Reclaiming the Forgotten Wisdom of a Bygone Era

These last few years, my wife and I have been restoring an old Victorian house that once was a rectory on our island in Nova Scotia, where we live in the summer. I would like to draw an analogy between what we have done so far and what should be done in the Church. We might call it de-novation: the removal of worthless or banal or ugly stuff, once hailed as new, in order to reveal de novo the good things that have been hidden or forgotten. So when we tore out the old linoleum and plywood, we found, lying beneath, original maple floors, laid in strips to make parquet patterns of squares and diamonds. Beauty, buried.

The last dweller in the rectory was a dear friend, Father J. J. MacDonald. He was one of the chief players in the credit union movement in Canada; a founder of the local hospital and of our island’s television station dedicated to local affairs; a Scot who taught himself to speak French with ease; a farmer from youth and by avocation; a liberal in politics when that did not imply Moloch or Sodom; and a faithful son of the Church.

When he left the rectory, he let the parish sell most of the things he owned. I have his moral theology textbooks from his days in seminary. They are written in Latin by a Dutch Dominican, and Father MacDonald’s comments appear in the margins, in Latin and English. When we bought the house itself, we inherited also several hundred books that the parish could not give away. Many of these are pastoral works, from Father’s early days, the 1950s and 1960s. They were the meat and potatoes, the bread and beer of a priest’s life, or of a Catholic parishioner’s life, just before the linoleum and plywood and wall-to-wall plush carpet renovation.

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The book I have before me is Talking to Teenagers, by F. H. Drinkwater. Mine is the third printing and second and amplified edition, 1964; it was originally published in 1954, with material that Father Drinkwater says went back to the 1930s. He had published many books for Catholic children and youths, as did his friend Monsignor Ronald Knox, and he and Knox share an immediate, amiable address to young people that neither patronizes them nor takes them for granted. They also shared a fully social world that was about to be destroyed.

I sometimes bristle when I hear the term “social justice,” and not only because I wonder what the person who uses it considers to be just. I wonder what he considers to be social. What merits this adjective? It cannot be mere numbers. It cannot be political generality. There must remain, somewhere in the minds of those who intend a truly social law or custom or endeavor, a sense that man is meant for friendship; that God has chosen that human beings should be fed, taught, corrected, healed, and so forth, by other human beings; that individualism and collectivism are misbegotten twins; and that a truly human society lies not between those two but above them and beyond them.

We find the social everywhere in Drinkwater’s talks. In “Holes in the Welfare State,” he remarks that there is “no domestic help for mothers with several small children. (Opportunities here for girls, baby-sitting, etc., or shopping perhaps, for boys with a bicycle.)” It’s not a day care program he recommends, but personal interactions of ordinary human beings. This presumes that ordinary human beings are available and that there are girls and boys, that they have time, that they can be trusted outside the home—that is, they will be safe and they pose no danger to others, the girls will like small children and the boys can carry groceries in a sack while they ride a bike along busy streets or down a country road. And what if the person in need is elderly? “What the old (living alone, and probably infirm) need most is someone to be a link with the outside world.” Father Drinkwater recommends a course of action that would startle us: to “adopt” a pensioner, “and arrange to be sent to him with some message, to make the first contact,” and to persevere if the old man seems a bit defensive or awkward. “Sometimes a few minutes’ conversation is what old people need most. If you can’t think of any ‘news,’ they are always willing to reminisce about times gone by.”

What can you be sure of, if you do these things? “You will be giving much pleasure to Our Lord,” says Father Drinkwater, and “you will receive yourself (in experience and joy) far more than you are giving to your new elderly friends.” There is a note of popular piety in here—the intimate reference to Our Lord, as if we were children wishing to please our older brother—that is no longer a feature of Catholic life.

In “Social Life in the Parish,” Father says that “every parish, every Mass-center, ought to be a real community-center.” Of course that is not all a parish should be, or the best it should be. The true center of parish life is Christ, in the Mass and the sacraments, but that beating heart should send forth blood to all the limbs of human life. Drinkwater imagines a conversation between two Catholics, one whose parish is social and one whose parish is not. Says George, from the unsocial parish: “All sorts of things we ought to have, dances, tennis club, dramatic club, rambling, summer camps, debating society, chess club. Now I know two chaps who’ve joined a Protestant chess club—they’d have joined a Catholic chess club if there was one.”

