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Monday, January 03, 2005

The Changing of the Guard in Saginaw.

Courtesy of Amy Welborn, I learned that Bishop Robert Carlson of Sioux Falls has been appointed as the new bishop of the Diocese of Saginaw, effective December 29.

Now, the four of you readers not related to me by blood or marriage know that my view of the way Catholicism is practiced in the eleven counties of east-central Lower Michigan is not unmixed: basically, I find it repugnant. Masses there (never called that) are almost-invariably exercises in teeth-grinding on my part that would do a belt sander credit. When vacationing, we've come to actively avoid diocesan parishes unless there's absolutely no alternative (and believe me, on those grim occasions, I've looked with longing at the Missouri Synod Lutheran churches in the vicinity). I will gladly go seventy plus miles round trip to avoid a particularly egregious parish that will remain nameless that is seven miles away. Examples of problems experienced (at a variety of places): Well, when God is not being addressed as "she," the (always) female PA is giving a witless homily on Oprah or the (neuter) Spirit, some explicit biblical doctrine is denied, or biblical authorship chucked aside. Then there's the remarkably cavalier approach to the rest of the rubrics, which can be summarized in this phrase: if I wanted to see a prosperous, middle-aged, ultra-liberal white woman concelebrate, I'd become an Episcopalian, thank you. Masses there are, without exception, exercises in Right Thinking.

[As an aside, I'm a little baffled by the hatred progressive Catholics have toward Protestant fundamentalists. To use the language of the SAT, progressive Catholicism is to fundamentalism as Oppenheimer is to nuclear weapons. They ought to take credit for their offspring a little more often.]

Not that it's all bad there--that would be impossible. One of the finest priests I know is a priest of the Diocese--and yes, he's fairly liberal, but is a fine confessor and a gentle upholder of traditional morality. [Of course, he was transferred from the parish I attended. And replaced by a fellow with a record of sexual abuse of an altar boy. Yes, Bishop Untener knew. Did I mention this parish had a grade school?]

I even had the opportunity to hear the late Bishop Untener preach a homily--and it was truly a fine one (scroll down to September 23, 2002). He was engaging and deftly utilized the scriptures of the day. It was no fluke--nobody can deny he was a fine homilist. Moreover, the late bishop was an undeniably inspiring figure--a very charismatic and likeable man who had overcome a serious physical disability (amputation of his right leg below the knee) and played hockey no less. Very humble and down to earth, his headquarters was a room at St. Mary's Hospital in Saginaw (he sold the eleven room episcopal manse after being appointed bishop), and he travelled ceaselessly throughout the seven thousand square miles of the Dioecesis Saginavensis.
Wait for it...

But for all of his gifts, a generation of the Bishop's leadership failed to inspire men to want to be like him. He averaged about one ordination a year, but Saginaw hasn't seen an ordinand since 2001, and at last check had four (4) seminarians. Some try to pooh-pooh the vocations crisis, but that's irrational. As long as Catholicism is a sacramental religion, and as long as five of the seven sacraments depend upon them, a dwindling number of priests is a front-burner crisis. And any diocese that is unable to produce a significant number of vocations is not "healthy," all other chatter about "lived" or "actualized" faith notwithstanding. The Body of Christ is a unity, and there is no such animal as a "clerical" or "hierarchical Church." After all, nobody would call a dwindling number of laity a good thing, regardless of how "vibrant" or "diverse" the clerics were.
Why the shortage in Saginaw? I think much of the blame falls squarely on the way Mass is celebrated there. Lex orandi, lex credendi. Saginaw is the progressives' dream scenario. The architectural settings are, whereever possible, cookie cutter theatre-in-the-round buildings, tabernacles off to the side, a table in the center and are almost entirely icon-free. In fact, Saginaw is so determined not to permit traditional imagery that it recently ordered Mexican parishioners to stick their precious, generations-old La Guadalupana in...the hall. And if you ever see a crucifix, please contact me (ditto kneelers). I will require irrefutable photographic proof before I believe you, however. Saginaw Catholics are supposed to be an extra-Eastery Easter People.

You want altar rails? Try the Methodists, buddy.

No, seriously. Check the third link above for a personal example.

As to other forms of liturgical diversity--how 'bout Ecclesia Dei? Uh, the folks at the Chancery never got that one. Fax hasn't worked since '87, apparently. Worse luck.

