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Puritan Boston Prepares For the Polish Pontiff

With Their Ancestors Turning in Their Graves

By Peter J. Gomes

In an Algonquin Round Table contest for the most sensational conceivable headline, the redoubtable Dorothy Thompson is said to have won with her entry of two words: "Pope Elopes." That is almost as inconceivable as the headline reading: "Pontiff to Celebrate Mass for Half-Million on Boston Common."

The visit of a reigning Pope to Boston on, of all days, Yom Kippur, is nearly more eschatological than ecumenical; perhaps consciousness of this element is responsible in part for the frenzy of the local populace, rehearsing as it were for The Second Coming.

A Pope in Boston: it confirms the dreams of generations of faithful Catholics, Irishmen, Italians and others, and confirms the fears of their Protestant antagonists of generations past. Besides the deafening roar of Boston's brassiest Catholic Youth Organization bands and the huzzahs of the crowds in the packed streets, the papal entourage will be greeted by yet another sound--the rumbling bones of the Mathers, Cottons and Sewalls as they turn over in their graves. It will not be an act of inhospitality, mind you (even in death they are too well-bred for that), simply one of incredulity that in the land of the Bean and the Cod, he who is called Summus Pontifex, Vicarius Petri, Servus Servorum Dei, Dominus Deus, Nostra Papa, and addressed as Sanctissime Pater should be here. Their amazement is only matched by our own.

Indeed, as the governor, mayor, and nearly every candidate for public office in the Commonwealth have noted since at least mid-August, the visit of the Pope to Boston is an event of immense significance, one without parallel, outshining even that most memorable 11th of July 1976 when her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II addressed the city from the balcony of her royal ancestors' Province House. (Her Majesty's visit is cited as a precedent by various advocates of public support for the papal visit on the ground that the Queen is the Head of the Church of England, but it should be remembered that she is neither its Primate nor did she celebrate an Office of the Church of England at anyone else's expense while she was here.) Yet the Pope's visit, remarkable as it is, can be neither understood nor appreciated without some sense of the context in which it is occurring.

The English Puritans who settled Massachusetts and established their capital seat at Boston were not known for their solicitude towards the Bishop of Rome. Themselves heirs of the English Reformation, their memories of the Papacy and the Marian persecutions were annotated by the standard work found in all of their libraries, John Fox's Acts and Monuments, commonly called The Book of Martyrs. First published in 1563 in English, The Book of Martyrs with its vivid, even lurid accounts of the sufferings unto death of Protestant martyrs at the hands of the Church of Rome and Bloody Mary served to remind all who read it that their freedom was won at the cost of blood.

Of their 18th century cousins in England, Daniel Defoe would say "there were a hundred thousand country fellows in his time ready to fight to the death against popery, without knowing whether popery was a man or a horse." In New England, in order to prevent such a mistake, one of the most eminent citizens of the Colony, The Honorable Paul Dudley (A.B. 1690), Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, Overseer of Harvard College, Fellow of the Royal Society, left to the President and Fellows of the college a bequest of 133 pounds, 6 shillings, and 8 pence for the establishment of a series of annual lectures to be known as the Dudleian Lectures.

The topics, specified in some detail, were to consider in course (1) Natural Religion, (2) Revealed Religion, (3) The Validity of Non-Episcopal Ordination, and (4), of particular interest to our consideration, a discourse on the errors of popery. The lecturer on this last subject was required to discuss

The detecting and convicting and exposing the idolatry of the Roman Church, their tyranny, usurpations, damnable heresies, fatal errors, abominable superstitions, and other crying wickednesses in their high places; and finally, to show that the Church of Rome is that mystical Babylon, that woman of sin, that apostate church spoken of in the New Testament.

These are unambiguous terms, and we may assume that for well over a century the full course of the Dudleian Lectures was given with more or less fidelity to the intentions of the pious founder.

