No Neutral Ground

Posted on Sat 12/07/2013 by


20130613_TomMcLaughlin_at_CPAC_2010By Tom McLaughlin ~20131205_Argentine_cathedral_2640x442

The men were singing, and there were a lot of them. That’s unusual in my experience attending mass at various Catholic Churches in Maine. Most men come to church because their wives pressure them to, I think. If they pray aloud in the pews it’s usually just a murmur. Several men there at St. Peter’s, however, spoke it like they meant it.

My wife and I have been checking out different parishes around the Portland/South Portland area when we find ourselves down there Sunday mornings and each has its own feel. St. Peter’s is a small church only a couple of blocks from Portland’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the flagship of the Portland Diocese near the bottom of Munjoy Hill. I wondered how it competed – being in the same neighborhood and almost in the shadow of the cathedral.

Churches of many kinds are closing up and being sold in Maine and many other parts of the country. St. John the Evangelist in South Portland closed a few months ago and it’s rumored the building will soon be replaced by a Dunkin Donuts shop. More than a dozen Maine Catholic churches have closed since 2007. In ten years, Maine’s Catholic population has declined from 234,000 to 187,000. So St. Peter’s is an anomaly. It’s self-supporting and the congregation seems to know that if it were not, it would soon follow the fate of the others.

St. Peter’s is a survivor with an enthusiastic choir. It’s filled to capacity on Sunday morning with lots of families – moms, dads, and kids. Many of the singing men had short, military-style haircuts and I wondered if they were off-duty firemen or police. The congregation nearly drowned out the choir. I was one of very few who weren’t singing, having gotten out of the habit long ago. I would be a good singer if it wasn’t for my voice.

A few weeks ago I found myself in conversation with a young man who had been raised in a family that didn’t practice religion at all. He wasn’t atheist, but was suspicious of organized religion, especially the one I belonged to – Roman Catholic – the oldest, continuously-functioning institution on earth. He was especially skeptical after the homosexual-priest scandal of the late 20th century. That had knocked me for loop too, and I’ve only recently begun putting it into perspective as another way the Catholic Church has been corrupted in its long history – and from which it must purge itself.

American Catholic Church influence seems to have peaked in the late 1950s or early 60s and it’s been in decline since. I don’t know if we’ve reached bottom yet, but I hope so. My home church, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s in Fryeburg, has had several different priests assigned to it in recent years. At least once, none was available for Sunday mass and a communion service had to suffice. It’s part of a “cluster” of parishes because there just aren’t enough priests for each parish to have its own any more. Last summer two missionary priests from Nigeria were assigned to our Fryeburg-Bridgton-Norway cluster.

Ironic, no? A hundred years ago, the American church sent missionaries to Africa. Now they’re sending them to us. What’s up with that? Why is there such a shortage here and not there? They have more applicants than their seminaries can accommodate. A Dallas Morning News article put it this way: “‘The African church is in touch with the raw elements of humanity: birth, marriage, death, hunger, thirst,’ said Christopher Malloy, an assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas. ‘For me, in a comfortable house, it’s easy to think life is not dramatic. [African priests] bring the message to us with excitement.'”

How did Americans get so bored? All drama, whether in a novel, a movie, or in real life, is a struggle between good and evil. As C. S. Lewis put it: “There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan.” Drama plays out everywhere and always, but Americans are increasingly blind to it. It’s unfashionable to acknowledge evil exists. Some of us are afraid even to say “Merry Christmas.” In Africa, though, evil is anything but subtle. Christians are routinely slaughtered by Muslim terrorists in Nigeria, Sudan and lately Egypt and Syria (nearby in Asia). Tribal massacres in the hundreds of thousands are still fresh in Rwandan minds. Evil is difficult to deny in Africa. When a young man joins the seminary there, it’s like volunteering for frontline combat.

Speaking of men strong in their faith, last week men defended a cathedral in Buenos Aires, Argentina from assault. They locked arms and prayed as crazed, topless feminists spit at them, spray-painted their crotches and faces with swastikas, performed sex acts in front of them, and burned an effigy of Pope Francis I while dancing and shrieking in a bacchanalian “National Women’s Encounter.” It’s an annual event sponsored by the Argentine Department of Culture.

It’s inspiring to see strong men doing what’s right. There are good signs out there if we look for them.

Contributing Editor   is a (now retired) history teacher and a regular weekly columnist for newspapers in Maine and New Hampshire. He writes about political and social issues, history, family, education and Radical Islam.

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