you will find four Brian McLarens for every one Thomas Merton. Nor do we Catholics have the equivalent of the Zondervan publishing empire which has outlets in nearly every shopping mall in the United States, for example. Our biggest problem, though, remains the troubling reality that the demand for adult Catholic publishing is low.
So, until we find our adult Catholic lay voice, we have the visionaries like McLaren. He is a speculative thinker whose writings—from the reviews I have examined—seek to take Christianity into the future while rooted in an authentic biblical past. He seeks to provide encouragement to clergy and laity alike who are “stuck” in denominational molds or gentrified biblical interpretation. For example, he bravely confronts the image of the Old Testament God of law and vengeance with the New Testament God of Jesus, as in “Philip, he who sees me sees him who sent me.” Over the years McClaren has coined the phrase “God 5.0” borrowing from the world of computer science to describe the development of better human constructs to describe the nature of God.
The “computerese” language for the divine is not exactly my cup of tea [I kept thinking “Jesus and Windows 11” was coming next] but he does say important things, certainly in his approach to Biblical interpretation. Case in point, the Torah, where he supersedes the vindictive and punitive declarations of God in the early Old Testament era with Jesus’ assertion of the infinite love of the Father in his own preaching, teaching, and works. One of his prime targets is Leviticus 20:13 [“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them”] which continues to create its own misery and misunderstanding. One can understand why the fundamental literalist strain of Protestantism might find McLaren disconcerting when he calls for a wholesale rethinking of elements of the Good Book.
McLaren’s Jesus may be forgiving, but the author himself is critical of Christian Churches. Chapter 8, “Salvation from the Suicide Machine,” discusses the pathological marriage of religion to culture. One of his migrations is “from a religion organized for self-preservation and privilege to a religion organizing for the common good of all.” [p. 153] He is strongly immersed in an ethos of social justice, peace, and global environmental balance. He does not believe that any denomination is self-sustaining; “Episcopalians cannot solve the problems of Episcopalians by themselves.” [p. 144] His frustration rests in the sense that every Christian church [and many individuals and communities outside of it] perceive the frustrations and injustices of modern life but are tethered by denominal limitations that hinder common communication and problem solving.
McLaren has been criticized as a Universalist—a major issue in Protestant thought but not so much in formal Catholic theological circles. I would venture a guess, though, that the “typical Catholic” cultivates a universalist streak, namely, that God does not send people to hell, that all will eventually be saved. Consequently, many Catholics may find a sympathetic thread with McLaren’s stance on redemption. In Catholic academic theology, the question of final destiny and judgment falls under the discipline of “eschatology” or “the last things.” I was lucky enough to take a graduate elective in eschatology back in the early 1970’s; my major research was the work of a medieval mystic, Joachim of Flora [1130-1201 A.D.]. Flora was something of a universalist; he believed that the Age of the Father [the Old Testament] and the Age of the Son [the New Testament] were giving way to a utopian new age of the Holy Spirit. [See Britannica’s summary of his life here.] After his death Joachim’s teaching took on new life with the appearance of the new Franciscan Order; many of Joachim’s followers saw in Francis’s Rule and life of poverty the template for the new age of the Holy Spirit.
McLaren is no Joachim, but his writing reflects a frustration with the status quo of Christianity shared throughout history, by individuals as diverse as the ancient theologian Origen and the modern man of letters G.K. Chesterton, who famously wrote “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” The author attempts to provide both a philosophy and a structure for an across-the-board regeneration of Gospel living. In a series of appendices including “Charter for a Just and Generous Christianity” [pp. 207-210], and “Fourteen Precepts of Just and Generous Christianity” [pp. 211-214], McLaren lays down a primmer of what Christianity well lived ought to look like. A good number of his points attract attention. “Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, complete, and absolutely true.” “Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education.” “Do not live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature.”
Strategically speaking, McLaren believes in reform from within. “To identify first 100, and then 1000, and then 10,000 vital faith communities in North America who share these commitments.” [p. 209] In theory, I can resonate with this concept of beginning with small faith groups and nurturing more into existence. Small group experience is another dimension of church life that American Catholicism has been reluctant to embrace with any wholesale enthusiasm. The poor response of many pastors and bishops to Pope Francis’s call for “little synods” this year—gatherings to discuss the common life of the church—can be traced to this reluctance. My opinion is that many church leaders are frightened or threatened by intensive lay movements, or worse, they believe that “Athens has nothing to say to Jerusalem,” as the old saying goes. Another impediment to group encounter is—again! --the deficit in Catholic adult education. What are we to talk about when we gather? In my parish there is an impressive group of lay persons who have taken it upon themselves to form a group study of Pope Francis’s recent social teaching, Fratelli Tutti. My wife is a member, and they have been hard at it for over a year. This is even more remarkable because the Pope’s teaching, Fratelli Tutti, has never been mentioned from the pulpit of my church.
The bottom line here is whether The Great Spiritual Migration is a helpful tool in the faith formation of Catholics. I would give a qualified yes. For no other reason, tackling a work of this nature is a worthy ecumenical venture of cultural awakening, in this case with the evangelical-progressive wing of Protestantism. [It is the conservative-evangelical wing that more often gets legislative and media attention.] One would be hard pressed to argue with the author’s understanding of Jesus and the general strokes of a contemporary biblical ethic that follows. And there is a good deal to be said for passion—joy, hope, sorrow, and anger—in the living and the teaching of a Christian life, that pervades the author’s style of expression. About 95% of Amazon’s 300+ reviewers rated this work 4 and 5 stars as of this morning, March 11. [I will rate it 5 when I submit an abridged review.]
