Our ancestors knew the value of uncompromised truth

Father John A. Kiley

Two new books concerning Catholic New England offer compelling reading.

“Ambition and Arrogance” by Douglas J. Slawson analyzes the dramatic interaction that involved the Archdiocese of Boston, the other New England dioceses and the various Roman congregations during the episcopal tenure of William Cardinal O’Connell, New England metropolitan from 1907 until 1944. “The Faithful Departed” by Philip F. Lawlor traces the Irish Catholic cultural development that characterized Boston through the lifetimes of Cardinals O’Connell, Cushing, Medeiros, Law and O’Malley, as well as their civil contemporaries James Michael Curley and, of course, the Kennedys. These books are not for the faint-hearted. In fact, it takes a strong stomach and an even stronger faith to persevere through the wheeling and dealing (and sometimes wheeling but not dealing) of our recent ancestors in the faith. Happily, the former bishops of Providence, namely Bishop Harkins and Bishop Hickey, appear very courageous in the often-disturbing sagas.

In comparing the terms of Boston’s first two cardinals, Lawlor remarks that Cardinal O’Connor was respected but not loved, while Cardinal Cushing was loved but not respected. This observation might comes as a surprise to those who fondly recall the archbishop who would take a busload of nuns to a Red Sox game or donate funds to rebuild Blinstrum’s famous banquet hall. But by Cardinal Cushing’s era, cracks were beginning to appear in Irish Catholicism’s formerly solid foundation. One may recall the non-judgmental words of the Cardinal to the press when Jacqueline Kennedy consulted him on marrying the divorced Onassis: “Why don’t people leave her alone?” Lawlor’s point is that O’Connor would never have expressed such compassion — at least not publicly and perhaps not at all. O’Connell represented an unyielding body of truth that people respected even when they did not like it. Later generations (and not just cardinals) have tempered the truth with sympathy, often losing respect in the process.

My first pastor was ordained in 1916 — almost a century ago! Probably he was respected but it is doubtful that he was ever loved. No cohabitating couple would have approached him looking for a sponsor certificate, nor would a pro-abortion politician stand in his Communion line. Persons who were out of town on a Sunday made sure their budgets were made up the following week. And when he told his curates that they had to be back in the rectory by 10 o’clock, they were sure that the door closed behind them no later than 9:59 p.m. The pastors and priests of yesteryear embodied in their demeanor and made clear by their words exactly what it meant to be a Catholic — and let the chips fall where they may. When they said Mass on Sunday, fish on Friday, married until death, nursery full of children, sons at LaSalle, daughters at St. Xavier’s, and Catholic even in the voting booth, they meant it. Their firmness earned respect. Our second thoughts have led to indifference and even total disregard.

In George Bernanos’ “Diary of a Country Priest,” the older Cure de Torcy remarks to the uneasy younger priest, “A true priest is never loved, get that into your head. And if you must know, the church doesn’t care a rap whether you’re loved or not, my lad. Try first to be respected and obeyed. What the church needs is discipline.”

Certainly the modern church is not noted for its discipline. Everybody goes to Communion but nobody goes to confession. Popes decry artificial contraception but pulpits sound no echo. Babies are baptized and the family is not seen again until First Communion. Couples are married in a meadow and every Catholic relative attends. The dead are eulogized for their golf games and trips to Disneyland; their faith-life is never considered.

Somewhere towards the end of the last century, fear of God yielded to fear of alienation. Not a few prelates, priests and parents have been profoundly afraid to speak up lest they lose their audiences. Well, their audiences are already lost. And a broadminded church is not offering them any inducement to return. The fictional Cure de Torcy is correct. The church’s main task is doctrine and discipline rather than self-esteem and self-affirmation. “Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do,” insists Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel. It is a dogmatic faith in Jesus that will lead to effective works toward one’s neighbor.

It is eternal truth that will lead to eternal life. Our New England ancestors in the faith appreciated the value of uncompromised truth. Authentic believers always have.