One Sunday morning, during the summer of 2018, when much of America had come to regard the Catholic Church in America as a decaying organization beset by hidden evil, Baltimore auxiliary bishop Mark Brennan paid a visit to my former parish to celebrate Mass.
I was an altar boy for Bishop Brennan and knew him to be a good priest. He always seemed humble to me, devoted to prayer, and sincere. He took the CCD kids to Baltimore Orioles games, chaperoned retreats, and stopped by my St. Pius X classroom to offer catechism. He was also an intellectual. In fact, my deceased uncle, Msgr. Thomas Wells, who was in Bishop Brennan’s class in seminary, once said, “Mark Brennan is the smartest man I know.”
So when he stepped behind the ambo to give his homily at Our Lady of the Fields, I knew he’d oblige his shepherding mandate. He was dispatched by Archbishop William E. Lori, I figured that day, to address the disillusionment and outrage parishioners felt over the predator McCarrick, the Pa. grand jury findings, and multitudinous other Church scandals. American Catholics were beginning to flood out of the Church., and Bishop Brennan, I hoped that day, was asked by Archbishop Lori to help stem the tide.
Then he spoke, and his homily was centered on racism.
Heartbreakingly, I understood. This humble priest, who has since replaced the disgraced Bishop Michael Bransfield in West Virginia, was told what to preach.
I approached my childhood friend after Mass. “Why would you preach on racism at this time, during this awful summer in the Church?” I don’t recall his answer, but I do remember his look. It seemed to be one of embarrassment and, even more tragically, confusion.
Washington archbishop Wilton Gregory recently said he found “reprehensible” the action of President Trump. What he and we should find more reprehensible are those actions by the Catholic Church that have contributed to racial disharmony and the tragic abdication of the black community in the U.S.
Gregory condemned President Trump and leaders at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine for his Tuesday appearance with the First Lady. Trumps’s visit had been planned long in advance “as an event for the president to sign an executive order on international religious freedom.” Gregory used the opportunity to make Trump seem like an opportunist just a day after he was lampooned for holding a Bible in front of Saint John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House.
Various media sources and those in proximity to St. John’s claim that peaceful protesters were aggressively cleared out for Trump’s photo op, which if true warrants rebuke. No peaceful protester should be moved an inch from his locale. A sincere apology by an administration would be in order whenever this happens.
Why, though, waste a precious archbishop bully pulpit on an opportunity to condemn a man for obliging an already scheduled commitment? There are enough hordes of willing participants to condemn Trump. What has Archbishop Gregory said that has brought people back to Christ and into the understanding of the unique role played by the Catholic Church in this endeavor?
The murderous event that took place on the street in Minneapolis is an unforgettable dark stain, an American evil. Eric Garner’s plea in 2014 on a New York city street for breath before becoming asphyxiated by a police officer seared the consciences of millions. Anger from the black community, and all faithful Christians, is understandable.
Much of their grievances should be directed at the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Archbishop Gregory, perhaps better than anyone as the first black bishop in Washington, D.C., should know why.
During the seismic upheaval in the Catholic Church in the 1960s, as the Black Power movement ascended into societal prominence, a large portion of Catholic leadership abandoned — or heavily divested itself of — its Christ-directed duty to feed, house, and care for the inner-city poor to the federal government. Sixty years later, the question must be asked: are the souls of multi-generational welfare families closer to God? Has government welfare assistance for blacks in inner cities helped to promote virtue or holy priests like Venerable Augustus Tolton or Sister Thea Bowman?
More than 80 churches and schools have closed down in the Baltimore archdiocese over the past half-century, the majority of which were from inner cities. They closed because few Catholic leaders gave the community even a heartbeat’s chance to survive — they left their once tender care of the inner city mostly to the government. They closed because bishops said they didn’t have the money. Meanwhile, bishops continue to have personal drivers, personal secretaries, personal chefs, and personal multi-million-dollar residential accommodations.
Many have postulated about the merit or lack of merit of government programs. Yvonne Warren has lived within it the last half-century. “Once the government came into the community with the welfare system, everything changed,” said Warren, an elder stateswoman at a Catholic inner-city parish, who attended segregated Masses as a child. “Folks in the city lost their ambition and stopped setting goals. Things became disordered.”
Having worked in the construction industry for 17 years, I’d spent many hundreds of hours in poor communities in Southeast Washington, D.C. Over and over, I paid witness to horror — drug use in the open, murders and shootings on job sites, a pandemic of theft, stressed out moms shouting vulgarities into their too-young children’s ears if they’re dawdling on their walk to school.
