You could have knocked me over with a feather back on July 8 when the Vatican released the news that my very own pastor and longtime friend Father Stephen Parkes had been chosen bishop of the Savannah, Georgia Diocese. Father Parkes was installed two weeks ago, September 23 to be precise. Among the consecrating bishops was his brother Gregory, bishop of the St. Petersburg-Tampa Diocese. Let me be quick to point out that my surprise was not due to any doubt about the appropriateness of the appointment; the new Bishop Parkes meets the measure of the office in every respect as a spiritual, pastoral, and administrative leader. My surprise is the result of my age and years of observing “bishop making” in the United States. The “how?” is sometimes just as interesting as “the who?” [In this video Bishop-elect Parkes describes how he learned of his appointment.]
For much of my life there was a certain formula for becoming a bishop in the United States. Ultimately the final decision on the appointment of new bishops, then as now, is channeled through the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C. The Nunciature’s website defines its duties: “The Pope, as the Vicar of Christ on earth, in order to ensure that each country has a tangible sign of his care for the Lord's entire Flock, appoints an Apostolic Nuncio (Ambassador of the Holy See) as his personal and official representative both to the Church in the United States and to its Government.” The present U.S. Nuncio is His Excellency Archbishop Christophe Pierre. The nuncio’s primary responsibilities involve the good order of the Church in the U.S. and the appointment of bishops.
As it is impossible for a nuncio to know every priest in the United States, he must depend upon the advice of local, regional, and national advisors, usually bishops, to identify episcopal candidates; this would include the qualifications of priests for their initial episcopal ordinations, and the promotion of already ordained bishops to larger sees, particularly where some delicacy or diplomatic touch was required. Rocco Palmo, whose Whispers in the Loggia blog is usually the best source for the “how” of every episcopal assignments, had little to say on Father Parkes’ appointment because he [Rocco] was preoccupied with the high visibility appointment and installation of the new Archbishop of St. Louis, Mitchell Rozanski, a pastoral moderate succeeding several St. Louis bishops of the cultural right, during the height of the George Floyd protests this summer. [Rozanski is already dealing with conflict as of this writing.] St Louis [Ferguson] had been the site of the Michael Brown shooting in 2014. I would call the Archdiocese of St. Louis in 2020 a “special circumstances” appointment; Savannah, as best I can tell, does not suffer from this level of tension nor does the diocese have a notoriously high number of abusive priests. According to Bishops Accountability, the Savannah and Orlando Dioceses each have had fourteen abusing clergy in their respective histories. By contrast, my home diocese of Buffalo reports 176.
The selection and appointment of bishops made directly by the Vatican is something of a modern development, beginning shortly after the exile of Napoleon in the 1800’s. In the early Church bishops might be chosen by the citizenry, as in the case of St. Augustine, where the Church of Hippo in North Africa virtually put him under house arrest till he agreed to take the miter around 400 A.D. Similarly, two of the Church’s Bishops of Rome, St. Leo the Great [r. 440-461 A.D.] and St. Gregory the Great [r. 590-604 A.D.] came to their offices to, among other things, fill the civil leadership void when the seat of the Roman Empire was transferred from Rome to Constantinople [modern Istanbul, Turkey.]
By the high middle ages church and state were so tightly drawn that kings, princes, and other secular powers had, at the very least, veto power over episcopal assignments made by local bishops in regional synods. The sin of simony, the outright purchase of a church office such as bishop was a perennial problem throughout the period. It was only in the nineteenth century that the Church asserted its independence in the fashion we have today, notably under the reign of Pius IX [r. 1846-1878]. The limited technology for significant papal oversight of dioceses on matters such as episcopal appointments [and many other matters] hindered communication until the twentieth century.
The era of Pius IX began the centralization of church management and doctrinal unity we are accustomed to today, and as noted above, the apostolic nuncio serves the pope by submitting names of worthy candidates in the country of his assignment. Traditionally the nuncio presents the pope with three names for an episcopal opening. I was pleased to find the American process on the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which incidentally is a fine teaching instrument in adult education. There are several factors or general norms not listed on the site, though. After the defrocking of Cardinal McCarrick of Washington two years ago, more attention is paid to a candidate’s “rabbi,” so to speak, the man or men of power or influence who lobbied and/or promoted the candidate throughout his career. Pope Francis has delayed releasing the McCarrick report for fear of releasing the names of the ex-Cardinal’s promoters over his career.
Another unspoken criterion factor in bishop selection is the candidate’s public theological stance on the teachings and emphases of the reigning pope. At least since the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978, numerous commentators have identified several sine qua non litmus tests for prospective bishops. Prior to Pope Francis, candidates were expected to publicly affirm [or at least not publicly dissent from] several sexual teachings of the Church which had come under questioning by working theologians and many parish priests. Specifically, candidates for the episcopacy were screened for their teaching and non-dissent on issues of the sinfulness of artificial birth control and conduct issues such as cohabitation, in vitro fertilization, etc. In very recent times Vatican examination of candidates has been expanded to measure support of Church teaching on matters of homosexual lifestyle and marriage, and the ordination of women. According to the USCCB guidelines cited above, the investigative process of candidates usually takes six to eight months from the time that a diocesan see becomes vacant. Of course, the USCCB has “binders full of candidates” to paraphrase Mitt Romney’s unfortunate phrase about women candidates in the 2012 presidential campaign. The nuncio and his collaborating archbishops are not starting from zero.
What kind of a priestly career favors consideration for an empty see? When I was ordained in 1974 the cursus was somewhat clearer than it is today. A seminarian or young priest given permission to study in Rome [at the Pontifical North American College] had a leg up, having studied orthodox theology literally in the shadow of St. Peter’s. Career-minded clerics used their Rome years to make vital connections, working for Vatican dignitaries and learning “the Roman way” which begins with fluency in Italian speech and wines. Graduates of the PNAC were likely to return to their home dioceses to serve as chancery officials, such as Chancellor of the Diocese, Director of the Tribunal, or rector of the diocesan seminary.
In recent years, however, there has been a subtle shift toward the selection of bishops from a broader pool of “field career experience.” Since Vatican II there has been more racial diversity evident in episcopal nominations. Priests who have excelled in specific ministries can be considered if their skills match the needs of the vacant see. Father Parkes’ predecessor in Savannah appears to have made his bones in Catholic secondary education. Orlando’s present bishop, John Noonan, was a teacher/officer of the Florida seminary along with parish experience. The bishop Margaret and I have known the longest was pastor of an oriental parish in New York City, as I recall, when he was called to join Cardinal Egan as his auxiliary at St. Patrick’s Cathedral before assuming his present position as bishop of Camden, New Jersey.
The new Bishop Parkes was the consummate parish priest. He did not study in Rome, did not write a book, did not engage in high visibility attention-getting ventures. He was a parish priest for all his twenty-two years. He undertook numerous time-consuming responsibilities at the requests of the bishops he served under, such as establishing a new parish, energizing campus ministry at UCF, participating in the development of capital gifts and estate planning ministry for the diocese, and serving on the endless boards that keep the chancery in business. I believe that the bishops in Florida recognized him as an able candidate for the episcopacy and put his name forward to the nuncio,
As a parishioner in his parish, over the years I had the sense that he was replicating the parish model he had grown up in years ago in Long Island, an experience of church that brought him considerable happiness and direction in his life. The devotional life of our parish was strong; he did everything possible to cultivate prayers and practices, particularly around the Eucharist. He was strongly prolife and fostered parish involvement in several charitable ventures including Habitat for Humanity. He navigated the parish through the culture wars that flare up intensely in swing states like Florida. He believed in maintaining a healthy, large, and tastefully appointed parish plant [and the only time I really got angry with him was a time that I thought he might be going overboard on the HGTV side of his pastoral priorities.]
Being a pastor to his bones, I sincerely hope that the inevitable change in his work environment will not prove too much of a strain. Pastor Parkes knew the names and circumstances of a great many of the 4,000 families in our parish. He had a reputation for particular care in the celebration of life events such as First Communions, weddings, and funerals. It was not unheard of that he would perform a wedding of an Annunciation alumnus hundreds of miles away on a Saturday and be back in time to offer the conventual Mass on Sunday. With his new responsibilities he will be fortunate to see his 79 parishes only infrequently. I worked in the Savannah Diocese as a seminarian in 1973, in Thomasville, Georgia, and several smaller Franciscan parishes in the southwest corner of the state that bordered the Florida Panhandle and Alabama. Georgia is a large state, with only two dioceses, Savannah and Atlanta.
I pray that his clergy will accept him. Many books could be written on the nature of the relationship between bishops and their priests. I believe it was Pope Pius X who complained that “I can be thwarted by the lowliest curate.” Thomas Jefferson said that it is nearly impossible to get thirteen clocks to chime at the same time. Much will depend, of course, on the policies and bearings of the man he succeeds. [As a former pastor myself, I knew it was time to move on when I started cleaning up my own mistakes and not my predecessors’.] The impact of the Covid-19 virus will be another challenge, as it is all over the country. The good news is that 50 miles across the Cooper River at Savannah is the Trappists’ Mepkin Abbey. This is a site where harried clerics can find some measure of peace and solitude. It is also where I have purchased my final resting place. Pastor Stephen was always fond of saying “let us meet in our prayers.” If I end up in a dark corner of Purgatory, at least I can shoot flares in the direction of the bishop’s residence and ask for help from Bishop Stephen.
“To Teach as Jesus Did”  was the first formal statement by the collective body of the United States Catholic bishops on the Council Vatican II about religious education and faith formation. The document is still available on Kindle [$4] and paperback [as high as $64, for a 56-page treatise.] In all the years that Amazon has sold books online, I remain the only soul who ever published a review of the document on its Amazon page, in 2015, which suggests to me that this American nugget of Catholic history has been generally forgotten.
