… The Arabian energy that had pushed them into Africa had died down at its source, and that power was like the light of a star that travels on after the star itself has become dead.
— V.S. Naipaul, A Bend In the River
Naipaul was referring to the rise and fall of empires, but his metaphor could also be about the Catholic Church and its waning influence on the many millions of Americans who were born Catholic but don’t go to church except to attend weddings, funerals or baptisms.
“Fallen-away” Catholics, they used to be called, as opposed to practicing Catholics. The former were out in full force at a funeral I attended, for a relative I hardly knew, in a Philly suburb that’s seen better days, at about the same time the Pennsylvania Supreme Court released a 1,400-plus page grand jury report naming more than 300 priests accused of child sex abuse in this state.
It was a funeral mass, but it seemed more like a secular service. The altar looked like a stage kitchen. A few relatives and friends of the deceased went up to share anecdotes about him, or to read aloud from scripture. A woman sang tuneless hymns as the priest and altar boys rearranged the props for each new part of the mass.
Maybe there were many true believers at the funeral, but I doubt it, even though there was a big response when the priest invited practicing Catholics to receive Holy Communion, something you’re not supposed to do unless you’ve recently confessed your sins to a priest. That, at least, was the rule in the old days — no confession, no holy wafer.
My cousin’s wife and I looked at each other as the pews creaked and most of the congregants went to the altar. We were reasonably sure that few of them had been to confession, and that ever fewer believed that priests have the moral authority to tell them how to conduct their lives.
How could they? The entire Catholic hierarchy has been discredited in recent years by the testimony of all those Catholics who, in their youth, were victimized by predator priests. The “holy father” in Rome can’t bring himself to fire the bishops who moved the predators from one locale to another as their crimes were revealed. He can’t even admit that priestly celibacy is and always was a sham.
Most Catholics seem fairly quiet regarding the ongoing scandal. They grew up going to Catholic churches and schools. They still go to church for the rituals, despite their lack of respect for the priests who preside over the rituals. They go because the rituals help them maintain bonds with friends and relatives they wouldn’t otherwise see. That’s what communion is about.
But many churches have closed or are closing as out-of-court settlements for priestly assault bankrupt diocese after diocese. It’s not hard to imagine a time in which the 2,000-year-old star in Rome has been reduced to a cinder in the minds of American Catholics. The only question is how long its feeble light will linger.
Footnote: My friend Swamp Rabbit asked why I was dressed up on such a stinking hot day. And where did I get my so-called suit? Here and there, I told him. Mostly from the thrift store at Eighth and Wolf that closed last year. I used to go there every six months or so. “It was my favorite ritual,” I said, “but all things must pass.”