Letter from America
Philip Zaleski


Every year, in the midst of the bleak New England winter, our small parish holds a "Dickens Festival" to raise both money and spirits. The festival itself is a pleasant affair, or so I’m told, with plenty of fresh donuts, smiling faces, and robust caroling, but for one reason or another I’ve never been able to attend. This means, of course, that I miss out on the sale tables, with their typically arcane Catholic bric-a-brac – discarded bibles, old prayer cards, kitschy paintings of St. Therese – pure manna for a collector of memorabilia like myself. Once again this year I couldn’t attend the festival, but by the grace of God, the festival came to me.

It happened like this: a few months ago I found myself babysitting my youngest son in the basement parish hall while the rest of the family attended Mass upstairs (a little chatter is one thing, but waving to the priest during the consecration had warranted a hasty exit). Andy likes to poke around the hall at times during these strategic retreats, and before I knew it he had discovered a large cardboard box tucked in a shadowy corner. Someone had scrawled "Free" across the top. I cracked the box open; inside lay the detritus of this year’s festival.

The top layer, I soon discovered, offered nothing but dusty tableware and broken toasters. Some additional excavating, though, revealed a vein of more promising substance: used books. Out came the inevitable romance novels, the dog-eared biographies of Thomas Dooley, the pop spiritual tomes with their bright yellow-and-red covers. Out came the old copies of The Catholic Digest. Out came. . . .but what was this? A large book and small book, tucked against one other at the bottom of the box. I hauled them into the light and realized that I had unearthed a treasure trove.

The first volume was an uncut gem, a prepublication galley of the Catechism of the Catholic Church; a raw version, of little practical use now that the second edition, revised in accordance with the official Latin text, has become the standard form, but nonetheless a bibliographic curiosity of some interest to those of us who treasure the Catechism as the indispensable contemporary guide to Catholic life. The second volume was a little booklet bound in crinkly cream-colored paper, bearing on its cover a sepia portrait of the Holy Father and the somewhat peculiar title "Do Not Go Away Sad. . . ." Inside, as I discovered to my delight, was the complete text of John Paul II’s first papal homily on American soil, delivered in Boston Common on October 1, 1979.

Here was more than a bibliographic curiosity: this was a document of considerable personal and historical value. For I had been on Boston Common that wet autumn day, with my young wife on my arm, watching the Pope’s motorcade circle around Tremont and State Streets while he waved at the crowd, his face beaming, his wide, tasseled sombrero-like hat (a style now retired to the papal closet) askew. This was before the assassination attempt and the Pope-Mobile, and all that had separated us from John Paul was a few feet of polluted city air. Later we had stood for several hours in the rain, our shoes sinking into the mud as we awaited John Paul’s first pontifical Mass on American soil. But the torrent drove us away, and we missed the service. We were not Catholics then, and we didn’t yet understand just what this pontiff would mean to the world – and to us and our family.

As soon as I began to read the pamphlet, I realized that the Pope’s homily was more than a formal welcome address; it was a declaration of love. The Pope loves America. He states at the outset:

I come to the United States of America as successor of Peter and as a pilgrim of faith. It gives me great joy to be able to make this visit. . . .On this first day of my visit, I wish to express my esteem and love for America itself, for the experience that began two centuries ago and that carries the name "United States of America"; for the past achievements of this land and for its dedication to a more just and human future; for the generosity with which this country has offered shelter, freedom, and a chance for betterment to all who have come to its shores; and for the human solidarity that impels you to collaborate with all other nations so that freedom may be safeguarded and full human advancement made possible. I greet you, America the beautiful!

John Paul has echoed this high regard for America on every subsequent trip; "Let us thank God for the extraordinary human epic that is the United States of America," he declared in 1995, epitomizing more than two decades of happy admiration. What is it about America that the Pope loves so much? The more one peruses the documents of his visits, the more one realizes that his high valuation is pinned to the quintessential American emphasis on freedom.

Thus in 1995: "From its beginning until now, the United States has been a haven for generation after generation of new arrivals . . .[with] a shared vision of human dignity and freedom. . . .America will continue to be a land of promise as long as it continues to be a land of freedom and justice for all." In 1987: "From the beginning of America, freedom was directed to forming a well-ordered society and to promoting its peaceful life." Again from 1987: "I willingly join you in your prayer of thanksgiving to God for the providential way in which the Constitution has served the people of this nation for two centuries. . .and [for] the blessings of liberty it has secured."