Vatican II ended in 1965, and every national conference of bishops was expected to adapt the mood and spirit of the Council into its catechetical and faith formation programs. In the case of the United States, our bishops would have had in hand guidelines from a Vatican document, the General Catechetical Directory, released in 1971, unless one considers Paul VI’s Credo  below a catechetical document. By the early 1970’s the American Church was well on the way toward a progressive-traditional rift. If you have been following the Saturday Café blog stream on the Council’s liturgical decree Sacrosanctum Concilium, you have sampled the moderate tone of the conciliar statements. Sacrosanctum Concilium is neither radically traditionalist nor open-ended futurist. Sacrosanctum Concilium does not advocate altar girls or abandonment of the church organ, for example, or take a position on even communion in the hand. By the same token, SC does not advocate preserving the Tridentine or pre-Conciliar form of the Mass, either, calling instead for rubrics that would symbolize the togetherness of the Church around the Eucharistic banquet.
Once the Council ended and the world’s bishops went home, the Roman Curia assumed the direction of reform, a word which made Pope Paul VII and his cabinet uncomfortable. It is worth noting here that on June 30, 1968, Pope Paul VI issued his Credo of the People of God. I was in college at the time, and I assumed that Pope Paul was getting skittish about the progressive drift of theology and religious education and wished to centralize both academic theology and catechetics. Reviewing it again today, I notice it is considerably longer than the Nicene Creed used at Mass, and that it goes to great lengths to elaborate doctrines not contained in the earlier Creeds now used at Mass, particularly the Nicene Creed of 325 A.D. In Paul’s formulation there is elaboration on the Mass as a sacrifice, at a time when religion teachers were teaching the Mass as a Eucharistic meal. There was emphasis upon Marian Doctrine, Original Sin, Transubstantiation, again matters of belief not emphasized in the ancient creeds, and in particular the supreme authority of the Pope to teach in faith and morals. But Credo was published on June 29, 1968, just before the Pope’s controversial birth control teaching, Humanae Vitae, which was declared at the end of July. Few Church issues in my lifetime created more public discussion, anger, and grief of conscience. Pope Paul may have been attempting to strengthen his position of apostolic authority in the Credo before issuing his epic teaching and demonstrating his vision of true catechetical style.
This is the world into which the U.S. bishop-authors of “To Teach as Jesus Did” tried to follow a path where bishops could come to agreement on principles and practices of catechetics. American Bishops in 1972 were somewhat less divided than they are today. As TTAJD is the product of endless staff work, it is difficult to know the full range of intentions of the bishop contributors. When I reviewed the document six years ago, I criticized it for a shortage of hard data and an overabundance of faulty utopian long-range planning. But in recent years, honesty requires more sympathy on my part for the bishops who were in a sense trying to square a catechetical circle. They were forced to make judgments on the most basic question of catechetics, i.e., where do we put our eggs: whether faith formation is most effective in a Catholic school setting or in the CCD setting, or even some third and fourth models in the very early stages of development.
It is true that TTAJD would have profited from more ground research, i.e., what did people—priests and laity—think about Catholic schools and religious education programs circa 1970+. Some important data was free for the taking: Catholic schools were well into the attendance decline that began in 1966; more religious sisters were leaving the classroom [and religious life itself], with the subsequent increase of lay teachers in the schools who required salaries commensurate with the needs of supporting a family; tuitions of Catholic schools—which had been free in my years, 1954-62—were rising.
In reviewing the available literature of the time, and even my own experience, there was also a sense among college educated progressive Catholics that Catholic schools themselves were not worth the money, that the funding or subsidies paid by parishes for their schools was better placed in ministries to the poor; or, in later years as parish offertory collections declined and larger numbers of Catholics left the church, school subsidies were seen as a backbreaking burden where they were still offered, and many Catholic schools would close in the years ahead—including a number already during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the 1970’s many dioceses were able to backstop the rising costs of parish schools from reserves of the diocese itself. That would be rare today. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, about 20 of the 185 U.S. dioceses had filed for bankruptcy dating back to 2004, due primarily to the multiple child abuse claims. A working estimate of the cost of the abuse crisis in the U.S. places Church losses at $3-$5 billion.
The state of Catholic schools in 1972 was a big matter for the writers of “To Teach as Jesus Did,” because in many ways the health of religious education programs depended upon the health and resources of Catholic schools. The bishops teach that “Catholic schools afford the fullest and best opportunity to realize the threefold purpose of Christian education among children and young people. Schools naturally enjoy educational advantages which other programs either cannot afford or can offer only with great difficulty.” [para. 101] Earlier in the document the bishops write that “despite their achievements and bright hopes, such [religious education] programs face serious problems which should concern the entire Catholic community.” [para. 91] In short, the episcopacy did not see the freestanding faith formation programs of the day as capable of carrying the torch for evangelizing the young.
The bishops did not have the resource of standardized ACRE testing of religious learning, which was begun later in 1979, which might have given them solid information on the comparable religious learning taking place in schools and religious education programs. Today the ACRE standardized testing is administered in the fifth, eighth, and eleventh grades across the board. The school results are often made public as a recruiting tool for prospective client parents. It is not clear how widespread standardized testing is utilized today in after school or other structures, and given that most religious education programs have at best about 26 teaching contact hours per year, the disparity of results compared with an accredited school with daily religious instruction is probably skewed, apples and oranges.
The number of minors depending upon religious education or CCD outside of a Catholic school has been a major concern of the American hierarchy since the 1800’s. Even with the bishops’ mandate of 1884 that every Catholic church have a school, in the best of times only 50% of parishes might be complying, usually for the obvious reasons of funding and availability of women religious. The U.S. bishops of 1972 were hesitant to trumpet their concern in TTAJD, but they did not whisper it, either. The document cites that 5.5 million Catholic youth depended upon CCD at the time of writing, and it puts forth the hope that CCD and its school counterpart exert equal energy in the three-legged stool model of instruction, involvement in liturgy, and community service.
Hoping to make lemonade from lemons, the bishops write that “a limitation, which is also a potential source of strength, is [CCD’s] voluntary character which, while making it more difficult to secure participation, also offers significant opportunities for the building of Christian community.” [para. 88] There is a suggestion that since religious ed programs were [and are] purely voluntary, in terms of both students and teachers, the esprit decor of faith sharing might be more intense. This concept has some merit. It was my pleasure to work with fellow Franciscans in my major seminary years [1969-1974] giving weekend rural retreats to high school aged students from the DC/VA/MD region. Our clientele ranged from the toney Georgetown Catholic high schools to suburban CCD or CYO parish clusters in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. It was a stimulating ministry, though we often felt that the CYO participants seemed somewhat more “juiced” about their three-day experience. During those years I discovered that often the parish’s religious education director was a religious sister or a former religious, making them professionally qualified as a rule for parish catechesis. With the passage of a half-century, though, this level of professionalism can no longer be maintained.
The bishops go on to say that CCD/CYO programs were not reaching a large percentage of Catholic youth. Research in the present day has revealed that the median age of disaffiliation from the Church is 13, but this was not appreciated at the time. TTAJD offers remedies [para 92ff], noting the elongated civil war between school and CCD over resources and attention and addressing the parishes to “work harmoniously.” There is a call for incorporating religious education with Catholic school students in organizations and activities, presumably more that just the initiation sacraments like First Communion. Clearly the bishops were concerned about the professional training or lack of it for catechists, an issue that is probably more acute than ever in today’s Church. Honesty compels me to say that many Catholic school teachers in our schools are barely cognizant of Catholic culture, either. I worked as a catechist/schoolteacher theological instructor in my diocese here for close to 40 years…until my diocese went to outside streaming programs and eliminated face-to-face education of its catechists and teachers about four years ago. [I switched over to Catholic Charities as a psychotherapist in their clinics, but I do miss the teaching.]
TTAJD does reference the idea of greater adult education, particularly for parents. It is often forgotten today, but from the end of World War II through the years of Vatican II and beyond, many Catholic adults were reading voraciously and attending lectures and workshops on renewal of Bible studies, liturgy, and particularly morality. Many returning veterans from World War II, thanks to the “GI Bill,” were able to attend Catholic colleges to earn professional degrees and absorb adult level religious instruction from the required theology courses at Catholic colleges in their home vicinities. This intensity of instruction has declined into today’s fundamental and emotional religious instructional content, often on-line. The problem with dependence upon excessive evangelical methodology was best described by my seminary rector years ago: “Piety comes and goes; stupidity remains forever.”
I hope that this post has at least introduced you to the pivotal document of 1972, “To Teach as Jesus Did,” the gateway to several generations of faith formation. We are the inheritors of decisions made and unmade. We can see what has worked and what has not over five decades. If a similar document were written today, how would it differ? I will address that in our next post on this stream.
“To Teach as Jesus Did”  was the first formal statement by the collective body of the United States Catholic bishops on the Council Vatican II on the subject of religious education and faith formation. The document is still available on Kindle [$4] and paperback [as high as $64, for a 56-page treatise.] In all the years that Amazon has sold books online, I remain the only soul who ever published a review of the document. I will try not to repeat myself here.
The Council ended in 1965, and every national conference of bishops was expected to adopt the mood and spirit of Vatican II to Catholic education and faith formation. The guidelines for such directives did not appear from the Vatican until 1971, the General Catechetical Directory, [unless one considers Paul VI’s Credo below a catechetical document.] By this time the concrete principles of Vatican II and the less specific “spirit of Vatican II” were beginning to diverge, at least in the United States. If you have been following the Saturday Café blog stream on the Council document Sacrosanctum Concilium, you have sampled the moderate tone of the statement. It is neither radically traditionalist nor open-ended futurist. Sacrosanctum Concilium does not advocate altar girls or abandonment of the church organ, for example, or take a position on even communion in the hand. By the same token, SC does not advocate preserving the pre-Conciliar form of the Mass, either, calling instead for rubrics that would symbolize the togetherness of the Church around the Eucharistic banquet.
