Arthur McCaffrey

Our faith is restored, one vigil at a time

By Arthur McCaffrey
Globe Correspondent / May 8, 2010

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STORMS OF controversy swirl around the Vatican; traditional Catholics, unnerved and bewildered by the recent flood of negative news about their church, might be forgiven for fearing that Yeats’s prophecy that “things fall apart; the center cannot hold’’ is being fulfilled.

Rome’s institutional authority (often considered a defining characteristic of Catholic faith) has traditionally depended on its legitimacy as a revealer of God’s word, which, in turn, has depended on its remaining a credible, moral voice of that faith.

Because the reverberating scandals of clergy pedophilia and institutional coverups have so grievously damaged that credibility, the church’s authority is now compromised, undermined, and de-legitimized. This has created a crisis of faith for the current generation of Catholics, who now wonder whether their core values and beliefs can survive the institutional meltdown.

However, for reassurance that their faith can not only move mountains but also outlive catastrophes, Catholics need look no further than Route 9 in the MetroWest area, where, for more than five years, the parishioners of St. James the Great (Jacobus Magnus) in Wellesley have maintained a protest vigil, manning their church 24/7 for the past several years to keep it open and active after the Archdiocese of Boston decided to close it.

This has truly been an odyssey of faith, driven by a sense of justice. What began as a resistance movement has morphed into an exercise in daily solidarity, similar to the gatherings of early Christians, where believers provide mutual support in a collaborative, constructive assertion of personal faith.

Thus inspired, St. James’s parish has managed to survive and thrive for more than five years, without the wealth, bureaucracy, and personnel of the multinational corporation that is the church in Rome.

The journey has not been easy: the archdiocese’s church closures inflicted heartache and disillusion upon the affected parishes.

Nevertheless, by mustering the courage to speak truth to power, the people of St. James seized an opportunity rarely encountered in the life of the average Catholic: liberated from the dogmatic constraints of institutional authority, parishioners became empowered to practice a participatory faith, freed from the previous passivity and inertia of “pray, pay, and obey.’’

Parishioners have ample time to ponder the essentials of their faith and to contemplate core beliefs, stripped of bureaucracy and aristocracy. Now they practice those beliefs in ways that are simpler, richer, deeper, and more authentic than ever before.

Furthermore, in ways that were never possible while St. James was part of the Archdiocese of Boston mainstream, women play a major role in planning and leading Sunday services, which still manage to project an air of Catholic “normalcy’’ that both comforts and reassures these rebels with a cause. Liturgy is followed, prayers are said, hymns are sung, scripture is read, Communion is distributed.

While the universal Catholic Church seems on the verge of imploding under the weight of its own moral crisis, the weekly gathering of this close-knit congregation generates a palpable spirituality that is rare and unique.

The St. James phenomenon (replicated across sister parishes in Massachusetts that also chose vigil over closure) is changing church culture by pioneering a post-institutional brand of grass-roots Catholicism.

It reminds us that it is people, not institutions, who practice faith, demonstrating that, yes, people can think for themselves, without the dire consequences threatened by a follow-the-leader Vatican culture.

So, while turmoil roils the hierarchy, Jacobus Magnus continues to spin quietly in its Western orbit, a small capsule of faith, hope, and charity, pushing outward on its voyage of faith.

For those of us too disgusted to set foot in a Roman Catholic Church, these lay-led parishes shine like beacons of a future American Catholic Church, one that is truly by the people, of the people, and for the people.

Arthur McCaffrey of Newton is a member of the Council of Parishes.

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