Needless to say, the Holy Father’s enthusiasm is not that of a patriot nor of a constitutional scholar. He loves America because America has a legacy of protecting human dignity, and, as a corollary, has for several centuries extended its welcome to the Church. The history of America can be read, inter alia, as one phase in the fulfillment of Jesus’ injunction in Matthew 28:19: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.". "We give thanks to God for the way in which the Church has ‘made a home’ in America," the Pope declared in New Jersey in 1995; he added that "the Church must continue to build God’s spiritual house in America." Later the same day he expanded upon this idea, reminding his audience of clergy and religious that the assembly that "the new evangelization of America calls for a great spiritual maturity on your part."

All this raises some fascinating questions: what sort of spiritual maturity does the Pope ask for? What sort of freedom does he celebrate? How has the Church responded to his call? These are questions that Catholics in every land should be asking themselves about the universal Church and about their own national experience; they are, nonetheless, of particular import for American Catholics, for the Church in the New World is a mere 500 years old and still very much in the process of defining itself and its mission.

As a prelude to answering these questions, it is useful to bear in mind that the Church in every nation – or, better, every country, which is not the same thing – bears two "marks" or "signs" of its identity. The first mark is external, transitory, and historic-cultural in origin. This mark is determined by social and economic forces, by the temperament of the people, by landscape and geography, even by climate. This is the face of the Church turned toward the world.

The second mark is internal, eternal, and determined by the Church’s relationship to Christ, by the way in which it declares itself as a witness to Christ. This is the face of the Church turned toward God; it is thus a sign of contradiction toward the world.

These two marks always complement one another; often they do this by standing in tension against one another. This is as it should be, for the Church is simultaneously for the world (‘The earth is full of the goodness of the lord," Psalm 33:5) and against the world ("Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him" 1 John 2:15).

Let me clarify this schema with some brief examples. I have traveled much in Malta, the home of my maternal ancestors, and I have enjoyed many opportunities to gauge the life of the Maltese Church. No one who knows Malta will be surprised when I say that the first mark of the Church in Malta is exuberant discord. How petulant Maltese Catholics can be, how eagerly they pour so much energy into intra-parish squabbles and inter-parish feuds! In this regard, the Church in Malta reflects the national saga with uncanny accuracy, for Malta has little to call its own (its art is Italianate, its language Arabic, its political structure British) and those without secure possessions are wont to fight for an inch of ground, even among themselves. Add to this the Mediterranean sun and the African xlokk (sirocco), and you get a fiery intensity unmatched in Christendom. Yes, the first mark of the Maltese Church is exuberant discord; and one remembers that St. Paul shipwrecked upon Maltese rocks. Yet Malta remains the most Catholic nation in Europe, a land where almost everyone attends Sunday Mass, and roadside chapels and shrines vastly outnumber video stores or McDonalds. In June of 1990 I witnessed the whole nation rush as one man to greet the Holy Father during his visit to the island, an event inconceivable even in Poland. The second mark of the Maltese Church is unity, and one remembers that the Maltese people rejoiced in St. Paul’s visit, that they converted as one ("The natives showed us unusual kindness. . . .They presented many gifts to us, and when we sailed, they put on board whatever we needed" Acts 28: 2, 10), and that they have remained passionately Catholic ever since.

Similarly, the first mark of the Church in Japan is weakness, reflecting its miniscule numbers, its inability to evangelize, its lack of influence in the culture at large. But the second mark of the church of Japan is the red badge of martyrdom, and this raises it high in the power and glory of the Faith.

As these two examples indicate, we may read in the second mark of the Church in any land the Church’s true nature, and it is our obligation as disciples of Christ to nurture this second mark, even with our blood. This is not to say that the first mark is divorced from Christ; for Christ dwells in every corner of His Church, but the first mark is always disfigured by the sinful works of man. Our obligation becomes, then, not only to nurture the second mark, but to nurture it in order that it may reform and heal the first mark, so that the face of the Church turned toward the world becomes one with the face of the Church turned toward heaven.

