Julian Guthrie’s The Grace of Everyday Saints recounts how the faithful ejected from a 134-year-old parish discovered one another in the effort to reclaim the building they considered home. St Brigid’s organized into a body so they could demonstrate to the archdiocese why they remained viable, and a force for Catholicism in increasingly secular San Francisco. That’s when they discovered their congregation had fallen victim to a much more insidious problem.
Throughout the story, I noticed one recurrent fact: the Catholic hierarchy acted surprised that the faithful didn’t do as they were told. The Church is organized on the belief that Christ reveals Himself through the scripture and through the organization, and therefore, good Catholics obey church dictates as the will of God. But the St Brigid’s people, including a zealous priest, balked.
Perhaps it reflects my Protestantism, but I don’t understand the Church’s position. When I read scripture, I notice that Jesus has nothing but praise and hope for tax collectors and prostitutes. Christ reserves His harshest invective not for sinners, but for priests and other church leaders. Does the Church think itself somehow immune to this?
Considering what we know about the Catholic church today, blind hierarchical obedience seems not just unscriptural, but counterproductive. Jesus’ method of teaching and instruction described in Matthew 8:15-19 puts the onus of the church first on the individual. Yet, as Jecques Ellul says in The Presence of the Kingdom, many who remain weak in faith look for institutions—churches, governments, or whomever—to practice virtue, so they need not do so themselves.
Thus I find, in St Brigid, a real expression of Christ’s mission today. Forced out of their own building, they forged strategic alliances, such as meeting in the basement of a nearby Russian Orthodox congregation. Two churches that seldom talk to one another found a common goal. Millennium-old differences vanished because they spoke to each other with respect and dignity.
Similarly, the Committee to Save St Brigid organized good works, gathering food and clothing for the homeless. In an attempt to foster support for their cause, elderly Catholics—not known as Earth’s most outgoing or broad-minded people—marched in San Francisco’s Gay Pride Parade. And they made important discoveries: it’s hard to hate somebody once you know them.
Outside their building, they simply became the Church. They recovered their Christian mission to approach others. Just as Jesus, in healing lepers, did the unthinkable by touching them, the St Brigid’s parishioners reached out to people their leadership named untouchable. They brought God’s love to “the least of these,” while the hierarchy tried to conceal its systemic rot.
Many people find Catholicism’s long history and somber rites to be their ultimate door into Christianity. A dear friend recently began Catechism at age 36 because Catholicism’s rituals spoke to him. Many Evangelicals, long disdainful of ritual, see this need as a reason why numerous Protestants have recently converted to Catholic or Orthodox Christianity. Three evangelical leaders recently published Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, in part to fill this need.
Yet, as Guthrie recounts it, the closer St Brigid’s grew to God, the more alienated they became from their leadership. The hierarchy, in turn, grew retrenched: one especially recalcitrant archbishop has since been promoted to Joseph Ratzinger’s old Vatican office, making him a strong contender for the Papacy. It’s hard to miss the irony.
In the Gospels, Christ dedicated his ministry to poor communities like Capernaum, Sychar, and Bethany. He touched lepers, spoke with Samaritans, and showed women respect. Jesus’ anger with priests and the wealthy was legend, and, considering his story of the rich man and Lazarus, he had little interest in the powerful. Christ’s mission took place at street level, not in palaces and basilicas.
Nothing against them, but I hope the St Brigid’s congregation never gets their building back. As beautiful as Guthrie’s photos show it, her interview subjects admit they stayed isolated from one another indoors. Only out in the streets did they become a Light to the Nation. Now they’re too beautiful to ever turn back.