Good points in Lawler’s recent book: The Smoke of Satan…

I have now read Philip Lawler’s recent book

The Smoke of Satan: How Corrupt and Cowardly Bishops Betrayed Christ, His Church, and the Faithful . . . and What Can Be Done About It.  US HERE – UK HERE

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 6: A Patrimony Squandered.   Lawler seems from afar to be channeling my own thinking.  This chapter deals a great deal with liturgical practice, church architecture, music, etc.  He is dead on right.  One of the points he makes at the beginning of the chapter comes from an experience he had of entering St. Peter’s Basilica.    As he gazed at the amazing space, he had the reaction, “This is all mine!”.  EXACTLY.   Our tradition is our patrimony.   Stories of the saints are our family history.  Our liturgy is our very flesh and bone: we are our rites.   When we squander our inheritance, we do terrible damage to our identity.  Recovering our patrimony is an urgent task pressing on us all.  We all have a role in this mission.

Anyway, here is the excerpt from the end of Chapter 6.  My emphases and comments.

Parish closings are commonplace in America today, and prelates are praised for their smooth handling of what is seen as an “inevitable” contraction of the Church. A question for the bishops who subscribe to such a defeatist view. Why is it inevitable?

The closing of a parish is an admission of defeat. If the faithful could support a parish on this site at one time, why can they not support a parish today? American cities are dotted with magnificent church structures, built with the nickels and dimes that hard-pressed immigrant families could barely afford to donate. Today the affluent grandchildren of those immigrants are unwilling to keep current with the parish fuel bills and, more to the point, to encourage their sons to consider a life of priestly ministry. [See the connection? That’s why the vocation prayer I have promoted is so important.  HERE and HERE]

There are times, admittedly, when parishes are doomed by demographic shifts. There are city neighborhoods in which two Catholic churches were built, literally across the street from one another: one for the benefit of French-speaking families, the other for their German-speaking neighbors. Such cases, however, account for only a small proportion of the parish closings that we see in the US today. More typically, the parish slated for closing is located in a comfortable, populous neighborhood, with no other Catholic church particularly close at hand and no special reason why the community that supported a thriving parish in 1960 cannot maintain the same parish now, fifty years later. No reason, that is, except the decline of the Catholic faith. Parishes close because Catholic families don’t care enough about the Faith to keep them open.

Why don’t families care enough? Why is there such a widespread indifference to the treasures of the Catholic faith? At least one powerful factor is surely the attitude that lay Catholics have observed in their priests and their bishops. If the clergy, the stewards of the patrimony, are content to act as bystanders as the Catholic patrimony is degraded, their indifference becomes infectious.

In other instances, the parishes close because although the neighborhood is still populous, the Catholic families have moved out and the new residents come from different religious backgrounds or come without religious beliefs. In such cases, we are told, the Church must accept the new reality and realize that the neighborhood cannot support a parish. But why make such a concession? Why should we admit that it is impossible to convert the new residents to our faith? A Catholic fired with apostolic zeal, discovering a neighborhood in which the population is mostly non-Catholic, should set out to convert the people, not to close the church. In at least a few cases with which I am personally familiar, parishioners have asked their bishop to leave the parish open for a few years to give them an opportunity to build up a new model of evangelical outreach, to bring new converts into the parish and make it financially viable once again. When those appeals have been rejected, the parishioners have concluded, not illogically, that their bishop does not share their trust in the winning power of the Gospel.

When St. Patrick, having escaped slavery in Ireland, arrived again as a missionary, the country was pagan. By the time he died, the country was Catholic. He came into a “neighborhood”—an entire nation—that could not support a parish. But he did not accept what lesser souls might have considered inevitable. Instead, he changed the conditions of the neighborhood, and soon a parish was created. And another and another and another. During his years of ministry in the once-pagan country, he is said to have consecrated over three hundred bishops. In Ireland today there are seven dioceses—not parishes, dioceses—that trace their foundation to St. Patrick’s missionary work.

If as a bishop and missionary St. Patrick could convert an entire nation, why can’t his successors at least strive to match his success? We have material advantages that would have left St. Patrick gasping: the ability to travel hundreds of miles in a day, the capacity for instant communication across the globe. Is the content of the Catholic faith less viable today than it was in the fifth century? Is the guidance of the Holy Spirit less valuable? I know how St. Patrick would answer those questions.

In another section, Lawler makes an excellent point that I had not thought of.   The Church’s pastors started squandering and destroying our patrimony right around the time that the birth rate began to drop with the rise of the sexual revolution, contraception and abortion.    Here’s how he puts it.

