Joseph A. Komonchak, a Catholic priest who holds an endowed chair in religious studies at the Catholic University of America, asks the readers of the Commonweal blog to respond to a description of “Catholic culture” made by Garry Wills in 1969:
Bingo, large families, fish on Friday, novenas, crustily spangled copes, Tantum ergo before the monstrance, clouds of incense, altar boys dropping the priest’s biretta with a plop, pinging of xylophone chimes at Consecration, girls with kleenex hairpinned to their heads, kitchen matchboxes stuck in the sand under the red-cupped candles, the teen-ager in her formal teetering up a ladder in May with flowers for the plaster brow, churchings, car blessings, name-saint days, Dies irae on all Souls (and ducking in and out of church all day for the indulgence), plastic holy water dips at the bedroom door, the Sacred Heart in a heavy frame, scapulars like big postage stamps glued here and there on kids in the swimming pool, J.M.J. at the top of school work, the sign of the cross before a foul shot, Sunday movie in white shoes and pants left over from First Communion; baptism in the spittle of repeated Exorcizo’s, letters dated by the saint’s day, the clank of beads (each as big as a marble) when a nun approached, food-chiseling in Lent (ne potus noceat), the stored candy eaten in marathon gluttony after noon on Holy Saturday, priests mumbling their breviaries in the light of a Pullman men’s lounge, debates as midnight neared on Saturday night about the legitimacy of using Mountain Standard Time to being the pre-Communion fast.
Tribal rites, superstitions, marks of the Catholic ghetto–and, all of them, insignia of a community. These marks and rites were not so much altered, refined, elevated, reformed, transfigured, as–overnight–erased. This was a ghetto that had no one to say “Catholic is Beautiful” over it. Men rose up to change this world who did not love it–demented teachers, ready to improve a student’s mind by destroying his body.
Do we need a culture? Only if we need a community, however imperfect. Only if we need each other.
As I read this, it was clear to me that I was raised in a different “Catholic culture“–an Italian and Slovakian one. There is little about what Wills describes that I remember. But this is probably more of a generational thing. I was born post-Vatican II so I did not experience this kind of thick Catholic culture that Wills describes. Whatever the case, I think Wills remarks were describing an American Catholic culture that was in rapid decline by 1969. There is more than a little nostalgia here. Times have changed and I think it is safe to say that Wills has changed as well.
By the way–this post has 73 comments, many of which are worth reading.