What, then, are the two marks of the Church in America? Not surprisingly, as a reading of John Paul II suggests, both marks have to do with freedom. The first mark is conditioned by freedom as it is commonly understood in liberal democracies: freedom of choice and expression, displaying itself in a rich proliferation of ideas and practices. This is the freedom that goes with abundance, wealth, and power, the freedom that normally comes to mind when one of America.

This mark is, to some degree, cause for celebration. For instance, within the next few months my local parish will sponsor a Spanish night, an Irish night, and lectures on John Henry Newman and on Russian icons (the later given by an Orthodox scholar). This first mark of the Church in America reflects the lively ferment of American Catholic intellectual and spiritual life, recently manifested by an intense interest in liturgical studies (thus the new Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake), in sacred arts (thus the explosion of books and courses on iconography, sacred architecture, and the like), in new lay movements (thus Focolare, Foyers of Charity; etc.) and in eucharistic devotion, the rosary, contemplation, and other traditional forms of prayer. But this mark also signifies dissent and dissonance, "America faces a time of trial," declared the Pope in a recent visit, and few doubt that this trial includes the Church. Pressures to conform the Church to the American cultural matrix, with a concomitant shift in traditional teachings on sexual and social issues, continue unabated.

The first mark of the American church, then, is a mix of gold and fool’s gold. The ersatz metal originates, predictably enough, from an ersatz understanding of human freedom. As brilliantly articulated by John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor and other writings, authentic freedom means more than choice; it means choosing that which leads to greater freedom. The Pope elucidates this principle, with special reference to the American dilemma, in a speech from his 1987 visit:

From the beginning of America, freedom was directed to forming a well-ordered society and to promoting its peaceful life. Freedom was channeled to the fullness of human life, to the preservation of human dignity and to the safeguarding of all human rights. An experience of ordered freedom is truly a cherished part of the history of this land.

This is the freedom that America is called to live and guard and to transmit. . . .The only true freedom, the only freedom that can truly satisfy is. . .the freedom to live the truth of what we are and who we are before God, the truth of our identity as children of God. . . .

At a difficult moment in the history of this country, a great American, Abraham Lincoln, spoke of a special need at that time: "that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom." A new birth of freedom is repeatedly necessary. . . the freedom to live by truth, to defend it against whatever distorts and manipulates it, the freedom to observe God’s law – which is the supreme standard of human liberty – the freedom to live as children of God, secure and happy: the freedom to be America in that constitutional democracy which was conceived to be "One Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." (Italics in original document).

The Catholic understanding of freedom rests squarely upon Jesus’ declaration that "if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32) Our Lord does not say that freedom will bring you truth, but that truth will bring you freedom. Christ is this truth; and the freedom that He brings is freedom from sin, freedom from death, freedom for life, freedom for God . Jesus declares that "truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin." (John 8:34) But to those who live in Christ, a genuine freedom awaits, for "if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:36). Thus any action forced by addiction, passion, or any negative emotion – that is, any action taken under compulsion – becomes a denial of freedom. Authentic freedom lies in movement toward God; and this inevitably means movement towards one’s neighbor. As St. Paul writes, "For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in the word, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Galatians 5:13-14

This authentic freedom lies, as it must, at the core of the second mark of the Church in America. If the first mark is that of wealth and experiment, the second mark is that of poverty and surrender. This is the freedom of the children of God, heirs to heaven, who willingly sacrifice everything for the love of Christ. This second mark is the mark of conscience, the mark of the Church as American counterculture, offering always a joyous alternative to the American consumerist ethos.

To better understand this second mark, I propose that we examine the two key events that befell the American Church in the last twelve months: the canonization of Mother Katherine Drexel and the naming as cardinal of Father Avery Dulles. Both of these events, I believe, demonstrate strong movement within the Catholic Church in America towards its true vocation of surrender and poverty.