Incidentally, the general appreciation of our Catholic heritage began to lag at roughly the same time that the American birth rate went into a steep decline, eventually dipping below the “replacement rate” at which population would hold steady without immigration. Is it surprising that we, as a people, stopped thinking so much about what we would pass along to our children, during the same years that we stopped having so many children—that we turned our attention away from our heritage, as we chose not to have so many heirs?


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  1. Akita says:

    Years ago, as a teenager, observing the “white flight” of American urban European ethnics leaving behind beautiful churches in Gothic and Romanesque styles I asked my parents why the Church didn’t try to evangelize the new demographic that surrounded us. That question was so outside the box it stunned them. Catholicism among the generations of urban ethnics coming of age in the 40s, 50s and 60s was largely cultural I believe. There was little sense of evangelizing outside your sphere.

  2. Joe in Canada says:

    I think St Patrick moved to Africa. More specifically, the Mbaise state of Nigeria, known as the Ireland of Africa due to the many priests and religious missionaries from there.

  3. tho says:

    There was a whole new mind set after Vatican II. The US Supreme Court played havoc with our culture by making, what in it’s essence, was new laws concerning human life, and a terribly pernicious ruling on what is pornography. In my time, you went right to confession for looking at women in the Montgomery Ward catalog, posing in under garment ads. Now, the most blatant sexual acts are available to 12 year old children on the internet, with out a peep from our Pope or Bishops.
    I have read, that right after Vatican II we lost 100,00 Nuns and I forget the number of Priests, but it was in the thousands. With a drain like that, the people thought that if lifelong vocations were so easily discarded, maybe morality, or even the 10 Commandments could be compromised. The Immemorial Mass was also discarded and replaced by a hastily built facsimile, to our detriment.
    And our current Pope and his appointments, only adds to the chaos. Heaven help us.

  4. FrAnt says:

    The idea that “this is all mine” strikes me as well when I walk into a beautiful church. Two years ago I visited over 30 churches in Rome. In many of those church you walk centuries going from one altar to another.

    I knelt before the tombs of many a saint thinking, this is my older brother this is my older sister. I would think of their live’s work in the Lord and instantly knew I needed to up my game.

    Poor liturgy, poor architecture, poor music, poor art, and ignorance of those who have gone before have all contributed to a lack of zeal for the work of evangelization. Nothing compares to what we Catholics have, the Eucharist, yet you wouldn’t know it by the way we live. Go into a church built in the last 50 years what comes to mind? Is it “this is mine” or “I’ve seen better school gyms.”

  5. Kathleen10 says:

    This is the real cause we all look for, why this, and why that, and how did this happen. Here it is.
    When the men who run the church lose the Catholic faith, or never had it to begin with, what we are living is the natural outcome. St. Patrick believed. In growing numbers each generation, our church has been filled with men who do not believe. There is no zeal, because there is no faith. It is hard to imagine what could ever change this dynamic and where we are headed, although there will always be a faithful remnant, but those may be meeting in living rooms.

  6. adriennep says:

    I’m buying the book now! Interior architecture is important too. In my local parish, which we only recently committed to attend after a new parish building was built, the pastor thought it was no problem dragging the old rusty keyboard into his new sacred space and continues to allow the lame Kumbaya OCP hymns to croak out over the air therein, not even in organ mode. We have to now attend 5pm Saturday Mass since at least that choir has two competent singers. And half the parishioners still piously hold up their hands in orans posture like they did in the mid 1990s when I first saw a Mass there and I thought they were wayward Pentecostals. We lift them up to the Lord! Thankfully this parish is weeks away from hosting a workshop to introduce Archbishop Sample’s new and long-awaited Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook, which will lay down the norms to which we will eagerly point. Yet we know that pastors and parishioners will mostly resent, ignore, or bad mouth them and the Archbishop anyway. We need better people with hearts a pumping for Christ, not their pastoral comforts.

  7. Hidden One says:

    I substantially agree with what Lawler has written in the first excerpt, but in fairness to the bishops, I’d like to make a distinction that he doesn’t make, at least there. It’s one thing for a bishop to have confidence in the winning power of the Gospel; it’s another thing for a bishop to have confidence that a particular community or group actually will win people with the Gospel. A bishop who sees a parish shrinking and shrinking can conclude, not illogically, that that community isn’t going to reverse that trend, the Gospel’s power to do so notwithstanding. He may well be wrong, but the best way to prove that is, of course, to initiate/increase that evangelism *before* the situation gets desperate–or right now, whichever comes first.

  8. acardnal says:

    I liked his book on Pope Francis better.

