St. John Neumann was the bishop of Philadelphia from 1852 - 1860. He is known for many remarkable achievements and his body is incorrupt. But this post is going to cover only one of those achievements, the building of parishes. Bishop Neumann had the face of Europe confronting him in the Catholics of Philadelphia. He understood that everyone of these Europeans were Catholic. He also understood that they came from different nationalities and had different customs. The Mass was the same but the customs were different. He organized the diocese into national parishes, Italian, Irish, Polish, etc. It worked. At one point the diocese was building parishes at the rate of one per month.
A good friend of mine from South Philadelphia was talking about this phenomena the other day. He said that there was a Catholic church right across from his house. But since he was Irish and that parish was Italian, his family travelled three blocks to the Irish parish. Why? The Irish celebrated St. Patrick in a special way. They had a particular devotion to St. Patrick. They ate ham and cabbage at their parish dinner. The Italians had a devotion to St. Anthony. The Italian parish ate pasta with meatballs at their parish dinner. They celebrated the same Mass, but they enjoyed, and thrived with their different customs. The Italians would walk into church, make the sign of the cross, genuflect, kiss their hand, go to a pew and genuflect again before going into the pew. The Irish would walk straight to their pew, then genuflect, enter the pew and once kneeling would make the sign of the cross.
The SSPX would benefit by studying the genius of St. John Neumann. There has been controversy at all the parishes where the SSPX tries to get everyone doing everything the same way. It doesn’t work. It causes division and even worse. More on that to come. St. John Neumann was a good shepherd. He gathered all his sheep. He didn’t want to lose even one. Now fast forward to this century and the SSPXs recent initiatives on uniformity. When the SSPX began the uniformity program in Philadelphia the results were not good. First, they got rid of the St. Anthony statue. In an area where, if you call out the name Anthony in a crowd, three quarters of the male population turns around to respond, getting rid of a devotional statue is not considerate.
Some of the parish members left and never returned. They went to independent chapels and other places where the sacraments may or may not be valid. Some of them just stayed home. The SSPX was made aware of what was happening. The SSPX leadership was begged to assist these lost sheep. Some of those sheep were elderly. At a time in their life when the priest should be leading them by the hand into their last days and paradise, they were having their world rocked, their devotions taken away, everything they knew was changing, and not for the better. And this was being done by their priest and the SSPX hierarchy. Obey or leave. There wasn’t a discussion, only arguments and the finality of the obedience trump card being played by the SSPX.
We are a nation of differing cultures. We are a nation of differing customs. As a Catholic I can appreciate that my friend likes harp and bagpipe music, even if I don’t, and my friend appreciates that I enjoy the sound of a mandolin and an accordion playing sentimental songs, even though he doesn’t. If I go to his parish, I see different customs, but the priest recites the same Mass. They may stand, sit, kneel and cry at different parts of the Mass, but it is the priest who offers the sacrifice. What they do, what I do, doesn’t make a difference except in that it is our custom and that is so important in getting us through each and every day of mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. We cling to our Mass, we cling to our customs.