National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  November 21, 2003

Bring back the beadle

New regulations proposed by the Vatican show a church ever more consumed by minutiae


Not long ago, Jean and I went not far away to the magnificent rococo Dewes Mansion to witness the wedding of two good people of deep faith and exquisite taste.

We have known “David” for years and, through him, we met “Margaret,” who has attended Mass in our parish. She is a cradle Catholic with a graduate degree from Loyola University Chicago. David was baptized and raised a Presbyterian. Later, when he married his first wife, he converted to Judaism. They had two wonderful kids before the marriage crashed.

Margaret had never married and she sincerely wanted a Catholic wedding. However, the complications concerning the annulment of his first marriage would have tested the patience of Henry VIII, so they elected to have a Tibetan Buddhist wedding, on another branch of the tree of faith.

Both are interested in Eastern religions. Tibetan Buddhism is a form of Mahayana Buddhism with an admixture of indigenous animism that is practiced in Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan and neighboring areas. This time, it was practiced in a wonderfully overdone 1896 mansion that is used increasingly by Catholics who would rather do their own taxes than tiptoe through the maze of church canons.

David, a successful attorney, is used to the minutiae of law. However, getting permission to marry from a church to which he never belonged struck him as about as silly as trying to move the wet cement of church law with one’s eyebrows.

A soft-spoken American Buddhist woman presided. The ceremony was a wondrous potpourri of the wisdom of many faiths, including readings from the Song of Solomon and Paul’s letter on love to the Corinthians. David’s Jewish daughter, a gifted, classically trained singer, sang Schubert’s “Ave Maria” in Latin and we all joined in on a simple, one-verse mantra.

The wedding rings were passed throughout the congregation and each of us blessed them before the couple placed them on each other’s fingers. Then we all received the final blessing, and David reached into his Jewish soul and broke the ceremonial wine glass while we all cheered.

I loved it all. However, I simmered slowly over the fact that a church that has a patron for speleologists -- those who study caves (Benedict) -- and for pawnbrokers (Nicholas) could not find room for two good souls who wanted only to have their happiness blessed.

I was saddened even more that this rich liturgy came on the heels of an orange alert announcement that the church was cracking down on perceived abuses of the Eucharist. Faithful Catholics who do go to Mass on Sunday were chided for whispering during Mass and other shocking scandals. In a statement frozen solid by the absence of doubt and larded with disdain and dismissal, the Vatican instructed bishops to have their priests lambaste the faithful, pot-roast Catholics in the pews to bow before receiving Communion, to keep their nonordained feet out of the sanctuary, to nail their squirming kids to the pew, and a pile of other minutiae that is supposed to increase respect for the central sacrament. It sounded as if it had been written with a feather by some Vatican bureaucrat.

Currently in Chicago, only about 25 percent of Catholics go to Mass on Sunday, and this figure appears to be shrinking even more. However, the Vatican and its increasingly conservative bishops feel the need to break some kneecaps. The timing couldn’t be worse. Church credibility is in the dumpster these days. However, it appears that the infallible hierarchy feels the need to swat some flies.

I wonder what will happen in November when these regulations kick in? Will adherence committees be formed? Will cameras be installed to ensure that communicants bow before approaching the priest? Will conservative groups recruit undercover worshipers to monitor observance and to report downtown so that they can zap the offending pastor? Sex offenders have been moved to other parishes, but these potential abuses are so horrendous that excommunication might be in order.

The finger-wagging tone of the announcement brought me back to grammar school in the 1930s, when the sisters used to bop us on the head with their clickers for talking while waiting for the children’s Mass to begin. We didn’t go to Mass with our parents in those days. But the sisters were full-fledged parents. If Sister bopped you, your mother bopped you again just for being bopped.

But times changed. Now I’m remembering a great priest, Dennis Geaney, a clerical prophet, who is in his grave. Dennis knew the difference between a pastoral priest and an institutional priest. Even as an old man, he used to walk up and down the aisle before Sunday Mass. He played the jester or the clown. He chatted with the children and asked the elderly about their lumbago or fallen arches. He created a community of friends. He asked about the recent death of a spouse. Unlike the new regulations that render them comatose, he warmed up the crowd. He brought out feelings that craved expression. In theologian John Shea’s words, he “gathered the people, told the story and broke the bread.”

Geaney, an Augustinian and prolific author, used to say that liturgy tends to become paralyzed by rigid parish structures that haven’t adapted to contemporary life. “Liturgy,” he said, “may simply have to die and be reborn again from the life experiences and cultural demands of younger people.” Parishes simply must be converted and live or else they will become museum pieces supported only by memories.

Maybe we should bring back the beadle. You will remember that he was a minor parish official in the English church. His job was to usher and to keep order in the church. Like most flunkies, he had a thimbleful of authority combined with a bucketful of arrogance. He often used a stick to awaken sleeping worshipers. (Years later, the title went to the seminarian who ranked second in class in the minor seminaries. It would be an ideal ministry for ambitious and conservative laity.)

Thank God, we still have some parishes that are filled on Sundays. But too many others are growing dull and lifeless. Their charisms just aren’t moving. Their liturgies are as dull as a glass of milk.

Jean and I now live a stripped-down religious life. We are there on Sundays. We are now the embodiment of Henry James’ observation: “I’ve always expected the worst and it’s always worse than I expected.” We try to see the plus side of negative things, but lately, we’ve ceased to care about the future of the church, only about the people in it. Still, like Banquo’s ghost, the spooky things keep coming back.

Ten years after Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, he wrote that he blessed those who accepted his encyclical and that he blessed those who do not.

I hope that someone blesses me for this one.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago, where he awaits eternal fire. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, November 21, 2003

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