It was an ill-wind indeed that hit St. Ann’s Church in 1964 – an existential threat. It was a “perfect storm,” at exactly that late-winter time that generates them, but this one was like few alive could remember. It generated hurricane-force winds, making last weekend’s windstorm a piker by comparison.
Although no one was killed when the storm blew through Buffalo, eight people were injured, including a boy who was blown into a sewer. Downtown, a store window blew out, sending glass and mannequins into the street. Frail and unsteady pedestrians were blown over, some requiring police help to make it across Main Street.
A mile east the wind found another weakened target: St. Ann’s Church. Although built of solid stone, largely by the labor if its own German-American congregation, it was then approaching eight decades old. Like many Buffalo churches, it had suffered from deferred maintenance in the lean years of the Depression and World War II. But the return of post-war prosperity was complicated for St. Ann’s by suburban migration. As Dr. Martin Ederer wrote in the church’s history,
Families began to leave the tired old neighborhood for the suburbs. The appeal of a soot-free environment, the easy affordability of automobiles and generous government programs, such as the G.I. Bill for veterans, made it easy for growing young families to build houses in the growing suburbs. St. Ann’s 1958 Centennial Jubilee Book—in a section entitled “The Challenge of 1958-2058.”—already indicates that the parish is feeling the pinch: “The centennial year of 1958 finds St. Ann’s at another decisive turning-point in its history. Modern conditions have brought new problems. The trend to suburban living has robbed the Parish of many of the old families who had been its staunchest pillars of support.”
In its weakened state, the church was unprepared and ill-equipped for the onslaught. In a 2007 interview (re-posted here), Author Brian Castner told our David Steele what happened next:
My great-great grandfather was part of the German immigrant influx in the mid-nineteenth century and helped build Saint Ann’s, and my grandfather was a City of Buffalo fireman who helped save Saint Ann’s from fire. There was a great windstorm in the mid-60’s, a possible fire in the main tower, and the steeples were torn off, throwing debris around the neighborhood. My grandfather was part of the engine company that responded, and when they pulled out the battering ram to knock down the door to gain entrance, my grandfather rushed up and pulled the door key from his pocket. He was an usher – of course he always carried a key. He was able to save the original doors as well as the church as a whole.
Who saved St. Ann’s that day? A layperson – a parishioner – who also happened to be a trained firefighter, who responded, ready to act, and who also had a key to the church.
Can the laity save the Church?
This fall, the Church on Fire – Stay With Us series explored the role of the laypeople – the laity – in saving not just churches but the Catholic Church itself. (The lecture was the restart of the series after the original series was on hiatus for a year and a half due to the pandemic.) Speaking were Deacon Bill Hines of Blessed Sacrament Church with a history of the laity prior to the major changes of Vatican II, and Director of Parish Engagement for the Diocese of Buffalo Eileen Warner, who spoke about Vatican II and its aftermath. They were introduced by Parish Council President Michael Pitek, initiator and organizer of the lecture series.
Vatican II (1962–1965) was one of the most significant ecumenical (think: all-encompassing) councils in the history of the Church. Such councils are so rare that there have been fewer than two dozen, ever. (A couple of good reads about the history of these councils largely free of “churchy” language are here and here.) Vatican II was the most significant such council since the Council of Trent, held four centuries before. Like that council, held in response to the crisis of the Reformation, Vatican II was held to grapple with the crisis of modernism and secularism, which threatened to undercut the very foundation and relevance of the Church.
To the degree that non-Catholics (and even many Catholics) are familiar with Vatican II, most are aware of the change in celebrating the Mass from Latin to local, vernacular languages. Many are also aware of the physical changes to churches such as turning the altar around to face the congregation and the removal of communion rails.
But Vatican II also marked a fundamental change in the conception of the Church, from a clergy-dominated, almost medieval hierarchy to one in which the laity – the ones who fill the pews and give the money and raise the next generation of Catholics – are just as much the Church as the clergy.
The question is, has the Church – and the laity – fully embraced this equality, and acted as if it were true?
You can view the entire lecture here:
The laity prior to Vatican II: sidelined by the rise of the clergy
Deacon Bill Hines began with a historical overview of the laity prior to Vatican II, going back to the early Church. In those days, with few clergy, the Church was mostly laity – including Mary and Joseph. Most of the early saints were laity who were martyred for their faith.
