Boston College's Church in the 21st Century Center has pulled together a series of thematic essays reflecting on Catholicism in Boston over the two centuries since the Archdiocese of Boston was established. The essays are collected in a new book, "Two Centuries of Faith: The Influence of Catholicism on Boston, 1808-2008,'' edited by university historian Thomas H. O'Connor. The book is not a comprehensive history of the archdiocese, but rather takes a look at several aspects of the development of the archdiocese, from the French influences on its beginnings, to the role of women and minorities in its ranks, to the role of Catholicism in Boston politics, social services, education and literature.
BC held an event Tuesday to present a copy of the book to Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston; the authors and a variety of faculty and students gathered in the Irish Room at BC's Gasson Hall, under a giant stained glass window of St. Patrick, the patron saint of the archdiocese.
O'Connor, offering the gathering an overview of the book, provocatively suggested that in some ways, the archdiocese of today resembles the archdiocese of 200 years ago, with fewer Catholics and fewer priests than it enjoyed during the triumphalist decades of the early 20th Century.
In the book, one of the contributors, the Rev. William T. Schmidt, pastor of St. Patrick Church in Stoneham, offers a sober look at the history of parish life in the archdiocese, observing that the sexual abuse scandal caused a "crisis of confidence and trust in the leadership of the Catholic Church" and saying "the long-term impact of this crisis is still unknown.''
"The parishes of the Archdiocese of Boston are facing extraordinary struggles, disappointments, and challenges at the beginning of Boston's third centenary. Sunday Mass attendance on the part of Boston Catholics has dropped precipitously from more than 70 percent of baptized Catholics during the halcyon days of the 1940s and 1950s to less than 25 percent today. This depleted participation at Sunday Mass is certainly reflective of continuing anger over the clergy sex abuse scandal. It is also refelctive of some deep distress with the closure of parishes. It would be inaccurate, however, to attribute the depleted numbers at Sunday Mass to these issues alone. There has indeed been a steady erosion of Sunday Mass attendance since the 1970s that is reflective of sweeping changes within the church and society.''
The last word in the book goes to BC history professor James M. O'Toole, who looks back at the bishops of Boston, and then looks ahead:
"For the foreseeable future, the institution of the church will continue to shrink, and the number of priests and sisters will become steadily smaller. Even as new forms of lay ministry expand, the reconfiguration of the institutions and agencies of the church will have to be accomplished cooperatively. For their part, lay people are eager to participate in this process of seeking new ways of 'being the church.' As time puts distance between ourselves and the events of the scandal, it seems increasingly significant that large numbers of Catholics did not simply abandon the church. That they stayed with it, even amid the heartbreaking scandal, evinces a desire to remain faithful members of the church. That commonality of faith has sustained them for the last two hundred years and will be essential for the next century -- centuries -- of Catholics of Boston.''
Cardinal O'Malley spoke briefly as he accepted a copy of the book. Here are some video excerpts of his remarks:
(Photo above, by Wendy Maeda of the Globe staff, shows Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston greeting history professor Thomas H. O'Connor of Boston College on 4/21/09.)