April 18, 2014

Reflection / John F. Fink

Oh, for the good old days, when people practiced their religion

John F. FinkOh, for the good old days!

Every now and then, someone will send me a reminder of what things were like back in the 1950s or so. The latest reminded me that, in 1955, you could buy a new car for $1,000; gas cost 20 cents per gallon; first-class postage was 6 cents; a day in a hospital cost $15; and a motel room was $2 per night.

Soon after receiving that e-mail, I read another with the news that New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan has asked Msgr. James Shea, president of the University of Mary, to be the preacher for the Tre Ore service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on Good Friday. The University of Mary is a Catholic university located near Bismarck, N.D.

The Tre Ore service at St. Patrick’s hasn’t changed, except for those who have preached it. Last year, Father Robert Barron, the rector and president of Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Ill., and founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, did so. What has changed is the way Good Friday is treated in our modern society.

The Tre Ore (Three Hours) is from noon until 3 p.m., the three hours, according to Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels, during which Christ hung on the cross. Msgr. Shea will lead those in attendance in meditation on Christ’s suffering and death, especially the seven last “words” Christ uttered while on the cross.

Bishop Fulton J. Sheen popularized the Tre Ore service back in the 1950s, and before, and the news release from the University of Mary gives him full credit. It says, “Bishop Sheen mesmerized not only the 3,000 people inside the cathedral, but the same number of people outside the cathedral on the police-blocked streets of Manhattan where they were listening on loud speakers.”

It went on to say, “People went to church, and stores in New York closed down between noon and 3 p.m. because the Tre Ore, the ‘three hours,’ were a sacred time that recalls Christ hanging on the cross. The New York Times reported much the same: ‘The heart of Manhattan’s most congested midtown area became a miniature St. Peter’s Square.’ ”

The book America’s Bishop, a biography of Archbishop Sheen (he was made an archbishop in 1969) has similar stories, but different statistics. It says that “when Sheen was scheduled to preach in St. Patrick’s, 6,000 people regularly packed the church. On Easter Sunday, 1941, 7,500 worshipers were jammed into the cathedral, while 800 waited outside. On Good Friday, Sheen’s sermons were broadcast outdoors to the thousands standing outside St. Patrick’s.”

Somehow, we can’t imagine that happening today, and it’s not just because Bishop Sheen was unique, which, of course, he was. It’s more that our society has become so secularized that, for most Americans, Good Friday has become just another day.

It was not only in New York that the stores closed from noon to 3 p.m. on Good Friday; that was true in most cities. It was an era when Christianity was taken for granted, and people practiced their religion. Protestantism was even taught in the public schools, and Bibles were distributed to high school graduates. Can you imagine what would happen if that were tried today?

Obviously, much has changed, and usually not for the better when it comes to religion and morality. We know that non-marital sex is taken for granted these days, and having children out of wedlock is no longer considered taboo. Cohabitation instead of marriage is no longer derisively viewed but is accepted.

Perhaps we can’t do much to change all that, although the new evangelization calls us to do what we can. But we can at least resolve to try to improve our own private spiritual lives.

Oh, for the good old days.

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion.)

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