In order to understand the current pickle, we must delve deeply into the culture and religious climate that created the American Catholic parish as it now exists. We must delve deeply into the murky history of the dark ages, a mysterious and distant period called the Dark Ages. This was a benighted and ignorant time in which men married only women and people did not usually kill their children in the womb nor did they have the means to blow up whole cities.
The Dark Ages begin with the fall of the glittering urban civilization of the Roman Empire, built and sustained by slaves. The Dark Ages lasted until about 1972. For most of that dark and distant period the Mass of the Catholic Church in Europe looked and sounded pretty much the same. By the time of Emperor Charlemagne (800 AD, give or take), Mass was pretty much the same from Bishop’s Ichington England to Dabrow Tarnowska, Poland.
There were two flavors of Catholicism at the time, diocesan and monastic. The monastic flavor was the style of worship cultivated by monks in monasteries. The word “monk” comes from the Greek word “monachos” or “loner.” Monasteries were places where the monks of the 4th and 5th centuries came to be alone together. Being alone without anybody to help you be alone can get very tricky. Monasticism got its start among the Christians in Egypt around 250 AD. It was getting harder and harder to get martyred as a Christian and there were more and more Christians with lower and lower standards, so people would run off to the deserts to get away from the worldly influences that were creeping into the Church. These first Christian hermits would try to draw closer to the Lord and to Christian perfection by living alone in such out of the way places as caves, tombs and the occasional abandoned chicken coop. It didn’t always work.
My favorite monastic ascetics were the pillar sitters. They would try to escape the corruption of the world by living atop pillars, where those still in the world would gather to gawk at the wonder of such sanctity. The pillar sitters would hurl holy abuse at the reprobates on the ground floor and build higher and higher pillars to remove themselves yet further from this evil world. This would cause more gawkers to assemble in awestruck admiration. Soon it was a matter of the higher the pillar, the holier the hermit. This kind of monasticism carried on in the Eastern Church well into the 12th century. In fact, even now, Fr. Maxim, a monk in the country of Georgia is fixing up a hut on top of Katshki pillar and intends to take up residence when the hut is complete. Happy days are here again!
This sort of thing largely died out in the West because of a fellow named Benedict of Nursia (around 500 AD). He too, wanted to escape worldly corruption, but managed to do it with other like-minded people for whom he wrote a rule of life, now called the Rule of St. Benedict. It was a brief constitution on how to live the Christian life in a community of people who were withdrawn from the world. They live a shared life, isolated from the outside world, but they had lived under the leadership of an abbot who kept them from going completely squirrely and climbing pillars. Benedict’s motto was “ora et labora.” Pray and work. In other words, “Get off the #$%!@ pillar and make yourself useful.” And, boy did they! They salvaged western culture, preserved the intellectual heritage of antiquity, preserved literacy, developed farming, drained malarial swamps, fed the poor, cared for the sick and developed the liturgy and theology of the Church. Their monasteries were beacons of light in a troubled age. And they brewed beer. It’s all good. There was another flavor of Catholicism: the diocese.
In the later Roman Empire things were organized into administrative districts called “dioikesis”. The root word of diocese is the Greek word “oikos” or “house.” Diocese, in ancient Greek meant administration, or household management. Similarly, the word parish comes from the word “oikos.” “Par-oikia” becomes “parish” in English. So, a parish is,“the (area) around the house”, or the “neighborhood.”
During the 4th and 5th centuries, the persecuted Church slowly became the official Church. It was only natural that the administrative divisions of the Church conform to the structure of local civil society. We still do this. We still identify local churches with civil units such as the Archdiocese of Chicago which is limited geographically to Cook and Lake Counties.
When the barbarians (my people) invaded and conquered the western half of the Roman Empire around from 450 AD, the Roman army and government bureaucracy skedaddled to the east where the empire still stood with its new capital, Constantinople. Bishops and priests in Europe stepped in to take the place of the absent Roman government; things like feeding the poor, judging legal disputes, cleaning out the aqueducts, etc. From that point on things got strange. The government tried to appoint the clergy and the clergy tried to control the government. To be a member of the body politic, it was necessary to be a member of the Church. If a pope or local bishop excommunicated a king or feudal lord, the subjects of that ruler no longer had to pay their taxes, serve in the army or even to obey. In effect, the citizenry would go on strike. It often worked. The rulers dreaded excommunication. The flip side of the coin was that kings and local rulers got very involved in the appointment of clergy. It was great to have a friend or relative on the local episcopal throne who wouldn’t dispute your choice and number of wives or your abuse of the peasants.
The state and the Church became hopelessly intertwined in Europe. Take, for instance, the Holy Roman Emperor, who was never Roman and rarely holy. He nominally controlled most of Europe. He was elected by 7 electors, four of whom were secular leaders and three of whom were Archbishops! The job of elector was quite a plum. With it came huge bribes and favors from those wanting the job of emperor. It sounds a little like Chicago, no?
There were reasons to aspire to the episcopacy other than a desire to give your life to Christ. In 1461, there was a shooting war in central Germany, called the Erzstiftsfehde, or “church feud.” Bishop Diether and Bishop Adolf decided to fight it out as to who would be the Archbishop of Mainz, and hence an imperial elector. The village of my grandmother’s family backed the reformist, Bishop Diether. Bad choice. Bishop Adolf put the town under siege and after three days we ran out of beer and sausage and so we surrendered. There are three cannon balls mounted in the town church wall to commemorate the event.
That was a time when people took religion seriously! Things were quite a muddle. The clergy could excommunicate the local leader, but on the other hand, bishops were by and large appointed by the local aristocracy after a bit of negotiating with the pope and other local church officials. Parish priests were pretty much appointed by the local squire or landowner without a lot of training, or much of a salary. They might have to farm on the side and maybe charge a little extra for a wedding just to make ends meet. In remote districts and small towns the local pastor might not have a clue what he was saying at Mass, because he couldn’t understand Latin.
Meanwhile, there were still the monasteries where the clergy were literate and sometimes even devout. The life of the monk was designed to be a rhythm of prayer, study and work. They prayed the Liturgy of the Hours, a collection of psalms and readings that gives a wonderful rhythm to life and faith. Monastic life endures to this day. The parish priest on the other hand buried the dead, baptized the babies, dealt with the local chaos like cheating spouses, feuding neighbors and accusations of witchcraft. In addition they had to squeeze enough money out of the job, the people and the local landlord to keep body and soul together. It is interesting to note that even now monks and nuns tend to live into their 80’s and 90’s. Diocesan (parish) priests tend to drop dead in their 60’s and early 70’s.
Next Week: “the “Benefice”, or “All this can be yours, Father”