A Letter to Fr. Joseph
Fr. C. John McCloskey, III, S.T.D.
January 1, 2030
Dear Father Joseph,
Thanks so much for the invitation to be an integral part of your ordination at the Cathedral and to preach at your Mass of Thanksgiving at Saint Thomas More Church. I was overjoyed to be at both events. Since I have known you from your teen-age years when I started to give you spiritual direction and our continuing friendship through your college years and early professional life, you can imagine what a moving moment it was for me to clothe you with your chasuble and con-celebrate with you, a new priest of Christ and his Church. No other higher calling is imaginable.
One of the great saints of the last century, recently proclaimed doctor of the Church, once insisted that every priest should leave behind at least several priestly vocations to take his place. Happily, through God's grace, several dozen directly or indirectly have followed in my small wake. As you know, I will leave off my formal pastoral duties with the parish on my 77th birthday coming up in October. Knowing that you are continuing in "the long black line" is a great consolation for me. Priests, of course, never retire, as long as they can pray, hear confessions, and celebrate Holy Mass and happily, I am able to. My mantra through my fifty years of priesthood of "prayer, diet, exercise, and sleep" has stood me in good stead, so perhaps I have a decade or two still left in God's service given, these last few decades of improvement in medical technology. As it turns out, those few years in prison and the torture were wonderful for my spiritual life and did not leave me incapacitated at all, not like the confessors of the twentieth century.
I thought I would take a few minutes of your time to give you an overview of the developments in the Church since the last Great Jubilee of the year 2000. After all, as you are only 25, barely of canonical age, so you don't have much memory of the events leading up to our present vigorous and healthy state of the Church in the Regional States of North America. No doubt you had some excellent professors of Church History at the seminary, who paid special attention to what in its time was known as the post-conciliar period after the great Second Vatican Council. (I was delighted to see you had six courses in Church History in the seminary. Lots of the problems of the 50-year period after the close of the Council could have been avoided particularly in the West, had they been seen in the perspective of the history of the Church, with its ups and downs, and saints and sinners. Yes, Ecclesia semper reformanda! We have been in post conciliar times, after all, ever since the Council of Jerusalem in the year 50, but no matter.) The post-conciliar period was the era of the first 45 or so years of my formation as a lay Catholic and later the first twenty years of priesthood.
With the perspective of 30 years, many of the elements of this era appear both tragic and comic, other elements simply like a nightmare. You know I have written through the years many articles about that generally unfortunate period in our country and in the Church when so many souls were lost, such confusion was sown, so much that took many decades to build was destroyed so rapidly. No need to say more here. You have probably studied some excerpts from books by the great European philosophers Maritain and von Hildebrand, and such insightful North American authors as Hitchcock, Kelly, McInerney, Wrenn, and Baker, and Roche who explained succinctly what can in retrospect be seen clearly as, at least a distortion of the teachings of that great Council and in some instances betrayal and purposeful misinterpretation.
Nothing new here of course. In your studies of the Councils of the Church, you saw that many of the Councils historically were called to answer some crisis and carried on their deliberations in very difficult circumstances. Yet the challenges they were called to address often lasted several decades before their conciliar teachings were put into effect. It is not surprising that the Church has the longest view of any institution because of its supernatural nature. As the expression goes "Roma patiens quia aeterna." No need to translate for you, I know, since all seminarians now take six years of Latin in addition to a full year of Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic. We will convert those Moslems yet!
To meet the post-conciliar confusion came that unexpected supernatural intervention in 1978 in the election as Supreme Pontiff of John Paul the Great. I was in my first year of seminary studies in Rome when he was elected and I heard those words from his lips in Saint Peter's Square, Non Abbiate Paura (Do not fear). (Okay, I know you know Italian too. Hope you get a chance to use it doing some graduate studies in Rome at Santa Croce but first get your hands dirty with some pastoral work!) Strangely enough many good willed people during John Paul's Pontificate kept looking for an iron fist to crush dissent and to restore some of the beauty, certainty, and discipline of the 1940's and 50's, -- you know, Sheen, Spellman, Notre Dame football, the Cross furled inside the Stars and Stripes, etc. The apotheosis of this supposed Catholic Moment was Bing Crosby singing "True Love" to Grace Kelly on a sailboat in the movie High Society. Ever hear of them? They were two Catholic movie stars.