And, as I said, the rubrics are flexible--so long as you never, ever use the Roman Canon, or try to point out the fact that the PA has no business giving a homily while the priest is present. Then, well, if you're lucky, you will be given a copy of Milwaukee Bishop Richard Sklba's Exsurge Domine against the dread heresy of "rubricism" as part of the initial phase of your re-education.

[The Sklba column is indeed ridiculous, but it's perversely comforting to see that Rembert Weakland's right hand man is still capable of using the word "heresy."]

And about that new GIRM thing? Well, we might implement it in 2005 sometime. If we get some English language guidebooks together by then:

As in Detroit, the Diocese of Marquette in the Upper Peninsula will roll out changes this month [November 2003]. Kneelers are no problem there, because all parishes have them, a diocesan spokesperson said.

However, the Diocese of Kalamazoo will wait until the end of 2004 to comply. The Diocese of Gaylord will make changes gradually with no fixed deadline. And the Diocese of Saginaw may wait even longer until the final edition of a complete English-language guidebook to the mass is published, perhaps by 2005.

This is an especially cheeky piece of obstructionism, coming as it does from the same Diocese that cranks out new Advent and Lent booklets by the thousand every year.

In fact, the liturgy as celebrated in Saginaw got the coveted seal of approval from the 800-lb. gorilla of progressive liturgists (redundant?), Gabe Huck (also a frequent speaker at diocesan liturgy seminars) , who featured a diocesan parish in his video The Roman Catholic Mass Today. That the way Mass is celebrated there has the most tenuous of connections to Catholic tradition is, alas, par for the course.

Anyway, the point is, a deliberate de-emphasis and sidelining of the role of the priest in the most central act of Catholic life is not going to inspire a man to answer the call to the priesthood. Especially when he sees that the hocus-pocus guy isn't even going to get to give a homily. Why bother?

The ultimate comment on this set-up came when we went to a parish in Isabella County. The female PA came up, gave a homily about The Spirit (entirely neuter) and her travels to the West Coast. The priest, in his late 50s, offered the ultimate commentary on the situation. He walked out the back door of the rural church and waited outside until it was over. As bold a protest (and I increasingly think it was just that) as you could hope--I don't need this. And a killing signal to the men in the room: You don't want this.

Received. Loud and clear.

But what about the laity, you ask? What if the leadership and its liturgical principles empower them to take the Gospel into the world? I don't fully agree with the premise (see above), but OK--Fair enough. Let's look at the numbers, shall we? Bishop Untener was consecrated in 1980. In 1980, there were 170,000 Catholics out of a total population of 679,000 people in the region--Catholics comprised 25 percent of the population. What you need to know about the area is that it is pretty diverse, actually--a lot of rural farmsteads and small towns, sure, but also the industrial center of the Tri-Cities (Bay City, Saginaw and Midland). Also, there's a growing Latino presence, as the 11 counties sit at the northern terminus of the migrant worker stream, so there's a steady influx of Hispanic Catholics into the Diocese (and significant numbers do settle and establish homes).

The result? In 2002, the region's population had grown (in fits and starts) somewhat to 724,000, but following 22 years of conscious progressive reform, the number of Catholics had fallen to 140,000. A little over 19% of the total population now. That's eighteen percent of the Catholic population--gone. With one hiccup, a steady decline. It's a sad legacy that the celebration of the Bishop's leadership should have acknowledged, and again, it is not unfair to ask that reformed liturgy share some of the blame. This is the "source and summit of Christian life" we are talking about. Every tool in the progressive kit for making the liturgy more "relevant" has been field-tested--where not actually mandated--in Saginaw. Up to and including allowing the laity a peek at Catholic priestesses.

Result? Saginaw is nearly 20% smaller than it used to be. Yes, numbers can lie, but they can also tell a story.

I mean, Lord knows Curial Panic Syndrome Newsweekly would have trumpeted the growth of the diocese had it occurred. Instead, its appreciation highlighted--of course--the Bishop's defiance of Humanae Vitae. Is progressive liturgy really reaching, retaining and empowering Catholics (let alone drawing in non-Catholics)--as has been promised by its advocates? Twenty four years experience in Saginaw offers significant evidence for "no."

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