Tales From “Blessed Sacrament”: The Church I Knew, That Is No More

Catholicism is not just a religion: it is a country of the heart and of the mind. No matter how resolutely they turn their backs on it, people born within it never quite shed their accents. And there are a great many who cannot emigrate, no matter how uninviting living conditions become. We may freeze within it; we would die outside it.

Anne Roche Muggeridge, The Desolate City

What parish are you from?” When one Catholic asked another whence he or she came, that is how the question was framed in the 1940s and ’50s.

The answer might be “Blessed Sacrament,” or “We’re out in Saint Michael’s,” or “We belong to Lourdes.” The first would mean what is today the Chevy Chase area of D.C. and Maryland, the second, Silver Spring, the third, Bethesda. And that is how we identified each other. “Hogan’s from Nativity” meant he had grown up in or lived now in the north Georgia Avenue area of northwest Washington before the Maryland line. “Holy Trinity” is what we called Georgetown. Jerry O’Leary, the veteran reporter who was raised in the city, remembers a day when you were even more precise; you lived in “lower Nativity.”


The Buchanans “belonged” to Blessed Sacrament, as did the Flynns and Lillys and McCalebs and O’Neills and Warners and Keegans. Even during the war years, when the public schools were experiencing the birth dearth of the Depression, Blessed Sacrament was a booming parish. Carved out of St. Ann’s, the school and church — built in the late 1920s — sat on the District line, a block east Chevy Chase Circle. When I entered Blessed Sacrament in September of 1944, one hundred children were divided into two classrooms that comprised the first grade.

Those were the halcyon years of American Catholicism.

Between 1941 and 1961, the Catholic population of the United States virtually doubled, from 22 million to 42 million; and between 1955 and 1960, 56 percent of the population growth in the United States was among Catholics.

While still a minority and subjects of suspicion to our Protestant neighbors (we were forbidden, under pain of sin, from entering their churches, and their children were told not to enter ours). Catholics manifested a self-confidence in those years that was extraordinary. By conscious choice, we inhabited a separate world of our own creation; we built and occupied our own ghettos. And not only were we content to live within, the outside world was powerfully attracted to what we had.

Six houses down Chestnut Street toward Western Avenue lived the McCord twins, Doug and Carol. Doug was my best friend in the neighborhood, and Carol, attractive and a tomboy, was the best female athlete I ever saw. One afternoon, she asked me to take her inside Blessed Sacrament Church, where she had been forbidden to go. Getting on our bikes, we rode up, and I spent half an hour proudly walking her through, while she marveled at the confessionals, the stained glass, the statues, the votive candles, the magnificent main altar, the side altars, the Stations of the Cross, and the semi-darkness in which it was all enveloped.

There was an awe-inspiring solemnity, power, and beauty within the old Church, which attracted people who were seeking the permanent things in life — after having tasted of the unfulfilling affluence of the postwar. There was something within that Church that said to the open heart and mind, “What you have been searching for may be found here.”

Not only did we proclaim ours to be the “one, holy Catholic and apostolic Church,” under the watchful eye of the Holy Ghost — with all others heretical — we were gaining converts by the scores of thousands, yearly. On Sunday mornings at Blessed Sacrament, there were six masses — at seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, and noon — to accommodate the parish faithful; and daily masses were at 6:30, 7:30, and 8:30 A.M. The Presbyterian church, across from the school on Patterson Street, had services on Sunday — and that was it. Ecumenism was not what we were about; we were on the road to victory. Why compromise when you have the true Faith? Conversions were the order of the day. Regularly, non-Catholic mothers and fathers of Blessed Sacrament were taken into the Church.