  9. LeeGilbert says:

    Biblical Realism as a Source of Vocations

    Lawler’s remarks remind me . . . .Looking through my files I see that I must have been suffering delusions of grandeur shortly before we came out here to Oregon in 2008. Must have been, since I asked to be put on the agenda to speak at the next meeting of the parish council at a beautiful parish in the far western suburbs of Chicago. Before putting me on the agenda they wanted to know, what was my proposal exactly? Resolved: That the parish council adopt as goal that we always have a full complement of priests to minister to the parish, a full rectory.

    But this was disallowed—with an amused smile—on the grounds that it was unrealistic.

    Nevertheless, indulging my fantasy life a little further I actually drafted my remarks which I would be happy to make to any pastoral council that would hear me out:

    Members of the Pastoral Council: We have been reading about the “vocations crisis” for years, and now it has arrived. Soon we may be a priest-less parish, or a parish with one very overworked, frazzled, and unhealthy priest.

    Now then, what are we going to do about it?

    Here you may well ask, “What can we do about it?”

    Actually, there is plenty we can do.

    But we need, first, to adopt a realistic attitude toward the entire situation, an attitude of Biblical realism. It seems to me there are two kinds of realism. The one is based on facts, figures, statistics, studies, and trends: the old realism.

    The other is based on the power and the love of God: the new realism. “Can God do all things?” asked the Baltimore Catechism. And in every Catholic grade school class where Sister asked that question in the fifties, back came dozens of childrens’ voices in sing-song, “Yes, God can do all things, for nothing is hard or impossible for Him.” It is still true.

    A Bible under the inspiration of the old realism would read something like this: “On the third day there was a wedding at Cana of Galilee and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had likewise been invited to the celebration. At a certain point the wine ran out, and Jesus’ mother told him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said, “Don’t be naïve.”

    But this kind of “realism” is offensive to us Catholics, is it not? It is dreadful, deadly, hostile to our faith, cold, unloving and false. And one could go through the entire Scripture in this fashion, preventing every miracle with skepticism. In that Bible, Noah would have been realistic and not built the ark, Moses would have been realistic and not gone to Pharaoh, Jesus would have been realistic and stayed in the tomb— and we would still be in our sins.

    In fact, His trusting Mother turned to the servants and told them, “Do whatever he tells you.” “Fill those jars with water,” Jesus ordered. When the head waiter tasted the water made wine, he said to the groom, “You have saved the choice wine until now.”

    So let us put statistics and trends to one side for the moment, and re-orient ourselves in the new realism. ( to be continued)

  10. LeeGilbert says:

    Here are the co-ordinates of the New realism:

    a) “Again I say to you, that if two of you shall consent upon earth, concerning anything whatsoever they shall ask, it shall be done to them by my Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 18:19).

    b) “Therefore I say unto you, all things, whatsoever you ask when ye pray, believe that you shall receive: and they shall come unto you” (Mr 11:24).

    c) “Because I go to the Father: and whatsoever you shall ask the Father in my name, that will I do: that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13).

    Do we believe this stuff or don’t we?

    Of course, many of us have a long list of unanswered prayers that makes us very inclined toward the old realism. “I asked to marry Betty Lou, but Betty Lou married someone else.” “I asked the Lord to heal my dad of cancer, but he died anyway,” etc. Moreover the old realism delivers consistent answers: “Will the surface of this lake support my weight?” No, every time. The old realism asks no faith of us, only that we allow nature to take its course. Plot the statistics, find the trend, make a decision.

    The trend is toward fewer priests. Realistically, is it then the function of the parish council to wind the parish down in an orderly way, ultimately requesting the last priest leaving the rectory to please turn off the lights? That is a very realistic scenario in its way. Is that our “realism?” Our Catholic leadership?

    Un-noticed in this survey is the fact that Jesus assumes that we will be as enthused about spreading His kingdom as He is and that our most fervent prayers will be for that purpose. “Ask the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into the harvest.” He has already told us that if we pray with faith, He will answer our prayers. Here He takes it a step further and indicates what He would like us to pray for. This is a prayer He is eager to answer.

    For all these reasons, it is not at all unrealistic for the parish council and the entire parish to take a stand in the Spirit, to adopt the resolution ( primarily as an object of prayer): Resolved- “That this parish will always have a full complement of priests to minister to the spiritual needs of the parish.” In doing this we are not looking to the Bishop or to the Personnel Board of the Diocese to answer our prayer, but to Jesus Christ, the Bishop of Bishops.

