by Fr. James Smith, C.PP.S., Berkeley, California
This summer I took a month-long course in German as a language requirement for school. I passed the final exam, but sadly I didn’t obtain enough proficiency to understand Angela Merkel when she visited the U.S. this summer and answered questions in German from the White House. I did catch the verbs at the end of the clauses or phrases in her remarks though.
Spiritual memoirs and writings from saints in recent years and centuries ago seem to be popping up on bestseller lists today. A striking component of memoirs and biographies rose to the surface in our conversation in my German class this summer: it’s usually wealthier or upper class folks whose memoirs are published. It’s not usually lower class or working class people who have the time, let alone the resources, to put pen to paper and produce a transcript for a publisher.
I sometimes describe graduate school as an endless experience of professors, classmates, and others recommending 5-10 books each week for me to read, on top of class reading. In today’s digital age it also includes recommendations for Substack subscription emails, including Boston College history professor Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letters from an American.” On Labor Day, Richardson wrote about Frances Perkins’ tenure as Secretary of Labor under President Franklin Roosevelt and her influence in eliminating child labor and securing unemployment insurance, health insurance, 40-hour work weeks, and a minimum wage for working Americans. Although the work of the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet gets a lot of attention, Richardson’s Labor Day letter centered mostly on what motiated her to serve in the Department of Labor: the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911, when 147 young people died in a fire at a factory on Washington Square in New York City where the factory owner had locked the roof exit doors to keep workers from stealing.
From the years of massive industrial work at the turn of the 20th century in the U.S., we have so few memoirs or stories of some of the poorest immigrants. So too in the volumes of the lives of the saints we rarely get stories from the margins of wealth or privilege. The irony here somewhere between blessed are the poor and the canonical of title of Blessed accorded in the canonization process. My German professor this summer shared with us that she wrote her dissertation based on her interviews of the experience of the Shoah (Holocaust) for poor and middle class women. The reason was that most of the memoirs of those who survived the Shoah were from those who went back to being upper class or wealthy and who had the time and resources to write about their experience. The women interviewed by my professor didn’t have time to write on top of their jobs in factories, farms, or elsewhere.
The last few years in the church have seen a turn towrd the church of the poor. With the center of the church in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America (55% of the global church) and a decrease of North America as the center (only 8% of the global church), it makes sense to speak of a church of the poor when most of the church is with some of the poorest in the world. Yet just because the demographics of the majority of members of the church are poor or in a particular region, this does not necessarily mean they are included in the story we tell. The lead writers of the narrative of the church, like those of spiritual memoirs, usually are not from the economic margins. The ghost writers or focus groups for bishops or cardinals usually do not take up residence at the local homeless shelter. We are a church of the poor, but the way we tell the story of the church, at least the history of the way we tell the story of the church, tells a different story.
If the doing part of our faith today—the side of the church Gen Z’s and Millennials are far more interested in than the doctrinal or dogmatic side—is the interweaving of the story of God and of God saving God’s people, then whose voices have been left out and whose voices are we continuing to leave out?
The Missionaries of the Precious Blood are preparing to take a big step in the formation of a single province in the United States. A single province of the Precious Blood community is not something entirely foreign in the United States in our history. It is a history that includes German-speaking Catholics in the Midwest, a community that was undivided between religious men and women in the community for decades, and also a community that reached nearly from coast to coast within a few decades of arriving in this country. Any moment of change presents the potential of nostalgia for what was—or rather for what we think it was. But as a step towards the viability and vitality of the Precious Blood community in this country, the creation of the United States Province is a step towards the future. Who will we be in 50 years? 100 years? These are questions every religious order is grappling with these days. At the same time that this is a step towards the future, it is a step towards a history too, hopefully a history full of vitality and vibrance in the church. One of the key pieces of this active history writing is who is writing this history and whose narrative or perspective is getting lost or being excluded.
A dominant strain for every community today is what ministries to let go of and what ministries to staff, though our phrasing of it turns back towards nostalgia: what do we keep and what do we let go of. The German-speaking needs to which Fr. Brunner responded are not the needs 50 and 100 years down the road, though we sometimes position our ministries and parishes as needing to maintain what was started more than a century ago. If our focus of who we are or where we serve is centered in the era of a century ago, we are not stepping into the future or even the present, but instead a museum of the past. The church today in the United States is moving out of the Northeast and Midwest, substantially being shaped by Hispanic/Latino Catholics, as well as immigrants from around the world, and is caught at the intersection of wealth and privilege for many White Catholics and immense poverty and struggles to make ends meet for a growing majority of Catholics in the country. If our present moment as a community is in the midst of the margins from a century ago and not today’s margins of the church and society, we are writing a history for the next generation that might be anything but reflective of the Precious Blood.