I can remember the exact date, March 17, 1993, because while I was
vesting for early-morning weekday Mass, I asked the 8-year-old altar boy
about the saint of the day.
“How about a quiz? Do you know who Saint Patrick was?”
“No,” he said, which didn’t surprise me. After all, he was only
eight, and German.
“Well, if it weren’t for Saint Patrick, I probably wouldn’t be
Catholic. He was a bishop and a missionary, and he brought the Catholic
Faith to Ireland.”
The little boy’s eyes grew, as they say, as big as saucers. “How
could he be a saint?” he asked, with real amazement.
“What do you mean? Why couldn’t he?”
“You said he was a missionary!”
“Yeah, he was a missionary,” I said, totally baffled.
“I thought missionaries were bad.”
A couple of questions more, and I knew that this little Catholic
child, whose own mother was an exemplary, active Catholic, a CCD
teacher, had learned in public school that missionaries were violent,
oppressive characters who fanned out from Europe for many centuries, in
destroy people and cultures around the world.
Public school. In a small, very small, North Dakota town, where the
public school is probably as “accountable” to parents as a public school
can be. The kind of “locally controlled” public school that parents
would be the last to suspect is teaching their children that the
Christian religion and its missionaries are just one among many evils
spread around the world by an imperialistic, racist European culture.
That conversation in the sacristy that Saint Patrick’s Day morning
was just an eye-opener. Much reading and much conversation since that
day have convinced me that, although the challenges facing the Catholic
Church are many (and permanent — because they are all rooted in the
sinful condition of mankind), there is one fact that directly threatens,
with extinction, the Catholic Church in our diocese (and in most
dioceses): the fact that the majority of Catholic children are attending
How many Catholic parents would allow a newspaper published by the
government into their homes, if it taught their children that God is not
to be mentioned outside of home or church, if it contained pictures and
articles describing natural and unnatural sex acts, if it taught them
that Marilyn Monroe deserves 16 pages in a history of the United States,
while George Washington deserves one? And if it told them that Christian
“missionaries are bad”?
Yet Catholic parents, who would throw such a government-owned
newspaper in the trash, send their children to government-owned
buildings for six or more hours a day, twelve years of their lives, to
read government-prescribed books and be taught government-prescribed
We are all acutely aware of the vast numbers of nominal Catholics
whose lives are hardly touched by the Catholic Faith. Vast numbers of
nominal Catholics vote for politicians who are openly committed to
continuing the abortion holocaust. (How dare we in America, with all our
freedom of speech and the freedom to vote, judge the Germans of the
Priests experience the nominal Catholic acutely and constantly, such
as in parishes where the majority of couples coming for marriage
preparation are already living together. Alienation from the Church is
usually experienced by parents as a crisis of adolescence, or when their
son or daughter shacks up or marries outside the Church.
It isn’t merely that two generations of Catholics have not known how
to recite the Catechism. It is much more: Two generations of Catholics
have been deprived of anything that might be called a Catholic culture.
And in most cases, the really systematic separation of the Catholic
from the Catholic Faith gets under way in earnest not in the turmoil of
adolescence, or through the influence of a non-Catholic romance, but on
that morning when Mom and Dad watch proudly as their six-year-old climbs
into the government school’s big yellow bus.
Father Vincent Fitzpatrick is pastor
of Saint Michael’s Catholic Church in Wales, North Dakota.