Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"Carry on the Missions"

Yesterday, the Church calendar commemorated St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787), who founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists) in 1721. St. Alphonsus is the patron of confessors and moral theologians, a Doctor of the Church, and one of the patron saints of the Paulist Fathers. The founder of the Paulist Fathers, Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), was himself received into the Church on August 1, 1844. Just one year later, in August 1845, he sailed to Europe to join St. Alphonsus’ order, the Redemptorists. Earlier that year, Hecker had met two other new Catholics, who were planning to enter the Redemptorist novitiate in Belgium. He decided to join them. The story is that he took an overnight train to Baltimore, showed up at the Redemptorist house at 4:00 a.m., and met with the Provincial after morning Mass. Having persuaded the Provincial that he knew enough Latin, he was accepted on the spot. Taking the morning train back to New York, he said a quick goodbye to his family, then boarded the Prince Albert, and set sail for his new life in Europe – and his new life as a Redemptorist.

After ordination in 1849 and a brief period ministering as a priest in London, Hecker returned to the United States in March 1851 as part of a new English-speaking, Redemptorist mission band, which included three other American Redemptorists, who like Hecker himself were all converts to Catholicism. They conducted 14 parish missions their first season. The first was at St. Joseph’s in Greenwich Village – the first ever English mission in the United States – at which (so was reported) some 6000 people went to confession and communion, while sobbing filled the church during the renewal of baptismal vows. When, in 1858, Hecker and three other ex-Redemptorists started the Paulists, a major element of their stated mission was to "carry on the missions in the spirit of Saint Alphonsus," and for a long time that remained one of the community’s major ministries.

Parish Missions, as those who are old enough to remember them will readily recall, were a big deal in pre-Vatican II Catholicism. They were intended as a type of parish renewal experience, which sought to elevate the spiritual life of the faithful and reconcile back to the sacraments those who had lapsed or become alienated. By challenging Catholics to a higher standard of moral behavior – for example, by reducing alcohol abuse – missions contributed to what Hecker, in a letter to Brownson (September 5, 1851), called “a higher tone of Catholic life in our country,” one consequence of which (Hecker hoped) would be to make the Church more attractive to non-Catholics. It seems that Hecker understood early on that any successful mission to non-Catholic America presupposed an effective mission and ministry within the American Catholic community. “The Catholic faith alone,” Hecker wrote to Brownson, “is capable of giving to people a true permanent and burning enthusiasm fraught with the greatest of deeds. But to enkindle this in others we must be possessed of it first ourselves.”

By the 1950s and 1960s, when I first experienced them, parish missions were, I now realize, really already in decline (due in part, at least, to television’s appearance on the scene as an alternative form of evening entertainment). But they were still a regular component of the very vibrant parish devotional life of the time – a parish devotional life now long since irretrievably lost. The parish missions I was required to attend as a child in the 50s and then as a teen in the early 60s were nice enough; and they were, of course, completely coherent with the socio-religious world I then inhabited. But by then they had a somewhat “canned” character. In my large, blue-collar parish, we had a different religious order preaching the parish mission each year, but the talks always seemed the same. Even the preachers’ stories and jokes seemed the same. No doubt, some lapsed - or more likely merely marginal – Catholics did go to Confession and returned to regular sacramental practice as a result, but I suspect it was mainly the more devout (or, in the case of the Men’s Missions, the husbands of the more devout) who faithfully “made the mission.”

Integrally woven into the rich texture of the vibrant devotional life of the pre-Vatican II American parish, missions were on the whole probably a good experience for the devout, reinforcing commitment among the committed (never an insignificant task and one which any organization neglects only at its peril). Then, however,, came the utterly unforeseen decline of Catholic communal experience in the post 1965 period. Missions, even for the devout remnant, mattered much less – paradoxically at a time when the need for a strong, confident vehicle for reconciling the lapsed and alienated was again becoming so pressingly evident. But, by then, missions and the whole rich texture of devotions of which they had been a part were no longer coherent with the socio-religious context – now transformed almost beyond recognition, de-stabilized, and increasingly uncertain in direction.

Having to some extent become just another evening devotion in the glorious sunset of 1950s and 60s, missions had perhaps made themselves really less necessary. In the process, they risked beocming an empty shell of their former selves and hence ill prepared to adapt to a new context, in which paradoxically the end for which missions were oriignally a means was once again – and remains – even more urgently pressing.

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