Blessed Sacrament was where we went for Saturday confession and Sunday mass, for daily “visits” and evening benediction, for First Fridays and First Saturdays, for the Holy Days of Obligation and Holy Week, for the Blessing of the Throats on St. Blaise’s Day, for ashes on Ash Wednesday, for palms on Palm Sunday, for baptisms, confirmations, marriages, and funerals, for evening retreats and the Stations of the Cross. Blessed Sacrament was where the Knights of Columbus and the Holy Name Society and the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine and the Women’s Sodality met. And that was where all CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) activities were centered. From the day in 1943 when we moved to Chestnut Street, my parents never left the parish.

While Blessed Sacrament was considered a “rich parish” and Holy Trinity relatively “poor” (Georgetown at that time had a large working class and black population), it was actually a middle-class enclave. The tone and style were set by energetic young professionals: lawyers, doctors, dentists, accountants, and government workers with large families. (The parish had a Seven and Up Club, restricted to families with seven or more children.) Tuition at Blessed Sacrament School was free (paid for out of collections at Sunday mass), and milk at recess cost a nickel a day. With four boys in school, that would have been a dollar a week, so we skipped the milk. The true “rich” lived in Kenwood on the far side of Wisconsin Avenue, or aspired to move there.

For eight years, all my teachers were nuns, the Sisters of the Holy Cross; they lived in a cloistered convent that separated church from school. The remarkable success of Blessed Sacrament, and the other parochial schools in the city — with fifty children in a classroom taught from nine to three by the same nun — persuades me that much of modern educationalist theory is self-serving hokum.

In the D.C. public schools today, the cost per pupil is almost $5,000 per year. Yet, in many, children are reading at levels three and four years below the national average. At Blessed Sacrament in the 1940s, tuition was free; we were taught in “overcrowded” (by today’s standards) classrooms by women, some of them girls barely out of their teens, who were paid almost nothing. They had given up boyfriends, families, home, and the prospect of marriage and children to live in a convent and instruct these children in basic education and our common Catholic faith. The elements indispensable to the success of these parish schools were teachers who cared deeply, parents who cared deeply, and strictly disciplined children, upon whom constant demands were made. No nonsense was tolerated. Money had nothing to do with it, dedication not being a function of dollars.

While there were nuns whose sweetness of disposition precluded their raising their voice, one or two would grab you by the hair and drag you around the room. I watched one third-grade classmate, a future priest, have his head slammed repeatedly against the blackboard for clowning in class. In an incident in the boys’ cafeteria, Sister Sara Ann, a stout and explosive woman who had been my third-grade teacher, walloped one unruly seventh-grader with her umbrella, until I thought they were going to have to call the rectory and have Father Gorman come over to administer Extreme Unction. (The miscreant survived and went on to become a D.C. detective.)

Although the parochial schools preached and promoted excellence — Hank and I were on the giant honor roll posted in the school entrance hall every semester — they were also egalitarian institutions. All the girls were required to wear identical white blouses and blue jumpers, so that the daughters of the wealthy could not outdress and outshine the poorer girls in school, as they could and did in the D.C. and suburban public schools.

Once the ABC’s were mastered at Blessed Sacrament, we were drilled in catechism, spelling, reading, and arithmetic — and art, history, poetry, and geography.

The reading, poetry, and art courses were saturated with Catholicism. While there were Whittier and Whitman, there were also Joyce Kilmer and Father Leonard Feeney, poet laureate of the parochial schools. Father Feeney’s work was better known to Catholic schoolchildren than Longfellow’s.

One year, however, the poems of Father Feeney suddenly disappeared from our poetry books. Father Leonard Feeney became a nonperson. The nuns who had praised his genius the year before now never mentioned him. Not until later did we learn the good pastor had been excommunicated from the Church for preaching a strict construction of the doctrine extra ecclessiam nulla salus, outside the Church there is no salvation. Father Feeney taught that all non-Catholics were destined for hell; the orthodox position was that non-Catholics could attain salvation through a “baptism of desire.” (We assured Protestant playmates on this count.) Not even the famous Father Feeney could defy the orthodox church of Eugenio Pacelli, the serene autocrat who ruled the world of Roman Catholicism through the 1940s and ’50s as His Holiness Pope Pius XII.