Saint John Paul, however, was looking ahead to the next century and to the "springtime of the Church," which I am enjoying in my waning years and you in the beginning of your priesthood. He was like Moses, however in his case without fault, who led the Chosen People through the desert right up to the gates of the Promised Land. He crossed "the threshold of hope" and not too long after went to his reward after his eagerly awaited pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
This great Pope simply applied to the universal Church and improved his book "Sources of Renewal," that he had employed in the implementation of the Second Vatican Council to his home diocese of Cracow. In his numerous encyclicals and apostolic exhortations, dozens of apostolic pilgrimages throughout the World, and cardinalacial and episcopal appointments, he patiently promulgated an authentic interpretation of the decrees of the Council of which he was a Father. He had laid down through his teachings on almost every conceivable area a program of evangelization and true renewal, which would take at least a century to fully implement.
In retrospect it is hard to imagine that there were actually people who thought that the "next pope" would somehow undo the powerful work of construction done by John Paul the Great. After all, what reason, even in a human sense, could there be for a conclave made up totally of cardinals appointed by Saint John Paul II to elect someone who had a drastically different approach to the work of evangelization and governance of the Church? The subsequent Pontificates of Pope Leo XIV (the African) and the current reigning Pope John the XXIV (the Brazilian) have continued to draw on the vision of John Paul while adding their own insights and prudential judgements, guided as always by the Holy Spirit, to the current situations in the Church and the world which they have had to encounter.
As you may have learned, there were approximately 60 million nominal Catholics at the beginning of the Great Jubilee at the turn of the century. You might ask how we went from that number down to our current 40 million. I guess the answer could be, to put it delicately, consolidation. It is not as bad as it looks. In retrospect it can be seen that only approximately 10% of the sixty or so were "with the program." (Please excuse the anachronism, but I am 77 years old!) I mean to say only 10% that base assented wholeheartedly to the teaching of the Church and practiced the sacraments in the minimal sense of Sunday Mass and at least yearly confession. The rest, as was inevitable, either left the Church, defected to the culture of death, passed away, or in some cases at least for a couple of decades, went to various Christian sects, what remained of mainstream Protestantism or Bible Christianity. Since the Catholic birthrate continued to decline among these nominal Catholics and immigration from the Hispanic countries greatly diminished due to stricter governmental policies and better social conditions South of the Border, inevitably the number of Catholics decreased.
At the same time, as you have noticed and will now experience in all its pastoral splendor, the Catholics we do have are better formed, practice their Faith in the traditional sense at a much higher level than ever, and are increasingly eager to share that Faith with their neighbors. Dissent has disappeared from the theological vocabulary. You will also note that as a group they are averaging four to five children per family, which means that over the next few decades we will see an increasing natural growth. Given that modern pagan society has achieved its goal of zero population growth and more, the demographics are on our side. Ironically in this year 2030 we are only 10 % of the population, but it is a rock solid fulcrum of which Archimedes would be proud. Upon that fulcrum we can transform the world if we stay the course. There I go again, with those out of date expressions, but you know what I mean.
I should also mention the influx of hundreds of thousands of Evangelical Protestants, who have greatly enriched and strengthened the Church with their personal love for the Lord and their enthusiasm in communicating Him to the society. The great societal upheavals of the last thirty years have enabled them to see the beauty of our tradition, the gift of authority, and above all the great gifts of the liturgy and sacraments. We are indeed on our way to reaching an answer to that prayer of Our Lord, "Ut om nes unum sint." Now if we could only help our Orthodox brethren understand the necessity of unity. So we are half the size in quantity but gathered together, "cor unum et anima una," to continue that new evangelization which John Paul II called for on his final trip to Mexico and the U.S. in l999.
In retrospect, the great battles over the last 30 years over the fundamental issues of the sanctity of marriage, the rights of parents, and the sacredness of human life have been of enormous help in renewing the Church and to some extent, society. We finally received as a gift from God what had been missing from our ecclesial experience these 250 years in North America -- a strong persecution that was a true purification for our "sick society." The tens of thousands of martyrs and confessors for the Faith in North America were indeed the "seed of the Church" as they were in pre-Edict of Milan Christianity. The final short and relatively bloodless conflict produced our Regional States of North America. The outcome was by no means an ideal solution but it does allow Christians to live in states that recognize the natural law and divine Revelation, the right of free practice of religion, and laws on marriage, family, and life that reflect the primacy of our Faith. With time and the reality of the ever-decreasing population of the states that worship at the altar of "the culture of death," perhaps we will be able to reunite and fulfill the Founding Fathers of the old United States dream to be "a shining city on a hill."