Again, coming at this from my Catholicism, I have two visceral concerns. The first is more of a regret that a Catholic reader of works from other excellent Christian authors may be unaware of the genius of two millennia of Catholic thinkers, writers, theologians, and doctors of the Church. To McLaren’s considerable credit, he incorporates many shapers of the Catholic vision into his work: from Origen to St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas to St. Francis of Assisi to St. Bonaventure to Father Thomas Merton to Father Richard Rohr, the latter two of our own time. Ironically, parochial Catholicism generally does not do this. If Catholicism does not energize its adults with our collective wisdom, we run the risk of devolving into an anti-intellectual authoritarian fundamentalism that distorts the Gospel and the Church’s effort to live it, a style that most of us would find onerous and probably unlivable.
The second point is a bit more eccentric, coming from me. Many years ago, I was an adjunct at Daytona College teaching both psychology and world religion courses. One of the required texts assigned to me was William James’ classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience . [William’s brother Henry is the author of a wide range of gothic horror tales, so don’t confuse them!] One point from James has remained with me over the years, particularly as I age, specifically, that raw enthusiasm does not last for a lifetime. If we live long enough, with our eyes open, we come to understand the power and prevalence of sin as well as our human limits to feed enthusiasm. James argues that we cannot continually draw from our internal well of deep feeling, that an untampered enthusiasm is exhausting and defeating in the long haul. There is a necessary dimension of spirituality that grieves over our sins of commission and, maybe even more so, omission. Moreover, as with the horrors of the Ukrainian War, we are depressed by the pain of societal sin and the grim realization of our inability to achieve a utopian Christianity on earth.
The Catholic tradition has processed the mysteries of man since Jesus rose from the dead. If the institution seems diseased, exhausted, or impotent, it is not because the Spirit failed the Church but because we have not drunk of the wisdom of that Spirit, embodied in our two millennia of the wisdom of the saints. If McLaren’s book vitalizes a personal renewal of Catholic interest, don’t forget to look in our own back yard.
Reclaiming Vatican II
There have been thousands of books—from classics to claptrap—written about the Catholic Church Council Vatican II. So, forgive my skepticism when a new release [October 2021] claims to announce what “really happened.” The author, Father Blake Britton, was ordained in 2018 and, based upon his two-year experience in his first parish and his personal research, he has attempted to present a correct interpretation of the teachings of Vatican II [1962-1965] and the ways that his corrections can renew priestly and parish life. All of this in 173 pages.
The very title “Reclaiming,” which strongly suggests a hijacking, sets the tenor of the book. Chapter One, “The Paracouncil,” introduces us to the author’s favorite handle: “Paracouncil,” a generic term here for individuals and camps who cherry picked [and, in his view, continue to pick] the Council documents for their own assessments of what the Council should have said, on matters as diverse as Latin in the Mass and interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures.
The Paracouncil narrative is not originally the author’s, nor is it new. Immediately after the Council it embodied the narrative that bishops and theologians from Western Europe had exercised undue liberal influence in the composition of the Council’s teachings. This reading overlooks the reality that unlike today, when Catholic theology is now a global undertaking, most of the world’s Catholic universities were in fact in Western Europe. In addition, Vatican II was less a reform Council than a reaction Council, a response to the horrors of the World Wars and the Holocaust. Western European experience played heavily into that Conciliar narrative, and rightfully so.
In a more recent iteration, the Paracouncil mystique provides a cover for the current generation of seminarians and clergy [not all, to be sure] who wish to siphon from Council documents a justification to return to a Church life of sixty years ago, by emphasizing texts that permit the retention of rites and practices of six decades earlier. No young cleric today can claim to have lived in that era; it appears that an oral tradition in some seminaries has kept alive the idea that the Church of the 1950’s was a golden age of the Faith, certainly in the United States, with a clear identity of priestly ministry. [No one in 1960 was talking about “priests smelling like their sheep,” in Pope Francis’ memorable comment.] I can understand that to a newly ordained priest of this generation, the challenges facing ministry must seem daunting. The difficulty with living in the past is the gradual discovery that “the good old days” were not as good as imagined.
The main body of the book addresses the four Vatican II documents on the Liturgy, the nature of the Church, Divine Revelation, and the role of the Church in the modern world. To each area the author brings a mix of his own research, a “Paracouncil commentary,” a highlighting of past and present anecdotal mistakes and abuses, and recommendations for correction and renewal. The flow of the narrative is choppy as the author wears many hats and switches them frequently—from Church historian to social critic to magisterial sheriff to retreat master to parochial consultant.
The Paracouncil theme colors much of his narrative, more than the author may realize. About Biblical study, the author writes: “The exclusive use of the historical-critical method for interpreting Scripture is prevalent in paraconciliar thought. Some clergy and theologians claim that events such as the feeding of the five thousand were not miracles but sociological phenomena.” [p. 135] On the subject of the Church, he writes “…the Paracouncil uses Vatican II as an opportunity to deemphasize the Church’s nature in an attempt to make her more relatable with the modern world and other Christian denominations.” [p. 101] These are serious charges that fail to consider how difficult the implementation of the Council actually was. I would take him more seriously if he acknowledged that he stands on the shoulders of giants, including many he easily dismisses.
