Friday, October 19, 2007

A Catholic’s Rage

Jimmy Breslin, a great writer and a greater Catholic, rages at his Church!
by Charlie Leck

I've read a number of good and bad books I want to tell you about: Suite Francais {by Irene Nemirovsky]; Fire in the Blood [also by Nemirovsky]; Bridges of Sighs [by Richard Russo]; Q-School [by John Feinstein]; and The Second Objective [by Mark Frost]. I'll get to them in the next couple of weeks; however, right now, I've just got to write about Jimmy Breslin's book, The Church that Forgot Christ.

"Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers." [Jimmy Breslin]

Jimmy Breslin is one of the great characters of my life time. I fell for him when I read his book, The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight. What a book! I laughed my butt off. I adored the crisp, staccato style of his writing and, on top of everything, it was a remarkable story. Jimmy Breslin is an extremely witty guy. What I learned after reading a lot of him is that he is also passionate, compassionate and he says a lot of important things.

I just finished reading a book he wrote in 2004, The Church that Forgot Christ. Darn, it's really good. The shame of it is that very few of the "right people" will read what he has to say. I'll send a copy of the book to the first one-hundred Roman Catholics who promise me they will carefully read the book from cover to cover. Don't worry; it's a small book in terms of pages (239). It's a very large book in terms of importance. It's an important book for Christians other than Roman Catholics, too.

The book is written with a sense of outrage; yet it is written in Breslin's usual and wonderfully witty style. He brought tears to my eyes and had me chuckling aloud. I was reading some of it in a Panera's shop and a fellow at the next table was looking at me as if I might be a little off my rocker.

Here's some of what I learned in the book and some of what was reconfirmed for me about Jimmy Breslin. He's an awfully good man. He loves his town (New York). He has great compassion for the common guy and the person down on his or her luck. He is a man of faith and his Christ means a great deal to him. He knows more about Christ that the average guy. He is furious at his Church (the Roman Catholic Church) for where it has ended up in this world. He figures a guy can just take so much. He is in a furious struggle with two people who reside within him – the boy taught by nuns to be a good Catholic and man who is outraged at the untruthfulness of the leaders of his Church.

"Do I keep on in a church that I mistrust or remain outside and follow a religion I love?

In his prologue he says: "I qualify for the rank of bishop because I'm not a pedophile."

"In this match between Bishop Breslin and his religion and the old, established church, let me tell you something: The Other Guys Are the Joke.

And as bishop, I called my friend Danny Collins up one day and told him that he was the auxiliary bishop. He was extraordinarily qualified. Certainly, he is no pedophile or pimp. Let's get that out of the way. He does know Latin and Greek.

'Do we have vestments? I have no money for wardrobes,' he said.

'No, Christ never had them.'

'Good. You're not going to have us swinging a can of incense around?'


'Let people listen to them [clergy] and then listen to me. I know what religion has to do,' I said. 'You have to have women priests. And women from the outside, not restricted to nuns. Too many nuns need to have the past shaken out of them. All they do is bow to priests. A parish is a great job for a man and wife. Great housing. Sermons on Sunday. Major sermons. I'll write them with such spirit that they'll ring
through the ages to come of Catholicism in America. The constituent work all week is the work of the Lord. You serve the poor, not the country clubs. Turn your parish into a church following the life of Christ.'

I finished with my favorite expletive: 'Beautiful. You mean to tell me that I don't have a better idea than the people in Rome do?' [Jimmy Breslin: The Church that Forgot Christ]

The book deals a great deal with the crisis of pedophilia among Catholic clergy. Breslin has followed this issue carefully, including a trip to Rome to cover the papal conference about the problem in the American church. Breslin was close to it and couldn't smell it out. His daughter had even tried to tell him about it – and the pain boys she knew were going through as a result of it – but he wasn't listening back then because it was all too impossible within the Church he loved.

"Woe is to he who does harm to a child. It is better that he ties a millstone around his neck and jumps off a cliff." [Luke 17:2]

As the crisis grew and the numbers of priests involved exploded, Breslin began withdrawing. He joined others who believed they could simply do "Mass right here on a card table." Many swore they would never go into "one of those buildings" again. But, he couldn't shake the Church completely. It was a sense of habit. On Sunday mornings he was drawn. The nuns had taught him it was a mortal sin to miss mass. Now they say it's not a sin. Nevertheless, mass is a part of the very visceral innards of Jimmy Breslin. It might be tedious and boring, and the homilies the product of lazy priests, but it was what one did on Sunday morning.