It is worth noting here that on June 30, 1968, Pope Paul VI issued his Credo of the People of God. I was in college at the time, and I assumed, along with others, that Pope Paul was getting skittish about the progressive drift of theology and religious education and wished to centralize both academic theology and catechetics. Reviewing it again today, I notice it is considerably longer than the Nicene Creed used at Mass, and that it goes to great lengths to elaborate doctrines not contained in the earlier Creeds now used at Mass. There is elaboration on the Mass as a sacrifice, at a time when religion teachers were teaching the Mass as a Eucharistic meal. There was emphasis upon Marian Doctrine, Original Sin, Transubstantiation, and particularly the supreme authority of the Pope to teach in faith and morals. But then it dawned on me that Credo was published just weeks before the Pope’s controversial birth control teaching, Humanae Vitae. Few Church issues in my lifetime created more anger and grief of conscience.
This is the world in which the authors of “To Teach as Jesus Did” tried to follow a path where bishops could come to agreement on principles and practices of catechetics. American Bishops in 1972 were somewhat less divided than they are today. As TTAJD is the product of endless staff work, it is difficult to know the full intentions of the bishop contributors and voters. When I reviewed the document six years ago, I criticized it for a shortage of hard data and an overabundance of faulty utopian long-range planning. But in recent years, I have more sympathy for the bishops who were in a sense trying to square a catechetical circle. They were forced to make judgments on the most basic question of catechetics, i.e., where do we put our eggs: whether faith formation is most effective in a Catholic school setting or in the CCD setting.
Again, the memory of the Council era is colored by the times, and a popular rendering has it that most Catholic youths in the United States attended Catholic schools. The Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 had mandated nationally that every church have a Catholic school, with this goal of near universal enrollment of Catholics. In the 1880’s most Catholics lived in the Northeast and Midwest; Archdioceses like New York, Boston, Baltimore Chicago and Philadelphia, and statistics do bear out a high concentration of Catholic schools. As one looks south and west, the concentration of schools would be less, though Catholic schooling was considered a hope in places where it was not available.
By the time of the Council in 1962 the peak enrollment of Catholic children in Catholic schools was 50%; I was shocked to learn this; growing up in Buffalo’s Catholic ghetto, I thought it would have been much higher. The high-water mark for enrollment in U.S. Catholic schools was the academic year 1965-1966 and has decreased every year since. Why this decrease after the post-World War II boom has never been comprehensively explained in one volume, but there are theories in abundance. The Depression, World War II, and the baby boomer phenomenon all factor into rises and declines in Catholic demographics.
The easy and unexamined thesis about the numerical decline of Catholic schools in the 1960’s and beyond has painted the villains as the religious sisters—paid a pittance, in truth--seeking their own destinies in the post-Council days of relaxed discipline, who deserted the schools seeking their own destinies in the post-Council days of relaxed discipline, itself a concept worthy of reexamination. The problems with this explanation are multiple and refuted to some extent by statistical analysis. Repeated studies have shown that only in the years 1940-1960 did the United States produce enough homegrown priests. [Where would my Florida be without the “Irish” priests who built most of the churches and schools? When I arrived here as a pastor in 1978, all my pastor colleagues were educated at Maynooth, not Washington’s Catholic University.] Technically, it would be more accurate to speak of a temporary boom in clergy and religious, rather than a precipitous decline to a level that our ancestors of a century ago would have been accustomed to.
Religious sisters were also recruited from overseas, mostly Ireland, by bishops and pastors in the United States. In When the Sisters Said Farewell: The Transition of Leadership in Catholic Elementary Schools , there is a lengthy account of a 1949 negotiation between an Irish sisters’ community and an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles who seemed perplexed that the community was hesitant to take up his offer of a princely $50/month stipend in the U.S. when each sister was paid an annual $10,000 stipend by the Irish national government. However, the dynamics of women religious in the post-Vatican II American Church are complex, and while some interesting first-person experiences of those years can be easily found, few or no hard research studies exist to explain why religious women [and priests, for that matter] were becoming more scarce. When coupled with declining enrollment in Catholic schools, the authors of TTAJD had a significant challenge in mapping strategy for faith formation, and their analyses and recommendations remain with us to this day.
In 2008, a half century after Vatican II, Catholic University’s eminent professor of Religious Studies, Father Berard Marthaler, O.F.M. Conventual, published The Nature, Tasks and Scope of the Catechetical Ministry. Marthaler’s book is a brief analysis of every post-Vatican II document issued about religious education. If you include the Catechism of the Catholic Church [universal], and such regional documents as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “To Teach as Jesus Did,” , the grand total of documents in Marthaler’s study is an astounding 34! Getting a handle on the challenge of faith formation of young and old alike has been a very slippery eel indeed.
This figure includes only documents and teachings issued since 1971, after Vatican II. Attempts to put together teaching philosophies and practices for what we call today faith formation and catechetics go back centuries. Most popes since the Reformation believed that the poor state of Catholic education of children and adults was a major cause of the confusion over Church doctrine and Protestant questioning. [This was probably true, but the example of the papacy itself and poor education of the local clergy during the Renaissance had no little effect on events, either.] In 1539, at the height of the Reformation, Ignatius of Loyola sought permission to found an order after the model of the Franciscans, but the pope instructed him to focus his ministry on religious instruction, which is how we know the Jesuits today. Around 1560 a society of dedicated Catholics—priests and laypersons—organized, with the approval of the Church, for the purpose of teaching the essentials of faith to the young. It would eventually become the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, or as my generation remembers it, CCD.
The CCD movement, endorsed by many popes until Vatican II, was a highly flexible and versatile vehicle of instruction in existing schools, parishes, free standing classes [particularly on Sundays or after regular school], and even home instruction. It was quite strong in the United States, until the Plenary Council of Baltimore  mandated that every Catholic parish in the United States must have a Catholic school. CCD then became something of the backstop program of Catholic catechetics, targeting Catholic children in public schools and those in rural settings.
Religious education after 1884 was distinct from the Catholic school systems and in many ways overshadowed by the structure and professionalism of the schools. Popes in the early twentieth century called for every parish to contain a CCD program, but the U.S. situation of emphasis upon Catholic schools created something of an inherent imbalance, a major and a minor league team playing in the same ballpark. By the time of Vatican II [1962-1965] religious faith formation and catechesis of young American Catholics was running on multiple tracks: Catholic elementary and secondary schools, CCD programs for minors, Catholic colleges, Catholic campus ministry in state and denominational colleges, and the military [i.e., families living in base communities.] Catechetics for adults in general was not yet thought of as a specialty, though movements such as the Christian Family Movement were gaining notice in the 1950’s and many returning American servicemen after WW II were able to attend Catholic college with the aid of the “GI Bill.” My first priestly assignment [1974-78], the Franciscan Siena College , was so overwhelmed with veterans in the late 1940’s that Quonset huts were pressed into service for night school classes.
If you have read snippets of Vatican II documents—such as on the Café’s Saturday Liturgy stream—you know that the Council Fathers painted their vision of the future in very broad strokes, leaving the details to committee work. The matter of catechetical reform was discussed in many, if not most, of the Council’s documents, and the biggest shift in the ministry of religious education was the adoption of what we term today “evangelization.” The Council could just as easily have said “memorize more stuff,” but the idea that faith formation rests in hearing the Gospel and seeking an authentic rebirth in Jesus Christ, never entirely lost over the centuries, was a truly revolutionary moment for the Church and the ministry of catechesis.
The devil, as always, is in the details. As with other Vatican II reforms, many academics and ministers in the trenches rushed into battle without appropriate weaponry or battle plans. The liturgy is the worst example of this, but our focus here is the Catholic educational/formational enterprise, where several unproven assumptions and social factors altered the American Catholic educational experience. The Council ended in 1965, but the first catechetical instruction to the universal Catholic Church, the General Catechetical Directory, did not appear until 1971, a point in time where a lot of water had already passed under the bridge in floods of enthusiasm.
It is useful to remember that many Catholics in the United States were quite aware of the Council and what changes it may bring. There were hopes that some onerous church practices might be softened, such as fasting [there were about 60 days of obligatory fast in 1962] and moral teachings on birth control. On the whole, the expectations of Catholics were not avoidance of work and sacrifice but positive responses to generally agreed upon problems: the need for evening Masses, worship in the vernacular [local language], more involvement with the Bible, lay participation in governance and ministry, better protocols for the divorced to rejoin the Eucharistic banquet, and communion under both species, to cite some that I vividly remember, having grown up through that time frame. In middle school I remember serving the first permitted Masses of the evenings of Holy Days of Obligation, so several liturgical reforms were permitted by Rome even before the Council under the approval of Pope John XXIII. Pius XII had transferred the Triduum rites to the evenings in the early 1950’s before the Council as well.
Consequently, there were wholesale changes and experimentation in process when the official Vatican II guidelines were formulated in the late 1960’s and beyond, up to and including the revised Code of Canon Law in 1983. I can recall that some of these documents were not enthusiastically promulgated, as a good number of Church ministers interpreted them as Roman restraints upon experimental practice already gaining traction. In the case of the General Catechetical Directory, for example, there is a peculiar addendum from the Congregation on the Clergy stating that children must make first confession before receiving first communion, clearly addressed to American practices of catechizing at that time.
In reviewing the GCD today, however, this document is indeed forward looking in its revisioning of catechetics and faith formation. Marthaler outlines the six issues of concern addressed by the editors in the development of post-Council catechetics.
 The Reality of the Problem of Religious Education/Formation: The World, the Church. The document acknowledges that the world of the twentieth century is unique in many respects, citing many factors including science, technology, mass media, and general indifference to things religious, which must be addressed and understood by the Church.
 The Ministry of the Word. This segment calls for a restoration of Biblical evangelization. “Jesus Christ embodies the fullness of all revelation;” faith formation gives voice to the words and meaning of Jesus. Through the Sacred Scripture, humans, moved by grace, respond to revelation in faith. This segment acknowledges the existence of Catholic schools and religious education programs, but in a major departure from the past, the GCD explains that “this [Biblical] renewal has to do with a continuing education in the faith, not only for children, but also for adults.” [note 9] The implication here is that the “gas ‘em up and go” approach to catechetics, ending with Confirmation for minors, is inadequate for adult faith in the post-Council era.
