Learning the Liturgy, Leavening Society

Born under the rule of Emperor Franz Joseph in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the men of the Zbosnik family labored in the forests while the women worked in the fields and houses. Peasants all, they hoped for more. In 1908, Anton and Maria set sail for America.

The couple settled in the forested Appalachians of Pennsylvania, where Anton found work near St. Marys, a German Catholic settlement. When the trees had all been harvested, they went to Port Allegheny, where they set down roots and their family grew. Four of their six children survived to adulthood, but Anton died in 1925 in a lumbering accident, leaving his widow and children to face the dark days of the Depression alone.

All were baptized Catholics, but stopped attending church when a German pastor rebuffed them for not being able to offer a stipend for a Mass for deceased relatives.

Meanwhile the predominantly rural Erie diocese struggled to provide pastors to administer the sacraments, let alone find priests who could speak the same language as the members of the members of the parish.

Sustained by the Sacraments

The Catholic Church in the United States was a church of immigrants, and it did what it could to minister to its adherents. From birth to death, in joy and sorrow, Catholics could rely on their Church to administer the sacraments. This is how the Church attempted to keep the immigrants Catholic and in the Church. For several generations, it worked.

The bishops of this era, such as Chicago's “kingmaker” Cardinal Archbishop George Mundelein (1872-1939), Boston's Romanist Cardinal Archbishop William O'Connell (1859-1944) and even Erie's Bishop John Mark Gannon (1877-1968; archbishop after 1954) were brick-and-mortar men. They provided what Catholics most urgently needed: parishes where they could receive the sacraments.

When possible, the parishes were “national parishes” created to meet the needs of the many immigrant groups. Here the language and traditions of the homeland were kept alive, providing the anchor for their Catholic faith.

Where the numbers made it possible, Irish, German, Italian, Slovak, Hungarian, Polish and French parishes were established; indeed, these abounded. Many flourished within blocks of each other. In the cities, it was uncommon for people to attend parishes other than their own, and why should they? A national parish was often close by and provided all they needed to help them through this life into the next. But in many rural areas, especially those with small numbers of Catholics, the Church did not have the resources to establish such parishes.

The system of national parishes would stand until after World War II. Then, as Catholic men returned home from war, they took advantage of the GI Bill; this provided an education, which enabled them to leave the cities for the suburbs as they climbed the ladder of success. There they joined new parishes conveniently established for all the people in the neighborhood, not just for people of one ethnic or national background.

Meeting Materialism

Even as the parish served as the center of the sacramental life for Catholics, some in the Church in America recognized that American culture was becoming increasingly materialistic and faithless. They saw that the Church needed to help Catholics live in a world which threatened to undermine their faith. Some recognized that the Church, too, could help Catholics be leaven in the world.

One among these was Father John A. Ryan (1869-1945). This irrepressible Midwesterner worked to transform American society and the workplace in the spirit of Christ and from the perspective of the Catholic faith. After completing his doctorate in 1905, he became the most influential Catholic social reformer of his era. In 1915, he joined the faculty of Catholic University and later the staff of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (today the National Conference of Catholic Bishops). In these positions, he helped the bishops develop policies which would unite Catholics' faith with their works. The purpose was to transform society and social structures so as to eliminate suffering and poverty. His solutions, however, tended to divide the secular and sacred realms in the minds of some Catholics, which in the long run had a negative impact.

A similar, but more integrative, approach was the goal of Benedictine Father Virgule Michel (1890-1938). As a priest at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., Father Michel became a leader in the liturgical-reform movement. Through liturgical reform, he set his goal on bringing the spirit of Christ into everyday life.

For Father Michel and other like-minded reformers, Catholic life began at the liturgy (not at devotions) and was to permeate the home and workplace. He worked to encourage participation by the laity so they would not think worship was something priests did and which laity observed from a distance. Rather, worship should fill their lives and activities in the home, at the factory and on the farm. A man of frail constitution, Michel died before he saw the fruit of his labor in the Second Vatican Council's reforms of the liturgy.

Trappist Thomas Merton (1915-1968), the monk with wanderlust, also tried to forge a unity between the secular and sacred. Merton reflected on the contemplative life and how it could shed light on everyday activities — as well as on great activities such as war and peace — and bring those activities into closer unity with God. Merton recognized the inner turmoil in the modern man and felt the life of God was the solution. He was no stranger to inner turmoil: He converted to the Catholic faith in 1938 after a tortuous quest for truth and, after much interior struggle, entered the monastery in 1941. Merton remained a seeker until the day he died by electrocution in Thailand when an electric fan fell into his bath.

Even though the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, were supposedly central to Catholic spiritual life, for many immigrant Catholics they were often of secondary importance to devotions and novenas. In an attempt to strengthen the Eucharist in Catholic life (something confirmed by Vatican II), the eucharistic movement became a vital renewal movement in the first half of the 20th century. From the mid-1930s on, the movement sought to integrate spiritual life and social reform. Women played a large role in the movement through the Arch-Confraternity of Perpetual Adoration, which gave them a sense of mission beyond the home and parish.

In a similar way, the retreat movement sought to promote an active laity in the mission of the Church. The movement was only possible because Catholic laity had begun to emerge from a state of economic disaster and poverty and enter the relative security of the middle class. Freed from excessive concern for their own survival, many began to find time for other pursuits and interests. The retreat movement touched the lives of thousands of Catholic lay people as it promoted both their fidelity to the Church and the transformation of American society to the Catholic ideal.

Conciliar Clarity

Many of the goals sought by the reformers and reform leaders of 20th-century Catholicism were achieved at and after Vatican II. The liturgy and sacraments underwent renewal in an attempt to better enable them to mediate Christ to his people. The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (and now Children) has been established and implemented as a way to support the conversion and initiation of people into a Church existing in a largely secular society. And through its social teaching, the Church is trying to reflect on and bring change into the social structures of society.

Even so, today a Catholic faith which integrates the secular and the sacred so that Catholics can be leaven in society sometimes seems almost as elusive as before Vatican II. Perhaps this is nowhere better evident than in the U.S. Congress, which has more Catholic members than ever — but these are far from unified in their positions and viewpoints, and some maintain their Catholic identity while standing in vocal opposition to Church teaching.

And what has happened to the descendants of Anton and Maria Zbosnik? They are survived by 29 grandchildren and great-grandchildren spread across the continent who fill both professional and blue-collar positions. Some 15 are active Catholics, eight are inactive Catholics, and the rest unchurched or inactive Protestants. For the descendents of Anton and Maria, the new evangelization is sorely needed.

Anthony Bosnick lectures on history and writes from Gaithersburg,Maryland.

Editor's note: We misidentified the wedding photo that ran in this space last week as a portrait of the Irish-American Mullooly family. In fact, those were the Zbosniks, who emigrated here from Austro-Hungary and are written about in this week's report. We regret the error.