Despite this, there was not much theology of the laity in the early Church, which is not surprising given that most theology was developed at early Church councils that were dominated by clergy. In fact, Deacon Bill told us, that remained the case until Vatican II. He credits Cardinal John Henry Newman (for whom the Newman Centers on college campuses are named), considered the “father of Vatican II,” with developing a theology of the laity in his book On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.
In that book, Deacon Bill made a point of mentioning, Newman made the case that lay Catholics saved the Church during the Arian crisis of the fourth century. The implication was clear: lay Catholics are the key to saving the Church in the current crisis.
Yet in the rigid political and religious hierarchies that developed in the Middle Ages, the clergy and religious orders came to dominate the Church. The laity, largely uneducated and illiterate, like the peasants most of them were, were largely relegated to keeping their obligations and being obedient.
Deacon Bill closed by illustrating how not only were most of the early saints and martyrs of the Church laity, some of the most recent are, too. He gave the story of the martyrs beheaded in 2015 by ISIS in Libya – twenty Egyptian Copts and one Christian migrant from Ghana – and displayed their icon.
They were all Mediterranean fishermen, as were many of the Apostles.
The laity after Vatican II: from watchers to doers to “be-ers”
Eileen Warner began with a story of a Franciscan priest and a convert from centuries ago, during another time of scandal within the Church. After working with the young man, the Franciscan believed he was ready to profess his new faith and join the Church, but the convert wanted to make a pilgrimage to Rome first. Alarmed, the Franciscan tried to talk him out of it, knowing that many things then happening in Rome – sale of indulgences, etc. – were not just wrong but scandalous. But the young man could not be dissuaded.
The priest’s worst fears were realized when the young man returned and recounted his trip. Indeed, he had seen it all. Surely this had derailed his intentions to join such a Church, the Franciscan thought. So he was surprised when the young man affirmed his intention to become Catholic. His reason, as Eileen told it, “If our Church can continue through all that, and it’s lasted a thousand-plus years already, that tells me the Holy Spirit is alive and well, and that’s the church I want to be part of.”
Eileen discussed the relevance of this story to our time, when Catholics are regularly asked – and ask themselves – “you’re still Catholic after all this?” But as the story illustrates, the Church is more than its hierarchy. Lay Catholics are just as essential to keeping the Church going, sometimes despite that hierarchy.
This was one of the big changes of Vatican II. In prior centuries – over a millennium and a half – the Catholic laity had been, as Warner put it, “watchers in a holy drama.” The clergy were in control, Mass was given in a language most didn’t understand, the priests didn’t face the congregation, and the laity knew but little of the scripture their faith was based upon. Maybe they could learn something from the stories illustrated by the pretty windows.
The irony is that in the middle ages the Church hierarchy came to resemble that hierarchy in Jerusalem which put to death the founder of their faith, having found his teachings of brotherhood and loving one’s neighbor too radical for them, and threatening to their established order.
In a way, Warner told us, Vatican II attempted to undo all that. “The laity must take up the renewal of the temporal order,” read one document from the council. Another document, one of the most significant, is known by its Latin name, Lumen Gentium, “The Light of the Nations.” Who are the light of the nations? The people of God – not just the clergy.
Much of Warner’s talk was devoted to walking us through just how that is supposed to work. Essentially, because lay people are in the world, we are called “to be the Church out in those places the clergy won’t get to” – workplaces, shops, hair salons, sportsball games. Vatican II changes the conception of lay people from watchers to doers to “be-ers.” I’ll drink to that.
This seemed to be what Pope Francis had in mind when two years ago he famously compared the Church to a “field hospital.” The early Church took in the weakest and cared for them – not just spiritually but physically. That’s a role to which the modern Church needs to return – not just clergy or religious orders, but everyone.
If you’re interested enough in this issue to have read this far, and also (hopefully) watched the lecture, you must have your own thoughts about it all. Here are some of mine.
So what does all this mean?
If the Church is indeed a field hospital as Pope Francis says, we need to keep the hospital from burning down around us. How do we do that?
It seems to me that training is key, and here’s why: Vatican II created a historic power-shift within the Church, with the laity being put on an equal footing with the clergy. Yet the clergy, like doctors, undergo years of education and training. The laity, not so much. How can they step into a role they’re not trained for?