Those parish schools were enclaves of Americanism as well as Catholicism. America was God’s country; there was no conflict then between nation and church. The United States, after all, had been consecrated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Every noon, after lunch hour, the whole school assembled — each grade and class in its designated position and line — and following several minutes of prescribed prayers, turned on signal, faced the flag, and made, hand over heart, the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States. Then, we were marched back into school.

As early as 1884at the famous Third Plenary Council of Baltimore that mandated the parochial school system and created Catholic University, the U.S. bishops dealt head-on with nativist slander against the loyalty of American Catholics: “We believe that our country’s heroes were the instruments of the God of Nations in establishing this home of freedom;. .should it ever — which God forbid — be imperiled, our Catholic citizens will be found to stand forward as one man to pledge anew ‘their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.’ ”

The patriotic fervor of the faithful was shared by the clergy. More than three thousand Catholic priests had served as chaplains during World War II, and of the 11,887 conscientious objectors, only 135 were Roman Catholic.

While patriotic, Blessed Sacrament was apolitical. Even though we lived in the nation’s capital, I cannot recall a single “field trip” in eight years to visit the monuments or institutions of government. While we were all proud to be Americans, running the country was somebody else’s job. The only political manifestation I ever remember at Blessed Sacrament was the Wednesday in November of 1948 after Harry Truman upset Tom Dewey; the playground was alive with argument and enthusiasm. Some of the girls in my class, whose fathers worked for the government, were the most exultant and militant; they were as elated that Dewey and the Republicans had been humiliated as they were that the Democrats had won. Not in my wildest dreams had I imagined there were that many people who preferred Truman. (Neither had Dewey.)

Our indispensable textbook was the Baltimore Catechism. Containing hundreds of questions and answers — all of which had to be learned by rote — the catechism instructed us on the central tenets of the Faith contained in the Apostles Creed, on each of the Ten Commandments (what they required and what they forbade), and on the Seven Sacraments (their precise purpose, and the spiritual conditions required for their worthy reception). For a grounding in Catholicism, it was unsurpassed.

The Church of the 1940s also copied heavily from the secular society. If they had “The Whiz Kids” on radio, we had a weekend radio program, during which children from competing parishes were quizzed on the catechism. Chosen to represent Blessed Sacrament, a great honor, I was drilled until hundreds of answers were letter perfect.

“What does the Eighth Commandment forbid?”

“The Eighth Commandment forbids lies, rash judgment, detraction, calumny, and the telling of secrets we are bound to keep.” Correct.

“When does a person commit the sin of detraction?”

“A person commits the sin of detraction when, without a good reason, he makes known the hidden faults of another.”

To miss a phrase, or a single word, was like missing a letter in a spelling bee. You were out.

In May of the second grade, we made our First Confession and First Holy Communion, having reached the “age of reason” at which point we could be held accountable for our sins. In the fourth grade, we were Confirmed in the Faith by the newly installed Archbishop of Washington, Patrick A. O’Boyle, and given a new confirmation name we carried all our lives.

My brother Bill had taken Aloysius, for Aloysius of Gonzaga, the boy Jesuit, and Hank had taken the name of the great founder of the order, Ignatius of Loyola. Keeping with family tradition, I had chosen Francis Xavier, a contemporary of Ignatius and perhaps the greatest missionary the Church had produced since Saint Paul.

But, when Sister Thomasina told me I could not have two names and pressed me as to whether I wanted Francis or Xavier, I panicked. “Francis,” I said.

When I got home, Pop let me know I had blown it. “Why didn’t you take Xavier?” he demanded. Francis could as well mean the pacifist with the pigeons as the great missionary. “Well, don’t worry about it,” Pop said finally, “Francis is a great name, too.” (Later, I was relieved to learn the sainted Francis of Assisi had accompanied, and not condemned, the fifth Crusade.)

