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Keeping Faith

AMERICAN CATHOLIC: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America's Most Powerful Church By Charles R. Morris, Times Books: 511 pp., $27.50

June 22, 1997|MICHAEL NOVAK | Michael Novak, the author of many books on religion and culture, is the 1994 winner of the Templeton Prize for "Progress in Religion" and holds the George Frederick Jewett chair at the American Enterprise Institute

At first, I didn't want to read "American Catholic," fearing it would be one more journalistic attack on the church (of which I have read my fill). But it isn't. It's journalism of a very high order. In telling a cracking good story with a wonderful cast of rogues, ruffians and some remarkably holy and sensible people, Morris is helped by the fact that he's Irish, both because of his Irish way with words and because the story, as he tells it, is nine-tenths Irish. Which is fair because even though only 14% of America's Catholic population is Irish, they have contributed far more than that to the color, organizational skill and leadership of the American Catholic pilgrimage.

Morris had originally planned to subtitle his book: "How the Irish Built a State Within a State," culminating with the enormously successful Catholic subculture of the 1950s. As a child of Slovak parents in a parochial school, I well remember the Pennsylvania Catholicism that Morris evokes, although there are pockets of it he barely knows: the Slavs and other Eastern Europeans; and even the Anglo-Saxons like the ancestors of Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, who go back to the first ships to bring Catholics to Maryland, the Ark and the Dove. Just the same, I learned to dance the Irish jig in the sixth grade; the school blackboards were green and when I won the 100-yard dash at the Irish Day picnic at Kennywood Park, I gave my name as "O'Novak." I also learned to return with good humor--and above all, quickly--the put-downs of Irish priests, nuns and buddies, and I took it as a compliment when asked, incredulously, if I was Irish too.

What makes Morris' tale so good is that it is journalistic history, not academic history, combining a journalist's good eye--like Chaucer's in "The Canterbury Tales"--for the story and the meaning of the thing with a vivid love of the telling detail and the personalities who pass through it. He wants us to enjoy what he has enjoyed, to be sad about the things that saddened him and to love what he has loved, and to his credit, his loves are ample.

I rejoiced, for example, at his colorful account of the International Eucharistic Congress held in Chicago in June 1926. More than a million Catholics from all over the nation poured into the city in what became the largest movement of travelers the country had ever seen. The congress was led by Chicago's beloved George Cardinal Mundelein(who later on called FDR "Frank"--who in turn called him "George"). Papal Legate Giovanni Bonzano, a friend of Mundelein's from his student days in Rome, traveled from New York on a special train in seven special cars painted cardinal red at the orders of the Catholic president of the Pullman Co. The entourage sped past crowds of tens of thousands at every station along the right of way from Albany, through Rochester, Cleveland and points west to Chicago. At Soldier Field, which was crammed with 400,000 people, the legate was preceded to the altar by 12 cardinals, 57 archbishops, 257 bishops, more than 500 monsignors and thousands of priests and nuns. A choir of 62,000 Chicago schoolchildren disrupted protocol and cheered wildly when their cardinal ascended the altar; flustered nuns ran up and down the aisles trying to quiet the children.

A few days later on June 24, beginning at 4 a.m., 800,000 pilgrims traveled in packed trains to the elegant new buildings Mundelein had erected on a 1,000-acre wooded site that he dearly hoped would become the campus of a major university but that was fated instead to serve as the most impressive diocesan seminary in the world. The day started beautifully enough, but as the ceremony began, the sky turned black and the lake was lashed by a violent thunderstorm: "The papal canopy clattered in the wind, nuns' veils were whipped and torn, their habits pasted to their bodies by the driving rain. . . . Most of the processants broke ranks and ran for the shelter of the woods, but Bonzano slogged on, and the rest of the procession rejoined the parade. Then, as suddenly as it began, the rain stopped; the sun came out and painted a rainbow through the towers of dark clouds across the heavens. Almost in unison, the crowds oohed and aahed; Irish and Italians, Poles and Germans, nuns and priests, cardinals and bishops, smiled and looked up, blinking, at the sky."

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