The concluding chapter troubled me the most, “What Now?” This segment is highly autobiographical; the author becomes the embodiment of his arguments. He describes his first assignment after ordination: “I was sent to a community wounded by scandal and flailing in the spiritual life. After two decades of lackluster parish life, they had received a new pastor.” [p. 168] Later in the chapter he identifies the parish by name and states that attendance had dropped 66% in the previous administration. The public shaming of a clergyman [the previous pastor] and a community seems beyond the pale, and worse, because it sets the stage for the author’s own definition of his success. [A good friend of mine who read the book asked me, “For Pete’s sake, did this man have an editor?”]
The author narrates his two-year work in tandem with the new pastor. He describes their work as prioritizing the liturgy, catechizing the people about the history of the Church, offering regular parish missions, and increasing opportunities to celebrate the sacraments. I do agree with several of his recommendations for liturgical reform, notably on matters of music, silence, focus, etc. He is correct that reform requires study.
At the end of two years both he and the pastor were reassigned. [Ironically, his pastor was transferred to my parish—small world!] Upon leaving, the author reports that after two years “our finances are in order, the school is filled with children, and Mass attendance is steadily increasing.” [p. 170] It just seems a bit too self-serving, particularly when he presumes to counsel fellow priests—nearly all older and more experienced—that “patience is essential…the average parish takes three to five years to reform.” How does he know?
Given the successful tally he reports--balanced books, high walk-in traffic, satisfied customers—numbers that would please any CEO, I do wonder how the author integrates his own CEO into a parish reform agenda, namely Pope Francis, who has barely a cameo appearance between the covers of this book. Hopefully, the author does not count our present pontiff among the paraconciliarists.
Graham Greene was one of the most prolific of all Catholic novelists of the twentieth century. My review of this work was posted on Amazon today and can be found here.
Over the last few weeks, I have been paging through recent publications in the area of “Ecclesiology” or the structure of the Church. I find that authors in the present day refer to a published work from 2000, The McDonaldization of the Church by John Drane, a British pastoral sociologist. When I first saw this term, I thought it was a put-on, to tell you the truth. But “McDonaldization” is a stand-alone term in sociological circles with its own Wikipedia site. The term was coined by sociologist George Ritzer in 1993. Ritzert defines The McDonaldization of Society as the process of American economy and culture adopting the characteristics of a fast-food restaurant.
As it applies to Christian Churches, the theory is used to explain, at least in part, why so many have given up on traditional church experience.
Pull up a Big Mac and Fries while I spread the menu. Ritzert breaks down the operational principles of a traditionally successful fast-food enterprise into four parts.
The first is efficiency, or the optimal method for accomplishing a task. Among other things, efficiency includes the goal of delivering the goods in the fastest amount of time. “The fastest way to get from being hungry to being full.”
The second is calculability. Objectives should be quantifiable (e.g., sales) rather than subjective (e.g., taste). McDonaldization promotes the notion that quantity equals quality, and that a large amount of product delivered to the customer in a short amount of time is the same as a high-quality product. This allows people to quantify how much they are getting versus how much they are paying. Workers in these organizations are judged by how fast they are instead of the quality of work they do.
The third is predictability – standardized and uniform services. Predictability means that no matter where a person goes, they will receive the same service and receive the same product every time. This also applies to the workers in those organizations. Their tasks are highly repetitive, highly routine.
Control – standardized and uniform employees, replacement of human by non-human technologies.
In our book at hand, The McDonaldization of the Church, Drane borrows the model for possible clues to the wholesale departure of members from the mainstream Protestant and Catholic Churches. Drane was writing in 2000; I would say that the parallel makes even better sense in 2021, and from this vantage point we get more useful insights into where American Catholicism has fallen into difficulties.
I feel the need to state the obvious that the Catholic Church is not the same kind of organization as Dairy Queen or Burger King. However, Drane argues that the McDonald business model is so pervasive in America that it has become the secular template for public organizations, and that Catholics and Protestants alike have succumbed to a McChurch style almost subconsciously. And because of this, much of our public has grown weary of us and—in my opinion—we are paralyzed in regrouping ourselves after the Covid epidemic.
Reading the four “McDonaldized” bullet points, it should be clear that any institution shaped to this model is going to have a difficult time with change, no matter from what cause, source, or motivation. In the case of McDonald’s, the twenty-first century saw several significant changes in customer expectations. Notably, many Americans started seeking healthier diets with less fat and more fiber, greater attention to the green movement, and better salaries, benefits, and working conditions for McDonald employees. The popular call for the $15/hour wage found in McDonald employees the poster children for labor reform. And, as more Americans work from home and on laptops, the furnishings and surroundings of the fast-food marketplaces required greater accommodations to these needs. McDonald’s has been perceived as slow to respond to this new environment. When the pandemic arrived in 2020, McDonald’s and other chains of that model found themselves caught flatfooted, having to depend exclusively on super long drive-through lines with a depleted workforce and restrictions on sit-down clients. My Publix Grocery chain reinvented itself immediately to shop for me and deliver the goods. McDonald’s was unable to do that.
However, innovation is not a sure-fire recipe for success, either. In his 2008 book Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul, CEO Howard Schulz, returning from an eight-year hiatus from the company, relates the fuss when Starbuck’s began serving hot breakfasts, perhaps hoping to capture a portion of the McDonald’s market. Every Starbuck’s outlet no longer smelled of coffee, he discovered. Rather, the aromatic ambiance of the coffee shops was burned cheese from the grill, a major turn-off in a business that features multiple exotic coffee blends. Ironically, one of Schulz’s first moves as CEO was company-wide attention to the actual brewing process of a cup of coffee. As research for this blog entry, I stopped into Starbucks yesterday on the way to Costco to see how the shop smelled. Fortunately, it smelled of coffee. [However, I ordered a frosted pumpkin scone with my delicious Pike Place, and at the first bite the frosting broke into a hundred pieces.] What both McDonalds and Starbucks teach is that customers are both traditional and innovative in that they want…and it is critical to listen to the clientele with both ears open.
