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Charting faith’s geography in rough-and-tumble history

NCR Staff

Georgetown dropout James T. Fisher found Christian mysticism in a taxicab.

In the winter of 1976-77, Fisher was living alone in Hoboken, N.J., and driving a cab in New York City. “In the isolation of my taxi seat,” he said, sending his phrases forth in clusters, “I began to be very drawn toward the Christian mystical tradition” and particularly one of its contemporary exponents, Trappist Fr. Thomas Merton.

Twenty years later his seat was the Danforth Chair in Humanities at St. Louis University, a joint appointment in history and theological studies. He’d circled back to his Jesuit academic roots. Now he’s on the move again back east to St. Peter’s College, Jersey City, N.J., as the Will and Ariel Durant Professor of Humanities.

What drives Fisher is a fascination with how religion itself works in the culture. The movie screen has become a prime textbook as he tries to focus on religious history that is “not consumed” simply by religion.

Currently that means the film, “On the Waterfront,” as he delves into labor priests and Irish longshoremen, Port of New York, 1920s to ’40s. He is completing his trilogy on American Catholicism, following on from The Catholic Counterculture in America, 1933-1962 (1989), and Doctor America: The Lives of Thomas A. Dooley (1997).

“As the long generation of the post-Vatican II era yields to a new dispensation,” Fisher said, “we need to gather a lot more stories to fill the spaces between the church’s dueling factions.”

During seven years at St. Louis University, Fisher’s students have charted the geography of faith in the region, examining popular shrines and devotional sites, rural parish apostolates and urban ethnic parishes.

“This is what American Catholic studies is all about,” he said, “uncovering a kind of ‘found theology’ of everyday life that might offer material for the reflection of professional theologians. And there is plenty of room for the area of Catholic consciousness to grow wider still.”

Historians look back. But Fisher also looks forward with his students, young Catholics unconnected to, unaware of, the rough-and-tumble American Catholicism he wallows in as he does his research. Here’s what he sees.

His students, he said, “are waiting for a saint from their own generation. This current generation of Catholic students, cut off from much of American Catholic history,” nonetheless reflects, he said, “an extraordinary devotional revival coupled with a social justice commitment, certainly in the Jesuit context, that has canonized Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement.”

Fisher as a young Catholic did not need to wait for a saint. He grew up with plenty of them in an “extraordinarily devout” Irish Catholic family. Its close-focused devotion, he said, excluded what was happening on the immediate Catholic periphery. “They would not have known who Dorothy Day or Merton were.” But they could shake funeral home rafters with the rosary at a wake.

In the ’70s, in search of a monastic mystical experience, Fisher traded in the cab steering wheel for that of a battered old car inherited from his grandfather and headed for Appalachia. He turned around once he reached Virginia.

“Go to Rutgers,” he told himself, “get a college degree” (so he couldn’t blame future failure on not having one). Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., Fisher discovered, was secular in name only. The majority of the student body was Catholic, though the majority of the faculty was not.

As he needed only three semesters to graduate, Fisher decided to see if he could do a bachelor’s in history that combined his interests in mystical experience, religious experience and history. Rutgers accommodated him.

Appetite whetted, and with social historian James Reed advising him, Fisher pushed ahead into the social/historical context of American religious experience.

On he went, his Catholic counterculture dissertation was published, he taught Rutgers’ first-ever course on American Catholicism (and then broke Yale’s 300-year-long oversight by teaching the same course there).

He took the course with him to St. Louis University in 1994, where he found the students had “little sense of the theological distinctiveness of the Roman Catholic tradition, which means they may have a broader understanding of Christianity writ large. They’re certainly not caught up in denominational distinctiveness,” he said.

What shocks them is any historical narrative of conflict within or about the church. Said Fisher, “they’re unsettled to learn of a time when people burned down Catholic churches, trashed Catholic medical schools -- the mid-19th century Nativist rioting.”

“They’ve lost the sense that religious experience is part of the rough-and-tumble of their own history, though they do see it as a major source of inspiration to others.”

His student’s lack of connection to the sufferings of earlier generations of American Catholics contributes to Fisher’s current preoccupation with the story that is the basis of the film “On the Waterfront.”

“Forty and 60 years ago,” Fisher said, “Irish and Italian Catholics on the New York docks, victimized by corrupt union officials, truly suffered and needed social justice. Students today have no sense of their connection to this history of deprivation. Rather, they see themselves inheriting a degree of comfort that obliges them to share with others.

“That’s commendable,” said Fisher, “but there’s a tendency to bleach out of the contemporary memory, to wash away the collective memory.”

For many of today’s Catholic students, it is volunteer social service that “develops their communal spiritual dimensions. Their sense of belonging to a religious community comes out of that shared experience.”