Twenty-five years after I went through that preparation for Penance, Holy Communion, and Confirmation, I was heading a delegation of young political leaders in the Soviet Union, in one of the final “exchanges” before formalization of Mr. Nixon’s “detente.” In Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, we were taken to a Young Pioneer Palace, to watch dozens of six- and seven-year-olds inducted into the Young Octoberists. Having spent six to ten hours a week being indoctrinated in the Communist faith, they were now making their formal profession of faith — in the gospel according to Lenin. Watching those fresh faces, full of anticipation and delight, took me back a quarter century. With all the formality, if not the solemnity and beauty, attendant to my own First Holy Communion, these children were being formally received into the Church of Marxism-Leninism.

My friend Rick Stearns, who would put together McGovern’s delegate victory at the Democratic convention in 1972, described the experience at that Pioneer Palace as “chilling.” It confirmed for me what I had already come to believe: The war between West and East is not between the economic systems of capitalism and Marxism; it is a religious war for control of the soul and destiny of mankind, the outcome of which cannot be arbitrated or negotiated.

Supplementing the catechism were the lives of the saints, as embellished by the piety and enthusiasm of the Sisters of the Holy Cross. (Virtually every day of the calendar year was a feast day of some particular saint.) The North American martyrs, especially Saint Rene Goupil and Saint Isaac Jogues, the French Jesuit, beloved of the Queen of France, who was tortured by the Iroquois and tomahawked, were among the favorites, as was Saint Lawrence, who said when being roasted on a spit for his Catholic faith, “Turn me over, I’m done on this side,” and Blessed Maria Goretti, the twelve-year-old Italian schoolgirl stabbed to death in 1902, when she resisted the advances of Alexander Serenelli, son of her father’s partner. She was canonized by Pius XII in 1950, in the presence of her murderer, who had completely reformed his life after having a vision of Maria.

I never understood what harm was supposed to have been done by the telling, and occasional embellishing, of these stories of martyrdom and virtue. Every one of us grew soon to an age when we knew what was true and what was mythical, and what was on a par with the Easter bunny. Yet, the same trendy Catholics most exercised over “superstitious” myths and “outright falsehoods,” from which children had to be protected, turned out to have their own little hagiographies.

In recent years, politicians and the secular clerisy of the national press, who succeeded the routed Christian clergy as our Lords Spiritual, have not hesitated to use the power of law to insist that all Americans, including us “heretics,” set aside a day of reflection and remembrance the birthday of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, a secular saint whose interests appear to have been somewhat broader than peace and civil rights. The Church of yesterday never insisted that nonbelievers observe our feast days or Holy Days of Obligation; yet, the triumphant humanists have no reservations about imposing their household gods upon us.

But we did not need stories to know that, even then, there were men and women being martyred in Catholic countries like Poland and Hungary that had been deeded over to Stalin at Yalta.

When the Communist regime in Budapest announced in 1948 the coming trial for treason of Joszef Cardinal Mindszenty, the Primate of Hungary who had resisted both the Nazis and the Communists, there was enormous anguish. Cardinal Mindszenty was constantly in the prayers of the nuns and the school-children, and when the newspapers displayed, months later, the shocking picture of the drugged and broken prelate as he “confessed” at one of Stalin’s ugliest “show trials,” the Catholic world was stunned. We did not need any classroom discussion about Marxism to recognize the evil of Communism; it was written all over the tortured face of that Catholic priest.

The Church of that era — the Church of Cardinals Wyszynski, Stepinac, and Mindszenty, and of Pope Pius XII — did not believe in “coexistence” with Communist regimes persecuting and murdering the faithful in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, the Ukraine, and the Baltic republics. At the end of every mass we said the “prayers at the foot of the altar”; among them was the Prayer for the Conversion of Russia, which ended: “Blessed Michael the Archangel! Defend us in the day of battle! Be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the enemy. Rebuke him, O God, we humbly pray! And do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, thrust back into Hell Satan and all other evil spirits who wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls.”

