Culture of Life
Church Scholar Highlights U.S. Catholic History
New Book Offers Rich Insight Into American Faith
BY Joseph Pronechen
Dec. 1-14, 2013 Issue | Posted 12/7/13 at 7:03 AM
Long in the making, Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Catholic History has been released. The monumental work is by Matthew Bunson and Margaret Bunson.
An authority on the papacy and Catholic Church history and culture, Matthew Bunson has authored or co-authored more than 45 books.
He is senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, editor of The Catholic Answer magazine and senior correspondent for Our Sunday Visitor.
He authored the first biography of Pope Benedict XVI in the English language.
His was the first English-language biography of Pope Francis to hit the stands after the papal election.
Bunson is a distinguished professor and is frequently consulted by media, including secular television.
In November, he gave insights to the Register about his U.S. Church history book.
Why did you write this monumental history?
The origins of this date back to the 1990s, when I had just finished the Encyclopedia of Catholic History for Our Sunday Visitor. It was a real privilege to work on that book. We agreed it was time for another encyclopedia to focus on another important area.
My late mother and I were commissioned to do the book years ago, but other events intervened. The idea percolated for a number of years. It was always a work in progress, but took a very long time to complete.
Did you find the long process to be beneficial?
In a way, it was very providential. In the intervening years, we had the election of Pope Benedict and his visit to America in 2008 and the eruption of the sex-abuse scandal.
If we had the book come out in the last decade, the color would have been very different. Here we were, a Church in the United States, dealing with this problem. But by the time the book was finished, we had put together a very effective response.
So as the Church moves into this millennium, there is a very promising outlook. There are many challenges, but we are looking at the fruit of the reform and the renewal of the last decade.
The Church has emerged from the scandals determined they are never going to happen again and also as a model for churches across the world in how to deal with these problems and how to create a safe environment to ensure a disaster like this would never happen again.
It must have been a relief to finally complete this work of 1,000 pages.
To bring the book to conclusion was like bringing up a child and then sending him off into the world. It took that long to get the book finished. This is the largest book I’ve worked on personally. The final manuscript was in the neighborhood of 3,000 pages.
But it tells an absolutely amazing story.
It certainly seems that no other work has this historical scope yet is so up-to-date.
That’s why it was providential we finished it when we finished it. It’s also a lesson that the Catholic Church in the United States has faced immense challenges and crises over the centuries in North America.
I can think of the struggles of the Catholics in the English colonies, the great struggle to establish the Church in Canada, to preserve and proclaim the Gospel in the Southwest, in Florida, in the South — through such immense difficulties and obstacles.
I think of the great crises of the 19th century and anti-Catholicism into the 1900s — even today, we’re seeing new forms of anti-Catholicism.
The struggles we have been facing are really part of a wider tapestry of what the Church was facing in the last century.
When we step back and see the whole tapestry, we really start to appreciate not only the beauty of the American Catholic history, but also the enormity of the labors of the women and men who gave their lives building the Church here.
We have an obligation to know the history of the Catholic Church in America, but also know the work of those who have gone before us, to be faithful to that and to pass that on to the next generation.
Please share one or two of the surprising facts among the thousands that you present.
The most immediate thing is the fact that the Catholic Church in the United States was built by giants, spiritual and intellectual.
We start with the great missionaries, who arrived here in the three great waves from France, Spain and the Catholics who came from England. Each generation has produced giants. There were the efforts and labors of towering figures like Archbishop John Carroll to help the Church grow in the new republic after its founding and people who followed him like Archbishop [John] Hughes of New York and Cardinal [James] Gibbons. And we move into the 19th and 20th century and still see those giants like Fulton Sheen and Elizabeth Ann Seton.
Saints and holy men and women emerge in every generation to help the Church, and it’s as surprising as it is a beautiful reminder of that legacy of faith. In that sense, it was surprising how many there have been. That’s something we can easily forget.
I recently had the opportunity to help with the final phase of the cause of the canonization of Demetrius Gallitzin [a Russian prince who became one of America’s first priests]. Many causes for canonization are open now in the United States for holy men and women. The list is enormous. Many of them are near contemporaries today.
So that legacy of faith and holiness is not something in the past. We would do well to remember the degrees of holiness and the power of holiness in shaping the Catholic Church in the United States and influencing and shaping the whole of American life and culture. The United States would probably not even exist without the labors of Catholics and historically would not be possible without the contribution of Catholics.