A what?

This world is gone. The blame is not to be laid on overworked priests. These things, says George’s interlocutor Tom, from the social parish, are the work of the laity. The priests “were ordained to give us the Mass and sacraments and teach the faith, not to spread the gospel of table tennis—anybody can do that.” Anybody should do that. “We’ve got quite a nice little regular cycling group in our parish,” says Tom, “and it was me that got it started.” He’s going to get married next Christmas to the club’s assistant secretary.

The good father understands the need for fledglings to stretch their wings and flap about, yawping about the parent birds who still bring them their food. “This tendency is part of growing up,” he says, and we should also grow right out of it. He tells the boys and girls that our word authority comes from the Latin augere, to cause something to increase or grow: “All ‘Authority’ therefore is the increasing of life, not the crushing of it. So never mix up Authority with Force or Compulsion. Often Authority may have to use force, but only to preserve life to foster true growth.” Our lawful authorities, representing home, the civil order, and the Church, are our parents, the law of the land, and our priest. What he says about the society of the home, when the parents are not the best, is remarkable for its innocuousness:

“Perhaps some of our parents, when we were little, used their authority oppressively: ‘Go and see what Johnny’s doing and tell him not to.’ ‘You’ll do it because I tell you.’ Parents make plenty of mistakes in child-training, but it isn’t their fault, nobody shows them, they did their best at the time. Don’t let their mistakes affect you now. Don’t work off old scores, especially don’t work them off on your younger brothers and sisters. Start a new line—be cooperative and helpful.”

Youngsters are also supposed to be apostles, once they have been confirmed. We presume a truly social world. People do things together all the time and talk about them. Father imagines two girls coming back from the cinema. It seems to have been a double feature.

“That last one was a good picture, wasn’t it?” says Doris. “Weren’t you glad she was able to get a divorce and marry that writer-fellow?”

“No,” says Nora. “I’m afraid I don’t believe in divorce.”

“Oh, but it all depends, doesn’t it?”

“No, it’s all wrong,” says Nora. “If people know they can get a divorce, they won’t bother to try to make a success of their marriage. Every disagreement that crops up they’ll start talking about going off.”

“Oh, well,” says Doris, “I know your Church is against divorce, that’s why you say it’s wrong.”

“No, it’s the other way about,” says Nora. “Divorce is all wrong, and that’s why the Church is against it.”

The conversation continues, with Nora speaking out of a persistent realism. We hear in our time that “love”—by which is meant powerful affection salted with sexual desire—sugars a multitude of sin. This is antisocial. Says Nora: “Love is no reason for people breaking their solemn promises.”

Only a few of the book’s two hundred pages relate to sex. This was before the hurricane hit.  The sexual had not yet destroyed the social. To boys, Father Drinkwater says, “Get a right attitude towards girls.  Respect, companionship.  They are not ‘dolls’ or ‘judys’ but human persons as much as you.” Also: “Recognize the difference between lust and love; quite simple really, in one the main thing is greed and self-seeking, in the other the main object is the happiness of the one loved.”

To girls: “All girls are interested in weddings, and in their own some day. But the main point is, no hurry. No hurry at all. Meanwhile you will be naturally interested in boys, all the more if you have no brothers. Get to know plenty, but there is never any need to make yourself cheap.” By that, he does not imply fornication; it is not in the picture. The dangers to watch out for are: vanity, luxury, and having “a full-time boy-friend too early.” How is one to tell the good from the bad?  “Watch how he treats his mother and sisters.”

My God, my God, why have we forsaken common sense and common decency?  We have gained nothing but loneliness and antisocial pathologies that Father Drinkwater could not have imagined. It is no longer linoleum and plywood. It is poison, darkness of mind and perversity of will, solitariness without solitude, and rancor and recrimination between the sexes. Fill a church? We do not fill bowling alleys or dance halls.

Repent, turn back, go home, and be human again.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “After the Prom” painted by Norman Rockwell in 1957.


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