Drane cites William D. Hendricks’ Exit Interviews  to explore how Christians became dissatisfied customers, so to speak, with their institutional communities of worship. At the time Hendricks conducted his studies, about 60,000 Christians in the U.S. were leaving organized churches every week. One interviewee, a returned missionary no less, said this: “I guess my problem with church is not that I’ve lost my faith or feel like it’s hopeless or that sort of thing. It’s more that I am bored with it. I go to church, and I hear sermons and I think, ‘I just don’t want to hear this.’” Hendricks goes on to say that “leaving the church often seems to be a consequence of people dealing with issues of personal maturity and growth in their lives.” [Drane, p. 5]
Drane’s own observations tell him that people do not necessarily equate leaving the church with leaving faith. “They also frequently claim that leaving the church is actually a way of maintaining their faith.” One Amazon reviewer made a prescient observation in a post of several years ago about people leaving the church. “I think that half of the people who stay [in the church] feel the same way as people who leave. It would take just one big crisis for them to leave, too.”
Indeed, the Covid-19 crisis may have been that deciding moment when, having lived without weekly Mass for extended periods of time, many Catholics have discovered that they can survive—perhaps even thrive—with alternative religious experience, or on the contrary, that they can live without the Sunday community gathering altogether. Covid did not exactly create the mindset of a mass exodus; more likely, it exacerbated an already existent exodus which had [or has] two distinct populations: those who leave the church physically; and those who have left the church psychologically but continue to attend out of habit, social attraction, or family influence.
There is no hard research yet on the sociological/religious impact of Covid on Catholic membership, in part because the Delta variant continues to wreak havoc on social life here in Florida and elsewhere as I write today. It pains me to report that, anecdotally speaking, after my pastor requested that everyone wear masks to Mass, a full 40% of Mass-goers do not wear them at my Saturday night Mass, one that historically is attended by many elderly and vulnerable persons. That act of diffidence/defiance has done nothing to warm my heart toward the idea of the Eucharistic meal as a communal celebration of love and concern. Under different circumstances, maybe this would be enough to send me looking elsewhere for genuine religious experience.
In Chapter 5, “Celebrating the Faith,” Drane examines the worship experiences of the various churches—he is most taken with Catholic worship—and the fashion in which McDonaldization has shaped even the ways we worship together. It is his conclusion that a fast-food mentality such as those cited above has driven many from regular worship, even if subconsciously. Generally, when someone leaves church worship, the reasons generally given are poor preaching, boredom, and personal irrelevance. All these tags convey a loss of visceral, personal connectedness with both the rites of worship and the congregation itself. I agree to a point with Drane that separation from the Eucharist is not generally a deliberate act of disaffiliation from God. In fact, it may be the most authentic act of an adult’s life, maybe the first, something we should bear in mind in our thoughts about evangelization.
Drane states that one of the best analyses of the problems of worship comes from a 1978 directive booklet from the American Bishops, today’s USCCB, entitled Environment and Art in Catholic Worship. Amazingly, this work is virtually out of print in 2021 [and it shows]. But Drane quotes these points from the U.S. bishops over forty years ago: “Liturgy has historically suffered from a kind of minimalism and an overriding concern for efficiency…. As our symbols tended in practice to shrivel up and petrify, they became much more manageable and efficient.” [p. 97, italics the author’s] As examples, Drane points to the manufactured bread wafers used in the Catholic Mass and the limited amounts of water used in Baptism, both of which scream of a minimalism and economy that belie the luxurious outpouring of God’s goodness in the person and actions of Jesus. To this I can add an observation from the late Benedictine liturgist, Father Aidan Kavanaugh, made in my presence at a workshop many years ago: “When we celebrate the sacrament of Confirmation, the greatest act of faith is not that the Holy Spirit is descending from heaven, but rather that the bishop is really using oil.” [Psalm 133:3, “It is like fine oil on the head, running down on the beard, running down Aaron’s beard over the collar of his robes.”]
The minimalism and practicality of a corporate mentality infects church architecture. Consider the pews, which render us immobile and prevent us from seeing one another as we share the common meal of people of faith. I come close to breaking my ankles during the kiss of peace. But more than that, the very sermon of the Mass is a neatly packaged ferverino that says little to engage the passions that true religion engenders. I believe it was the famous theologian Karl Barth who told his students that when they finished their preaching, their listeners should desire to stand up and request to be baptized again.
Drane’s summary of the McDonaldization process stresses that the customers get the same thing every visit at every location. This is a recipe for stagnation. Although I was never a big McDonald’s fan, at some point I abandoned them entirely for Panera’s or Dunkin’s or Barney’s as my life, my health, and my tastes evolved. There is good research [certainly bolstered by anecdote] that those raised as Catholics have moved on to other churches, generally either the Episcopal Church or one of the Evangelical communions. I wish I knew what they were looking for and how we failed. Looking at Catholic life, we don’t really have the collective pastoral skill of listening to and deciphering with our people—all of them—as they navigate their faith lives through the decades of their adulthood. In my darker moments, I fear that our hierarchy does not really want to know—for reasons that are very understandable to those that are unconscionable.
