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 Today's Take:  NCR's daily Web column
Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

October 22, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 136




Dennis Coday Making us bigger and better than we are

Dennis Coday, NCR staff writer

Every Friday during my grade school years, benediction and adoration followed daily Mass at St. Bonaventure Church in Columbus, Nebr. In my mind, those Fridays were always in the middle of winter. At 7:30 a.m., a Nebraska winter morning is always dark, clear and crisp.

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I remember hustling into church on Fridays. Before Mass the only electric lights on were above the side aisles. Of course, the sanctuary candle glowed a dull red. Banks of votive candles, and candles on the side altars and main altar illuminated the rest of the church with a golden glow. And in this flickering of light and dark, clouds of incense rose. It was easy to pray on those mornings. Even grade school kids could pray on those mornings, enveloped in the warmth and glow of the church, inspired by the awe of God.

Those mornings were brought back to me when I read Frank Keating's account of why he resigned from the board the U.S. bishop had appointed to help them through the clergy sex abuse scandal (The Last Straw: Quitting the Bishops' Review Board). Keating writes that his "first introduction to the eternal, the sublime, the wonders of a promised salvation" came as an altar boy. Serving at the altar, he wrote:

This was powerful medicine to a 12-year-old. To put aside the pursuits of school, paper route, and the occasional sibling fuss with older brother Martin or twin brother Dan for a glimpse of the hereafter was life-transforming. It raised me to understand that I was special. I was one of a family within the four walls of my parents' house. I was also one of a special family of Christ, which would embrace me forever. It made me bigger and better than I was. It forced me to look up and learn that there was more expected of life than a paycheck and vacations. If I were special to God in heaven, I'd better act like it on earth.

Dorothy Day said much the same thing. She recounts in various places that even in her decidedly unreligious phase as a journalist on New York City's radical intellectual fringe she would end all-night drinking bouts with Eugene O'Niell and friends by stopping at a Catholic church. At that point in her life, Day has said, she was not yet ready to pray, but she would sit in the back of church absorbing the mystery of God.

All of these thoughts were circulating in my brain yesterday while I was reading Joan Chittister's column From Where I Stand for Oct. 21 (Why Go to Church If You Don't Do What the Pope Says?). Chittister writes about research that examines splits between belief in a certain set of dogma and adherence to rituals. Then she says:

In this period of changing ideas, of adjustment to a deluge of new information, of a sea change in religious perceptions, people say, "I still go to church but I don't know why." Maybe we need to consider that it may simply be enough to be part of a church in pilgrimage during a time of change. Ritual itself, it seems, can hold us together when our beliefs are in a process of growth.

I admire Chittister for how she can find hope in times of trial. She does that here. I also admire Chittister because the hope she presents isn't the warm, fuzzy kind. She also challenges us. Precisely because rituals have the power to hold us together, she writes, "churches that fail to make their rituals relevant, meaningful and alive stand in double jeopardy of being ignored."

Chittister has promised that in subsequent columns she will explore this issue further, especially as it relates to women and male-dominated rituals. She can write much more eloquently than I can on the topic, so I don't want to say too much, but I do want to register my alarm. I feel that we are in danger of losing the great mysteries that bind us together.

Regular readers of NCR will know that recently we did a cover story (Just How Bad Is It?) looking at the continued decline of priests. The accompanying editorial (The Growing Cost of Mandatory Celibacy) notes that:

Over the next 30 years, unless something is done to alter the trend, our priests will be increasingly remote, solitary figures running from parish-to-parish, the human equivalent of sacrament vending machines. John Paul II's idea of the priest as one who "presides over the Christian community on liturgical and pastoral levels" will be quaint nostalgia.

I must admit that I worry that my sons, nieces and nephews will not know priests as I have known them. Keating issues similar warnings, but for entirely different reasons:

The American Catholic Church faces a seismic upheaval, and the Catholic lay community is angry and getting angrier. Catholic laypeople want virtue and goodness and biblical truth to lead their Church. They want it to succeed in its great mission of salvation. They want their children to be safe. They're tired of being embarrassed by a Roman collar. And they want this scandal to end.

It seems that we have truly come to a crossroads.

Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer and coordinates NCR's Web site. His e-mail address is

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