 The Christian Message. This is a technical section dealing with the content of what is taught and proclaimed in the formal settings of church life. At the time of composition, theologians were actively debating a number of major issues of Church Tradition, particularly in the area of morality. Eventually the follow-up to this section of the GCD would be the Catechism of the Catholic Church, issued in 1993.
 Elements of Methodology. Part 4, a very brief segment, discusses the “how” of teaching the faith. I detected an internal debate among the editors; some felt more secure with “inductive” methods and dependence upon tried and true formulas involving memorization of prayers, creeds, and doctrinal formulations in a common language of faith understanding. Others called for a more deductive and subjective use of the divine imagination. A critical assumption of this text is the professionalism and experience of the teacher as well as the good intention.
 Catechesis According to Age Level. The GCD puts forward an initial “stages of human development” consideration for catechists working with different age segments of the population. By the time of Vatican II, some of the major theories of human development were well established, from Freud, Adler, Maslow, Piaget and Erikson, among others. Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development was required reading in my graduate morality courses in the early 1970’s. The GCD reflections on the challenge of each life stage are quite good and reflect interdisciplinary scholarship.
 Pastoral Activity. This final section gets to the specifics of what is expected of each bishop in terms of establishing and monitoring the structures of catechetical instruction. It is more than a little disturbing to look at the standards proposed by the GCD and the actual product on the ground in so many sites in the United States. For one thing, catechists are referred to here as “fulltime catechetical personnel;” they are “graduates of schools of training.” Their training must be continuous throughout their ministry. The GCD is a universal document, but read from the American shores, what seems implied is college educated catechists as the norm.
Today, 2020, the instructions of section six sound preposterous and undoable in this nation. One would think that the United States Catholic Church, of all the nations of the globe, would lead the way in this pursuit of catechetical educational excellence. Unfortunately, the U.S. bishops issued their own working document, as instructed by the GCD, called “To Teach as Jesus Did” in 1972. This American blueprint is a story unto itself, the subject of our next post. I note with humor and pathos that only one person in the world has ever reviewed “To Teach as Jesus Did” in the entire Amazon review service. That would be me, in 2014. See for yourself.
Note: In the United States the term CCD has been used till very recently as a generic title for all catechetical programs not offered in a Catholic school. The USCCB has absorbed the CCD corporate identity for what appears to be publishing and catechetical resource sharing.
We just completed Catholic Schools Week in the United States, an annual event that over my lifetime seems to have acquired a recent gusto as a recollection of a remarkable past and as a defense of an expensive but vital branch of Catholic formation. It is a curious celebration when one breaks down the statistical data of Catholic formation of elementary aged children. From the most recent study conducted by CARA, Catholic schools serviced 1.3 million students in 2018, the last year tallied, down from 3.4 million in 1970. Religious education programs, by contrast, serviced 2.3 million elementary school children in 2018, down from 4.2 million in 1970. The 2018 ratio works out 2-1 in favor of religious education over schools in terms of those carried on the books.
In many parishes, then, Catholic Schools Week is a virtual nonentity except for wholesale notice in the diocesan paper, which is always glad to have a little good news to report. [My home diocese prints a separate insert to celebrate the week.] Is there a similar celebration for catechetical ministry? The mid-weekend in September is called “Catechetical Sunday” and parishes can choose to observe the event with giveaways and free resources for home use, such as this kit offered by Sadlier Publishers. Separate observances of Schools week and Catechetical Sunday can be problematic in parishes which provide both forms of faith formation. Standing alongside the Catholic school, a religious education program can collectively feel like the ugly duckling of the parish’s educational ministry.
The hard truth is that we have dual tracks of religious formation in many of our parishes, and the question frequently comes up about the allotment of parish resources and the cost of tuition, which can be out of reach for most Catholic families. How did we get here? In 1884 the United States Bishops met in the Plenary Council of Baltimore, the third in a series of general meetings to structure American Catholicism after the Civil War, and the 1884 meeting produced two remarkable mandates cited below:
[Title 6 states:] (i) the absolute necessity and the obligation of pastors to establish [schools]. Parents must send their children to such schools unless the bishop should judge the reason for sending them elsewhere to be sufficient. Ways and means are also considered for making the parochial schools more efficient. It is desirable that these schools be free. (ii) Every effort must be made to have suitable schools of higher education for Catholic youth.
[Title 7 states:] A commission is to be appointed to prepare a catechism for general use. When published it is to be obligatory. [This would become the famous “Baltimore Catechism.”]
Let this sink in for a moment. The full body of bishops in this country put itself on record as favoring a national Catholic school system, optimally free, and a mandatory component of full parish life. In 2020 this would sound like President Kennedy’s dramatic 1961 speech to “put a man on the moon at the end of this decade.” But in 1884 there was general support, even enthusiasm, for Catholic schools, whatever their cost.
Protestant mainstream America looked unkindly toward Catholics [there would be no Catholic president of the United States till 1960] and the public-school textbooks of 1884 were blatantly biased against Catholics. In 1875 Senator James G. Blaine fathered the “Blaine Amendment,” a constitutional amendment forbidding federal aid to religious institutions; states, for the most part, adopted this into their constitutions, which is why in the present day Catholic school children are not generally eligible for such things as text credits for tuition. As Catholic churches of the time served many ethnically based communities, the idea of free education in the mother-tongue for newly arrived immigrants was an added blessing of the bishops’ mandate, as foreign born children were the target of cultural abuse in public settings, if they could attend at all.
The parish of my birth in Buffalo, N.Y., began with the construction of the school in 1900. Mass was celebrated on Sundays in the school. It was not until 1904 that the church itself was constructed. This was the pattern of the times and continued until well after World War II. In 1949 the Los Angeles Archdiocese was opening a new school every 90 days. The edict from the 1884 Plenary Council of Baltimore was possible to maintain in large part because of the exceptionally low cost of labor—religious sisters, brothers, and priests who worked far below market value, and the strong financial support of Catholics. The United States remained mission territory until 1908, i.e., unable to provide enough clergy and religious to sustain itself, and thus the country was the recipient of thousands of religious sisters from Europe, primarily for schools and hospitals.
Religious education, on the other hand, took on various forms. In the larger cities of America, the school sisters taught religion to the Catholic children from public schools. In Buffalo, a predominantly Catholic city in my youth, public schools allowed Catholics to leave the premises and attend the closest Catholic school for instruction, a practice called “released time.” [I wonder what Senator Blaine thought of that.] Nobody pretended that CCD or religious ed met the academic standards of Catholic school formation, where religion was a daily portion of the curriculum. On the other hand, the religion classes for public school Catholics were taught by professional teachers with strong religious formation. I remind frustrated religious education volunteers over and over again that they are attempting to fill the shoes of state-accredited professional religious educators, and that their frustrations and failures are due in large part because, after Vatican II, we never honestly planned for the future.
Catholic schools have taken a numerical and qualitative hit in the past half-century. One hears many hypotheses as to why Catholic schools closed from the mid-1960’s in such large numbers:  all the nuns abandoned the schools;  tuition is too high;  the new theology of Vatican II is not worth the money and sacrifice. There is an element of truth here: religious did leave the classrooms in large numbers; they were replaced with lay persons, which meant hiking the salaries of teachers and thus the tuitions; the years immediately after the Council were trying times for all branches of educational faith formation.
I don’t believe that the above issues, in and of themselves, account for the present state of affairs of Catholic education. If the bishops of 1884 believed that every parish must have a school, and were very successful in making this happen, there must be a significant change in attitude between 1884 and 2020. Perhaps a good window on the reasons for this change is another meeting of U.S. bishops in 1972, which produced another document of a considerably different tenor, “To Teach as Jesus Did.” I will talk about this 1972 turn in the road in the next post on this stream.
This weekend’s liturgical feast is a veritable theological graduate course, a catechetical gold mine. There are major themes galore, ranging from the nature of John the Baptist’s baptism/water cleansing to the personal encounter of Jesus with his Father and the Spirit, his embrace of the Messianic mission, and the relationship of Jesus’ baptism to our own baptism and its impact upon us. Most priests of my experience tend to preach on the baptismal aspect of this feast and call for their listeners to intensify their efforts to live lives reflective of their baptisms. This is not an incorrect interpretation, but it does leave a lot on the table [though I see in today’s morning news that Pope Francis baptized 30 babies in the Sistine Chapel today.]
Any responsible parent or catechist [or blogger] who teaches as a minister of the Church must address the rather common misconception among Catholics that Jesus did not need to be baptized because, being God, he did not have original sin nor any other moral weaknesses requiring a ceremonial act of forgiveness. This misunderstanding arises from several sources, one being the very ancient heresy of Monophysitism, described in the Encyclopaedia Britannica as the belief that Jesus possessed only a divine nature, and not a human one as well. This interpretation of Jesus’ being was condemned at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. Chalcedon taught that Jesus fully possessed divine and human natures in one operational personality.
Chalcedon affirms what the New Testament describes of Jesus, a man fully immersed in human experience, bound by the limitations of space and time, capable of being surprised moved by deep emotions. And very much to the matter of his baptism, Jesus was capable--like all humans--of choice, including moral ones. He was not play-acting in the Garden of Olives on the night before his death, when he agonized with his Father, “let this cup pass away from me.” Jesus’ embrace of the cup, i.e., his arrest, trial, crucifixion, and death, was perfect obedience to his Father, and the laying down of his life a conscience-motivated expression of love for humanity. This human act of love on the part of Christ was an exercise of profound faith. Humans do not know what happens after death, but God invites to belief, not scientific certainty. To deny the human operation of Jesus’ conscience is a denial of the basic doctrine of the Incarnation, God become man. Moral choice is the heart of Jesus’ life.
