In “What We’re Reading Wednesday” last week, I mentioned James McCartin’s new book, Prayers of the Faithful (Harvard University Press, 2010). I’ve just finished reading it, and thought that a few comments about the book might be a good starting point for some discussion here on PrayTell about the spiritual life of American Catholics.
Let me say first of all that I thought Prayers of the Faithful was an excellent, intelligent study of an important topic, and quite accessible to a broad readership. The scholarly apparatus is thorough but not intrusive; the book is a good read. It certainly helped me to systematize my knowledge of an important area that doesn’t get enough attention—the history of spirituality among American Catholics. The author’s research brought to light many important facts and highlighted developments helpful to understanding how American spirituality has changed over time.
I found myself surprised by some of what I read. For instance, he has quite a write up on Father Peyton’s Rosary Crusade and his work as the “Hollywood priest.” I never knew that “praying the family rosary” was an international movement started by an American, much less a door-to-door project. I also did not know that it was a group of Catholic laity who convinced Jerry Falwell to start the Moral Majority. I was surprised to learn that a majority of Latino Catholics currently self-identify as charismatics. The sections on devotion to the Sacred Heart and the Little Flower are a must-read. These were a big part of my grandmother’s generation, but not so much my own. Also a must-read is McCartin’s account of the curious history of the post-conciliar charismatic renewal.
The basic idea of the book—that there has been an evolution in spiritual practices among Catholics from the immigrant church to 21st Century Catholicism—is sound. He makes it real, with vivid examples and quotes you couldn’t make up. It also seems to me that he avoids silly caricatures that would suggest either that we’ve “gone to hell in a handbasket” or that we’ve “left behind sterile practices” and so on.
What seems to me a little dubious is the premise that the immigrant church relied so much on the mediation of hierarchical authority figures in its devotional life. Hasn’t popular piety always flourished as a sort of antipode to clerical control? If there is a sizable population of Catholics today who feel themselves to be far from Catholicism’s approved leaders, yet who hold fast to their own spiritual practices (and I don’t doubt there is), we’d benefit from knowing more about precedents for this.
I applaud McCartin’s effort to manage a huge amount of material. Charting the history of spirituality, as seen from the ground, is a massive undertaking. Thus it feels a little churlish to complain about what the book doesn’t cover. Still, I think a couple of lacunae are worth mentioning.
First, McCartin is really good about telling the stories of individual lay women. But it seems to me that women religious, whose contributions to American Catholic spirituality are substantial, don’t get the coverage they deserve. Second, liturgical changes brought about as a result of Vatican II are discussed, but the spotlight did not dwell enough on how these changes have affected how Catholics pray. I especially would have liked to see some reckoning with the effects of the restoration of Holy Week and the catechumenate. It seems to me these essentially liturgical developments have powerfully affected the religious imagination of Catholics in the latter part of the twentieth century, and thus influenced the way they pray. It is no accident that the photo on the cover of the book is taken from an Easter Vigil service of light. (And, if I’m not mistaken, the people pictured are participants in the RCIA.)
OK, James McCartin, for your next book…