That is not the rhetoric of detente.

For those of us raised in the old Church, today’s calls for “Marxist-Christian dialogue” will always sound ludicrous. Either men are, or they are not, children of God, with immortal souls, destined for eternity and possessed of God-given rights no government can take away. If they are, Communism is rooted in a lie; and every regime built upon that lie, is inherently illegitimate. We were taught that, and we believed that, then — and we still do.

While the nuns had cut themselves off from the life of the world (they were not permitted to go to movies at the Avalon, three blocks away; and they shopped only rarely on Connecticut Avenue, and then always in pairs), they knew what they were about. They were preparing their charges for a Catholic life in that secular world. Anti-Catholic works were forbidden reading, but they were out there, and the nuns knew it. Once, in the fourth grade — when I had done well in catechism and religion — Sister Thomasina asked me to remain after school. Calling me up to her desk, she pulled out a pamphlet out from a side drawer.

“Patrick,” she said, “do you know who Paul Blanshard is?”

I had only the vaguest notion of the writings of the premier Catholic-baiter of the era; and told her so.

“Well,” she said, “Mr. Blanshard is constantly attacking Mother Church; he is a cunning, skillful enemy, and I want you to sit down and read this pamphlet by Mr. Blanshard, and write an answer to it.”

I carried out my assignment.

She knew — and we were taught — there were enemies of Catholicism out there; and the more intellectual of the sisters were constantly on the lookout for future Defenders of the Faith.

When we reached the sixth grade, the better students had the opportunity to become altar boys, whose instruction was under the supervision of Sister Marie de Carmel. Weeks of after-school preparation went into learning the Latin responses of the Tridentine mass, and the precisely specified movements of the two altar boys who served.

“Book” and “bells” were the assigned roles, the former carrying the book from one side of the altar to the other several times during mass, the latter handling the bells that were rung at precise intervals. The senior of the altar boys always took “book,” as it involved frequent movement, while “bells” spent almost the entire mass on his knees.

Each assignment consisted of a series of three daily masses, say 6:30 in the morning Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Sunday masses were assigned separately. For daily mass, we arrived fifteen to twenty minutes early, put on our black cassock and white surplice in the basement, went upstairs to the sacristy, helped the priest put on his vestments in the approved order — amice, alb, cincture, stole, chasuble, maniple, beretta — prepared the cruets (with water and wine), bowed together before the crucifix in the rectory exactly at 6:30, and led the priest out onto the altar. Altar girls were unheard of.

In those years, the Catholic Church was indeed Mater et Magistra, Mother and Teacher. While, as children, we took for granted what we had, and often chafed under the discipline and demands, we never doubted that not only did we live in the capital of the greatest nation in history, we belonged to the One True Church.

We were taught, and believed, that we were the fortunate ones. And that Church was indeed a loving mother. When one had sinned, the confessional was there, waiting, to restore one to God’s grace. When we had personal problems or, more often, personal desires, we drove up on our bicycles and prayed for them.

A sense of relief and comfort and security was always there, inside that empty church. It was like coming home.

In the solitude, you could explain things silently and work things out. When Catholics drove past the front of the church, they made the Sign of the Cross inside their cars, as a mark of respect, because they were passing before the Blessed Sacrament. And there are no few pangs of personal regret that when much of this was being thrown out like some much old furniture during the 1960s, some of us, who should have been there, were AWOL at the time.

Among the nastier slanders of the modern era is that in the old Church we children were taught by the nuns and priests that Jews were “Christ-killers.” Not until I was in politics did I ever even hear the phrase; and the notion that these pious women, whose heads bowed when the name of Christ was mentioned, either preached hatred or would deploy so ugly a term is preposterous.