Equally troubling is an internal assumption that we have all the answers to what we believe to be the important questions in the journey of faith. Management decides, customers pay. We assume that the Holy Spirit’s primary gift is compliance, an assumption that short circuits the divine charisms poured out at the initiation sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist to every new member of the Body of Christ. The novelist Graham Greene confided to the priest instructing him for baptism that he could believe everything the church teaches, except that he wasn’t sure about the existence of God. The priest baptized him anyway, aware that Greene’s wrestling with the God question was itself a sign of divine stirring. Presumably, they continued to partner on Greene’s journey.
A business that does not habitually hear the legitimate needs of its clientele is in trouble. Perhaps the efforts of Pope Francis to establish the concept of Synodality—a Spirit-filled sharing of faith, insight, and direction—may become a template for the post-Covid era Church. For the moment, at least, we can hope that the church learns from the mistakes of a McDonaldized era, at least to the degree that the restaurant manager visits each table to hear the diners every night.
The biographer Richard Greene opens his epic biography of the Catholic novelist Graham Greene [1904-1991] with a scene from the author’s life in 1951 where he served as a British journalist [and possible spy for England’s MI6?] in the heart of Viet Nam. The French were fighting a losing battle to hold their colony; the final defeat would occur in Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Graham Greene was nothing if not a front-line reporter, and he joined the French in a coastal assault from the Gulf of Tonkin south of Hanoi.
Despite heavy fire, Greene stops to survey the damage around him. “It reminded him of the Blitz, but with many more corpses, some sticking out of a canal. In a sight he would never forget, he came upon a mother and her tiny son dead in a ditch. They had wandered into the field of fire between the French and the Viet Minh and had been brought down by just two shots, apparently French. Greene remembered especially ‘the neatness of their bullet wounds.’ These were his people—Catholics.” [p. xi.] Greene, thinking his own life might be coming to an end, found a Belgian priest who heard his confession. Despite being abandoned in the field by the French who suspected he was a spy given his World War II duties in intelligence, Greene navigated himself to the relative safety of the South. This and similar experiences in Viet Nam provided him the setting for one of his best-known novels, The Quiet American .
In 2007, long after Graham Greene’s death, President George W. Bush, then engaged in the Iraqi War, made a remarkable reference to The Quiet American in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “In 1955, long before the United States had entered the [Viet Nam] war, Graham Greene wrote a novel called The Quiet American. It was set in Saigon, and the main character was a young government agent named Alden Pyle. He was a symbol of American purpose and patriotism—and dangerous naivete. Another character describes Alden this way: ‘I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.’” [p. xiii.]
Richard Greene’s biography, A Life of Graham Greene: The Unquiet Englishman  is worthy of a read on many levels. Few people live as complex a life as Greene; few—probably no—writers produced a canon of memorable novels and plays as Greene in the twentieth century; few lived Catholicism in quite the fashion as Greene, which is not to say he was saintly. At first, I was inclined to say that his life merited a long stretch in Purgatory. But his biographer gives us plenty of detail to appreciate that Greene’s life contained its full share of anxiety and doubt. He suffered from depression and early in his adult life attempted suicide via a round of Russian roulette. His conscience was well developed with an eye toward impoverished populations and his soul could be roused to deep-seated anger at the sight of injustice. He took special interest in the various revolutions in Central and South America, and elsewhere, finding himself in the turmoil that resulted in the martyrdoms of Father Oscar Romero and the four American church women in El Salvador.
Graham Greene was the son of an English headmaster and exposed to book reading and inspiring story telling in this academic setting. Later he would write that “early reading has far more influence on conduct than any religious teaching.” [p. 8] This recollection is not as cynical as it may seem, for most of Greene’s career writing was value laden. I have long believed that good literature has a valuable role in catechetics. Greene began to write as a student at Oxford University, and for a time was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, even hoping to visit the Soviet Union. It was during this period of his life that he suffered from major depression. His biographer writes that Greene was later diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder. “Over the years he was always reckless and inclined to boredom; suicidal depressions would sometimes give way to euphoria; he was thrill-seeking, promiscuous, and hard drinking; he misused drugs—common enough features of the illness.” [p. 15]
It is certainly true that Greene possessed large amounts of energy. When one looks at his body of written work and his extensive travels, it is amazing that he possessed the self-control and discipline to produce tightly edited novels. After graduation he began his career as a journalist and set off to cover the Irish troubles as a free lancer at some considerable risk to himself. In another piece called “the Average Film” he made irreverent reference to worship of the Virgin Mary. He received a correcting letter from a fervent Catholic, Vivienne Dayrell-Browning, and within several weeks he was in love with her. Browning, on the other hand, was in love with the idea of consecrated virginity in the Catholic tradition. Greene courted her energetically to the point of introducing himself to Catholicism.
