The announcement came earlier this week from the six Catholic dioceses of Ohio that the plan, for now, is to reopen churches for the weekend of May 30-31, and thus the public celebration of the Solemnity of Pentecost will be the first such liturgy in over two months. It was the best news of the week, and one hopes that it is seen as such by the over two million Catholics in the state and the almost 700,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Cleveland.
Given recent statistics, this is probably not the case. Sadly. According to numbers provided by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown, the Jesuit university in our nation’s capital, the number of Catholics who attend Mass weekly is around 21 percent. Even with a pro-Midwestern bias (the assumption that those of us in the flyover zone are more prone to attend Mass than our more sophisticated co-religionists on the coasts) the probable number of Catholics in our diocese who will take advantage of this lifting of the bishops’ ban on public liturgies is well under 150,000.
Our diocese, like every diocese in the country, is made up almost exclusively of immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. A vast majority of these people trace their ancestry to countries where at one time or another the Faith was persecuted. My own, what I like to call “bi-racial,” ancestry of Celts and Slavs speaks such a tale.
Those who immigrated to the United States from the Emerald Isle were most probably fleeing the great famine of the mid-1800s, but they were only a generation or so removed from restrictions on Catholics imposed by their English overlords from the time of the Tudors in the 16th Century. The illegality of Catholic schools and Catholic religious practices gave birth to hedge schools and Masses – clandestine gatherings where both priests and laypeople took their lives in their hands by attending.
For those who came to these shores from Eastern Europe the story is a more modern one, played out from behind the Iron Curtain of Marxist regimes in places like Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. The election of John Paul II to the Chair of Peter and events like the 1979 outdoor Mass in Warsaw– where a reported 250,000 Poles were in attendance – tell a story of what Hegel called “the cunning of reason” whereby the actions of great men foster the will of God. A decade after this historic moment the Berlin Wall was down and the president of Poland was Lech Wałęsa, Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of the Solidarity workers movement.
These tales of Irish and Polish Catholics fighting oppressive regimes are not solitary instances, and each ethnic group in our land can take pride in similar stories. We all have ancestors who made great sacrifices for the Faith, sometimes at the cost of life or homeland.
The founding of St. Ignatius College by the Jesuits in 1886 stems directly from the oppression of Catholics under the reign of Germany’s Otto von Bismarck and his Kulturkampf (“culture struggle” or “culture war”) waged against the Catholics of his nation. Fleeing these persecutions, many Germans, including Jesuits, made their way to Buffalo, New York. There the Jesuits set up a school for the sons of these immigrants, the precursor to today’s Canisius High School and Canisius College. In the early 1880s the Bishop of Cleveland, Richard Gilmour, asked for those Jesuits to come to Ohio City and set up a similar school on the property of the German St. Mary’s Parish. And the rest, as they say, is history.
With these tales of hardship and dedication to the Faith coursing through the veins of every Catholic in America, it is literally a part of our collective spiritual DNA. Once the doors of our churches reopen at the end of May we owe it to ourselves, and to those whose struggles and sacrifices brought the Faith to this land, to reenter those churches and to make this Pentecost a true coming together of all cultures in a celebration of the Catholic unity that is at the heart of the Eucharist.
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