The idea of education that pervaded at Blessed Sacrament, four decades ago, is utterly antithetical to the view that dominates public education today.

Modern theory holds that children should be presented with facts, shown a menu of values and beliefs, and be permitted to make up their minds, at maturity, as to what is right and wrong, and what they wish to believe. We held to the opposite view.

We already had the truth. For two millennia Catholics had lived it; and the best of them had died for it. Now it was being handed down to us from the ages; the Church was there to impart it; and we were there to receive it, and to be its custodians and defenders for the next generation. The notion that children should decide for themselves what they should believe would have been considered scandalous, if not laughable. Indeed, instruction in the truths of the Catholic faith was considered infinitely more important at Blessed Sacrament than learning the facts of mathematics and spelling and geography. After all, that is why the Catholic schools existed; that is why parents, priests, and nuns were making such immense personal sacrifices.

All ideas were not equal at Blessed Sacrament; and heresy had no rights. Parents did not send their children to Blessed Sacrament to have them come home spouting heretical nonsense. We began our education with the answers. Even before we knew what the great questions were — how men should live, what they should believe, what they should value most highly — we knew how to respond. Nor was there any apology on the part of the Church as to what she was about. As a nation does not send its soldiers into battle before arming them and teaching them how to fight, so the Catholic Church would not send its sons and daughters out to do battle with the world, the flesh, and the devil without arming and equipping them in the Faith.

Because saving one’s soul was more important than saving one’s life, the nuns did not wait until the upper grades to begin teaching right and wrong. If the child became a scientist or composer or scholar, that was ancillary to the central task of the parochial school, the making of good Catholics. If, however, the child turned out at twenty-one to be a brilliant student, but lost the Faith and left the Church, then the nuns had not succeeded; they had failed in the mission to which, after all, they had dedicated their lives.

Those nuns and priests were in no more doubt as to what they were about then, than the secularists, who control public education today, are in doubt as to what they are about. “Indoctrination” is the derisory term secular critics use to disparage the Catholic education of four decades ago. Yet, even by secular standards, those Catholic schools “worked.” If, today, however, parents asked that their own children receive a like education in the public schools, they would be told by the Supreme Court that this is unconstitutional, and by the education industry that this is outrageous. But, Catholic or Protestant or Jewish or Moslem, it is parents’ rights that are paramount in early education, not the ideology of bureaucrats, judges, or Supreme Court justices. And there is nothing wrong with parents’ demanding that schools — attended by their children and paid for by their tax dollars — turn their children into good men and good women, by their standards of morality. . .even if those standards are the ones written down in the Old and New Testaments. Nor is there anything wrong with the government insisting that the literature and history taught in public schools be tailored to inculcate in children a reverence for their national past, a respect for their democratic institutions, and an unabashed love of country.

If the current Supreme Court says such ideas are not constitutional, it is not the ideas that need changing.

School and church imparted lessons that are yet carried in the subconscious even of those who subsequently rejected their Catholic faith.

Hate the sin and love the sinner, we were taught. When Cardinal O’Connor said the Archdiocese of New York would give up municipal funds rather than endorse homosexuality, and then poured millions of Catholic dollars into hospices for dying AIDS patients, the secular world may have called this hypocrisy; to us, it is a precise rendering of the catechismal injunction.

Your life on this earth, we were taught, was a time of testing. While God loved you and His Only Son had died on the Cross for your sins, faith alone was insufficient for salvation. You had been baptized and confirmed in the True Faith; you had been given a guardian angel to watch over you; you had Penance and the Holy Eucharist to keep you in a state of grace; you had indulgences to be won, and prescribed ways to win them, to wash away the consequences of past sin. But whether you went to Purgatory and eventually Heaven, or to “Hell for all eternity,” was up to you. To die in a state of mortal sin meant eternal damnation; there was no appeal from a death sentence of the soul, and there would be no one to blame but yourself.

