Hometown Brag

Hometown Brag

by Bill Droel

Political commentators derisively call it The Chicago Way. They refer to our machine-style politics. Its motto, of course, is Ubi est mea? (Where’s mine?) It is accompanied by corruption and then jail time for some, including in recent years a Congressman and two Governors.

By contrast, two commentators point to a positive Chicago Way–our style of being Catholic. “As U.S. Catholic histories continue to be written, the Catholic Midwest in general and Chicago in particular will highlight the emergence of the post-Vatican II pastoral church,” writes Tom Fox, editor of National Catholic Reporter (www.nconline.org, 6/8/15). Fox pays tribute to recently deceased Chicagoans Eugene Cullen Kennedy (1928-2015) and Bob McClory (1932-2015). He also mentions our Fr. Andrew Greeley (1928-2013). Kennedy and the others “embraced a rich sacramental vision,” Fox says, believing that “the divine imbued all matter and the sacraments [the formal ones and the many small ones] were aids to open our eyes to the richness of God’s all-embracing love.”

Fr. Bruce Nieli, CSP, writing in U.S. Catholic (www.uscatholic.org, 7/15), pays tribute to Chicago as the place where, before and after Vatican II, several Catholic lay movements began or had a strong base.

These are the two primary characteristics of the Chicago Catholic Way: a sacramental imagination and lay-led social action. But first some caveats.

  • The Chicago Catholic Way is not immune from corruption. For example, several leaders in the selfish part of Chicago’s political life are Catholic. Further, the scandalous mismanagement of abusive Church employees was as bad here as elsewhere.
  • The Chicago Way of Being Catholic is not exclusive to our city nor is it the only good way. Simply, certain elements of Catholic tradition are accented here.
  • Many of those who practice the Chicago Catholic Way now do so as cultural Catholics. That is, Mass participation among young adults is no better here than elsewhere.

Chicago Catholicism is sacramental or analogical. It sees similarities between pedestrian encounters and the grand. The Incarnation is taken seriously here. God for us is found in ordinary things and surroundings. We suspect, as Greeley often said, that the world is enchanted.

Primarily—at least in my experience—this means an animating belief in the real presence of God in the Eucharist. But in Chicago the weekend Eucharist quickly leads to the Mystical Body of Christ; that is our co-workers, neighbors and family members, especially the poor.

That weekday Eucharist disposition, at least in our better moments, allows us to regard others not as if we would hypothetically regard Christ, but as if the most renowned and the most dejected Chicagoan is Christ in some real sense.

This, in turn, leads to the second characteristic: Chicago’s tradition for social action. Nieli mentions the Christian Family Movement, which although it began at Notre Dame in 1940, took off in Chicago beginning in 1942. He also names the community organization movement as a Chicago product, beginning among Catholic parishes here in 1939. Nieli credits Chicago with a strong presence of other Catholic movements, including the Catholic Worker, Cursillo, Young Christian Workers, Young Christian Students and the like.

The two characteristics—a sacramental disposition and social action—reinforce each other. The Chicago Way appreciates that liturgy and justice are reciprocal. There is even a slogan in Chicago: “The liturgy is the second school of social justice.” (The family, of course, is the first school.)

Chicago has problems in its neighborhoods, its jails, its health facilities, its legislatures, its businesses and more. And the Catholic church here is sluggish for many reasons. But with some creative thinking and some young leadership the Chicago Catholic Way can continue to contribute to our common life in the Midwest, to U.S. Catholicism and to all of Christianity.

Droel is author of Church, Chicago Style (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $2)