In a happy coincidence Greene approached a priest, George Trollope, for his conversion instructions. Trollope had been a seasoned actor before entering the seminary as a “late vocation.” His biographer comments that “Greene detected a sorrow in Trollope, a yearning for his old life. [p. 43] In his autobiography Greene confides that his biggest struggle with Catholicism was not its doctrines, but belief in God, period. Greene met with Trollope at least twice a week and even accompanied him on his pastoral rounds. His respect for Trollope as well as his affections for Vivienne were the determining factors in his acceptance of baptism. He admitted later that he did not have much emotional connectedness to Catholicism until he went to Mexico and witnessed the persecution of Catholics. However, his biographer cites numerous examples of Greene’s seeking consolation
His 1937 foray into Mexico was the inspiration for his most “Catholic” novel, The Power and the Glory . Some considerable planning went into this trip, the brainchild of the Catholic publisher Frank Sheed in conjunction with the Vatican and Mexican Church authorities. Greene, by now a visible force in the literary world, would tour the country to document a novel on the anticlerical Mexican government which had arrested and executed many Catholic priests. Biographer Greene details the novelist’s navigation of the country where anticlerical dictators were gradually being replaced but where functioning parish churches were still few. In Tabasco Greene encountered the true “whisky priest” he would immortalize in his subsequent novel. A fugitive priest living in a nearby swamp would come into civilization only during the night. A doctor would tell Greene that he brought one of his sons to the priest for baptism. “He is what we call a whisky priest.” The drunken priest insisted on naming the boy “Brigitta.” [p. 119]
The Power and the Glory proved to be the most famous of Greene’s novels and the one most overtly identified with his Catholicism, eccentric as his practice might be. Greene fretted then and throughout his life about the meaning of a Catholic novelist, wondering how a Catholic sense of the soul and of providence altered the craft of fiction. Biographer Greene put it this way: “a good writer who happens to be a Catholic is going to be different from a writer who happens to be something else.” [p. 106] Curiously, Greene was sometimes at odds with various components of Catholicism. In the 1950’s the Vatican considered banning The Power and the Glory on the grounds that its portrayal of the whisky priest would scandalize the “simple faithful.” [pp. 248-250] When The Quiet American was published in 1955, many Catholics on the right in the United States were offended by the caricature of a meddling, dangerous U.S. bureaucrat.
The Quiet American  captivated me when I read it for the first time during the Covid lockdown last year. [See my Amazon review.] Although it is not “overtly Catholic” the theme of the work is the immorality of first world colonialism. For a reader with a historical bent, this is a chilling work that details the ugly underbelly of the expulsion of the French from the Vietnamese peninsula in 1954. The title of the book is a parody: the young American bureaucrat never stops talking and exhausts the aging British war reporter who tries to save him from himself. Greene produced this work about five years before the United States began sending the first wave of advisors which would lead to the wholesale Viet Nam war of the 1960’s ans 1970's.
Greene’s career took him to Hollywood, where several of his novels were made into movies through the twentieth century, but his wanderlust continued to take him around the world and particularly where there was “action,” which generally meant social upheaval. He was one of few people to visit Cuba and interview Fidel Castro. Castro confided to Greene that he believed the Catholic Church and communism had much in common. Greene had been sympathetic to the revolution and the overthrow of Batista, but as he came to know the new generation of Cuban reformers, he remarked “I do not wish to live long enough to see this revolution middle-aged.” [p. 375]
Greene made several forays into El Salvador during the country’s bitter civil strife during the 1970’s and 1980’s, even intervening in the hostage negotiations involving Salvadorian rebels and three captive businessmen. The murders of Father Oscar Romero and the four American religious women missionaries were appalling to him. But by this stage of his life Greene was no wide-eyed idealist. His biographer writes that “It is usually assumed that Greene was swept along by enthusiasm for rebel movements. He wasn’t.” [p. 467] He was a close observer of the U.S. handover of the Panama Canal and a confidante of Panamanian president Omar Torrijos, who confided to Greene that, like the author, Torrijos had a depressive and self-destructive streak.
Greene returned to regular observance of the sacraments in his later years, in part through a close friendship with a priest who vacationed with him for years. He placed great store in the prayers of other people and having Masses offered for his intentions. He still carried an agnostic strain and did not like the authoritarian style of Pope John Paul II. He maintained a close friendship with the Catholic theologian Hans Kung and thanked him for “helping me keep one foot in the Catholic Church.” In his final reflective years Greene sometimes considered that he might have been a better fit in the Episcopal Church. But his biographer offers a telling point: “The Catholic church was where almost a billion of the world’s poorest people brought their deepest yearnings, and Graham Greene was unlikely to walk away from that.” [p. 503]
Richard Greene’s biography is a captivating piece of literature in its own right. This is a lively narrative of an intriguing human being and the world in which he resided. Richard Greene is respectfully honest and balanced. He leaves critical analyses of Graham Greene’s work to specialists while at the same time inviting the reader into the formative influences of the writer’s mind. The biographer’s treatment of Graham Greene’s Catholicism is satisfying to the point that we have some sense of how an imperfect practitioner of the faith can still convey his religious values. It was this imperfect Graham Greene who serves as a hopeful paradigm for every one of us who still labors with internal regions of unbelief and human failure—in his story, and in his stories.
The Amazon link to Richard Greene’s biography, The Unquiet Englishman, is here.
There is a Graham Greene website which features information on everything Greene, from his books to walking tours of all the cities he visited, which can be found here.
Many of Graham Greene’s books have been made into movies. The trailer for The Quiet American is here; for The Power and the Glory, here; for Our Man in Havana, here.
Normally, when I select and review books for the Catechist Café, I turn to major publishers such as Paulist Press or Yale University Press. But today’s offering comes from a longtime friend—one of my “campus ministry gang” from the 1970’s when I served as a college chaplain. Say what you will about Facebook, but nothing beats it for meeting old folks with good memories. Thus it was that I reconnected on FB with Claudia Verruto Bernstein [Claudia Verruto back then] and learned of her 2012 work, “The Last Day I Had a Daddy.”] Having read the book this weekend I was immediately captivated by two qualities. First, this is a very brief but captivating story narrated in a child’s voice but with an adult’s hindsight; and second, there is a treasure of here of catechetical and mental health wisdom for any of us who care for children and shape their religious outlook.