To impress upon us what the loss of the soul through mortal sin meant, my father would light a match, grab your hands, and hold them briefly over the flame, saying: “See how that feels; now imagine that for all eternity.”

We lived in a world of clarity and absolutes. Unlike neighborhood friends, few of whom seemed to have any religious convictions, we exuded a sense of certitude. While they would readily admit they were ignorant, we spoke and behaved as though we alone had the truth. And we did not doubt it. We were raised to believe that they were the underprivileged; our neighborhood friends were, in a sense, to be pitied. Unlike us, they had not been given the Gift of Faith. In the 1940s and early ’50s, most of the non-Catholic kids seemed to be question marks; we Catholics were exclamation points. While there was resentment at our sometimes smug self-confidence, there was also a magnetism about our certitude. None of us wished to be like them; some of them, secretly — and some openly — wanted to be like us. And we both knew it.

Men seek certitude. That is what the Catholic Church of the midcentury offered — and the modern Church in America does not seem to understand. We had the Way, the Truth, and the Light. Other ways were not equally valid; they were false.

While Catholicism made hard demands, it offered to those who kept the Commandments of God and the Commandments of the Church an ironclad guarantee: eternal life. Agnostics, atheists, and Protestants of the war generation accepted the offer by the tens of thousands, and signed on. But the legacy was squandered by those to whom it was entrusted. The coffeehouse clerics of the 1960s and ’70s who sought to make Catholicism “relevant” to a hedonistic age found themselves irrelevant to youngsters searching for meaning in life. After you’ve “witnessed” for civil rights and peace, and the Voting Rights Act had been extended and “peace” has brought to Cambodia and South Vietnam, what do you do next?

What people seek in religion today is what people sought then: answers to the questions that keep one awake at night. They want to believe that this life has meaning beyond the day-to-day, that there is life after death; and they want to be told what they have to do to attain that eternal life. They have neither the desire nor the time to sit down and “rap” like college students in an all-night bull session about whether God exists: nor are they going to be satisfied with a “social gospel” some trendy Catholic cleric seems to have picked up in the vestibule of the First Church of Christ, Socialist.

While one hears endlessly from Catholic pulpits today of the need to give food to the poor, in America’s suburbs and inner cities, the true hunger that needs feeding is not physical at all. Fundamentalist and Evangelical Protestant denominations, whose preachers speak with conviction and authority of sin and salvation and Heaven and Hell, today gather the converts that in the 1950s were fighting their way into the Catholic Church. At some Catholic parishes today, not in a month of Sundays can you hear the subject of Hell even mentioned; the sermons are all about being considerate and kind and nice. The Church Militant has been superseded by the Church Milquetoast.

While teenagers give themselves up to drugs and despair, leading to appalling crime and violence in the inner cities and to indiscriminate sex, suicide pacts, and even satanic cults in the suburbs, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops labors away on pastoral letters to manifest the American Church’s impatience with the most successful economy in human history. Remarkable. Today’s clergy seem to be casting about blindly for economic and political solutions to problems of the human heart — to which they once had the answer. The moral capital of the Catholic Church in the United States, piled high over two centuries, has been squandered in two decades, invested in such fly-by-night secular stocks as boycotting lettuce and saving the Sandinistas.

What a distance we have traveled since the Maryknoll missionary, Bishop James Edmund Walsh of Cumberland, Maryland, was imprisoned and tortured by Chinese Communists for preaching the Faith. Today, some Marylanders seem permanently enraged that the United States would interfere with the sovereign right of the Brothers Ortega to impose the same evil system that persecuted Bishop Walsh upon the Catholic people of Nicaragua. From American pulpits, priests tell us Marxism should be accepted as a useful “tool of analysis.” One wonders what these modern clerics most appreciate about the old devil’s doctrine: his preaching of class hatred or his virulent anti-Semitism? The Catholic Church of the 1940s and ’50s, that assertive, self-confident institution which unapologetically preached the truth to its own, as well as a hostile and disbelieving world, no longer exists.