As a way of increasing the knowledge of the laity, Vatican II added additional scripture readings to the Mass, but is that enough? A half-century later, how well do lay Catholics know the foundations of their faith? Especially compared with Protestant evangelicals who often attend church services twice on Sunday, hear hour-long sermons, and even have classes or Bible study during the week? We need educators like Deacon Bill, who has been teaching insightful classes at Blessed Sacrament to (yes) the laity, in every parish, especially with the shrinking pool of clergy.
The first lecture in the Church on Fire series was about St. Vincent, who was an organizer who organized religious organizations that organize. Vincentians still ask the Vincentian question, “what must be done?” and find a way to do it. Is there a saint who founded a religious order dedicated to training the laity? Vatican II achieved something extraordinary, but it didn’t prepare the laity for their role. It gave laity a new role and mission, but not the tools and training to carry them out.
A Movement to Restore Trust in the Movement to Restore Trust
To illustrate this point, look no further than the response to the clergy abuse crisis in the Buffalo Diocese. As that crisis rocked the diocese to its roots, clergy didn’t lead a response. With a few notable exceptions, they either kept quiet or stood behind Bishop Malone, even after his malfeasance was exposed for all to see.
The “Movement to Restore Trust” was ostensibly a lay initiative, but it was conceived, organized, and announced by Catholics leading prominent Catholic institutions and the well-connected donors who fund them. Rank-and-file Catholics were invited to show up for sessions at which they were told when and how they could participate, just like they are invited to show up for religious services at which they are told when and how they can participate.
Irony of ironies, the “Movement to Restore Trust” to respond to the crisis in the diocese was organized by leaders who have led their own Catholic institutions into crisis.
And how did rank-and-file Catholics respond to the crisis? Largely untrained, they responded the same way they do to every crisis, whether it be a church closing or a school closing or a badly conceived merger of parishes or a priest who makes bad decisions for their parish or some other controversy. Some held small-scale protests, and some started angry blogs, but by far the most common response was the passive aggression so often seen among disaffected Catholics who feel powerless to change something they feel is wrong: they stayed home and withheld their money.
In the end, it wasn’t the pressure of thousands of well-organized, well-informed, well-educated lay Catholics that ousted Bishop Malone, who clearly believed he had carte blanche to do as he wished with the entire hierarchy backing him up, but an investigative reporter whose work drew international attention and made the bishop a liability.
The Battle of Laity Gulf
Having visited many of the churches in the diocese as one of the co-founders of the Buffalo Mass Mob, I’ve seen the persistent gulf between laity and clergy – not everywhere, but in too many places. This failure to fulfill the promise of Vatican II is costing the Church – dearly. And not just in terms of lost revenues and attendance, but the practical know-how needed to get things back on track in each diocese and individual church.
One way to think of this is to consider a corollary to Lumen Gentium, the key Vatican II document mentioned above that calls on lay Catholics to be the Church in the places they frequent. A corollary arguing that it’s not just one-way, recognizing that in those places lay Catholics frequent and where they are called to be the Church – workplaces, shops, construction sites, sports fields, political campaigns, universities, protest marches, corporate board rooms – lay Catholics also pick up knowledge, insight, training, and wisdom that the clergy often lacks.
I’ve noticed from my involvement with the Buffalo Mass Mob, getting to know clergy around the diocese, that those who had lives or careers before entering the priesthood often stand out for their wisdom. And in terms of churches being able to resist closings and bad decisions by the hierarchy, having followed such issues for over a decade I’ve noticed that churches with more professionals have been much more successful. And churches like Blessed Sacrament, with a broad base of talented, skilled, experienced parishioners, are able to organize the ministries and programs – like Church on Fire – needed to be relevant in the community.
But perhaps the greatest example is Pope Francis himself. As he rose in the Church hierarchy, he never allowed himself to be seduced by the trappings and privileges and pomp and circumstance. At each stage, he kept his ties to the people, even taking the bus. The wisdom he learned from staying close to everyday people even when his rising status could have allowed him to increasingly isolate himself – as too much of the hierarchy has done – has served him well in his efforts to reform the Church.
