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McGrath: Making the Catholic Church relevant

Updated: April 11, 2013 6:34AM



When the cardinals gather to select a new pope, they must choose someone capable of making the Catholic Church more relevant in the real world.

I say this as a former Catholic seminarian, who first realized the necessity of having a more engaged pontiff following my religious epiphany decades ago during this same Lenten season.

I did not speak in tongues, have a vision or receive miraculous healing. Rather, it happened in church, specifically at midnight Mass at the start of Easter.

The church was dimly lit, the pews packed with adults and children, a few mothers holding sleeping babies. It had been an especially long Lent during which I gave up smoking cigarettes — a resolution more difficult because I couldn’t enlist my parents for motivation or reward, their having never known I started in the first place.

It was also the era when many Catholics fasted during Lent, so I was counting the minutes and stomach growls until the late-night feast at home of roasted ham followed by cheesecake.

With a flick of a switch, the church went dark except for the lighted candelabra held aloft by the altar boys on either side of the priest in the vestibule of the church. Slowly they began marching up the aisle, led by the shortest altar boy, in black robe and white surplus, who was swinging back and forth a brass chain, clipped to the thurible from which wafted the sweet and salty smoke of smoldering wood resin.

At short intervals, the procession paused, as the priest chanted the opening prayers in Latin, a cappella. The effect was a sorrowful monotone, as when a crowd at a sports arena intones an opposing player’s name.

The smell of incense, the Gregorian chant, the candlelight in the dark and silence — it all made for delicious tension. At precisely midnight, the priest and his entourage arrived up front at the altar. It was official, Lent was over, Christ was risen.

The priest sang the first line of Gloria in excelsis Deo, cueing the house lights as the enormous bell in the church tower began to ring. Organ music, finally, cascaded from the choir loft, reverberating so powerfully inside my chest and my head that it burst from my skin in the form of goose bumps.

When they finished, I felt I had been part of something extraordinary. And the faces of everyone around me radiated the same rapture.

For some time after that, I looked forward to Mass. But things changed. Something different was in the air.

In the late spring of 1966, our south suburban church had a giant apron with wide steps rising gradually to the entrance, a space meant for clusters to congregate before and after services. And all the conversation before Mass this day was about the Chicago Freedom Movement’s plans to march in Chicago’s Gage Park community and in several south suburbs.

I had watched Martin Luther King and his marchers for civil rights being arrested in faraway cities on TV. Now they would descend upon our neighborhood, and the folks on the steps vowed a hostile reception.

It was clear that for many the “colored” were not welcome, and they planned to show them by amassing a human blockade on the planned route. Mothers would keep children indoors, and a few fathers planned to leave baseball bats on the floor in the back seat of their cars, just in case.

I was not surprised by my fellow parishioners’ reaction because where I was raised was not known for racial tolerance. But I do remember ruminating over how being religious for many adults seemed not to be about living like Christ or loving mankind as we were taught in Catholic school.

Apparently it was just ceremony and music and special effects. It was theater. It was inspiring and edifying and made them feel good about themselves, as it for did for me.

It meant believing in the virgin birth or the Second Coming, shunning gays and women who had abortions and “religiously” donating money at Mass every Sunday.

The loudest ones on the steps that day considered themselves devout if they vociferously defended church law and showed no empathy for anyone who did not. Which is why, to them, hatred was not a contradiction. Hate, in fact, was sacred fervor against anyone who did not share the same values, skin color or religion.

The parish priests said nothing in their sermons to disabuse the “faithful” of that kind of racist thinking. And there was no appeal to do so coming out of Rome.

Which is where, this week, the process of electing a pope will play out with much ceremony and history. And the cardinals will follow the old tradition, tried and true.

But contemporary storms such as the drive for gender equity, the Christian/Islamic cultural war and the priest sex abuse scandal all demand a different course and a different kind of captain.

It’s even more important now, than it was in the era of civil rights and sexual revolution, to select someone less like a cloistered monk and instead more like the man who implored mankind to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”

It’s hoped the cardinals see it that way, too.

David McGrath, a former resident of Evergreen Park and Oak Forest, is an emeritus professor of English at the College of DuPage.



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