Abortions rage, drug lords rule neighborhoods, few dads are at home, and there are killings every night. Are souls closer to God because of government assistance?
Why did the Catholic Church seemingly aid and abet the secular world’s approach to meeting the needs of the poor and then abdicate its unique role? The government doesn’t do charity of heart very well. The Catholic Church does. Or does it anymore?
Just for starters, it’s simply not charitable to leave unaddressed the scandal of modern-day Catholics’ vanishing belief in the Eucharist. In the aftermath of Pew Research pollsters reporting that 70 percent of Catholics no longer believe in the Real Presence, little was done by Church leaders or pastors to steer laity to the Catholic crime of their disbelief. It was a whitewashing of the most alarming news to rear up since McCarrick. Without devotion to the actual Body of Christ, we might as well not be Catholic. The hell with it, as Flannery O’Connor said.
Accordingly, at this dark inflection point in history, there is a linear symmetry as to why so many hundreds of Catholic churches remain closed for Mass. If the Eucharist — the source and summit of our faith? — has been relegated to a symbol by 70 percent of Catholics, why would bishops care to open up Masses and the Eucharist as a curative for the hate, destruction, and racial tension Americans awaken to each morning? The majority of Catholics don’t know of its salvific weight anyway.
Has our 2,000-year-old choir of shepherds forgotten its melody — or have they just decided to change it? Once, all bishops seemed to know that the cure for every single form of societal cancer was the Eucharist and the blazing furnace of the Gospel (even the thornier parts). But the Truth of the Gospel, too, has been constrained by Church leaders. While it was simple for Archbishop Gregory to find his Baptist-like prophetic voice on the social media topic of the day — the scoundrel Trump — he’s been muted on “transgender” genital mutilation, injecting sodomy into marriage, perversions, the secular zeitgeist, Fr. James Martin’s blasphemous rampage in the Church, and Catholic politicians who fight for the murder of a child at nine months in the womb.
That Archbishop Gregory and his confrères refuse to open Masses fully everywhere now — daily, Sunday, midnight, 5 A.M., round-the-clock, whenever — as this pandemic continues to wane speaks clearly to a lack of supernatural faith and compassion for the growing laity who hunger for the sacramental energy and restfulness found in the Mass. If folks choose to remain home due to concerns over COVID-19, so be it. But the doors should be opened now, and Masses celebrated everywhere throughout a shaken and dispirited America. The Eucharist is the balm.
The question must be asked: have the USCCB and bishops decided to covertly re-engineer the Church’s shepherding mandate? God desires that He be slaughtered, if necessary, for His flock; Jesus said as much at the Great Commission. The bishop is the slaughtered lamb — the martyred apostle whose lifelong burden it is to steer souls to sanctity and to Heaven. It is easy to present a homily, dispatch a tweet on racism, or hold up a placard stating #BlackLivesMatter. What is not easy is obliging one’s identity to die to self — or to dig up the tomb of an abdication of spiritual and temporal care to a black community passed on to a welfare system in the 1960s.
The paternal deficiency of bishops and priests has been the foundational reason for the stack of lawsuits, the spiritually drained and fallen away Catholic laity, the subculture of grievous evil and shuttered parishes throughout a forlorn Catholic landscape. Perhaps because clergy have so poorly understood the essence of fatherhood the past half-century, they paid no mind to what would unfold from fatherless homes in inner-city neighborhoods.
One more vital question must be asked: has a half-century of priestly avoidance of homilizing on the tougher aspects of Catholic teaching been the reason for what is going on in America at this grave hinge point? This dark hour in American history has little do with President Trump. It has everything to do with the ailing soul of America and the ominous place to which it’s lurching.
It’s been said that obliging Natural Law means being rooted in reality and that being rooted in reality grazes up against God’s heart. What’s it say about ourselves when we abandon Natural Law — that we’ve attained a new kind of enlightenment? That we’ve progressed past antiquated cultural norms? That we’ve evolved? Well, maybe we have evolved, but God has not.
Image: WashArchdiocese via YouTube.
Kevin Wells is a Catholic writer, speaker, and former sports reporter with the Tampa Tribune, where he covered major-league baseball. He is the author of the best-selling Catholic book The Priests We Need to Save the Church (Sophia, 2019) and Burst, A Story of God’s Grace When Life Falls Apart (Servant).
Wells is president of the Monsignor Thomas Wells Society for Vocations. His work with youths earned him the James Cardinal Hickey National Figure Award from the Archdiocese of Washington. He lives in Millersville, Md., with his wife and three children. To learn more about Kevin and to read his blogs and articles, please visit ThePriestsWeNeed.com.