A Catholic World Fades Over a Lifetime

This first appeared May 5, 2017 in the Wall Street Journal. No hyper-link is provided due to WSJ’s pay wall

Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The IRFWP mission to create harmonious relations among religions and religious believers involves posting news of interfaith activity and developments. Part of interfaith however also involves growing in one’s understanding of “other” religions (not only my own), and so IRFWP posts these sorts of informational and educational pieces as well. 

Here is an elegant and lilting piece that captures a profound reality in contemporary North American Catholicism [ed]

Early last month I attended my Uncle Joe’s funeral Mass at the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary—the same Morristown, N.J., Catholic church in which he had been baptized 89 years earlier. In an ancient tradition meant to recall baptism, his casket was covered with a white linen pall, blessed with holy water by a priest, and positioned in the sanctuary before the Paschal candle. Decorated with the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, Alpha and Omega, the candle denotes our fundamental belief in the resurrection of the body made possible by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

The mourners that day were few. Uncle Joe had simply outlived a lot of people. Of the 50 or so friends and family assembled to pray for the repose of his soul, only a handful seemed familiar with the liturgy. A regular Sunday Mass-goer couldn’t help but notice: Almost no one knew what to say and when to say it, or what to do and when to do it.

This wasn’t entirely their fault. In 2011 the Catholic Church issued a new English translation of the Roman Missal, the texts and rubrics of the Mass that have been in use since 1969. But most of the baptized Catholics standing mute in their pews at Uncle Joe’s funeral hadn’t been regular churchgoers since well before the new translation came out.

It’s a deep problem. Only 22% of American Catholics attend weekly Mass, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. One thing that distinguishes Catholicism from other Christian denominations is the doctrine of transubstantiation. Yet in a 2010 Pew survey, 45% of Catholics said they weren’t familiar with church teaching that the consecrated bread and wine used during Communion are not mere symbols of Christ’s body and blood, but the real thing.

Catholics aren’t the only ones dealing with religious illiteracy. Pew found that 53% of American Protestants couldn’t identify Martin Luther as the man who inspired the Reformation. (Oddly, Jews, atheists, and Mormons were more familiar with Luther.) Fewer than 3 in 10 white evangelicals correctly identified Protestantism as the faith that believes in the doctrine of sola fide, or justification by faith alone.

At Uncle Joe’s service, the contrast between the modern church and the one into which he was received in 1927 was most noticeable during the Prayer of the Faithful, the litany of petitions Catholics offer with the request, “Lord, hear our prayer.” It is traditional during a funeral Mass to pray for dead relatives of the deceased. Among the names read were those of my paternal grandparents, Clara and Joe Hennessey. I couldn’t help but think how terribly sad they would be to know how few of their descendants had kept the faith.

Nestled into a residential neighborhood of two- and three-story wood-frame houses, Assumption Church exemplifies a 20th-century Catholic world that has mostly gone missing. I, too, was baptized beneath Assumption’s high-vaulted ceiling and the rich hues of its stained-glass windows. So were my sisters and brother, my father, my grandmother, and my great-grandfather, John T. Murphy. My mother’s funeral was held there in 2010.

Originally built in 1847 to serve Morristown’s growing population of Irish and Italian immigrants, the church has been rebuilt and renovated several times. A fire nearly destroyed the building in 1985. Somehow Assumption was spared the ugly makeovers that have robbed many Catholic churches of their mystery and beauty. It remains a Gothic sanctuary, an oasis from the bustling modernity of the outside world.

The Polish priest who said Uncle Joe’s funeral Mass seemed all too familiar with the problem of Catholics who don’t quite remember what to say or do. He politely prompted the appropriate responses from the congregation at the appropriate times.

When the moment came, he gently reminded everyone that Holy Communion in the Catholic Church is reserved for those who are “properly disposed” to receive it—that is, Catholics who are not conscious of grave sin and who have fasted for one hour.

“If you are Catholic and capable of receiving communion,” he said, “please step forward at this time.” Nearly everyone did.



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