In reflecting upon the Baptism of the Lord, we can safely rule out the “original sin problem.” The term was unknown in Jewish and Christian circles until St. Augustine developed the concept in the fifth century A.D. and brought its application to Christian sacramental life with greater emphasis upon such things as the urgency of Christian baptism for infants. John the Baptist addressed his preaching and his invitation to baptism to adults. The best insight into John’s baptism and intentions is probably found in Luke 3. Here John is described as baptizing to forgive sins of all sorts, as we see his specific admonitions to the more affluent gentry regarding their responsibilities to the poor, and to soldiers and tax collectors on the abuse of civil office. His harshest words are reserved for those who feel that their bloodline to Abraham alone is enough to justify them. Luke describes the Baptist as an apocalyptic preacher calling forth a turn in personal conduct in preparation for a mightier one to come, an event of joy for the righteous [the good wheat] and of terror for the man of sinful habits [the chaff to be burned.]
Into John’s significant throng of converting souls comes Jesus. The Gospels concur that Jesus came to John and was baptized of his own initiative. One wonders why now, given that the Gospels place his age at around 30. In Jesus’ day, 30 was well into life, at the very least middle aged. If Scripture scholar Father John Meier is correct, Jesus worked in a lucrative profession; carpenters framed new homes, installing trusses. As a craftsman, he like other professionals may have performed work at the service of the Roman government, such as an emperor’s summer palace at Sepphoris constructed during Jesus’ lifetime just four miles from Nazareth.
It is also true that even small towns in Israel provided good religious education to Jewish boys, and one can assume that Jesus lived devoutly and thoughtfully in his Jewish milieu during his “lost years” between infancy and midlife. So again, what did Jesus find enchanting and/or challenging in the firebrand preaching of John, who lived at the very edges of contemporary Jewish vision? We might find a clue from the later New Testament writings of St. Paul, for example, who describes Christian baptism as the transitional rite into “a new man.” Conversion does not always mean a 180-degree pivot from depravity into sainthood. Conversions occur in the human experience of progressing from the good to the intensively good; from a long-held moral vision to a more intense and acute sensitivity of God’s will.
Perhaps it is here that we can connect with a man whose study, prayer, and grace have brought him to a thirst to embrace a unique life with God. The Gospels seem to agree on two points here:  Jesus was still coming to grips with his conversion identity, as his next move after baptism was a prolonged retreat into the desert, and  John was imprisoned and executed shortly after this baptism; Jesus did not begin to preach until John was silenced. Jesus’ willingness to stand with his people—fellow Jews—may have been a motivator for him to be baptized with them; one theologian compares the visual of Jesus in the Jordan with his fellow believers to the picture of Moses leading his people through the Red Sea. Possibly so. In this weekend’s account from Matthew, John is highly reluctant to baptize Jesus due to his perception of Jesus’ identity and/or virtue. Jesus in turn replies that his own baptism rite should be just the same as everybody else’s, “for the sake of righteousness.”
There is, however, a paradox in the narratives of the baptismal rites that come down to us. The baptism was very personal to Jesus. Nowhere in the Gospels do we find hints that the crowd watched Jesus’ baptism or noticed anything unusual about it. Neither Jesus nor the crowds saw a dove [the Spirit descended “like a dove’] nor did anyone hear anything or see anything except Jesus. After his baptism [and prayer!] the Spirit of God—a pregnant Old Testament term applied to the great prophets of Israel—descended upon him and Jesus hears from the heavens, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” From the Scripture texts, we can surmise that Jesus received a personal affirmation of God’s pleasure with the roads Jesus had traveled those 30 years to reach this point, and the course of conversion Jesus is about to choose.
Looking back now from 2020 with 20-20 vision, the inevitable pastoral question becomes the relationship of Jesus’ baptism to today’s baptismal sacramental event we celebrate in our churches. Two points I would make. First, our baptismal catechesis must veer away from the Augustinian preoccupation with original sin with greater emphasis on the direction of a life yet lived. Second, the term “conversion” needs a broader definition. It is not limited to the official renunciation of sinful acts, though that may be part of the process. Better, consider conversion as a moral turn of the conscience from the good to the better, in communion with Jesus in the Jordan, an experience of the Spirit’s power and the Father’s embrace.
On the eve of the Christmas observance, I am returning to one of the finest Biblical studies I have ever read, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume II: Mentor, Message, and Miracles  by Father John Meier. This is the second volume of a five-part series, and the first 233 pages are devoted to the relationship of Jesus and John the Baptist. In truth, the life, sources, and significance of the Baptist came as a major surprise to me when I started graduate studies. For years going back to early childhood the person of John was described in my catechetics and Christmas sermons as something of a front man for Jesus. Theologically speaking, there is truth in this statement; John was the herald of the Messiah, the Son of Man. But the historical evidence, at least what is available today, suggests a more complex relationship between John and Jesus. Contemporaries would not have jumped to the conclusion that John was inferior to Jesus.
Source material outside of the Scriptures about events involving Jesus and John is rare and suffers from the common weaknesses of the art of ancient history, but one notable source stands out, the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus [37-100 A.D.] Josephus is one of the ancient world’s true characters. Highly opinionated, he married four times and defected to the Romans during the siege of Jerusalem [66-70 A.D.]. He is the most prolific and persistent historian of the age of John and Jesus. Other secular sources are few and very meager. One of them, Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor in Asia Minor, wrote to the emperor Trajan around 117 A.D. Pliny speaks of a small community which gathers at sunrise to sing hymns to a Crestus, as if he were a god. Not much to work with.
By contrast to Pliny and other non-Biblical sources, Josephus writes at length about John the Baptist and Jesus, but not in the same context. In his Jewish Antiquities Josephus writes that “to some of the Jews it seemed that the army of Herod was destroyed by God…quite justly punishing Herod to avenge what he had done to John, who was surnamed the Baptist.”
Josephus continues: “For Herod killed him, although he was a good man and [simply] bade the Jews to join in baptism, provided that they were cultivating virtue and practicing justice toward one another and piety toward God. For only thus, in John’s opinion, would the baptism…indeed be acceptable [to God], namely, if they used it to obtain not pardon for some sins but rather the cleansing of their bodies in as much as [it was taken for granted that] their souls had already been purified by justice.”
Josephus’ continues, noting that John’s preaching was raising the Jews to a fever pitch of excitement, which unnerved Herod; the latter believed that John was fomenting a revolution. To head off a crisis, Herod elected to seize John and sent him in chains to Macherus, a mountain fortress, where he had John beheaded. See Mark 6:17ff for details of John’s arrest and death in the Christian Scripture.
Several points to note. One can argue over the focus of this narrative. Josephus may have introduced the Baptist and his good works for the sake of attacking the Herodian dynasty [there were four King Herods over time until the fall of Jerusalem.] Josephus may be saying something to the effect that “this is what the Herodians are capable of, putting to death a man as innocent and good as the Baptist.” Josephus does not understand the full meaning of John’s words; he does not comment on John’s abundance of apocalyptic and futuristic threats as St. Luke does [see Luke 3], nor on the universalist thrust of his ministry. Nor does Josephus indicate John’s religious orientation, which would be important to know. Jews of John’s day were divided into various schools and camps—Sadducees, Pharisees, Levites or liturgical guardians, for example. After World War II, the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls introduced students of the Bible to the Essenes, a small but intriguing community of country dwelling Jews who lived a common life like monks, shared a futuristic vision, and engaged in ritual baths. For a brief time, there was speculation that John the Baptist might have been an Essene, but there are too many reasons to think otherwise.
The most intriguing question about Josephus’ treatment of John is the author’s later treatment of Jesus, which mentions nothing about John the Baptist:
“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”
The above paragraph reads like a testimony of a devoted Christian…and the consensus of scholarship today holds that there is some truth to this. The argument today is how much of this paragraph comes from Josephus, and how much is later Christian editing. Given that Josephus comments on other unique personalities of the time, including John the Baptist, his inclusion of Jesus in his history is probably authentic. On the other hand, for a Jew to say that Jesus is the Christ and the fulfillment of the prophets is a rather remarkable thing to behold. One wonders why Josephus himself did not convert! But for our purposes today, it is strange that this historian does not draw any connection between two men he respects enough to include in his history. This leads us to wonder how the Christian scriptures describe the relationship of Jesus and John the Baptist.
The commentary of the NABRE translation of the Bible [used at Mass] indicates that an oral source of the life and work of John the Baptist survived to the writing of the Gospels, four decades later. There is no documentary record of this earliest source; scholars like Father Meier continue to research what is available, primarily the Gospels themselves. The core consensus holds that a figure named John [surnamed the Baptist] preached and baptized, encountered Jesus of Nazareth, had followers, and fell afoul of Herod Antipas and was executed. The process involved here is the law of multiple attestation; the more an event is cited across the four Gospels, the higher the probability of an underlying historical event. Remember that the evangelists were theologians who used this history to develop the full nature and meaning of the coming of the Christ.
So, very briefly, how does each evangelist employ the figure of John the Baptist in his Gospel, in the order the Gospels were written?
St. Mark: This Gospel has no infancy narrative and begins with the appearance of John in the desert “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Mark gives us John’s unique wardrobe and diet [very high protein, if entomologists are correct], and his message is apocalyptic: “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the holy Spirit.” Jesus comes from Nazareth of Galilee “and was baptized in the Jordan by John.” No conversation is recorded nor any unusual crowd reaction. Upon coming out of the water Jesus [alone, apparently] sees the heavens open and the Spirit descending upon him, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” The baptism is presented by Mark as a private revelation and turning point.
Mark reports that after the baptism Jesus proceeds to the desert for forty days, and that John is arrested. The NABRE commentary observes, “In the plan of God, Jesus was not to proclaim the good news of salvation prior to the termination of the Baptist’s active mission.” In Mark’s thinking, Jesus was to introduce a new era of the arrival of the Kingdom of God. However, Mark later recounts in detail the memory of John’s death at the fortress of Macherus, which fits into the Gospel’s theme that every disciple should be prepared to suffer and die.