    How will He do this? Somewhere I read in one of the saints that “how” is a Jewish word. In other words, it is the language of unbelief. How is not our problem. Nevertheless, one could conjure up a very large number of scenarios in which our rectories fill with holy and fervent priests. Similar things have happened in the past (to be continued)

  11. LeeGilbert says:

    The New Realism ( con’t)

    St. Bernard, for example, “founded one hundred and sixty-three monasteries in different parts of Europe; at his death they numbered three hundred and forty-three” (Catholic Encyclopedia). No one could accuse him of being realistic in the least. Examples could be multiplied, and not only from the distant past. Between 1875 and 1900 Boniface Wimmer O.S.B. founded twenty five Benedictine monasteries in this country. Like all the miracles of Scripture all such stories suffer from the defect of being “unrealistic.” And this leaves St. Francis and the explosion of the Francsican order out of the picture altogether. If we do not want such miracles, then we had better not pray for them or even think or speak of them.

    However, if we ourselves adopted this new, Biblical realism, there is quite a lot we could do in the way of fervent prayer— for starters. We could as a parish observe the Ember Days, which were three days set aside for prayer and fasting for priests at the beginning of every season. “O today that you would fast so as to make your prayer heard on high.” We could go on regular pilgrimages throughout the year, walking to parishes eight or ten miles away, saying the Rosary on the way—which is another way of undergirding our prayer with sacrifice. We could fast from TV during Lent—which is a direct hit against one of the chief enemies of the faith and vocations to the priesthood and religious life: The Culture of Distraction.

    We could show to God our gratitude for the priesthood by receiving the sacraments more frequently. If we aren’t going to receive the Sacraments, why do we need priests? Everyone expects priests to push Confession and Mass. Coming from the Parish Council—fellow laymen— it might carry more weight.

    And there is much, much more we can do as fervent Catholics and Biblical realists once we set out to procure a miracle from the Lord: a rectory full of priests from here to Eternity.

  12. Karl Keating says:

    In 1996 I arranged for Catholic Answers to reprint “Winning Converts,” a book published in 1948 and edited by the prolific Fr. John A. O’Brien. It was subtitled “A Symposium on Methods of Making Converts for Priests and Lay People.”

    The 21 chapters tell inspiring stories of what evangelical activism can do on the local level and in the most unlikely locales. One account is of a parish in Harlem–hardly a bastion of Catholicism!–the grew from 318 members to 6,500 in fourteen years. Other parishes reported conversions numbering in triple digits year after year–that’s individual parishes, not entire dioceses.

    How was that possible, at a time when local populations remained largely static, when nearly all the converts were local people, not newcomers to the area? In many cases it began with hosting “inquiry classes” (not the same as RCIA) and by going door to door, inviting non-Catholics to drop by and take a look for themselves. (In Harlem it started with regular processions through the neighborhood. The Baptists and Pentecostals marveled at the Catholics and became intrigued.)

    In my memoir, “Booked for Life,” I devote a chapter to “Winning Converts” and say this: “The successes are a rebuke to what passes for convert-making in an age, such as ours, that is welcoming enough to converts who find their own way to the church door but can’t be bothered to go into the highways and byways to invite them in.”

  13. TonyO says:

    I substantially agree with what Lawler has written in the first excerpt, but in fairness to the bishops, I’d like to make a distinction that he doesn’t make, at least there. It’s one thing for a bishop to have confidence in the winning power of the Gospel; it’s another thing for a bishop to have confidence that a particular community or group actually will win people with the Gospel.

    Hidden, while there are a few cases where a parish really had to be closed (and Lawler says so), the above picture isn’t that situation. If a missionary-minded priest is willing to work like the missionaries of old (the ones that would go off into a new land with hardly anything to their name but a crucifix and a chalice), and the parish is willing to go lean, a parish can be run for virtually nothing. For example: shut off the heat. Yes, it’s cold in the winter time. But it is possible to say Mass in a cold church – they did it for CENTURIES in the old cathedrals of Europe. Get rid of almost all paid staff, and work with volunteers. (Remember those couple-hundred people who asked for the parish to stay? Make them put their time where their mouths are, pony up and volunteer. For everything.) And so on. If you wanted, you could run a parish (already built) on almost nothing. It was done before.

  14. Charivari Rob says:

    Since Lawler went to a bit of inaccuracy three times in only two paragraphs, I’ll mention the point. Patrick didn’t convert a nation or a country. Ireland then was a island of many kingdoms* and he did indeed convert the people, having so much to do with any Irish self-identity or external perception as a people or nation or place since then.

    * which is part of why there were and are so many dioceses there. 26 currently, with some odd territorial borders until you consider that they date back to the days of so many small kingdoms. They were laid out so each could be reached from the sea (or so the story goes) so Rome could send a bishop to a king without the risks involved in passing through another king’s lands.

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