What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages, which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope.
Alasdair MacIntyre, ~After Virtue
It’s very easy to be pessimistic as an American today, as national division, a rancorous presidential election, and recent terrorism and violence dominate our Facebook newsfeeds or dinner table conversations.
The climate can feel even bleaker for American Catholics, in the light of an increasingly hostile culture, confusion within the Church hierarchy, and attacks on religious freedom; evidenced so when nuns are dragged before the Supreme Court, while “nones” are the fastest growing religious group in the land.
So what does the future hold for the Church here in what some call a “post-Christian” America? In his essay Strangers in a Strange Land, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput calls for the formation of “healthy cells in society,” and continues to state, “We need to work as long as we can, as hard as we can, to nourish the good that remains in our country…and to encourage the seeds of a renewal that can only come from our young people.
Healthy cells are composed of those who are thoroughly formed in the teachings of the Church. Fortunately, in recent years, there’s been a resurgence of these healthy cells forming across the country. Here are just a few examples:
Twenty minutes from the Pacific Ocean, nestled in the sloping foothills of southern California’s Los Padres National Forest, the bell tower of Thomas Aquinas College’s magnificent chapel overlooks a picturesque collection of Spanish-style buildings and rolling green lawns. Students at TAC live in a thriving, close-knit community faithful to the teachings of the Church and devoted to study of the Great Books of western civilization, which include Aristotle, Augustine, and the Lincoln-Douglass Debates, using the round-table seminar method to guide each class. It’s no surprise that ten percent of the college’s alumni have pursued religious vocations, since Mass is offered four times daily.
Responding to the erosion and lack of identity in many of the mainline Catholic colleges during the 1970s, TAC is just one of several small Catholic colleges that have sprung up across the country, offering a return to authentic education, fidelity to the Church, and community.
There are many more faithful colleges (to name a few) including Christendom College, Franciscan
University, Ave Maria University, Benedictine College, The Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, John Paul the Great University, Northeast Catholic College and Wyoming Catholic College, where students dive into the works of Descartes and Flannary O’Connor, while mastering the art of horsemanship and outdoor leadership skills, including a 20-day backpacking trip for Freshman orientation.
An abundance of Newman Centers have formed at most of the larger, secular colleges and universities, where like-minded students can find an oasis of prayer, formation, and socialization.
These colleges and Newman Centers have produced droves of faithful, orthodox alumni, who in turn are serving the Church through religious life or marriage. As more graduates of these colleges marry and have large, healthy families, the demand for more good Catholic colleges will grow.
During the latter half of the 20th century, American Catholic seminaries faced a major crisis of identity and Faith. Some institutions were hardly recognizable as Catholic, much less a seminary built for the formation of priests. Open dissent against Rome, New Age theology, and in many instances homosexual sub-culture were present in mainline American seminaries. Several devout, orthodox men recount being denied admission to seminaries on the basis of being “too rigid” or “conservative,” a disturbing practice that took place for decades in most American seminaries.
Those days are over.
Recent years have seen a rebirth of the American seminary. A series of reforms and reorientation toward orthodoxy has fostered a dramatic increase in vocations, with 2015 seeing a 25% increase from the previous year.
Under the guidance of Bishop Conley and his predecessors, Lincoln, Nebraska—with a population of just under 100,000—consistently ordains more priests per capita then most major metropolitan areas. The secret? A focus on reverent liturgy, the presence of young, manly priests and seminaries teaching at the local Catholic schools, and intentional collaboration with the area Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP).
As more dioceses follow Lincoln’s lead, and Benedict’s men pour into the nation’s parishes by the thousands, we will see a continued rise in priestly vocations, a renewed focus on devout liturgy, and thriving parishes.
St Jerome’s Academy in the quiet, leafy D.C. suburb of Hyattsville, Maryland was once a debt-ridden, pre-K-8 diocesan school on the archdiocesan list for closure in 2008, after enrollment had fallen by nearly 50%. In 2009, a group of like-minded parents formed a committee to revitalize the school with a renewed focus on Catholic identity, an updated Great Books curriculum, and a focus on the true, good, and beautiful. Since St. Jerome’s revitalization in 2009, there are now over a hundred young, orthodox families who have moved to Hyattsville to become part of the intentional Catholic community. The local parish has seen a surge of baptisms, first communions, and even vocations.
St. Jerome’s is just one of many in the boom of faithful, K-12 Catholic schools that have sprung or revitalized up in recent years, emphasizing a return to authentic Catholic and classical liberal education. Many of these schools have been started or are run by alumni of the aforementioned colleges; a trend that is bound to continue.
St. Augustine’s, St. Michael’s, and St. Monica’s in California, Lyceum in Ohio, Chesterton Academy in Minnesota, and Trivium in Massachusetts are just a handful of examples, while Mother of Divine Grace and Seton Home Study are long-distance programs for homeschooling families that seek orthodox Catholic, classical curricula.
On February 11th, 2000, the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes, a small group of monks from the Abbey of Notre Dame de Fontgombault founded an abbey in wooded plains of Clear Creek, Oklahoma. Today, the Clear Creek Abbey is now home to over 50 monks, surrounded by a growing agrarian community centered around the Latin mass and the peace of the abbey and surrounding countryside. The abbey is expanding to form a satellite daughter house in the mountains of New Mexico, where another community of the faithful is forming.
While there are far too many faithful Catholic institutions to name, those listed above should provide hope for the formation of the Church as we enter uncertain times.
At a compounding rate, graduates of good, Catholic high schools will attend colleges, and later go on to have strong families, found new schools of their own, and embrace their religious vocations. It’s a healthy cycle, and a cycle that’s growing quickly.
The good that these institutions and communities provide highlights their necessity and vulnerability. Recent mandates against Catholic institutions are just the first wave, in what will be an inevitable onslaught against countercultural intuitions who fail to fall in line. It behooves us, the faithful, to continue to support and nourish these institutions, as they hold the future for the Church in the ensuing post-Christian era.