Louis Verruto is remembered by his daughter as a very attentive and affectionate man. He operated a small shoe repair shop close enough to his home that the author, at the age of seven, was able to ride her bike to meet him at closing time and accompany him home. In the evenings he would contribute to her piggy bank and read her a story. One of his most important projects as the narrative begins is his work on his daughter’s First Communion shoes, in preparation for her big day just three weeks off. As we readers know where the story is headed, there is a nervous anticipation in this description of an idyllic domestic existence. The author quotes herself at the time, “I can’t imagine how this day could be any more perfect.” [p. 7]
Life stopped being perfect on a glorious fall afternoon. I can recall my own reactions in 2001 to learning from police at 4:30 AM that my 26-year-old stepson had been killed suddenly on his way to work by a drunk driver, but I was 53 years old at the time and my primary concern was my wife. Awful as it was, my own safety and sanity was not turned upside down. Consider, though, the multifaceted dimensions of crisis experienced by a child. We are privy to the author’s reactions in sharp detail, which give us immense insight in how to care for youngsters in such circumstances.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief—shock, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—are as applicable to children in many respects as to adults, and they play out in the author’s post-mortem reactions in ways that are uncanny, though students of Kubler-Ross remind us that “these stages occur neither with predictable regularity nor in any set order.” The author’s anger wells up with her First Communion, for example, where she had prayed earnestly for a miracle on her big day, that by some divine intervention she might see her father when she processed into church. “I was mad at the angels. I was mad at Sister Regina. There were no miracles because if there were, Daddy would have walked home with me, just like always. And I was mad at daddy! Why didn’t he come? Why?” [p. 34]
If anecdotal evidence means anything, I have encountered adult patients who told me they were still angry that as children they were not permitted to attend the funeral of a loved one in the family. Fifty years ago, this was the accepted wisdom of the times, and the author’s mother had her stay with relatives in another town during the five days around the funeral. When I interned for family psychotherapy in 1988 my supervisors were adamant that children should participate in family funerals. As I write this entry, my wife Margaret reminded me that in some cultures grieving widows or other adult relatives throwing themselves on the coffin was de rigour, a sight that might indeed unnerve a child. However, a child does not need to go to the graveside to have a meaningful involvement in what Catholicism considers a cathartic encounter with God.
How we talk about God and death to children in catechetical or instructional settings requires exquisite care. Language that suggests God is the administrative agent who terminates life prematurely for his own purposes can be easily misinterpreted, as happens here. [pp. 32-33] The author recalls “I remember what Sister Regina said at school: if you pray very hard, miracles can happen. Mommy said that the angels took daddy up to Heaven. Maybe if I prayed very hard, they would bring him back. A miracle, my miracle.” As well intentioned as we are, our guidance language is heard in absolutes: if God taketh away, God can giveth, too, for the right effort. Kubler-Ross came to recognize the bargaining stratagem in her own patients. Thousands of Catholic adults visit Lourdes every year with the same hope. Little mystery as to why the next stage in grieving is depression, which in children and adolescents can manifests itself in irritability and anger.
The author admits to a significant period of angry depression which only began to lift through the ministrations of her older brother, also named Louis, a young man whose wisdom far exceeded his age. Louis intuitively drew from the richness of the Catholic tradition of sacramentals, or holy signs. He explains to her that “[T]he heart is like a camera, Claudia. It takes pictures of who we love and our mind is like the photograph album the pictures are stored in. The pictures are called memories. And we have lots of them with Daddy.” [p. 46] The author herself may have subconsciously drawn from this sacramental stream in her multiple allusions to her First Communion shoes from her father, which I would wager she still owns today.
The loss of a parent in the prime of life is a difficult subject to address. Would I recommend this work to young people? I would say this. The author intended this work for young people, and probably for the people who care for them. We live in a world where children rehearse for school shootings. If we do not address death in our family and religious settings, how do we and they become skilled in ministering to young people in various states of grief and loss? Ministering in these circumstances calls for a measure of counterintuitive measures. Avoiding pain is not always a productive or healing strategy. I would note, too, that young people are sometimes the best helpers of each other. I would recommend to catechists, for example, that they consider a work such as this for group discussion, perhaps concurrently with parent groups.
Amazon is presently out of the book. You can contact the author at (1) The Last Day I Had a Daddy - Posts | Facebook
The British author Graham Green [1904-1991] reputedly converted to Catholicism to endear himself to a girl friend, but his novels and correspondence give evidence of a livelong love and struggle with the meaning of life, for which Catholicism provided the most useful metaphors of his inner turmoil. His most famous work, The Power and the Glory,  has bestowed upon us the immortal figure of “the whiskey priest,” caught up in the Mexican persecution of Catholics earlier in the century.
I came to Greene somewhat late in life and began my association with The Quiet American . This work appeared one year after Dien Bien Phu, the siege in which Vietnamese forces drove the colonial French from the peninsula and set the stage for the subsequent internal struggle over Viet Nam that would draw hundreds of thousands of American troops into a bloody Asian quagmire. Neither the author nor the characters in the book can see this far into the future, as the narrative is set in the early 1950’s while the French struggled to hang on, but to the reader of 2021 the tale is rife with foreboding of what lie ahead for the people of Viet Nam and the United States.
My childhood catechetics instilled in me the reality of two ultimate judgments: a personal one at the time of my death and a final universal one at the end of time. After a lifetime of reading and experience it is harder for me to sort out how they overlap in Venn diagram fashion. My theological and psychological experience has taught me that there is no true personal sin, i.e., an immoral act or attitude without social consequences. Even the most secret of evil transgressions is a wound to the Body of Christ. On the other hand, how accountable am I for the sins of my forefathers, or for that matter, of the dishonesties and crimes of current institutions that make up my world, including church, government, business? Greene, very much aware of his personal weaknesses even after his conversion to Catholicism, appears to struggle with such questions.