Several years ago, when I stopped briefly in a small Catholic bookstore in Bethesda, the lady at the counter recognized me. “Mr. Buchanan, your father was in here, several weeks ago,” she said. Then, she volunteered the exchange she had had: “I said, ‘Isn’t it terrible what’s going on in the Church today, Mr. Buchanan?’ and he answered, ‘No, there is nothing to fear. We have it on the authority of Christ Himself — the Rock shall not break.’ ”

We could always argue with Pop about almost anything, and we did; but if one of his sons or daughters questioned the Faith, he would say, “If you think that, you can leave my house.” Faith, for him, came ahead even of family bonds.

Raised in the Catholic environment that he and my mother made of our home, their two oldest sons believed they had vocations — and entered the Jesuits and Maryknolls to test them.

To the Catholic youth of my generation, the death of Pius XII in 1958 was as great a jolt as the death of F DR was to Americans who had known no other president. With the coming of John XXIII and Vatican II came the “reformers.” With Pius XII dead and buried, it was their time now; and, brimming with new ideas, they were going to “throw open the windows,” to modernize the Church, to make it “relevant” to the outside world. Lord, what a mess they made of it.

The Catholic Church of the 1950s was not taken from without; it was surrendered from within. Pope Paul VI was right when he said, “The smoke of hell has entered the vestibule of the Church.” In the last quarter-century, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has been utterly demystified — as prelude to establishment of an American Catholic Church. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as prescribed by the Council of Trent has been replaced by a communal meal celebrated in the vernacular. The Latin is gone; the sacred liturgy has been transformed; a banal English is the lingua franca of the new American Church; many of the new churches look on the inside like assembly halls, college classrooms, or off-Broadway theatres. The Douay-Rheims version of the Old and New Testaments, a rival to the King James Bible in the majesty of its prose, has been rewritten again and again by tin-eared clerics who never learned that language is the music of thought, that tone-deaf people ought not to rewrite Mozart.

Recently at Sunday mass, I watched as a priest, perhaps a decade younger than I, having improvised on half the prayers at mass, decided to give the “Sign of Peace” to half the congregation. As he went on and on, shaking hands, hugging people, smiling up a storm, it was all I could do to contain myself from shouting, “Get back up on that altar!”

Mass attendance is down, vocations are down, Catholic school enrollment is down, conversions are down from the 1950s. Many of the nuns who remain — having been told their earlier sacrifices were unnecessary — are in acrimonious rebellion against the “patriarchal” Church. Priests and theologians from “Catholic” campuses can be heard pontificating on the nation’s airwaves in contemptuous condescension of the orthodox pronouncements of the Holy Father in Rome. A quarter century after Vatican II, we need another Council of Trent.

The old Church, which was always there, unchanged and unchanging, seems to have disappeared. Visiting the modern churches today is like coming back to the town where you grew up and finding the oldest landmark, the great mansion on the hill, has been gutted and rebuilt to fit in architecturally and devotionally with the bustling suburban scene. Outside a sign reads UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT.

“Things reveal themselves passing away,” Yeats was fond of saying. It was a magnificent institution in a splendid era; but that old Catholic Church, militant and triumphant, lives only in the recesses of memory. And yet, as Peter responded when asked, “And will you, too, leave?” “Where else shall we go, Lord? Thou hast the words of eternal life.”

From Right From the Beginning. Copyright (c) 1988 by Patrick Buchanan. Reprinted by arrangement with Little, Brown and Company. Inc.

Patrick J. Buchanan


Patrick J. Buchanan is a columnist, political analyst for MSNBC, chairman of The American Cause foundation and an editor of The American Conservative. Mr. Buchanan has written ten books, including six straight New York Times best sellers, served as a senior advisor to three Presidents, was a two-time candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and was the presidential nominee of the Reform Party in 2000.

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