One of the factors that played so important a role in this century in the real growth in piety, apostolic zeal, and doctrinal solidity of the Church was the growing realization that if the Church were to evangelize the culture, the laity were the ones who were going to do it. In that blueprint apostolic exhortation for the new evangelization, "The Church in America," which we still use as a guide to this day in so many areas, it was put perfectly: "Secularity is the true and distinctive mark of the layperson and of lay spirituality, which means that the laity strive to evangelize the various sectors of family, social, professional, and cultural life America needs lay Christians able to assume roles of leadership in society. It is urgent to train men and women who, in keeping with their vocation, can influence public life and direct it to the common good." I know you had an elective in the seminary on "the role of the lay Catholic in the world" based on the documents of the Second Council and the writings of John Paul II so you are well equipped to communicate this vital clear message to the faithful entrusted to your pastoral care.
It has been fascinating to me through my priesthood to watch the development and eventual disappearance or institutionalization of the many lay movements that sprang up after the Second World War right up to the end of the first decade of this century. Some evolved into lay associations of religious congregations, others took on other ecclesiastical forms , but by now all that have survived or not merged are settled and contributing greatly to this "springtime of the Church." Some members of the hierarchy and the laity were somewhat hesitant about these groups as is not unusual in the history of the Church. After all, it can take some time to get used to the "new kids on the block." By the early years of the millennium, however, they were recognized by the Church as providing a spiritual "jump start" (I will explain that expression to you later) for the laity who sought holiness in the middle of the world, the key message of the Second Vatican Council. They reintroduced to many laity the concept that personal prayer and self-denial were the "soul of the apostolate." No one who was there will ever forget their great meeting in Saint Peter's Square on Pentecost Sunday in the spring of 1998. It was a snapshot of the future we are now living. As a priest, you will be celebrating Mass on some of their Founder's or followers feast days.
You see, Joseph, the problem was really a question of proper ecclesiology and that problem has been solved. There is nary a layman left today who thinks that his role in the Church is simply to "pray, pay and obey" or that his presence is required at church simply to be "hatched, matched, and dispatched." Catholic laypersons today realize that their primary mission is be and bring Christ to the world where they happily find themselves and not a question of participating in the "power" of the hierarchy. From the top down and the bottom up, the Church is about service leading to holiness and evangelization. The societal struggles, global catastrophes and persecutions of the last years have compelled people to make uncomfortable choices. As the years have past, the laity now know that they are "empowered" not by the hierarchy or their pastors, but rather by the Holy Trinity through the Sacraments initiated by baptism and confirmation, fed by the Eucharist, forgiven by Penance, anointed when seriously ill. The vast majority answers their vocation in life by marriage, sacred orders, or dedicating themselves as laypersons to God through apostolic celibacy. In short, the age of the laity has finally arrived and no longer do people think that the more they are involved in their parish, the more they are truly involved in the Church! You know from your Church History what damage was wrought in the last several centuries by this schizophrenia on the part of the laity in compartmentalizing their "spiritual" life from their daily life immersed in the world of work, family, politics, and culture.
I should mention the state of the religious whose development has been somewhat analogous to the laity. Simply said, there are many fewer religious congregations of men and women. The great majority of them have either merged with others, realizing their missions to be similar if not identical, or simply have passed out of existence with the death of their last members. What is also noticeable is that there are many fewer new foundations after that flurry in the latter part of the last century and the beginning of our own. With the renewal or reform of the traditional Religious orders founded by great Saints, many young men and women have flocked to them, attracted by their history of sanctity and their particular charisms and spiritualities. Happily, at least to my mind, the great growth has been in those congregations dedicated to the cloistered life of contemplative prayer, and Eucharistic Adoration, poverty, and penance. Their example has been a tremendous help in encouraging the laity to put the contemplative life first in their lives, even though they live in the middle of the world and not in the convent or monastery. In short, the identity crisis has been long over for those called to the religious life and they are flourishing. They wear their habits and embrace their vows with joy. The suffering that was offered up by so many faithful Religious during the post-conciliar period has finally borne fruit. The fact that Pope John XXIV is a Cistercian has not hurt the recruitment of vocations to the religious life either.
