Renewing the secular world while preserving the spiritual

Father John A. Kiley

My second pastor at Sacred Heart Church, Pawtucket, was Fr. Edmund I. Mullen, a Boston native but a longtime Providence priest. His first pastorate was St. Joseph Church at Hope Valley. Apparently the rectory was in such disrepair when he arrived that Father Gerald Dillon, recently appointed first pastor at Ss. John & Paul Church in Coventry, allowed Fr. Mullen to reside with him while renovations were completed. They became fast friends. By my time Father Dillion had become Msgr. Dillon and was pastor of the prestigious St. Matthew parish in Cranston. During one of Msgr. Dillon’s frequent visits for lunch or dinner, he looked at me squarely and demanded, “I suppose you’re one of those bleeding heart liberals that the seminaries are turning out nowadays.”
Now remember, this was 1968, I was 27 years old, and social justice, racial equality, and the war on poverty were in full swing. Saul Alinsky was much admired. Monsignor’s scrutiny was a reasonable query.
It was certainly true that I piled the CYO kids into my car and then drove to the Almac’s in East Providence to picket against the sale of California grapes. Cesar Chavez was one of the heroes of the day. Fr. Henry Shelton had recruited me to represent Pawtucket at monthly meetings held at his South Providence office on Prairie Avenue from where the diocese’s social ministry radiated. And somewhere along the line I was an officer in the Blackstone Valley Community Action Program, BVCAP. A transfer in 1970 to Ss. John & Paul Church in Coventry altered all this concern about the disadvantaged and directed my ministry toward suburban needs: Marriage Encounter, the Charismatic Renewal, bible study, and ski trips to Mount Snow.
Now, decades later, my sympathy for Msgr. Dillon’s interrogation has swelled. Were I sitting at dinner with a newly ordained priest or soon to be ordained seminarian, I would feel perfectly justified in inquiring, “Are you one of those reactionary clerics who thrill to antique rites whom the seminaries are turning out nowadays?” The liturgical future of the Catholic Church is just as much a concern to me now as the social ministry of the Catholic Church troubled Msgr. Dillon a half century ago. Then the Christian mission to this world was overpowering the Christian’s appreciation of the next world. The future of Christianity in the 1960s was definitely being viewed from a secular perspective. “Religionless Christianity,” was Bonhoeffer’s often heard phrase.
As a reaction to the Church’s justified but often overblown embrace of the secular city, a number of authors and preachers, somewhat encouraged by Pope Benedict, have suggested a retreat from the world. Rod Dreher’s “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation” suggests a withdrawal from the concerns of an admittedly secular and sometimes sinful society in the hope of preserving the truth and demands of the Catholic faith until society comes to its senses. Traditional ceremonies might also provide a sense of nostalgic security to bewildered Catholics who find the secularity and individualism of the Post-Modern era disturbing. “It makes me feel closer to God,” as one young man admitted about vintage Catholicism. Let’s face it. A hand-stitched, brocade chasuble from Rome speaks a lot more of heaven than an off-the-rack polyester vestment from Indonesia.
In spite of excesses on both side, the secular bent of the civil world over the last half-century as well as the secular bent of the ecclesiastical world since Vatican II is no accident. I dare write that this mutual appreciation of secular reality is nothing short of Divine Providence.
The Second Vatican Council was alarmingly the very first ecumenical council to mention the laity by name. The Council teaches, ““Lay people, too, sharing in the priestly, prophetical and kingly office of Christ, play their part in the mission of the whole people of God in the Church and in the world (Laity,#2). And again, “The laity are called in a special way to make the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth (LG, 4:33).”
Rather than retreat from the world, a courageous laity must consider the insights from the Book of Wisdom from this Sunday’s Mass: “I prayed, and prudence was given me; I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me (Wis.7:1).” Renewing the secular world, just as much as preserving the spiritual world, must be the providential concern of both clergy and laity alike.


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