St. Matthew: Only St. Matthew and St. Luke contain Jesus’ infancy narratives, which incidentally are quite different from each other. Matthew has no mention of John or his family in Jesus’ birth and surrounding events. Matthew introduces John the Baptist in Chapter 3 as a desert preacher calling for repentance. John announces that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew, unlike Mark, gives us considerable content of John’s preaching, which appears targeted at Sadducees and Pharisees for their infidelity to Israel’s true heritage. “God can raise up children of Abraham from these stones.” This is consistent with Matthew’s purpose in depicting Jesus as the new Moses and the fulfillment of the prophets’ preaching.
Jesus seeks out John for baptism, and Matthew describes the only conversation between the two men in the Bible. John, almost to the point of obsequiousness, pleads with Jesus to reverse roles and baptize him. Jesus replies that John should continue as he has, “for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Again, Jesus has a private revelation of divine affiliation, and John is arrested shortly thereafter. In retrospect, Matthew treats John as an important precursor of Jesus’ role as the messiah of the new and glorious Israel.
St. Luke: Where to begin? It is Luke’s infancy narrative that has integrated John the Baptist into Christmas piety. John plays a critical role throughout the infancy narrative as Luke contrasts him to Jesus. God intervenes in the conceptions of both John and Jesus, but where John is fathered by his very senior parent, Jesus is fathered by the Holy Spirit. When the pregnant Mary visits Elizabeth, it is the Holy Spirit in Jesus that causes John to jump for joy in his mother’s womb. This narrative is found only in Luke, meaning Luke created this narrative to elaborate the doctrines of the Incarnation, the Holy Spirit, and Mary’s divine maternity.
The adult John preaches in the fashion described in Matthew’s Gospel, though here Luke records that tax collectors and Roman soldiers are included in John’s audience. Luke intended to depict Jesus as a universal savior, not just the deliverer of Israel, and he edits Matthew’s account to some degree to achieve this effect. Luke does not describe the actual baptism of Jesus, writing that “after Jesus had already been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove” with the declaration “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” In all three Gospels so far, the baptism of John is succeeded by a private revelation. No evangelist so far comments on John’s reaction.
There is, in this Gospel, evidence of strain between John’s followers—and possibly John himself—regarding Jesus’ message and style. In 5:33ff, some questioners ask why John’s disciples fast and Jesus’ do not. Jesus replies that one does not fast at a wedding, identifying his message and works as a harbinger of forgiveness, joy, and hope. This is a very different emphasis from John’s forecast of divine wrath to come, and it may explain why two of John’s disciples came to Jesus asking if Jesus was the messiah, “or should we look to someone else?” Luke’s Gospel, interestingly, implies that John may have been still preaching during Jesus’ ministry, or that a strong community of the Baptist continued after John’s death. Again, we have an example of John serving as a contrast to Jesus in order to explain the meaning of Jesus more clearly, a peculiarity unique to Luke.
St. John: This Gospel contains no infancy narrative. The first chapter, though, is the high watermark of John the Baptist’s visibility in the New Testament. The NABRE commentary summarizes the Baptist’s work as clarification that he [John] is not the messiah and positive identification of Jesus, culminating in his declaration that Jesus is the Son of God. It is this narrative that introduces the first apostles as original followers of John. The evangelist John’s gospel is the final to be written, perhaps around 100 A.D. when the first heresies about Jesus’ identity were becoming problematic [i.e., was he truly God? Truly man?] Writing in this environment St. John depicts the Baptist as an authoritative voice on the identity of Christ. In a sense, the evangelist has extended the influence of the Baptist into a church now several generations old.
In conclusion, it is safe to say that John the Baptist correctly prepared the way for the savior, a being he probably did not fully understand. But without John, the Gospel writers would have been hard pressed to understand the savior, too.
The Café is closing for Christmas. The best to all, and we’ll see you later in the week.
I did not abandon the Café; I was simply the victim of circumstances ranging from scheduled minor surgery to home repairs, among other things, that played havoc with my schedule. Plus, I am doing research on three or four streams of theology for future Café posts. I also failed to note the fifth anniversary of The Catechist Café, which first appeared on-line November 14, 2014. Looking back, I have come to realize that in the early days of the Café I had a lot of information at my fingertips from which to draw. Nowadays I find that our topics require more research, that the new books require study, and my 70+ year old brain needs more sleep. So, don’t panic if the presses are not rolling 24/7 at the Café like they almost used to. [As if anyone would panic about a thing like that.] I’m not rolling 24/7 either like I used to. The medical intervention successfully removed a skin cancer on my cheek under the eye. A few days ago, the bandages came off and I look like a washed-up old pirate [temporarily, they assure me.] As a Buffalo boy now living in Florida for 41 years, I’m surprised this hasn’t happened sooner.
While I have several posts cooking on the stove on a variety of topics, I thought I might comment on the expected sainthood of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, the famous television priest of the 1950’s. Bishop Sheen has been in the news a great deal this week, in both Catholic and secular reporting. U.S. News and World Report, The Rochester Chronicle, and Crux Catholic News Services are just a few commentators on the surprisingly sudden action of the Vatican to delay the canonization of Bishop Sheen, previously scheduled to take place next week on December 21, 2019, in the Cathedral of Peoria, Illinois. Withholding a previously declared canonization on the heels of the event has happened only once before in my lifetime. Pope Benedict XVI overturned a canonization approved by Pope John Paul II when the candidate’s writings were found to be antisemitic.
As it happens, I reviewed a biography of Bishop Sheen by Thomas Reeves for Amazon Books in 2004. In my opening line I said this: “Fulton J. Sheen will never be canonized a saint in the Roman Catholic Church for two obvious reasons: his sins are bright scarlet and we know them too well.” If you read my review, you might want to check the ‘comments” section in response to my treatment, some of which were rather spicy. And in truth I was proved to be a poor prognosticator, or so I thought, until last week. Looking back fifteen years I may have been too harsh, but my point at the time was that modern communications and computer documentation enable researchers—including Vatican investigators—to bring to light “too much humanity,” so to speak.
And indeed, it is documentation that has at least delayed the bishop’s canonization, and the story or stories behind it will someday prove to be a colorful book. To understand what is currently happening, it is important to understand the relationship between three dioceses—New York, Rochester [N.Y.] and Peoria [Ill.] Sheen was born in and ordained for the Peoria diocese, and he taught in a local Catholic college, St. Viator, for about one year. But his zeal for teaching, and admittedly his ambition, led him to seek a faculty position with Catholic University in the nation’s capital, the only pontifical school in this country at the time. Sheen never returned to Peoria, moving to Washington and then to New York City as an auxiliary bishop, primarily on the strength of his radio show, preaching, and writing, all of which he did exceptionally well. [He also coined the phrase, “Hearing nuns’ confessions is like being stoned to death with popcorn.”]
Sheen’s tenure in New York coincided with the reign of Francis Cardinal Spellman [r. 1939-1967], probably the most powerful churchman in the United States. Relations between Spellman and Sheen were never good, professional jealousy probably the root cause. Spellman was never the man Sheen was; he was the type of bishop who reported priests and religious to the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover for suspected leftist or communist preaching or writing. In fact, the FBI file on Spellman can be found easily on-line. In 2019 an accusation against Spellman was made to the Archdiocese of New York by a former cadet at West Point.
So it is not surprising that Spellman, according to EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo in a 2007 introduction to a new edition of Sheen’s autobiography, set out beginning in 1957 to undermine Sheen’s career in a series of calculated moves:  he ended Sheen’s popular prime time television preaching program;  he stripped Sheen of major speaking/preaching appearances in the Archdiocese;  he instructed priests in New York to shun him;  he worked to eliminate Sheen’s position with the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.
Perhaps the final crushing blow from Spellman was Sheen’s transfer outside of the Archdiocese of New York to the Diocese of Rochester, N.Y. [r. 1966-1969]. It is conceivable that Spellman put Sheen in a position where Sheen’s main character flaw—pride--would do him in. Although Sheen accepted this embarrassing demotion with public grace, talking about his desire to lead the Rochester diocese as a Vatican II-style bishop, Sheen remained too proud to work in any form of collegial or democratic fashion with Rochester priests. Among other things, he offered a functioning parish--with no consultation from his diocese--for the purpose of establishing housing for the poor. He alienated Rochester’s Eastman Kodak, the city’s largest employer, during a dispute over minority hiring, during his first week as bishop. Both cases are vintage Sheen—his sincere love for the poor derailed by his autocratic modus operandi. Reeves’ biography more than hints that in Sheen’s mind, the good folks of Rochester failed to recognize the celebrity in their midst. His extraordinarily short three-year term speaks to the mutual unhappiness of bishop and diocese.
Now, a half century later, there is no proper adjective that adequately describes the past two decades of controversy surrounding the possession of the bishop’s body and the canonization cause itself. Call it “bishops behaving badly” or a small town hoping to revitalize itself. [The Boston Pilot summarizes this public spectacle as well as anything I have seen through 2014.] The main contestants were the Archdiocese of New York, where Sheen was buried as his will directed in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the Illinois Diocese of Peoria, which hoped [and still hopes] to become a national shrine to the popular bishop and [hopefully] saint. Eventually Peoria—specifically, members of his family—obtained his body in 2019 in anticipation of his eventual canonization.
What is not generally public is the investigation of Sheen’s personal and administrative history by the Vatican, in conjunction with the dioceses where he served. This is standard canonization procedure. For Sheen, the process would involve the dioceses of Peoria and New York, and the three-year tenure as Bishop of Rochester. Many Catholics forget the Rochester years; perhaps Sheen did so, too. But as Rochester’s bishop for three years, Sheen was responsible—like any of his brother bishops—for priestly transfers. Two weeks ago, the Vatican halted the canonization, scheduled for next Sunday, December 23, in Peoria. In the current atmosphere of the Church, the first public impulse was the possibility of personal misconduct by the bishop himself.