I hardly need to tell you about the diocesan priesthood. It is there where the most beautiful growth and transformation have taken place. That small initial upturn in vocations to the priesthood that happened at the beginning of the great jubilee turned into a avalanche, which is now finally having its full effect in the repopulating of our diocesan parishes. After all, given the deaths, defection and sharp drop in priestly vocations; we had a lot of ground to make up to get even with the numbers of l965. Now there are far fewer seminaries but they are jam-packed. Economies of scale don't work only in the business world. Each year the great regional seminaries are producing hundreds of priests each year who become aware of the life of the Church in America and elsewhere outside their small dioceses. The average age of the entering vocation has returned to the mid-to-late Twenties and the educational level is higher. Selection again has become possible.
Becoming a priest has become a first choice generally, not second or a third. Your education was demanding intellectually and focused not simply on the important pastoral virtues but primarily on laying the foundation for a strong interior life, which has led to energetic initiatives in evangelization and catechesis. Happily you have entered a church where virtually all the administrative work of the parish is taken care of largely by the deacon administrators helped by competent professional laypersons thus allowing the priest to concentrate without distraction on the great loves of his life: the sacraments and preaching the word of God. The surplus of priests has allowed us to pay much more attention to educational institutions where vocations of all sorts are most often found, and also to lend priests to those places in the world, most notably western Europe, where there are few priests to be found outside of Rome. As you well know, the dramatic demographic implosion of the last thirty years has left Europe little better than a theme park for tourists from Asia and America. We pray that as Europe survived the barbarian invasions of the so called Dark Ages, it will survive its own attempted continental suicide by contraception, by the slow steady growth of the contemplative religious orders and lay movements that are the only source of Catholic life there in these days.
The growth of the priestly societies for diocesan priests has made an enormous positive difference in the morale, fraternity, and higher levels of spiritual life among the diocesan clergy. As you will see, the greatest danger to the spiritual and even physical health of the priest is loneliness. No man is meant to be alone. I know you would like to get into vocations work someday and I encourage you. Remember, however, that every priest should consider himself a fisher of men and a vocation getter if not a director. You should "collar" many men, so to speak. Sorry!
Now, Joe, let's take a look at the development of Catholic education during your lifetime. The changes here have been so enormous and positive that a time traveler from the year 2000 would scarcely believe his eyes. It is the same old story, consolidation, sacrificing quantity for quality. On the university level, there are scarcely two dozen universities that are considered Catholic by the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome. The surprising move by the Congregation to take away the Catholic status from all nominal Catholic universities in the U.S. and ask them to reapply for accreditation was a success. It separated the wheat from the chaff so to speak. The majority of the former Catholic colleges have closed down, been sold, or merged with other secular universities. Truth in advertising has been the result. The majority of the remaining truly Catholic colleges provide strong core curriculum, liberal arts curriculum that has prepared many of their graduates to go to successful careers in their professions or to graduate schools in the secular institutions, where they have been a great force for evangelization. There are relatively few Catholic law and medical schools, but their professional excellence joined with total faithfulness to Catholic teaching in their field has produced some outstanding men and women, including a couple of Nobel Prize winners in medicine, and a good number of judges and lawmakers in the various of the Regional States.
Although Catholic grammar and high schools continue to exist, there have been many changes. Co-education having shown itself to be a failure thanks in part to research done earlier in the century has shown, almost all schools are single sex in that particular attention is paid to the formation of character and religious and intellectual development of the complementary yet quite different sexes. Needless to say, these schools are soaked in Catholic culture while preparing their students for the exciting challenges of the secular world. There are many alternatives to what was a traditional education in the last century. Many millions are schooled at home through a combination of the use of interactive Internet, cable and satellite television, and good old-fashioned reading in addition to the traditional one-on-one approach.
Indeed, one of the primary reasons for the disappearance of dissent is that today any Catholic can find the truth of virtually any matter in faith and morals without opening a book or consulting a teacher or priest. The right answer, according to the teaching of the Church, is just a click away. No one can blame the parish or what was known many years ago as the proverbial "twelve years of Catholic education" for his lack of knowledge. On the other hand, no priest or teacher can be fuzzy regarding the transmittal of the authentic teaching of the Church. Good all around, I would say.
While good Catholic books, both new and old, continue to be printed, reprinted, sold and read, Catholic journalism in the form of newspapers, magazines, and journals has virtually disappeared. Too much cost for too little distribution. The handwriting on the wall was evident as early as the 1980 and 90's with a drastic drop in circulation and the inability of fine magazines to increase their circulation. Some of these magazines and newspaper continue to exist but in electronic form on the WEB where they are fee-based or rely on advertising. There has been, as you know, a renaissance in Catholic literature, novels and poetry which mirror both the quality growth in the Church and the reality of our past hard times over the last twenty years. Suffering often produces great literature and we have had our share. Much of this is excellent literature produced by serious Catholic authors; not specifically classified as Catholic literature, but you can form your own opinion. I know that you have a literary bent and continued to read deeply in world literature in your few spare moments in the seminary. Good you did then because you will have even less time now. This will be a tremendous help in your preaching and in giving spiritual direction.