Can you share one or two overall lessons readers also discover as fascinating about U.S. Catholic history?
The first is an issue we’re dealing with very much today. Everything old is new again — the issue of immigration to this country and the sheer dazzling diversity of American Catholics throughout her history.
We were and remain a Church of immigrants, from the millions of Irish, to the Germans, Italians, Polish, Slovaks and more, and we now look at this phenomenon in the 20th century, of Latino Catholics who, in fairness, have always been here. All of these components show the richness of American Catholics and the enrichment of American life across the board, because of the contribution and arrival of Catholics literally from all over the world seeking a new life here.
We can look at the history and the work of the Church to help them settle in the United States, to assimilate and participate. These are powerful lessons for us today.
It’s fascinating how history continues to repeat itself and how this history continues to unfold. The more we can understand the literally millions and millions of Catholics who arrived here is a source of encouragement and a criterion for how we deal with the diversity in the Church today.
The immigration points may be changing, but, still, Catholics in large numbers are coming to the country. We have to welcome our sisters and brothers the same way the Church did in previous eras.
What’s an example you see already happening?
The emergence of parishes dedicated not to Latinos only, but to Vietnamese and Pacific Islanders. The Church was always ready and welcoming to immigrants and devoted enormous resources to help them, and we’re seeing the same now. It’s that continuous legacy of trying to help them.
Among all the essential facts of our history, share one or two that can help us deal better with today’s situation.
From the very earliest times of life in the colonies and in the young United States, and especially true on the part of Archbishop John Carroll, is the question whether we can be faithful and good Catholics and at the same time be good and patriotic American citizens.
This is a question continually asked — and is being asked again today in the face of things like the HHS mandate and in the dangerous decline in American culture in regards to same-sex unions and abortion.
Catholics are essentially told by sections of the secular media in the way that they define it that if you’re a good and faithful Catholic you can’t be a good American.
It’s a new form of American anti-Catholicism that has its roots in traditional forms of anti-Catholicism, and it is a deliberate effort to push Catholics and Catholic beliefs out of the mainstream and public square and to silence Catholicism as an influence on American culture. Here again is where the past is valuable for us today, because we know we’ve seen this before.
There was the almost mindboggling bigotry toward Catholicism present in the 1928 election [with Catholic Alfred E. Smith], and then into the 1960s with John F. Kennedy — and now, today, with the mockery of the Church and mockery of Catholic beliefs.
In exactly the same way, the longer, wider history of the Church is filled with similar stories of persecution and intolerance and what we’re asked to face in living and proclaiming the Gospel.
So we can gain confidence and find models in the Catholics who went before us and dealt with this themselves.
Your encyclopedia’s wonderful appendices of American saints, blesseds, venerables, cathedrals, basilicas and shrines are a tremendous and fascinating resource. Are there other special features to broaden our knowledge and strengthen our faith?
There are two things I’m especially pleased with. The first is the chronology of United States Catholic history from 1492 to 2011. It’s one of the most detailed ever put together.
The other is the personalities — literally hundreds of famous Catholics, but also incredibly obscure ones, who nevertheless made tremendous contributions to the Church in United States.
So many women played a significant role in the life of American Catholicism, from the hundreds of women religious who helped build quite literally the Catholic education system in America to the Dominicans and Franciscans who gave their lives for the faith here to the extraordinary women like Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor and many others.
The more we get to know these men and women, the more we’ll be encouraged to make our own contributions to Catholic life in America.
How should readers use it to their best advantage?
I included a handy guide section. The advice I give is to start out with the chronology. This will provide a useful introduction to the wide sweep of names and events.
Then start developing friendships with the incredible men and women who built the Church here.
From there, go to individual states and dioceses and archdioceses to widen your universal knowledge. This book is especially notable for the coverage of every state and every diocese and archdiocese, both past and present, [even] the famous phantom Diocese of Allegheny, which was in existence in the late 19th century, from 1876-77.
Then look at the different ethnic groups and the individual events like the American Revolution, the Civil War, the sex-abuse crisis and Catholic education.
The book is not only intended for Catholic schools and parishes, but also for the average Catholic to read and enjoy.
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.
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