| || ||
Part 2 of "Can Catholics Be 'Real Americans'?"
by Mark Brumley
The American Contribution to the Saints
But America has also shaped her saints. Not in the sense of updating or
correcting their faith as Catholics, as perhaps many Catholics today might
want, but by bringing out emphases latent in the faith or providing opportunities
that allowed and even pushed American saints to achieve great things.
America has helped set her saints agenda. If the ancient Roman road
system can be credited as an earthly instrument by which Providence aided
the Church in spreading her message, the American society can in many
ways be credited with providentially creating an environment for many
of Americas saints work to prosper.
Consider the vast school system erected by religious-mostly women religious.
People joke about Sister Mary Catechism wielding her knuckle-crushing
ruler, but Catholic sisters have contributed far more to American education
than raps across the knuckles. And that, in many ways, was a result of
the American vision for education. Many of this nations founders
envisioned universal education as a prerequisite for democratic republican
participation in the commonweal. Seizing the opportunity such a fundamental
value created, Catholic saints built grade schools and high schools for
the poor and for ethnic minorities. Great colleges and universities were
founded. Saint-educators such as Elizabeth Ann Seton lived the motto "No
child shall be left behind" long before it was a campaign slogan.
Of course the Church has always been, to a certain degree, in the education
business. (The Catholic Church invented the university, you will recall.)
But nowhere have Catholic educational institutions thrived as well as
in America. Indeed, for many Americans, Catholic education is synonymous
with excellence in schooling.
Similarly, the American emphasis on human equality helped channel Catholic
energies to assist the poor and to work for social justice. To be sure,
that peculiar institution of chattel slavery has left its mark. And Catholics
contributed their share to it. But they have more than made up for it
by their stalwart commitment to equality for all. Those much-touted Catholic
schools were often schools for blacks and Indians, not to mention for
immigrants. And in those institutions the American ideals of equality,
fairness and opportunity for all have been upheld. It is no fluke that
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas is a graduate of Catholic schools.
Then there is the immigrant factor. Most of Americas canonized saints
have been immigrants. That shouldnt surprise us, given American
Catholic history. But we should pause to consider how, in a certain respect,
American Catholicisms largely immigrant origins fit well with the
American paradigm. The Jamestown and Plymouth stories are really variations
on the Exodus theme, a point not lost on the original Puritan founders,
who saw themselves as Gods people, putting down roots in a new Promised
Land. Both the early Maryland Catholic settlers and the Catholic immigrants
followed that same route. And their saints were spiritual pioneers, settling
and spiritually taming the land, and setting up shop within it. These
saints had a natural affinity for the immigrant outsider because, in many
respects, they were immigrant outsiders themselves.
Another example of saintly figures influenced by America is Fulton J.
Sheen, whose cause for canonization has recently been taken up. Sheen
is considered elsewhere in this issue but he must also be mentioned here.
One thing to note about him at the outset is the way his idea of evangelization
was shaped by American technology. Sheen was one of early radio evangelists
and later, one of the first televangelists. But he managed to avoid the
bitter sectarianism and moral turpitude of some TV preachers who came
Sheen was a superb teacher and convert-maker. That his TV show was at
one time more popular than his competition Milton Berle shouldnt
surprise us. Sheen was a master of the medium. In many respects, he was
a one-man public relations campaign for the Catholic Church in America.
He made it his business to use all the means at his disposal to show the
real Catholic Church to Protestant and Jewish America. He once said that
there werent a hundred people who hated the Catholic Church but
that there were millions who hated what they mistakenly thought was the
Catholic Church. For many of those millions, Sheen helped set the record
He was a staunch proponent of democracy, properly understood; a militant
anti-Communist but also an outspoken advocate of social justice, the cause
of the poor and the rights of workers. Even so, his presentation of Catholic
social teaching in no way detracted from other aspects of Catholicism.
When Sheen was reaching millions through his television program, the vogue
had not yet emerged among Catholics to pit the Second Great Commandment
("Love your neighbor as yourself") against the First Great Commandment
("Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength").
Years later, after it had, he denounced it fiercely as a false dichotomy.