"If I had one shot a delivering a sermon, I would have them rising from the pews and interrupting me with crescendo of applause and shouts of 'Good boy, Bishop Breslin!' for I would not come out there in the usual style of priests, who put ideas in big letters on index cards and then drone on for a half hour. I would have a tightly scripted and rehearsed sermon that would be on something new and vital…. My sermons would be of the moment, with names and addresses of the poor who are suffering, and with finger-pointing, shouting at the parishioners that it is their responsibility before their god to help these people." [Jimmy Breslin: The Church that Forgot Christ]

The litany of sexual abuses by priests that Breslin reports in his book seems to have no conclusion. Estimates run as high as 25,000 cases around the nation. So many Bishops and Archbishops are tainted by either their own involvement or their failure to act against priests who they knew where guilty. The book would be shocking if that is all it was about, but it would not necessarily be good. The book is good because it deals with a bigger matter; and that is that this Church to which he gave his complete and unquestioning faith has simply forgotten Christ. They know nothing of the Christ who commanded his disciples to care for the needy, the diseased and the broken of spirit. The Church is more interested in vestments and things that glitter. Where has it led? Breslin recites the alarming statistics.

"The Brooklyn diocese says there are 187 priests for 217 parishes. The priests are at least aging… In the nation only one-third of the Catholic parishes, once the battleships of the religion, have priests. Around the world, one parish in six has a priest. In the seminaries around New York, there are perhaps a half dozen hopeful priests in training… Now, the religion withers and the sexual crimes enrage. The dismissal of them as merely unfortunate transgressions, and the cover-up and obstruction by people running the church causes underground fires that maybe never can be extinguished." [Jimmy Breslin: The Church that Forgot Christ]

Breslin has some genuine praise for some of the priests of the Church. He singles out a few who understood Christ and model their lives and their service after their Lord. These, Breslin says, are true disciples. The Church's problem is that there are so few of them. As word leaked out that Breslin was working on this book, he was inundated with calls from parishioners who wanted to talk to him about the horrible sins of a priest. The overwhelming number of priests who had been involved in these sexual abuses of children all over America is bad enough, but Breslin's real rage is reserved for the hierarchy of the Church who looked the other way and moved priests about from one parish to another to try to hide them from the accusations of parents. So many bishops and archbishops were involved in the deception. Breslin's detailed accounts of this deception and the strategies used by these leaders of the Church are revolting. These leaders have gone unpunished. May their judgment days be terrible indeed.

Other sins of the Church do not escape Breslin's attention. The sale of grave plots is one of the largest money making tools the Church has. This institution of Christ is ruthless in demanding payment for plots and it is a very cold day in hell when a poor person gets by without paying the appropriate costs, even if it means going into significant debt to do it. Breslin explains the racket and how lucrative it is. He gives plenty of attention to the palatial mansions of the archbishops and cardinals as well. He takes his readers on a trip to Long Island to see the work that was done to turn a rectory into a mansion for the Bishop of Long Island. The price tag would exceed 5 million dollars. Of course, a group of nuns had to be removed from the building in order to allow for its remodeling into the bishop's palace. Christ, Breslin reminds us, did not wear gold rings or robes bedecked in golden thread or fancy head wear or Italian leather slippers. He wore the humble clothing of a working man.

"By tradition, as you get older you draw closer to the Church. It looks like I am going the other way." [Jimmy Breslin: The Church that Forgot Christ]

The Church's anti-abortion policy also comes under Breslin's magnifying glass. He feels the Church is obsessed with the subject, making it the number one concern in all its work. This at a time when serious issues of poverty and homelessness go pretty much unaddressed except by a few abnormally ambitious parishes.

And Breslin is an advocate of ending the celibacy of priests. Some would like to claim that sexual abuse is strictly an American phenomenon. That is silly. The lid is simply being held on more tightly in most other parts of the world. Here and there, however, cases work their way into the news and into the justice systems. Celibacy could be a large part of the problem. The sad thing about the Roman Catholic Church is that it is not willing to openly and honestly look at the possibility. It ignores the issue.

Here's a Salon.Com review of Breslin's book.
Andrew O'Hehir says: "New York's greatest living newspaper columnist says the Catholic Church, corrupted by sexual scandal and creeping right-wing ideology, is dying out in America. And he sheds no tears."

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