Even committed students, many with strong Catholic roots, tend to shy away from “the difficult personal and experiential questions that earlier Catholic [student] generations may have wrestled with or confronted,” Fisher said.

He continued that what makes these students fundamentally different from preceding generations is they were raised by parents who as Roman Catholics were somewhat hesitant to lay down what the law was because in the upheaval that followed the reformist Vatican II (1962-65), “there was no law to lay down, all there was was questioning as to what the law was.”

His own age group (he’s in his 40s) said Fisher, “had a certain advantage. We may have thought we were risking things by questioning things, but you knew there was a very strong foundation and you counted on that to fly far and free. More often than not, these kids are anchorless,” he said.

Their devotional allegiances can be deceptive, too, Fisher observes. “They present themselves as extremely orthodox Catholics,” said Fisher, “and you say, oh, there’s someone who’s a product of a very staunch Catholic upbringing. Quite often, in fact, it is a constructed identity-- something the student has developed himself. It has come out of his experience of searching.

“It appears rooted,” he said, “but a lot of it in fact is a desire to achieve a certain kind of certitude not available in their families.”

One of Fisher’s projects for students is to have them study a parish not their own. Quite often, he finds, they select their grandparents’ original parish.

“They rediscover these churches in south or north St. Louis, or near downtown, and that gives them a sense of roots. That’s valuable for them.”

What this current generation of Catholic students reminds Fisher of, historically speaking, is the type of middle- and upper-middle-class society Francis and Clare of Assisi sprang from. “It’s the sort of climate from which they go out as laypeople and do things -- while waiting for a saint from their own generation to inspire them further. It’s remarkable [the students] have canonized Dorothy Day. Catholicism is being rediscovered in its countercultural dimension. And yet they’re interested in younger role models, too.”

And while this generation may be looking for a saint, it doesn’t mean a given kid is about to give everything up. In this day and age, said Fisher, they want piety and their Catholic Worker sensibilities to combine with their career. “So it’s OK to be countercultural, but it’s held in balance with career concerns” -- a mix that is catching on at Catholic colleges and universities.

“There appears to be a great desire to combine Catholic studies with business,” said Fisher, “just on the assumption the students will enter the business world.” The University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, where Fisher recently spent his sabbatical year, “has entrepreneurial studies and the world’s largest Catholic studies program.” Fisher’s wife, Kristina Chew, was teaching Latin and Greek for a year at St. Thomas.

Fisher pointed to the Catholic ascendancy in the business world before closing with the thought that business was attractive to young people today and that the lure of politics as a Catholic career had ebbed somewhat.

“After all,” he said, “John F. Kennedy was nominated and elected 40 years ago, and there hasn’t been a Catholic president since. Once it became evident that Roe v. Wade wasn’t going away,” said Fisher, “the political arena may no longer have been as attractive to Catholics.”

But if the current Catholic teens-and-20s generation begins generating its own saints, and if those saints in turn create a public Catholic revival (whatever essential Catholicism is at that point), maybe young Catholics will be caught up in public pursuits even more attractive than either business or politics.

Trouble is, they’d have to drop out for a while to do it.

Maybe even drive a cab to survive.

At a glance

James T. Fisher, 44, until this summer held the Danforth Chair in Humanities at St. Louis University. He is now the Will and Ariel Durant Professor of Humanities at St. Peter’s College, Jersey City, N.J. Fisher earned his bachelor’s and doctorate from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N. J. He and his wife, Kristina Chew, a translator and teacher of Greek and Latin, have a three-and-a-half-year-old son, Charlie.

Whether at the movies, on the street or looking out the window, Fisher sees an American Catholicism that may be as fragmented as many contend. Yet he also discerns the presence of Catholic energies in places that once might have been viewed as unlikely or inappropriate, especially in the popular culture. Perhaps this interest is rooted in his experience. Fisher attended parochial school and served as an altar boy in Cheshire, Conn., alongside Eddie “Legs” McNeil, the icon and embodiment of punk rock as it emerged in the mid-1970s.

His next book, his third, is on the classic 1954 film “On the Waterfront.” The movie, Fisher maintains, offers the most stirring portrayal of Catholic social doctrine in action ever witnessed in any medium -- yet the film was written, directed and produced by non-Catholics. It was, however, inspired by the work of a Jesuit labor priest.

Convinced that Catholics and African-Americans are most responsible for the development of an urban popular culture that transformed the nation in the 20th century, Fisher argues that the pervasive Catholic presence in American popular culture should be more openly acknowledged, though not uncritically celebrated.

National Catholic Reporter, June 29, 2001