I’ve been meditating upon the nearly complete break-down of trust between generations of Catholics, between left and right. I’ve only been Catholic for 24 years and yet I feel like Catherine Doherty speaking of the 60’s. Overnight, she and friends like Dorothy Day went from being so far out on the left hand side of the Catholic spectrum (albeit orthodox) that you could hardly see them to being regarded as conservatives – and they hadn’t moved an inch. The whole Church had revolved around them.
Reading Cardinal Stafford’s passionate depiction of the times by those who lived it does help me understand. It helps me understand what the tsunami of cultural change in the 60’s felt like. I can’t tell you how wearying living with the reaction to the reaction to the reaction to the reaction is getting. Now that I’m seeing (as I knew was inevitable) the first signs of reaction by the very youngest seminarians to their trad “elders”.
The cycle of reaction and rejection keeps speeding up and now it only take 5 – 10 years or so for a “new generation” to take the required stance against the failures of its “elders” (who may still be in their 20’s).
Each group sees itself as the inevitable wave of the future and each group can’t grasp that their unique take on the world won’t triumph forever in a climate where contempt between generations is normative.
Profound enmity and distrust between the generations means that we can’t build anything deep and thoughtful because we can’t pass anything on to the next generation. We are hard-wired not to learn anything from our elders (evil scum!) and we can’t pass anything onto to those who follow us (who regard us as evil scum!) Everyone is just waiting for the bastards (those people over there) to die, just biding our time until we have the power to level their life’s work and build our own on the rubble. No matter which generation says it, “Never Trust Anyone Over 30" is incredibly impoverishing and appallingly stupid.
The great Catholic revival and the generation of saints in early 17th century France emerged from such a time as this. 8 religious civil wars in 32 years. 20 percent of the population of Paris died in a religiously-fueled siege. Finally, two generations after Trent, the exhausted survivors looked about them and decided to give building something positive a try – collaborating across the generations and categories like bishop, priest, lay man or lay woman.
It was God’s Providence that the greatest figure of the great “generation of saints” was St. Francis de Sales, whose gentleness, and trust in God was proverbial. It was his influence that meant that while the generation that lived through the wars was scarred for life, the next generation turned their energies to heroic systematic charity, evangelization, missionary work, created the Catholic school system, the seminary system, etc. They literally re-invented Catholic life, practice, and spirituality in an evangelical mode.
Not in the image of the pre-Reformation Church, which was two generations gone, and not primarily in reaction to the terrible losses of the past but by really engaging the needs of their time – the early 17th century – out of love and in the power of the Holy Spirit. “Let us see what love will do” was St. Francis’ motto. Heroic love birthed a vast spectrum of creativity, renewal, and transformation whose influence lasted 150 years in France and gave birth to most of the institutions that 1950’s American Catholics regarded as immemorial and immutable.
What was done in their time can be done again in ours. We can put an end to the cycle of reaction. We can be little St. Francis de Sales in the 21st century west. (We do have to remember that the traumatic experience of the past 50 years is almost entirely western and not meaningful at all for the majority of Catholics who live outside the west now.) We can see what love will do – if we have the guts and imagination to answer Christ’s command to forgive our enemies and do good to those who despitefully use us and after having done so, begin to see a future beyond the trauma of the recent past.
What do you think?