To have any hope of fully reforming the Church, the rest of the hierarchy needs to follow his example in fully closing the gulf with the laity. And not just the powerful, well-connected laity, but rank-and-file Catholics and people who take the bus.
We can’t close our way out of this crisis
At the same time, I believe we need to make training, teaching, learning, preparation, and service play a central role in lives of all Catholics. We could start by drawing the line on further Catholic school closings. And in the Buffalo Diocese, rescuing Canisius College needs to be a concern of all of us. (Isn’t it ironic that a few years ago Canisius was at the heart of the “Movement to Restore Trust,” but now we find we need a movement to restore trust in the leadership of Canisius?)
And if we need more training and teaching, was this the right time to close the seminary? The diocese is suffering from a priest shortage, and the lack of a seminary just puts more hurdles in the way for someone to pursue the vocation of becoming a priest or a deacon. How did we allow that decision to be made, arbitrarily, by an interim bishop? If Vatican II revived the position and role of the laity, why are laity not consulted on such matters? Where is the laity’s House of Commons to give balance to the clergy’s House of Lords? Did the diocese consider other options for the seminary, like locating it at one of the local Catholic colleges or universities, where it could find economies by utilizing existing faculty and administration, and making classes more available to the laity who may want to take them?
In fact, that decision and the way it was made may be the perfect local illustration of just how far we have to go in fulfilling Vatican II’s promise of bridging the gulf between the hierarchy and the laity. There was no consultation with the laity. And the only consideration being that the shrinking pool of candidates for the priesthood could simply be educated out of state utterly disregards the need to train local laity who can’t put their lives on hold to attend an out-of-state seminary.
If the Church is a field hospital, as Pope Francis says, aren’t field hospitals located close to the need – like the inner-city and rural areas that have been big losers in the modern economy and are home to those who have been hurt the most? Yet those are just the places the hierarchy has been abandoning, shuttering churches and schools and walking away. Shouldn’t we be keeping those places open as a ministry and point of hope? What better place for lay Catholics to gain hands-on experience in ministry than the very places where there are the most needs that need to be ministered to?
Prior to Vatican II, the Catholic Church was structured in such as way that the clergy and religious orders ran things and did the work. That system, based on the rigid hierarchies and high birth rates of another time, was never replaced, and as those in it have aged out the human infrastructure the Church is based on is in a state of collapse. So while Vatican II adapted the Church’s theology to modern times, did it do enough to adapt structurally?
Don’t we have any better ideas than to just keep closing things?
Transitioning from church services to a Church of service
Perhaps the Catholic Church should take a page from the Mormons, who expect their young adults to spend a year or two in service. This would not only fill the gap left by the decline of the religious orders in meeting urgent needs, it would also provide every Catholic hands-on training in how to serve and how to lead – something they would take with them for the rest of their lives.
I’m from a Navy family, a branch of the military where training has always been paramount. When you’re on a ship, the success of the mission and even your survival depends on the training of everyone on board. After the disastrous fire on the USS Forrestal, in which the Navy lost ten dozen sailors and nearly the carrier itself, the Navy made everyone a firefighter. From cook to admiral, everyone in the Navy is now trained to fight fires.
But no one in the Navy receives more training than the nuclear engineers. My cousin was one of them, and put that training to good use in civilian life. At Three Mile Island, on the day of the disaster, he made sure the reactor he was operating did not fail when the other went critical. After that disaster, the nuclear industry committed to a training regimen as stringent as that of the Navy. Everyone in the industry whose work affects a reactor is now required to spend 25% of their time in training, much of it on simulators.
If, like Brian Castner’s grandfather, it is up to the laity to save the Church when the Church is on fire – or suffering a major blow – then we need to be trained, we need to have the same keys as the clergy, and we need to be on the spot, fully prepared to act and serve.
It’s either that, or watch something that once seemed mighty, precious, beautiful, and eternal crumble and collapse before our very eyes.
The teaching continues next month with the next presentation in the Church on Fire – Stay With Us series.
NEXT UP in the Catherine M. and Paul W. Beltz Lecture Series:
St. Francis of Assisi – Then and Today: Rebuild My Church
Rev. Ross Chamberland, O.F.M., Ed.D, Associate VP for Student Affairs, St. Bonaventure University
Thursday, January 20, 2022 @ 7:00 PM
Blessed Sacrament Church