On October 1, 2000, Katherine Drexel became only the second native-born American to be named a saint. Her story reads like the American rags-to-riches dream run backwards, Cinderella in reverse: a princess who gave up her crown to walk bareheaded and barefoot among the poor and destitute, forging a fairy tale that begins on earth and ends in heaven. Our saint was born in 1858 into the Drexels of Philadelphia, one of the wealthiest families in the United States, and entered into a brocaded world of high teas, debutante balls, and refined etiquette. Early in life, however, she developed an interest in American Indians, and by1885 she had founded a school for Indians in Sante Fe, followed by mission schools in South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wyoming. These charitable works led in turn to utter disillusionment with her privileged life as a wealthy heiress; in a letter composed during her twenty-fifth year, she compared herself to "a little girl who weeps when she found out that her doll was stuffed with sawdust and her drum was hollow." In 1889, Drexel took vows as a religious. She thereby exchanged as the brief for her canonization disclosed, the silk blouses and gold bracelets of the Philadelphia socialite for the hair shirts and iron chains (worn around waist and arms) of a penitent. These are small penances, but significant in a society belle. On February 12, 1891 (the birthday, one notes, of Abraham Lincoln) Drexel formed the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People, and proceeded to found 145 missions and sixty-two schools across the nation, as well as Xavier University, the first Catholic institute of higher learning for black students. By the time of her death, she had spent nearly twenty million dollars of her own money – a staggering fortune, between fifty and one hundred million dollars by modern standards – on foundations for the poor. A lifelong friend said of her that "she spared herself no fatigue and her love of personal poverty made her oblivious to comfort of any kind. She went long distances. . .and she went simple, silent, and unknown."

Here, then, we have Katherine Drexel, the embodiment of American wealth and the intoxicating lifestyle that it engenders, surrendering all for love of neighbor and love of Christ. Katherine Drexel answered the call stated so clearly in the Dogmatic Constituttion on the Church, Lumen Gentium: "All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity" (LG 40:2). Relinquishing all – money, power, influence – she has found perfect freedom in Christ, the freedom of all who declare "not my will, but thine, be done" (Luke 22:42). By conforming to Christ, she has attained to glory: "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those who he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified" (Romans 8:28-30). By choosing the freedom of perfect obedience, the freedom of unconditional love, the freedom of the Cross, Drexel has helped to bring about the healing of the first mark of the Church in America, and she has enhanced the radiance of the second.

Less than four months after Katherine Drexel’s canonization, another momentous event occurred in the American Church, one with remarkable parallels to Drexel’s tale. Instead of a nun, we have a priest; instead of a caregiver, an intellectual; instead of the surrender of wealth, the surrender of power. On January 22 of this year, John Paul II named 37 new members of the College of Cardinals. The most intriguing selection, from the American perspective, was certainly the appointment of Avery Dulles, an octogenarian theologian and university professor. Dulles greeted his appointment with typical modesty. " To be named a cardinal is not only an honor but in many ways a challenge. At my relatively advanced age, I will have the task of trying to learn how to look and act cardinalatial. I am very much accustomed to my informal and rather plebian manners." But these "plebian manners" hide an aristocratic background. For Dulles, like Drexel, is the heir-apparent of a preeminent American family -- his father was secretary of state under President Dwight Eisenhower, his great-grandfather held the same post under President Benjamin Harrison, as did his great-uncle under President Woodrow Wilson, and his uncle directed the CIA – who abandoned all for the life of Christ. He converted to the Catholic Church in 1940 and has been a Jesuit priest for nearly half a century.

More significant than Dulles’ family history, is the character of his theological career. Remaining true to the original Jesuit impulse defined by St. Ignatius Loyola, Dulles has always worked in fealty to the Pope and the magisterium, illuminating the nature of faith, the Church, discipleship, and revelation in the light of scripture and tradition. He has been especially helpful on the nature of freedom, insisting always on the link between personal and social liberty. "Democracy," he has said, "is more than a political experiment. It is a spiritual and moral enterprise, depending for its success upon the virtue of the citizens. . . .the crisis of society, therefore, is simply that of the individual writ large." This was written in 1995, but one finds the same motif in A Testimonial of Grace, his 1946 account of his conversion: "The Catholic Church denie[s] that human freedom [is] tantamount to complete self-determination. Man. . .is dependent upon his neighbor for both his survival and his development."