To address this impression, the Diocese of Rochester came forward and clarified that it had requested the pope delay the canonization. “Other prelates [in the U.S.] shared these concerns and expressed them,” the diocese said. “There are no complaints against Archbishop Sheen engaging in any personal inappropriate conduct, nor were any insinuations made in this regard.” The question was more along the lines of whether Sheen had knowingly transferred a priest with a history of abuse. This was not a new question. As early as 2007 the name of a priest in the Rochester diocese became publicly known, but apparently the question of Sheen’s involvement was not regarded as an issue by the standards of that time. “An official in the Peoria diocese, Monsignor James Kruse, says those concerns focus on assignments involving a particular former priest in Rochester who was accused of sexual misconduct. Kruse told the Peoria Journal Star that the Peoria diocese thoroughly investigated that case [years ago] and found no wrongdoing by Sheen.” Years later, the idea of a diocese investigating its own clergy and bishops would be a major issue in the clerical abuse saga.
There are some who believe that Rochester’s intervention against immediate canonization of Sheen was and is an act of vindictiveness, though for what is unclear. But Rochester’s caution is driven in part by an ongoing civil grand jury investigation of the diocese’s history of handling abuse cases, including all documentation of the Sheen years. This investigation will take some time, and the possibility that it will uncover more questionable administrative decisions by previous bishops, including Sheen, is a true possibility. Some publications have claimed that there is more than one questionable case. A second point to consider is the current bankruptcy proceeding initiated by the Rochester diocese. The entire financial history of the Rochester diocese is being scoured by court appointed investigators. In other dioceses which have declared bankruptcy, investigators have found expenditures for victims of priestly abuse which did not appear in routine auditing. In short, Bishop Sheen is under the same scrutiny as any American bishop, living and deceased, and with greater intensity than was generally employed even a decade ago.
Rochester’s request for a delay seems more prudent in today’s atmosphere. It is known that a number of American bishops are concerned, partly over Peoria’s unusual haste to hold the canonization less than a week before Christmas. Another concern took shape early this month when the bishops of New York and New Jersey—each group making its five-year papal visit—requested the public release of the investigation of disgraced former American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. The pope assured the bishops that the McCarrick investigation report will be made public, either just before Christmas or after New Year. It is grim to acknowledge that Pope John Paul II promoted McCarrick four times.
The papal secretary of state confirmed the pope’s timetable to the Americans, adding that the contents would be quite disquieting to the Church at large. When all is said and done, the moment is not propitious for the canonization of a bishop with any whiff of question about his own sensitivities to clerical child abuse. Sheen, a holy man who loved the Church, would understand this. Hopefully the Diocese of Peoria will understand, too.
It is hard to believe, but the 50th anniversary of my reception into the Franciscan Order passed on Friday, June 29. There was an event at our Provincial Headquarters in New York this week, and I recognized three of my old classmates in the press photo; a fourth was unable to attend. The reason the anniversary did not instantly or emotionally register with me was the way the friars date such events. “Joining the Order” canonically or legally takes place with profession of simple vows, i.e., poverty, chastity, and obedience for a three-year period with the option later to extend simple vows or seek permission to take perpetual vows. Simple vows are professed at the completion of the novitiate year. In my case, simple vows occurred at the completion of seven years of Franciscan formation—six years on Aroma Hill and one year of intense formation to religious life in a secluded friary in north Jersey. I had the feeling I had been with the friars forever at the time of simple vows.
The anniversaries with the bigger impact on my psyche—the ones I do observe annually, at least internally—are entering the seminary [57 years ago], solemn vows [47 years ago], ordination to the priesthood [45 years ago] and formally leaving the Order [30 years ago] and the priesthood [25 years ago]. In fact, I remember my final public Mass very well, also in June, on the Feast of the Sacred Heart. I offered the Friday morning Mass in a parish in Lakeland, Florida. The Irish pastor, a good friend, asked me to cover for him so he could get an early start to Orlando to watch Ireland in the World Cup Soccer Tournament of 1994. The things you remember.
Seeing three classmates celebrate the half-century milestone does brings home how most of us [over 90, by my reckoning] who called Callicoon home for some period of our lives elected not to continue the path we had started. My class, which began high school at St. Joe’s in 1962 with at least 65 candidates, probably saw about 100 candidates pass through its ranks over the years in pursuit of a priestly life. There were still at least 25 “lifers” who entered novitiate in 1968 plus the brothers’ candidates who joined us in novitiate, which brought us to a grand total of 43; by that point the priests’ and brothers’ Franciscan formation programs were combined as they had not been previously.
Leaving Callicoon—or any of the houses of formation--was not always the choice of the candidate. I recently had a long talk with a successful priest in good standing who was asked to leave Callicoon after one year of high school; he told me what a bitter blow it had been, and given his subsequent successful ministerial career in another ecclesiastical setting, one can question the criteria of those days for discharging candidates. A fair number of “induced” departures were probably accounted for by academic difficulties. Some of my friends came from locales with backward school systems, and each day in Callicoon was hell for them. Others were wrestling with emotional issues—which often manifest themselves as conduct problems per today’s diagnostic manuals. It is safe to say, though, that in the 1960’s there was still much bias against psychiatry and mental health considerations in society, and clerical life was no exception. Years later after I was ordained, I had several drinks with my old seminary rector from the hill, and he let slip a marker of the times. He had just lost an election to ecclesiastical office to another friar, and he said to me, “And I lost to a guy seeing a psychiatrist, no less.”
The seminary in Callicoon was no better or no worse than much of society on delicate matters of human services, developmental psychology, or the like in the 1960’s and probably long before. I address these words in particular to any one of my generation who set out for the seminary with high hopes and had them dashed because of circumstances that few, if any, of the 400 seminaries then in existence in the United States were equipped to manage.
Did guys choose to leave the seminary because of girls they knew back home? I’m sure it happened, but my impression is that the social isolation and somewhat austere atmosphere of Callicoon led some of my friends to return simply to normal teenaged living, which would include dating. For my class, the challenges of female interaction were much more pronounced in the later years in Washington. Since we moved discussion of this blog stream over to the “St. Joe’s Reunion” Facebook page, some of the contributors have discussed this aspect of seminary life in greater deal. I have been fascinated by the posts of the St. Joe’s alumni after my class graduated in 1968, when the rules were somewhat relaxed and the opportunities for social engagement with the local gentry seem to have been, if not exactly encouraged, tolerated.
[I would very much welcome any St. Joe’s alumni who would like to “take the console” for a day on this blog stream to share reflections or assessments. A few have suggested I have been a little hard on St. Joe’s, and I concede that.]
Did any of my classmates leave Callicoon because they were gay? I can safely say that some members of my class in our early high school years had difficulty with social engagement and lived at the periphery of the social herd. By today’s lights I would guess that some were wrestling with issues of orientation and gender, which usually facilitate stress and even depression. The early 1960’s were different, and there was no language available for such students to articulate or name their pain. The seminary rule book, read every Friday, stated specifically that “particular friendships were forbidden,” a reflection of ecclesiastical paranoia more than real life, where we never obeyed it. The friendships I made back on the hill—several which have endured for half a century—shaped the man I am today and probably made me a better husband in the process.
I think that most everyone understood the “particular friendship rule” for what it was, a statement of sorts about homosexuality. Coupled with that is an undeniable fact: the social cohort of my class was primarily blue-collar middle America. Our locker room talk could be peppered with mocks about being a “homo” or a “queer” as well as ethnic shorthand that today would have gotten us all into sensitivity training. Did that wound vulnerable classmates or other seminarians, including those of color? I would be a fool to think otherwise.
Did anyone leave due to bullying? Again, sad to say, I believe so. High school students can be collectively cruel and thoughtless; in my sophomore year a classmate regarded as something of a “contrarian” was the object of a particularly humiliating prank witnessed by most of my class in the open dormitory in the middle of the night. When the student woke up and realized what was happening, he burst into tears, and he cried audibly for some time as we tried to get back to sleep. I was “only” a witness, but I consider the situation my worst moral lapse in my six years at St. Joe’s.
Getting back to the chronology of farewells, the end of high school was a major point of discernment in both directions. Strangely, there was little or no open discussion about the critical juncture of high school graduation, at least that I remember. We never had class discussions or guidance as to what kinds of plans to make if we were not returning to St. Joe’s for our college years, a guidance service routinely provided in today’s Catholic high schools. [Someone raised that point on Facebook, too.] There was one meeting with our registrar about application for New York State Regents college scholarships --and possibly New Jersey state scholarships-- being directed to our seminary, but the public administrative assumption was: if you are here, we expect you will continue here. [New York State paid my full tuition to St. Joe’s during my two college years.]
However, most of us had registered for the draft or would do so very shortly, and the Viet Nam War was escalating dramatically in our senior year (from 180,000 to 430,000 troops.) While registering for any college meant a deferment, registering as a clergyman or student of a divinity school, as we did, provided a 4-D exemption. Seminaries were a draft haven in those troubled times, and over the years I have looked back and wondered how much our 4-D exemptions impacted our decisions about staying or leaving. At the very least, I remember counting my blessings. By the time I personally entertained serious consideration about continuing in the seminary in the 1970’s, the United States was withdrawing from Viet Nam in Richard Nixon’s presidency, and a draft lottery was in place.
I can’t remember how many of my classmates departed before the fall 1966 college semester—not too many--but we did have an influx of new faces, as high school graduates—many from our Franciscan high schools in the Buffalo area—decided to pursue the friars’ way of life. Some new members of my class had finished their college degrees and joining us to acquire facility in Latin, Greek, and religion; they were collectively known as “PG’s” or post-graduates. The next two years had quite a vitality to them, and as collegians we were forming deeper and more mature friendships. This made the next life juncture harder to take, because having completed everything Aroma Hill had to offer, our next venture was taking the habit, at the novitiate in Lafayette, N.J. In the months prior to June 1968, several of my close confreres decided to leave the formation program.
This came as a surprise to me and jolted me out of my complacency. Talking about leaving the seminary with your friends was a little dicey, because if the faculty learned of it, the student might lose control of his destiny, i.e., his choice to stay or leave. [This was particularly true closer to ordination, sad to say.] There was some gamesmanship in progressing through the seminary; my Dutch professor of ecclesiology in grad school, admitted this candidly during my deacon year. Those of us who stayed for the long haul were selective, in varying degrees, with what we shared about ourselves to superiors and faculty members who voted on our progression twice yearly. Like savvy football players, we never checked in with the trainer about our injuries.
