Father Leonard Peterson
One of our archdiocesan officials asked me recently to pen some thoughts on the subject of provincialism. In his ministry, he frequently meets this mindset in groups of parishioners who seem either unable or unwilling to think outside the parameters of their parish to the concerns of the wider Church world.
In response to his request, I’ll begin with the word itself. In most isms there are two sides, one positive and the other negative. For example, Communism of the theistic or godly kind is spread all over the Acts of the Apostles. We read there of the ideal life of the early Christians. Everything is held in common by the community in nearly perfect harmony. (St. Paul had to address some faults about this in I Corinthians 11.) Atheistic communism, on the other hand, is a forced and unequal sharing in goods ordered by the State, which itself is usually corrupt. We see the sad effects of this on display a mere 90 miles south of Florida in Cuba.
Provincialism unfortunately is a word weighted toward the negative. While it could be used to describe a unique accent or phrase used in a particular area, it is usually taken to mean narrow mindedness, insularity or even lack of sophistication. So, in the case put before me, I learned that there is the latter brand of provincialism present. It surfaces when parishioners learn that their parish, or their parish school, might have to be merged with another. Resentment builds when comparisons with other locales in our vast Archdiocese are made. Whenever emotion gets the upper hand sparks fly, but rational perspective flees the scene.
A thumbnail history of demographic shifts in our Archdiocese witnesses to a great migration of people from the city to the suburbs that began in the 1950s. It was caused by a certain postwar euphoria about starting over with life, encouraged by insightful entrepreneurs who built communities like Levittown. Where the people go the Church must follow if she is to be true to her mission.
Whether or not the promised idyllic life ever materialized has been a subject for sociologists ever since. The 24/7 news cycle tells us the suburban troubles are no longer confined to battles with crabgrass.
Consider Columbine 10 years ago this spring. For sure, there is no Camelot in Chester County, no Brigadoon in Bucks, no Magic Kingdom in Montgomery and no Disneyland in Delaware. Nor is there any real independence in the suburban counties from the central city. Each depends on the other. And so it must be with the Church. She serves people wherever they are and however they may be in their life journey.
The human element, ever elusive, will always make itself felt. There is an unwarranted inferiority complex in some city dwellers that they are less significant than people across the city line. A more subtle, but equally harmful superiority complex exists in the thinking of some suburbanites. Note my use of the word some.
Add to this whole mix one other element. It exacerbates the problem of provincialism. In case you have been vacationing on Venus, you would know that we have a priest shortage in our Archdiocese and in our country. Nobody likes to talk about it. Good people are praying about it. But there has been little or no accommodation for it in the minds of many Catholics in our region. They act surprised when they can’t get from the rectory whatever it is they want when they want it. To be fair, this surprise lodges mostly with so-called inactive Catholics.
But sooner rather than later we will all have to accommodate to the effects of a shrinking pool of priests. It is a wonderful thing, for instance, that this month the Lord will give us the blessing of six new priests bursting with zeal and energy. But just since April of last year, twice as many diocesan priests have died, and more than that have gone to God among the priests in religious communities.
These factors and others bring me to conclude that we need to look upon our universal Church as a series of expanding concentric circles, like those caused by a pebble dropped in water. On a global rendition, I would place the Vatican at the center, in the smallest circle, and then put places like our beloved Philadelphia and all the dioceses of the world on ever-widening rings.
Then imagine a regional rendition, wherein our diocesan offices would be in the smallest circle, with others spreading out to represent every parish from Olney to Oxford and every where in between.
People of a certain age who remember the ’40s and ’50s with a certain fondness will have to conclude that it’s a different Church now in many ways. I, for one, might be tempted to join these folks and label them the halcyon days. But I admit that label is a matter for discussion in another essay. Here and now I’ll just opine that nostalgia usually softens the backward viewing lens and ignores the unpleasant.
Besides, our Church is not a museum. She is a living organism that strives to serve a living God. She is spanine and human, with all that the latter implies. Yet, she constantly looks forward. She adjusts the means to do so when she has to, responding to developments in all the varied societies that need to hear her Good News.
Her members therefore have to resist the urge to set up camp in one era or another, or to canonize the status quo at any given time. Our Church is trustfully following a trajectory outlined by her Founder. She can do that because He is the one who said, “I am with you all days, until the end of time.”
Father Peterson is pastor of St. Maria Goretti Parish in Hatfield.