Dulles’s understanding of freedom, a reaffirmation of the traditional Catholic view, sheds immediate light on many of the thornier issues currently besetting the Church in America. One instructive example is the controversy surrounding Ex Corde Ecclesia, the Pope’s 1990 document on Catholic higher education, and the suggestion by U.S. bishops that its application to the American scene involve the issuing, to Catholic theologians on Catholic faculties, of a mandatum (defined by the bishops as "an acknowledgement by church authority that a Catholic professor of theological discipline is a teacher within the full communion of the Catholic Church"). The mandatum, as the bishops have repeatedly explained, is designed to ensure that teachers of Catholic theology present the tradition faithfully and fully. Dissenting theologians frequently contend, however, that the mandatum is based on a "European model" and has no place within an American context. By "European model" is meant, of course, the authority of the magisterium; by "American context" is meant the academic-secular ideal of free-wheeling speech, action, and belief.

Happily, Avery Dulles has been busy elucidating the relationship of theologians and the magisterium for several years, notably in The Craft of Theology (1992). In typically irenic fashion, he emphasizes the mutual interdependence of these two elements in the Church. Theology, he suggests, would be lost in unproductive byways without the sure guidance of the magisterium; the magisterium, in turn, depends upon the technical skill and mature comments of theologians. Given these complementary roles, Dulles sounds a warning about theologians setting up a "parallel magisterium," as he specifically has accused the Catholic Theological Association (America’s largest professional organization for Catholic theologians) of attempting to do. Dulles’s comments on a mandatum are typically commonsensical: "It is important. . .that the teaching of the Church be presented fairly, respectfully, and in a favorable light. A professor who seriously disagrees with church teaching on a broad spectrum of issues might be disqualified from teaching or preaching with an ecclesiastical mandate" Indeed, he adds, "There is no guarantee that true doctrine will always be pleasing to the general public. Jesus uttered hard sayings, in full awareness that in doing so he was alienating some of his own followers. . . .The whole Church, including the theological community, depends on the courage and fidelity of the hierarchical magisterium in continuing to hand on these words of life." In an earlier work, A Church to Believe In (1982), Dulles lays the groundwork for the necessary authority of the magisterium, writing that "the freedom of the Christian in the Church is an incipient, growing reality, continually requiring a docile submission to Christ’s liberating action" and that "the freedom of the Christian is above all else the freedom to relinquish self-assertion and to serve with generous love." The freedom of the Christian is the freedom to enter through the narrow gate, the entrance that requires the surrender of all that impedes our progress and deforms our being. This surrender begins at baptism and never ends; the work of theologians and the magisterium become, then, means toward this never-ending "Yes" to God, exemplified for all time by the Magnificat of Our Lady. We say yes to self-giving, no to self-feeding; yes to Christ, no to sin; we live on our knees, and only in this way do we rise to our full stature as heirs of the kingdom.

Seen through the lens of Christian truth, the history of the Church in America is correctly read as the quest for true poverty, true surrender, true freedom. This brings us, finally, to a third recent story – this one just missing my self-imposed twelve-month filter – of major importance for American Catholicism: the declaration by the Holy Father in his Apostolic Exhortation of January 22, 1999, that the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, "Mother and Evangelizer of America," be celebrated throughout the continent on December 12. How fitting that this apparition of the Virgin as a young Indian girl (an icon of perfect powerlessness), appearing to an impoverished peasant by the name of Quauhtlatoatzin, baptized Juan Diego (a second icon of perfect powerlessness), in the arid, poverty-strewn land of central Mexico (yet a third image of perfect powerlessness) -- that this image of sanctity in poverty and of purity in impotence -- should be the unifying symbol for the Church in all the Americas, North, Central, and South. When I walk past the elegant statuary and exquisite stained glass of my parish church and make enter the small side chapel where eucharistic devotion unfolds every Monday, and I kneel to face the exposed Body of Christ, I can see, hanging on the wall beyond his radiant flesh, a reproduction of the tilma – the mantle -- of Juan Diego, stamped with the miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin of Guadalupe. A single glance encompasses Christ in his eternal sacrifice and Our Lady in her eternal yes. May we pray together that this second mark of the Church in America, the mark of Katherine Drexel and Avery Dulles, the mark of perfect freedom in surrender to Christ, through Mary, grow ever more resplendent, and ever more our own.