He spent an hour a day in front of the Blessed Sacrament, which he regarded
as the source of his eloquence. He taught lucidly about the Trinity, the
Incarnation, the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus, the Church
as the Mystical Body of Christ, the sacramental life, the Last Thingsthe
whole panoply of Catholic doctrineto people who would otherwise
not have had a clue. And he was just as articulate, even if not as passionate,
about democracy, the evils of fascism, psychology and the mores of the
day. There was for Sheen no separation between the Faith and daily life
in this worlda division Vatican II denounced as one of the greatest
evils of our time. Whether or not Archbishop Sheen will finally be canonized,
he certainly manifested the marks of an American saint: a passion for
holiness and an unstoppable drive to marshal the blessings of America
in service to the Gospel.
Of course, when it comes to American saints, weve only skimmed the
play list. We could also consider the multilingual St. John Neumann of
Philadelphia (1811-1851), a Bohemian immigrant, who, among other things,
founded the first national parish for Italians, set up the first diocesan
schedule for perpetual Forty-Hours devotion, erected the first diocesan
school system and, in general, set a high standard of sanctity and humility
for American bishops. Visiting Germany, Bishop Neumann returned from an
outing utterly drenched from the rain. His host asked if he would like
to change his shoes, to which Bishop Neumann replied that the only way
he could change shoes would be to put his left shoe on his right foot
and right shoe on his left foot. "These are the only shoes I own,"
Nor have we considered American saints in the broader sense of those who
brought Christianity to the Americas or American saints outside of North
America or the United States. Junipero Serra, the man who founded California;
St. Isaac Jogues; St. Rose of Lima; Kateri Tekakwitha and many more, all
populate the greater roster of American saints.
The list is finite, of course, but still too long to exhaust here. The
point is, veneration and admiration should lead imitation. It is not enough
to know our Catholic heritage as Americans, as important as that is. Nor
merely to stand, as Catholics, in awe of what the American saints accomplished,
by Gods grace. The Church canonizes the saints not for their sake
but for ours. Which raises a really important question. What shall we
make of their examples?
The Real Point
Fifty years ago, the great American Catholic historian John Tracy Ellis
complained about Catholic Americas intellectual ghetto. By which
he meant, among other things, the lack of first-rate Catholic contributions
to scholarship. Whether or not Ellis was correct about that at the time,
nowadays there is no shortage of "scholarship," at least understood
in the academic sense. Indeed, if the "scholarship" in "Catholic
scholarship" was questionable half a century ago, today the question
mark follows the word "Catholic." Postconciliar confusion has
left many Catholicsincluding at least two popeswondering about
the extent to which Catholicism in America is more "of the world"
than "in it." If the so-called Americanism of the late 19th
century was a "phantom heresy," the Americanism of so many Catholic
dissenters today is alive and well and living in a Catholic institution
Thats why the challenge today isnt scholarship so much as
saintliness. The Church needs good scholars, to be sure, but Jesus never
said, "You must be scholarly as your heavenly Father is scholarly,"
nor "Unless your scholarship surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees
you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven." Saintly Catholics and
saintly Catholic families can provide the raw materials to make great
scholars (among other things), but the reverse isnt necessarily
the case. Whatever may be the Churchs need for scholars, there is
a greater, more immediate need that cant be overlooked: the need
American Catholicism is a rich heritage, yet it is also a challenge to
Americas future. What impact will Catholicism have on America of
tomorrow? That depends on our answer to the call to holiness today. Will
we be saintsAmerican saintsand incarnate holiness in our culture?
According to Cardinal Ratzinger, the main problem of our age is a crisis
of saints. "Inculturate" his observation and we can say that
the principle problem of America today is a crisis of American saints.
How that crisis will be resolved depends, in large part, on how we respond
to the call to holiness. The maxim that in the end the only tragedy is
not to have been a saint applies as much to Americans as anyone else.
Brumley is President of Ignatius
Press, the author of How
Not To Share Your Faith, and contributor to The
Five Issues That Matter Most. He is a regular contributor to the
InsightScoop web log.
If you'd like to receive the FREE IgnatiusInsight.com e-letter (about
every 2 to 3 weeks), which includes regular updates about IgnatiusInsight.com
articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances,
please click here to sign-up today!
| || || |