This past weekend, I led a group of about 15 new men to St. Charles Seminary on a walking tour of historic Philadelphia. We stopped at some of the major points of religious and secular history: Old St. Joseph’s Church, at one time the only place in the entire British Empire where Mass could be celebrated publicly; Carpenter’s Hall, the site of the first Continental Congress; Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed; and the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul (for the record, lunch was at the Reading Terminal Market).
In both areas — secular and religious — Philadelphia has a proud legacy, and as a native, I am always happy to ferry newcomers around. Our history is a treasure, and it deserves to be valued.
But it is also a terrible burden, and it must not be allowed to become an albatross.
That’s because the men and women walking around Old City dressed like Betsy Ross and Ben Franklin can lull us into forgetting our own responsibilities to history. This is not Disneyland. The great American Experiment is not merely an interesting set piece for a museum, but a living government to be preserved.
The real Benjamin Franklin spoke wisely when, in response to the question as to what kind of government the Constitutional Congress had created, he said, “a republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
The tendency to surrender our senses to nostalgia is not just an American problem. Catholics face the same temptation. Our Church has a venerable tradition of scholars, pastors, and holy men and women. We stand on their shoulders. To ignore the insights of Aquinas would be utter foolishness. To look at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and not stand in awe of its grandeur would be ridiculous.
But we must never forget this: if Aquinas wanted merely to venerate the past, he never would have written the Summa. If the builders of Notre Dame wanted to stick to what had been done before, they would have built something a bit less impressive. We do not worship the past; we worship God alone! Anything else is idolatry.
Last week, I was at a cook-out with some friends. Most of them are regular churchgoers, trying their best to maintain their relationship with the Church, even if they don’t always appreciate the fullness of her teachings.
One friend talked about how when he was growing up people identified with their parishes in his neighborhood of the city. Church buildings dotted the landscape like spired mountain ranges, and family identity was closely linked with that ubiquitous Philadelphia question, “What parish are you from?”
But I pointed out to my friend that even 20 years ago when we were in elementary school, that culture was dying out. While things looked fine on the surface, anyone paying attention could see that fewer and fewer “school families” actually continued attending church on Sundays after confirmation. Baptisms and weddings decreased. The vibrancy of those parishes in the first three-quarters of the 20th century was giving way to a new reality: decline.
The reasons why this happened are so complex that it would honestly take years of research. But the fact is that here we are. As much as Southwest Philadelphia in the 1950s seems to many to be Shangri-La for Catholicism, it is no longer 1950. So, what are we going to do for Southwest Philadelphia today? This is the question we must ask ourselves.
And this is not just a local problem. Though Philadelphia and other major cities have challenges unique to their situations, all Catholics in the United States have to re-evaluate their paradigms of what it means to be Catholic.
Yes, it seems that we are headed into (or, perhaps, already are) in a period of pressure on the Church here. To predict the future is foolish, but I am confident in saying this: being Catholic in the next 50 years will require a much greater degree of commitment than in the previous 50. And in all honesty, we probably shouldn’t look at that as a bad thing.
Of course, we all would love to live in an era when we can be totally free to practice our faith. But this is the time God has chosen for us to be saints; to desire something else amounts to ungratefulness!
We cannot worship history, but neither can we ignore its lessons. Did not the dynamism of 20th century Catholicism here spring from the experience of the Church in the 19th? That was the era of Know-Nothings throwing bricks and fireballs through the windows of churches! And yet, in the crucible of intense pressure, a thriving community was born.
In the end, history does not belong to the lukewarm, but to the saints. These are people like St. John Neumann and St. Katharine Drexel, not to mention the countless anonymous faithful men and women of the past and present.
When Carpenter’s Hall and, yes, even Notre Dame Cathedral is reduced to rubble, it is their lives which will be revealed as the true triumphs of history. And in God’s eternal present, there is no need for nostalgia.
Eric Banecker is a seminarian at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and a contributor to the seminary’s blog, Seminarian Casual, on which this post first appeared.