Aside from the tens of thousands of Catholic websites of varied quality, there is available much Catholic programming both on television and on radio. The pioneering initiative efforts made by Mother Angelica of the old EWTN Network and the group of investors who bought up stations one by one, quietly and effectively and turned them into instruments of Catholic evangelization back in the last quarter of the twentieth century have borne fruit in other similar enterprises with a different angle or slant. As you know, now film, television, radio books, etc. are hardly distinct media, as they are all available on the wall screen where you are reading this letter. (Sorry to be so impersonal but I did write you a note on your ordination holycard and used a fountain pen that I haven't touched in forty years!)
I saved the best for last of this rather personal and quirky take on the development of the Church in your lifetime, which probably, in truth, has been written as much for me as for you. Arguably the worst aspect of the distortion of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council was the abuse of the liturgy. I will spare you the details because they are truly too painful to recount. The sacrileges, blasphemies, irreverence, and down right ugly bad taste has gradually petered out during the years of your childhood. As it turns out, contrary to some opinions, the problem was not at all with rites but rather with reverence, obedience to the rubrics, and the interior lives of those celebrating the sacraments. Now that the priesthood and the religious life are generally healthy in belief and spirit, the Mass being celebrated the way the Council intended in order to give glory to God, foster devotion in the laity through their active participation. While the Tridentine rite in all its glory continues to be celebrated in some churches, every parish has a Latin Mass every Sunday morning, along with other vernacular Masses, celebrated with reverence, a well prepared homily, sung chant, incense, and beauty in appointments that leaves no one among us who remember the old Mass nostalgic for it. The lay faithful realize when they walk into a Church that it is not a meeting place but rather a place of worship and personal prayer, where Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament complete with Benediction, and other devotions such as the Way of the Cross and liturgical Morning and Evening Prayer can almost always be found.
Church architecture has returned to classical forms or used them as solid foundations to produce new architectural ideas. The work of early masters of Church architecture of the 21st century like Menzies, Stroik, and their disciples, and the work of master craftsmen in the field of liturgical interior art, such as the Granda company, have enabled a wholesale renovation of many churches that suffered a "stripping of the altars" in the last quarter of a century past. Church music has also improved, with the so much longed for return of chant to the parish setting. As you have surmised, in many cases, it has not been a question of fashioning new forms but rather of reclamation of hundreds of years of beauty in art, music, and liturgical art and architecture that had been cast away as useless or no longer "relevant." At least the misguided zeal did purify away much of the bad taste that existed before the Council also. Remember, however, the Church continues to move ahead even as it works from the past. You may well see startling new developments in liturgical art that will last if they please the eye and the heart, and are done by men of both talent and of Faith.
It is time for me to close. I have to head off to a squash tournament. You may laugh, but I actually beat some people who are younger than me. You may have found my survey too roseate, and you may be right. There are always problems in the Church given its human nature combined with its Divine Personality. However, there have been times of glory in the Church before. Think of the age of the post-Nicean Fathers of the Church, or the high Middle Ages, or the Catholic Reformation. I believe we have entered into one of those periods in the mysterious designs of the Holy Spirit. John Paul the Great foresaw this and it has come to pass not without tremendous suffering and pain both within and without the Church. The "springtime of the Church" has arrived, but we still have a long way to go in building "the civilization of love and truth." Who knows if it will continue and how it will all end? Grace is efficacious, but God still works through the secondary cause of the free will of men. How mysterious it all is! End it must, temporally in the ebb and flow of history, with the glorious Second Coming which we all await. The truth is that the real history is being written in heaven and the bottom line is how much glory is given to God and how many souls are saved. Now it is your chance to do some building. Be a good instrument. If you run into some problems, as you will, stay close to Mary. "Remember, never was it known..."
Proudly and fraternally in Christ the High Priest,
Fr. C. John McCloskey III, S.T.D. is the Executive Director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington D.C. He is a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei and a leader of the return to orthodoxy among Catholics in America and beyond. He is also known for his extraordinary work of bringing Christians from other Churches into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.
Catholic Information Center
http://www.cicdc.org DC, US
Father C. John McCloskey - Director, 202 783-2062
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