The sad truth is that from here on out, there were not many true “good-byes.” Classmates kind of disappeared at various junctures. In 1972 I was packing for my solemn vow retreat when a ten-year classmate and good friend came to my room. He sat down and said to me, “Are you really going to go through with this?” David was a true philosopher, a brilliant individual. I thought he might be speaking metaphorically. Perhaps after a decade of clerical caution I was not attuned to the idea that he was asking me, personally, if and why I was making solemn vows. Or more to the point, that my answer was important to him. I was not up to the task that night, and I rambled on about the good, the true, and the beautiful without any true examination of conscience.
The next morning David was not on the bus bound for Rye Beach, New Hampshire. He went on to become a physician and he died prematurely some years ago. I remained, only to have a very ragged parting later that in no way looked like a fraternal good-bye.
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I may have been the last of the 1962 Aroma Hill Gang to leave the Order and the priesthood. I am not quite sure. My disaffiliation occurred in stages: I left the Order in February 1989 and incardinated or joined the Diocese of Orlando for another five years before leaving the priesthood altogether in 1994. The physical departure from the friars occurred in the Provincial’s Manhattan Office and marked the end of a month of angry correspondence and phone calls.
It was certainly not the good-bye one would hope for. I remember flying back to Florida that night fighting tears, to the point that the businessman asked me if I was OK. I said, “Well, I’ve just severed 27 years with my company.” I think he bought me a drink, which fortunately would prove to be one of my last. With a clearer head and some solid counseling, I got on with life as I have described it in a lot of my posts here at the Café site.
In 2001 my wife and I suffered the loss of her son to a drunk driver. It was, as you can imagine, a very difficult time. I had not had formal contact with my Province in 13 years, but I knew I still had some folks in the Order who might remember me, so I took the chance and sent a message to the Province’s office of communications. I was comforted to see that a request for prayers had been published and included in the Province’s weekly newsletter [now delivered on e-mail]. Included with the request was my email address.
How fortuitous was the posting of my address! For I soon received contact from three of my closest but long-lost friends dating back to that September Saturday in 1962. Since 2001 we have exchanged almost daily missives, punctuated with occasional and all-too-brief home visits as we introduced our wives into our collective madness. It is a mix of the zany old Callicoon days tempered by the wisdom of age and the fine wine of friendship; it would not be possible without the mysterious summons to Callicoon so long ago.
And about that “non good-bye” from the friars: in this century I received a hand-written letter from a later provincial—an old friend from Aroma Hill days—who acknowledged that the circumstances of my departure years earlier were unfortunate, and he wished me the best. That was plenty enough for me, and I in turn think often today of the friars who remained into seniority, like my classmates celebrating their golden jubilees. “The Boys from Aroma Hill” was jumpstarted last September when we gathered in Callicoon for reunion. This will be my final post on this stream, as I need to attend to the other six, but I will leave it open as long as there are guys who wish to reconnect with their youth…and their brothers-in-arms.
I received a copy of Medieval Francis in Modern America: The Story of Eighty Years 1855-1935 by Adalbert Callahan, O.F.M. (New York, N.Y., MacMillan, 1936). This hardcover history of the early days of what would become my Holy Name Province is still available (I purchased one of two copies available on Amazon through an independent dealer for about $12, so anyone with an interest in American Franciscan history can still get a working copy at a decent price.) As the title indicates, the Franciscans of the East Coast began arriving and settling on American shores after the Civil War, and the Archbishop of New York directed some of them into the area of Sullivan County.
Callicoon was not the original planting of the flag in the region. The first friar establishment was among the French Catholic population in Obernburg, N.Y. Those of my time in Callicoon may remember the name Father Valerian DeRome, O.F.M., who was pastor of the Callicoon church when my class arrived but was later transferred cross-county to St. Mary’s parish in Obernburg. The first Franciscan pastor in the county was Father Joseph Roesch, who served roughly from the late 1850’s till 1884. He was a remarkable priest who built churches in the Obernburg French settlement and later in Ellenville, Jeffersonville, and Narrowsburg. [Later missions and parishes of the friars would include Cochecton, Lake Huntington, Long Eddy, Hankins, Yulan, North Branch, and Pond Eddy near Port Jervis. Some of these missions/parishes were still served on weekends by the friars in the 1960’s. The friars’ parish in Callicoon was returned to the New York Archdiocese just a few years ago, its last pastor being our fellow Callicoon classmate from the 1960’s, Father Charlie O’Connor.]
The date of the Callicoon parish establishment is not clear from the text, except that the Obernburg community became a mission of the Callicoon parish in 1875. Concurrent with this development, the Province considered two proposals to establish a seminary in Obernburg, the idea entertained as late as 1897. A small Franciscan seminary of three students was operating in Croghan, N.Y., in the far north, with three students, but the Province feared that both sites were too inaccessible. Callicoon, by contrast, sat on a thriving rail line with easier access to New York. [In the 1970’s the beloved financial manager of my major seminary in Washington, the witty Father Maurice “Myer” Brick, would joke that most friars in our province can’t sleep at night if they can’t see the lights of New York from their windows.”]
The author lists the advantages of the Callicoon site including the observation that the proposed location was “situated in the very heart of the famous Sullivan County health resort.” He goes on to describe the site: “On a lofty eminence known as ‘Aroma Hill’…stood a large boarding house” considered a suitable site to begin a seminary. [p. 250ff]. Father Callahan does not explain how the lofty eminence acquired its aroma moniker, but he does note that the boarding house was a 35-room hotel, surrounded by a large barn, 86 acres of rich farmland, a creamery, icehouse, and wagon shed. The owner was a deacon in the Methodist Church who set the price at $25,000, but after a province-wide novena of prayer, the settled price was $12,000. The first class of seminarians consisted of two students.
Several chapters later we read from Father Callahan that “when the estate of Elias Mitchell, atop picturesque ‘Aroma Hill’ was acquired in 1901, the Fathers of the Province believed that the old hotel would serve the purpose of a preparatory seminary for many years to come.” But the numbers of seminarians increased so rapidly that the facility was filled by 1905. Plans for a new massive four-story building of grey stone with a 200-foot frontage were developed in 1908. The tower would rise 190 feet. Again, the author is not as clear as one might hope, but the building would have three segments, the center with the bell tower and two wings. Father Callahan adds that “the wing completed in 1905 was filled to capacity;” it is hard to know what he is referring to in this 1905 reference, just as it is not clear where the hotel stood in relation to the new 1908 building site.
By 1910 the friars’ community was able to move into the new structure. Commenting on[TB1] the role of the seminary in subsequent years, Father Callahan waxes eloquently of the beauty of the Aroma Hill site and explains that it housed a six-year program of initial formation to the priesthood. He describes seminary life as “a little family whose father is the Rector of the Seminary, and whose members are his schoolmates, his brothers in Christ, It gives him a social and moral training in the spirit, life, and alms of the Order, and initiates him into that school of spiritual perfection, community life.” [pp. 346-348]
Alas, there is no direct explanation of the term “Aroma Hill” in the text but plenty of testimony that the term predates the friars, which may be a relief to some. The fact that Father Callahan used the term without comment suggests that his friar audience in 1936 was quite familiar with it.
One very important omission to this point is the story of the seminary’s chapel. Until 1924 the seminary chapel was located on the second floor of the west wing of the main seminary building. The chapel housed both the seminary and the Callicoon parish; this arrangement continued through our time. Construction of the new structure—the site of our Masses, daily prayers, and weekly confessions—began in the fall of 1923, and the dedication took place on May 28, 1927—92 years ago this past week. I would be remiss here if I did not record the sadness or anger of myself and my contemporaries who have visited in recent decades at the sad state of the chapel today. Also constructed in the 1920’s was the gymnasium, replacing a 1916 facility; the bridge and driveway up the hill were added and/or improved in the 1920’s as well.
Father Callahan’s book extends to 1935, but several important expansions took place just before or during years at Callicoon in the 1960’s. Well into the 1950’s the dormitories of the seminarians were located on the fourth floor of the main building, where the barber shop was in our times. Anyone who has spent time in that building will readily acknowledge that a fire in that structure would have been catastrophic. I was told by numerous friars that a monthly Mass was offered in honor of St. Agatha to spare the seminary from fire. A sister institution in our Province, St. Bonaventure College (now university), was ravaged by fire earlier in the century. Turning to more practical solutions to the Callicoon problem, a new building—housing the dormitories, study hall, library, and locker rooms—was constructed by the late 1950’s. Scotus Hall was designed by the noted architect of our province, Brother Cajetan Baumann, who achieved national acclaim for his international body of work.
When my class arrived in 1962, we were told by the upper classmen that the new structure had problems of its own. The heart of the problem, as best as I can recall, was a construction sitework issue. The elongated building was very slowly breaking in half, and if you stood at just the right place on the central staircase, you could look through a crack and see daylight. After the seminary was sold to a government agency, Scotus Hall was eventually demolished, the only part of the seminary to face the wrecking ball through 2019 that I can recall.
During my novitiate year [1968-69] in Lafayette, New Jersey, there was an elderly priest in residence, Father Adrian McGonnell, who had served as the Prefect of Discipline in Callicoon in the 1920’s. He would tell us stories about Callicoon from way back. In his day the friars did not have cars, but instead covered their Sunday Mass assignments by horse and buggy. One snowy weekend the superior of the Franciscan Order was visiting the Callicoon friars, and Father Adrian fell ill with a cold. The superior offered to cover his assignment for Sunday Mass, and my old friend happily accepted his offer. “Don’t worry about directions, we do the same routine every Sunday and my horse will lead the way.” Sure enough, the superior and the horse arrive punctually at the Catholic church in a neighboring village. When Mass was offered, the horse trots off from the church a way and turns confidently up to the hitching post of a local saloon.
I hope St. Joe’s is never demolished, because I’m sure the walls could talk, and much of their narrative would be very funny.
On My Mind