The Quiet American is a story that screams for judgment but placing it is elusive. Based in Saigon, the narrator is Thomas Fowler, a grizzled British journalist on assignment to cover the last days of French colonial control of the Vietnamese peninsula. He has a wife back home and something of a common law wife, Phuong, in Saigon with whom he drinks, copulates, and smokes opium. He has no discernible friends but several associates who keep him informed—ranging from local Vietnamese to French officers, all of whom keep him informed in the ways that are useful to career journalists. He identifies as a cynic with little or no sympathies, though one of the intrigues of the work is the discovery that his spiritual lethargy is not as moribund as he advertises.
It is more likely that Fowler, having covered the full World War II era, is both fatigued by that experience less than a decade earlier and captivated at some level by what his instincts tell him is an important story unfolding before him. With his seniority he can return to England, but he chooses not. He could join his fellow members of the press in the safe and sanitized overnight field trips to the region of Hanoi for scripted conferences from French military spokesmen, but he elects not. Instead, he puts himself periodically into contested regions of combat where Vietnamese freedom fighters are closing the circle around the main French military bodies, hoping his reports will clear censors for his superiors and readers back home.
Into Fowler’s world drops Alden Pyle, the “quiet American.” In the 2004 edition of this novel by Penguin Books, Robert Stone observes in the forward that the title of the book is steeped in irony; Greene’s coded joke is the only quiet American is a dead American. [p. vii] Pyle drops into the midst of this Vietnamese hell fresh from the Ivy League, naïve, loquacious, idealistic to a fault. He appears to be the consummate state department bureaucrat from Washington, an American observer of all three parties in the struggle on the ground. Later it becomes clearer that Pyle’s roots may be more Langley than Georgetown, as some American readers later suggested that Pyle’s character was inspired by Colonel Edward Lansdale, the early American advisor who befriended the Diem regime in the early days of American involvement. This was not the case; Lansdale did not go to Viet Nam till after 1955.
For all his book knowledge and brave talk, young Pyle is out of his element in a war zone and fastens himself to Fowler, who finds his certitudes more than annoying. Pyle is consistently the butt of the older man’s sarcasm and contempt, but he doggedly preaches an optimistic American worldview. Stone suggests that Pyle is the foil for European—particularly British and French—readers who resented the new American post World War II dominance as European colonialism came undone. He notes that American Catholic readers addressed the book with some consternation.
Fowler tolerates his companion until the latter becomes enamored of Fowler’s partner Phuong; to no one’s surprise, Pyle addresses the matter of his affection for Phuong with Fowler directly, in a candid discussion of which man would be the better partner as Phuong sits in the same room with no say in the deliberations, calculating how to make the best of the ultimate determination. The scene is an apt metaphor for the plight of indigenous populations when world powers extend their reach.
Fowler may be tired, cynical, and no man’s saint—but he has not stopped living, either. He begins to have second thoughts about the wife back home and his plans to divorce her. More to the point, he cannot be totally unmoved by the course of events around him. In a moment of alcoholic candor, a French drinking companion, Captain Trouin, lays out his own existential pain. “You are a journalist. You know better than I that we can’t win. You know the road to Hanoi is cut and mined every night. You know we lose one class of St. Cyr every year. We were nearly beaten in ’50. De Lattre has given us two years of grace—that’s all. But we are professionals: we have to go on fighting till the politicians tell us to stop. Probably they will get together and agree to some peace we could have had at the beginning, making nonsense of all these years…. You would not understand the nonsense, Fowler, you are not one of us.” [p. 144]
Fowler becomes witness to a terrorist attack nearly at his doorstep, an event which seems to cast about his soul looking for loose strands of a moral sanity, and the work closes with a somewhat different man than we meet at the beginning. Agnostics, it seems, experience conversion, too, though in Fowler’s case the change will come in small increments. Certainly, one agent in his change is Pyle, whose idealism and single mindedness prove to be the ingredients of confident evil and his ultimate destruction. Captain Trouin would be proved right about the French in 1954; sadly, very few American Catholics gave pause to Graham Greene’s remarkable prophesy of what Pyle’s ideology might do to the United States in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Any thoughtful reader will take away significant personal wisdom on this tale of moral struggle. Going back to my earlier remarks, I am struck at the interplay of individual and corporate moral responsibility. This is clearest in the life of Alden Pyle. Greene goes to some trouble to describe Pyle’s formative university years—his worn copy of The Role of the West pops up repeatedly in the narrative—to make the case that Pyle is the product of Western culture, more specifically, American Exceptionalism, before the term was invented. Pyle’s individual sins prove to be deadly but executed in the cause of those who had formed him.
Fowler, of course, is the child of England, of whom it was said that the flag never set upon the empire. But again, Greene goes to considerable length to describe Fowler as a solitary man who understood that the French war he was covering was a repeat of similar colonial conflicts waged by his own country. What Trouin had said about his French Army was equally true of Fowler’s own countrymen. And yet, in the epilogue of the novel, Fowler finds an empathy that transcends ideology and isolationism. Only a Catholic could end a novel with the lament, “how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say I’m sorry.” [p. 180]
A review and discussion of Sister Margaret Carney's new introduction to the life of Saint Clare, the Franciscan foundress, can be found on the Church History stream of the Café, posted April 20, 2021.
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything