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St. Jude and all the rest

NCR Staff

Devotions to St. Jude.

Scapulars, novenas, rosaries and holy cards.

Pain as gift.

Plaster saints.

Embarassments to liberal Catholics, the stuff of nostalgia for conservatives, such artifacts and practices are largely relics of the past.

But just as young urban couples are furnishing homes with stuff their grandparents threw out at mid-century, so an enterprising group of younger scholars is finding rich resources in those religious relics. During the last decade or so, a spate of sophisticated studies by cultural historians -- antique collectors of the spirit -- have turned scholarly lenses to Catholicism, not as it was taught, but as it was lived. The locus of these cultural histories is urban immigrant homes, ethnic parishes, neighborhoods and shrines.

Scholars engaged in the work say they have been influenced by academic trends in history and anthropology exported from Europe in the late 1970s. Historians had turned to history “from below,” focusing more on everyday lives and popular fashion and less on military and political leaders and cataclysmic events.

“I can tell you when it was born,” James Fisher said, speaking of the academic study of “lived religion,” or popular religion, in the United States. “It started with publication of Robert Orsi’s book Madonna of 115th Street in 1985 -- though, he said, some earlier scholars like Jay Dolan and Philip Gleason laid the groundwork.

Fisher, author of The Catholic Counterculture in America, 1933-1962, and Doctor America: The Lives of Thomas A. Dooley, holds the Danforth Chair in Theological Studies at St. Louis University.

Orsi’s book, now a popular college text, describes and analyzes a yearly summer festa in Harlem when Italian-Americans lifted a Madonna from her niche over the altar at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church and carried her in procession through neighborhood streets. Orsi, strong storyteller and powerful writer, describes not only the pageantry of the festa but the complexity of the domestic, social and economic lives of the people who orchestrated the festa and, during weeks of preparation, invested in it their prayers and hopes for help and healing. Orsi’s book is subtitled Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950. In the beginning, the new immigrants struggled to adapt to their new land; at the end they presided over the breakup of the community they had built.

“Every July 16, the soul of a people was revealed in East Harlem,” Orsi wrote. “In the devotion to Mount Carmel, as it spilled out of the homes and into the streets of Italian Harlem, we are offered a unique opportunity to read the theology of a people.”

The approach represented by Orsi’s work, and increasingly, by the work of others, represents a significant shift in the way Catholic history is done.

Discovering devotional life

“Between the Second Vatican Council and the mid-1980s, the cutting edge of American Catholic intellectual life always focused on church reform and politics,” Fisher said. “Then people began to discover the previous life of the church, especially the devotional life.” Orsi’s book “focused on people who hadn’t been given a voice in the past. It showed how powerful their experience was. It inspired a lot of people to realize that these topics could be explored without fear.”

Orsi, a third-generation Italian-American and a professor at Indiana University, said his 1985 book derived from the intersection of personal interest and academic trends during his graduate years at Yale. That period, the late 1970s, was a heyday of what was called new social history as well as anthropologically inclined history coming from Europe.

Previously, most history of American Catholics had focused on institutions and leaders. “I wanted to get much closer to the practice of faith, and I wanted to work on Italian-American Catholics because I felt they had been misunderstood,” Orsi said. “The standard line then was that they were bad Catholics, anti-clerical, didn’t go to church -- that they were a problem for the Catholic church.”

“I was told by people at Yale that it would be disastrous for my career” to pursue those interests, he said. “An Italian-American studying Italian-Americans -- it was considered sort of filial pietistic stuff.”

More recently Orsi has encountered hostility from people who mistakenly think he wants to revive bygone practices. “I’m a real liberal Catholic,” he said. “My sympathies are all on that side. But I think these practices have been excessively trivialized by the Vatican II generation, treated with a mixture of humor and contempt.” One reason for that, he said, is that most devotional practices are associated with women. “Catholic historiography has not been good to women,” he said. “You can look at the major histories of American Catholics. The references to nuns are minimal. And yet nuns basically built the American church.”

Fisher said Orsi’s work was so successful that it inspired him and others, mostly Catholics doing graduate work at non-Catholic institutions, many of them now teaching at non-Catholic schools. But there’s little sense among the people doing the work “of being alienated Catholics,” Fisher said. Rather, “it’s a very positive affirmation of something we see as very much a part of the church.”

Like Orsi, Fisher studied at Yale.

Thomas Ferraro, English professor at Duke University, said the trend to understanding religion as “an organizing category” in cultural studies is catching on among academics, gradually eroding taboos. “There’s an effort to put religion on the agenda” of academics in literature and other language-based fields, he said. Ferraro is editor of a collection of essays called Catholic Lives, Contemporary America.

Focus on Catholic world-view

Jesuit Fr. Mark Massa of Fordham University said students “are falling all over themselves” to get into interdisciplinary studies that focus on Catholicism as “a world-view rather than just a set of doctrines.” It’s a perspective that Fr. Andrew Greeley, sociologist and novelist, has highlighted in his work, especially his studies of the Catholic imagination, but one that has rarely been scrutinized by U.S. historians.

“It’s partly the hunger of memory,” said Massa, who studied at Harvard and now directs American studies and chairs the undergraduate theology department at Fordham. “It’s an attempt by students to figure out what they’re about, what Grandma and Grandpa were about.” The study of Catholicism, he said, “is breaking out of the theology-religious studies-history box as interdisciplinary work comes into its own.”

Massa’s new book, Catholics and American Culture, is an eclectic study of nine “episodes” in Catholic life from 1945 to 1970, the years when, as Fisher put it in a review, Catholicism tumbled headlong into cultural legitimacy. Drawing on the work of such social theorists as Emile Durkheim and Clifford Geertz, Massa tells the story of the religion’s accommodation to the culture through figures and groups as diverse as Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and the Notre Dame football team.

In a cultural study that takes religious objects as its subject, Colleen McDannell’s Material Christianity analyzes the ways in which religious goods -- the stuff people can touch and taste and feel -- reflect religious world-views. Until recently, serious study of the popular arts has been inhibited, McDannell wrote, by a modernist mistrust of popular culture combined with a Puritan impulse in American culture that favors idea over image.

McDannell, who holds the Sterling McMurrin Chair of Religious Studies at the University of Utah, traces the journey of Catholic images from their sacred contexts to the shelves of antique stores and flea markets, where they are sought after for their “camp” and fashion values. She analyzes the changing roles of the family Bible in Victorian Protestant homes (spiritual, educational, fashionable) and the meanings associated with the religious garments that Mormons wear. She shows how miraculous cures attributed to Our Lady of Lourdes created an export industry in water and shrines, and how sacred and profane come together: at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, where profit-making, social status and sincere religious faith are part of a complex symbolic landscape.

“One of the things I hope my work does is to wake people up to the visual world around them, and to see that there’s a politics involved in the visual,” said McDannell, who earned her doctorate at Temple University. Changing art styles reflect not only theological shifts but also “gender shifts and power shifts. It’s amazing to me that no one has written a social history of the changes since the Second Vatican Council.”

‘Manly’ liturgical art

One chapter in McDannell’s book looks at shifts in church art and architecture after the Second Vatican Council, analyzing them from the perspective of language used to promote the changes. Though the trend to abstraction and functionality in Catholic churches reflected modernist trends in art generally, some prominent proponents of the new style of liturgical art presented it as “manly,” “unsentimental,” as opposed to “sentimental” or “fancy.”

“If you want to promote a shift in artistic taste” away from a particular style, “one way to do it is to call it feminine” she said.

McDannell said she is sympathetic to Catholics who mourn the loss of familiar objects in their churches. “Those radical changes are very hard for people, and most people had nothing to say about it,” she said. “Imagine going to your mother’s house and finding that she has thrown out all the stuff you were raised with and she tells you that she’s become a modernist. Many people invest a lot of psychological worth in material objects.”

McDannell’s fascination with the visual dimensions of religion has led to a photography exhibition, “Picturing Faith,” now touring the country. The photographs, which she said depict “all sorts of different religious expressions,” were culled from some 270,000 taken by government photographers sent out to document problems of the Depression and the contributions of the New Deal. The exhibition can be seen through Feb. 15 at Rowan University, Glassboro, N.J., and from March 6 to May 15 at the library at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

In Ferraro’s Catholic Lives, Contemporary America, topics range from the religious meanings Catholics in mid-century gave to physical suffering (“Mildred, is it fun to be a cripple?” by Orsi) to the Catholic communal energies driving the sports and barroom culture of lapsed Irish Catholics in more recent decades (“Clearing the Streets of the Catholic Lost Generation” by Fisher). Andrew Sullivan writes about gay love and Camille Paglia talks about themes of sex and violence in pre-conciliar Catholicism in an interview with Ferraro.

If Catholicism has been affected by the American experience, and there is little doubt that it has, some of the new social histories show that the opposite is also true: Catholicism has made impressive contributions to shaping American culture. Beyond its institutions, its huge network of hospitals and schools, think of Frank Sinatra’s films, Bruce Springsteen’s music, the works of Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Mary Gordon and scores of other writers. In Ferraro’s book, essayist Richard Rodriguez points to a “wild, heretical Catholicism” abroad more recently in “post-Protestant America” -- a Catholicism he associates with the artist Andy Warhol, the entertainer Madonna, the filmmaker Martin Scorsese.

Those Sinatra movies

Ferraro is working on a new collection of essays by or about Italian-Americans. He deals with the film “Lorenzo’s Oil”; the movies of Frank Sinatra, the art of Joseph Stella; the novels of Mario Puzo. Such works, he said, “communicate well beyond the ethnic community.”

Meanwhile, the work on Catholic devotions that spurred the movement goes on. Paula Kane of the University of Pittsburgh has written a case study of a New York City nun, Sr. Margaret Reilly of the Religious of the Good Shepherd. Allegedly a stigmatic in the 1920s and ’30s, her community had hoped she would become the first Irish-American saint. Kane is now working on a broad study of modern female stigmatics in Europe and America.

During her doctoral studies at Yale, Kane said she felt “very oppressed by the Puritan culture” -- by the focus on “white Protestant men and their legacy in America. I began asking, ‘What about all those other Americans, those Catholics,’ ” she said. “I was inspired by Jim Fisher’s freedom to bring in marginal figures and talk about them as being part of the American culture.”

Orsi, leader of this doughty academic school, has written another major study since that first in 1985. He also edited a collection of essays on urban religion, Gods of the City. The study, Thank You St. Jude: Women’s Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes, is a social history of immigrants who turned to the saint as they struggled for a place in an often-alien world. In the years of Orsi’s study, St. Jude, virtually unknown in the United States before the Depression, became one of the nation’s most popular saints.

“It is little wonder that women preferred the company of the saint,” Orsi writes. “With his help, they fundamentally remade the meaning and experience of the spaces and times of modern medicine. By taking him with them into the hospital, the devout transformed the setting from an alien, neutral space in an unfamiliar landscape, where men spoke an incomprehensible language, where women’s bodies or the bodies of people they loved were attached to big unfathomable machines, into a place of recognizable values and meaning. There was no location in this apparently impersonal institutional world that was beyond Jude’s reach, so his devout were never really alone in it.”

It is also -- how could it not be -- a social history of prayer and hope revealed in letters to St. Jude and in extensive conversations with the devout. The letters were published in Voice of St. Jude, a magazine established by Claretian missionaries who maintained a shrine to the saint in Chicago.

Orsi realizes that some who have not read the new studies, and perhaps some who have, remain uncomfortable about such resurrections from the recent past. Whatever the reason -- perhaps conflicts between contemporary Catholics on left and right -- it’s a stance Orsi regrets.

“Ridiculing and mocking says a lot about where we are today in relation to our own past,” he said. Orsi’s next projects will be a book on growing up Catholic -- about what it was like to be a child inside the pre-Vatican II church -- and a book on Catholic memory and the fate of history. By that, he said, he means “the way American Catholics look back across the divide of the Second Vatican Council” as if there were no continuity; “the fact that history seems so unimportant.”

“The Catholic contribution to America’s popular culture is a huge story that’s hardly been told,” Fisher said. “If there’s a political dimension to this, it’s that everyone in the church has a voice that deserves to be heard.”

Books cited in this article:
Thomas J. Ferraro, editor, Catholic Lives, Contemporary America, Duke University Press, 1997.
James T. Fisher, The Catholic Counterculture in America, University of North Carolina Press, 1989, and Doctor America: The lives of Thomas A. Dooley, University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.
Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America, Yale University Press, 1985.
Mark S. Massa, Catholic in American Culture, Crossroads Publishing, 1999.
Robert A. Orsi, Madonna of 115th Street (1985), Thank You St. Jude (1996), Yale University Press, and Gods of the City, Indiana University Press, 1999.
Note: All books listed except Massa’s are available in paperback.

National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2000