Letter to Robinson K. Russo, a young seminarian, continued:
Last week I said that the Church I knew had been slowly eroding for perhaps half a century. Perhaps I misspoke. The erosion has progressed at breakneck speed. It's just that we were slow to notice it. The whole thing can be blamed on people like Alexander Graham Bell and Henry Ford and that crowd of reckless progressives. I would push the great unravelling back even farther to that notorious speed demon, Richard Trevithick (1771- 1833), an inventor from Cornwall, England who pioneered steam-powered rail transport. It was he who built the first locomotive railway powered by steam.
At this point you may well ask what does this have to do with the diocesan priesthood? Let us think rather of the “parish” priesthood. With the birth of the steam railway, commenced the beginning of the end of the parish, hence the end of the diocesan priesthood as I have known it. The parish developed in a world where it was expected that very few would travel more than a few miles from the place they were born, at least until Trevithick started mucking about with steam engines. He was a mining engineer and knew he could devise something to make it all go faster. Then he realized that the steam railway could do more than just haul coal.
To prove that rail travel was faster than the horse, he started something he called the “steam circus.” For one measly shilling, you could ride this marvelous vehicle that Trevithick claimed was faster than a horse. It might have been, but the tracks were prone to breaking down and the thing ran on a circular track, going nowhere. The London public was unimpressed. The horse still seemed like a better bet. Horses occasionally bit, but the steam engine tended to explode.
Scientific types are rarely prone to acting sensibly and leaving well enough alone. In 1830, the Stockton and Stokes stagecoach company challenged Peter Cooper and Tom Thumb, his little steam engine, to a race. The steam locomotive did splendidly until a belt on the locomotive slipped off its pulley. The horse race was lost, but the point had been made. Just a few years after its invention, the locomotive was actually faster than the horse. We haven’t slowed down since.
So, what’s my point? Years ago, when I was aspiring to be a hippy, I had a patronizing conversation with my mother, intending to console her for how difficult I must have made her life with my odd clothing, political views and habit of coming and going without warning. I said, “Our generation must be very hard on you.” She countered, “Oh no! We were much harder on our parents.” My thunder had been stolen.
My grandmother was born in 1882 and, in her youth, wore stiff corsets, towering hats, and floor length dresses made of enough cloth to trick out a sailboat. Her daughter, my mother, was born in 1908 and grew up in the era of the flappers, the roaring twenties – you know, speakeasies, bathtub gin and miniskirts. All that was bad enough but it was that darn Model T Ford that Henry had made available to everyone that made life miserable. Henry was one of those scientific types who couldn’t leave well enough alone. His father used to come into our grandpa’s dry goods store in Detroit and complain that Henry would never amount to anything. All he did all day was hide in the barn tinkering with motors. Wouldn’t do a lick of farm work! (True story!)
Old man Ford was right. Henry should have done his chores and minded his own business. By making the horseless carriage available to the common man, Henry single-handedly created the traffic jam, oil shortages and war in the Middle East. Worse than that, he made a way for children to get farther away from their parents than a horse could carry them. My mother said they would pile into a “Tin Lizzie” (Henry Ford’s cheap motor car) and drive down to Toledo where they could get booze despite prohibition. Since that day until our own, no one has stayed in one place for very long. The neighborhood died, and with it died the parish, and the parish priesthood. It’s just that nobody noticed for about 50 years.
Another thing that Henry killed with his car was the idea of compulsory religious belief. People tend to believe what their families and neighbors believe. Since Henry’s horseless carriage and another bad idea, the heavier than air flying machine that Wilbur and Orville claim to have invented, you can get as far away from your parents and their values as you choose. Chicago used to be a collection of neighborhoods. People asked where you were from and a Chicagoan would say St. Rita’s or St. Ita’s, or some other church. Even the non-Catholics identified themselves by the Catholic parish they lived near. People knew one another so well that they would sleep out in the parks on hot summer night, as safe as could be. They were in their neighborhoods. They were home. But Henry ended that with the help of the Daley dynasty.
Old man Daley for some reason hacked the City of Chicago into little pieces by creating the infernal system of expressways that plague the modern city. You know, an expressway, where you sit for hours in your overheating car wishing you were home. Everybody decided to move out of the city and commute into work. The neighborhoods decayed, housing got cheap and then an odd thing happened, starting with the Old Town neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. The beatnik era of the 50’s happened and young people started moving back into the city where the rents were cheap. The point of moving back to the city after growing up in the suburbs was to get away from one’s parents. There are now whole neighborhoods in Chicago inhabited by young people who don’t want their parents to know what they are actually doing. Eventually young people get tired of it and move back to the suburbs, but they have lost their faith and their communities. Thank you, Mayor Daley.
Once again you are asking what has this to do with the faith. Simple: there is almost no social pressure for modern people to be part of a religious community because family and community itself are optional. This is true for Christians, Jews and Muslims. The minute one turns his back on the tradition that he brought to this country, he pretty much ceases to be religious.
I was shocked to read that one in three young people under thirty has abandoned religion. The shock is that so many, 2 out of 3 still identified themselves as believers in some sense. The freedom given by the transportation revolution has made it possible to leave the parish (remember that parish is a Greek word that really means neighborhood?) So, if a diocesan priest can no longer be the same thing as parish priest, what will he be?
Sorry. Have to stop now. I’ll write some more next week.