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The best place to evangelize culture isn’t from on high


Maybe you saw it. The cover of a recent New York Times Magazine, seamless white backdrop, three Roman Catholic seminarians holding their breviaries. One grinned, one pondered, one giggled. The headline was “The Last Counterculture” (a claim I’d question, having known Quakers, Muslims, leftist activists, radical feminists and fundamentalist Christians who were all a lot more countercultural than any diocesan priest).

The bright red headline type -- surely by accident -- ran boldly across the black cloth covering their pants zippers. But what really stopped me was the subhead: “No one lives at further remove from consumerist, sexualized, technocratic America than its Catholic priests.”

Stupid editors, I thought, they’re trying to pay a compliment, but they’ve worded it all wrong. “No one is less influenced by,” or “less captive to,” perhaps. But the really good priests don’t live at a remove from culture, they live smack in the middle of it -- in its bleeding heart or its misguided brain or its dark, ugly underbelly -- and fight it daily.

Or maybe the editors were Protestants -- or Buddhists or Jews -- who really believe priests live in ivory cathedrals. Outraged for the seminarians, I turned to the article. And realized the subhead was true.

The feature opened with the seminarians describing how people react to their Roman collars, which “can have the power to flush profanity from conversations, douse lovers’ fights and halt the scolding of children.” They were loving it, the way a newly minted Navy ensign loves the dress whites. Tangible power, derived from a few yards of fabric and a long history. Later they would explain strategies of detachment, saying it let them “live as a sign of contradiction in the world.”

One man, for example, used to be a devoted fan of James Taylor, even took guitar lessons so he could play his songs. Then he decided the underlying world-view was “whatever goes,” and heard Taylor introduce a song as “a hymn to the goddess Gaya.” “I don’t know who the goddess Gaya is, but that’s not my God,” he said. “I was just like, That’s it. Click -- stopped the radio. Went over to the closet, pulled out my concert shirts and threw them in the trash can.”

Another saw college students playing hip-hop lyrics in the gym as “a time to evangelize.” (I’m sure the students loved that.) Whenever adults disagreed with the church’s position on ordination or celibacy, he saw that, too, as “an opportunity to try to help teach.”

But what if he needs evangelizing?

Clearly, the reporter had her own perspective; she described the Catholic priesthood as “becalmed in a zone of otherworldly preoccupations.” Was it any wonder she reached that conclusion, with subjects who “stare straight ahead” in grocery store lines to avoid seeing magazines that “don’t reach Christian modesty”? Many of the seminarians refused to read the Starr report; some read it and went to confession afterward.

“On a lot of TV shows, you know married couples are contracepting,” one man remarked. “And any time Jerry hooked up with some girl in ‘Seinfeld,’ we knew they were sleeping together.” He stopped watching the show because he realized “this is the stuff I’m going to be preaching against!”

If he’s going to be preaching against it, wouldn’t it make more sense to watch and reflect on it?

Polls show many American priests have doubts about the immorality of contraception, but these seminarians feel an “obligation to preach and to teach the truth.” As one points out, “We already know the end of the story. God will triumph. The church will triumph.”

How nice to be so sure.

The article immediately after “The Last Counterculture” was titled “Evil’s Interrogator,” and in one swoop, it replaced certitude with ambivalence, curiosity and hope. This time, the topic was a controversial journalist’s fascination with the possibility of redemption, and her “courageous refusal to demonize people who have done great wrongs.” Immersed in the darkest parts of Western culture, she’d interviewed a Nazi death camp commandant; an abuse victim who murdered two children when she was 10; a number of child prostitutes; and Albert Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect.

Her “all-consuming interest in large moral questions” had begun when she attended Hitler’s Nuremberg rally at age 11 and found herself overwhelmed by its beauty and majesty. Later she would narrowly escape imprisonment by the Nazis herself, yet she would never regret that early exposure to Hitler’s powerful cultural propaganda. It fueled her life’s search.

Struck by the contrast between this woman and the seminarians (and secretly wishing they were a little more eager to interrogate evil) I flipped back to the first article. The seminary was Mount St. Mary’s, the second-largest in the country, and one of the most conservative.

It’s located in Emmitsburg, Md., which coincidentally is also the fountainhead of the Daughters of Charity here in the United States. I know this because my husband works for the order and comes home daily with stories of sisters venturing into the war zones of the inner city; traveling to Kosovo; nursing people with Hansen’s disease (leprosy); staffing clinics in poverty-bound rural areas.

Counterculture in a different way, the Daughters of Charity work in the real world, confronting its flawed mess daily. Rather than ask to be recognized as nuns in a time when that automatically meant being cloistered, they presented themselves to the pope as a company of “sisters” working among the poor. And hit the streets.

Maybe these seminarians will hit the streets, too. But if they’re scared to watch TV or listen to James Taylor or look a woman in the eyes, how will they deal with disgusted teenagers or prostitutes or junkies or rapists?

From on high.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer at The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, May 14, 1999