The invitation extended to Pope John Paul II to speak on the Dudleian Foundation would have, if accepted, provided a remarkable bit of counterpoint to Mr. Justice Dudley's theme. It would not, however, have been the first time that a Roman Prelate spoke upon that foundation. That distinction belongs to Bishop John J. Keane, Rector of the then-newly established Catholic University, who came at the invitation of Harvard President Charles William Eliot on October 23, 1890 to deliver the Dudleian Lecture on Revealed Religion in Appleton Chapel. His Catholic colleagues likened his precedent-shattering appearance in Harvard Yard to St. Paul's appearance at Mars Hill. So taken was the University with his measured address that he received an LL. D. degree at 1893 Commencement. Of the lectures themselves, the Boston Pilot, a weekly Catholic newspaper, observed, "No event could better symbolize the change in New England's views about Roman Catholicism from distrust to open-minded, if critical, investigation."

If the view of New England towards Rome was changing towards the close of the last century, partly because of contact with the enormous numbers of Catholics coming into the city of Boston, Rome's view of American Catholicism was in a state of transition too. Though American Catholics celebrated the centenary of their organization in America in 1889, Rome continued to regard them as little more than missionaries in a backward country It was not until 1892 that the first apostolic delegation was sent to Washington. The ardent Protestantism of the founders of New England and the periodic outbursts of anti-Catholic feeling caused Roman authorities to regard America guardedly.

A newly arrived missionary sister in America at mid-century was warned by a friendly priest to "remain with God, the holy and just, as you are here in Sodom and Gomorrah." By 1902, however, Leo XIII was able to write to the American church in response to its fraternal greetings to him

A long experience compels us to acknowledge that, thanks to your efforts, we have found in your people souls endowed with all the docility of spirit and good will that could be desired. And while the vicissitudes and failings of almost all the traditionally Catholic nations inspire sadness, the state of your church and their flourishing youth rejoice our soul.

In rural New England, mothers used to threaten their recalcitrant children with midnight visits from the Pope if they didn't behave. Now these threats are coming true and descendants of these Calvinist matrons will vie with each other for places along Boston's own Via Papale. Two remarkable Bostonians should have lived to see this day. Antagonists in life, on this day they would have been as one: William Henry Cardinal O'Connell, Boston's ultramontane Cardinal Archbishop, and The Honorable James Michael Curley, Boston's irrepressible mayor and one-term governor of Massachusetts.

Of Curley it is said he once wanted to become ambassador to Italy and thought his good friend Franklin Delano Roosevelt '04 had promised him the job. Curley got assurances from Mussolini, from King Victor Emmanuel and from the Pope. FDR, however, had other ideas and offerred Curley Poland instead. in The Purple Shamrock, Joseph Dineen describes Curley's response:

"Poland?" he said, "Poland? You want me to go to Poland? That's a job you ought to give to some Republican, or to some enemy you want to get rid of. I'm not your enemy. I'm your friend."

Now both Poland and Rome are coming to Boston--the times they are a-changing.

The history of Catholicism in America, particularly in New England, has not been peaceful. In a land where attacks of nativism have been as frequent as the common cold, Catholicism has frequently been regarded as foreign and its adherents as mindless followers of an alien despot. When the Pope, following the example of the monarchs of Europe, sent over a block of marble to be included in the Washington Monument under construction in the 1840s, an angry mob threw the gift into the Potomac. Closer to home, an equally unpleasant mob burned to the ground the Ursuline Convent and made the life of the Catholic minority in Boston uncomfortable indeed.

More recently, Paul Blanshard's "Protestants and Others United for the Separation of Church and State" had as its agenda the rollback of the alleged Catholic takeover of the American (nee Protestant) system including the public schools; through lectures and a best-selling book The People's Padre, ex-priest Emmett McLoughlin exposed contemporary Romish abuses to the delight of many.

In Boston, however, the militancy of the late William Henry Cardinal O'Connell and the rising affluence of the Irish Catholic middle class between the world wars ensured that the Catholic presence was here to stay. The Cardinal, among others, even began to worry that success would do to the faithful Catholics what it had done to the third generation of Puritans: lead to diminished zeal and cultural identity.

It would be left to his successor, Richard Cardinal Cushing, a man of simpler style, and Pope John XXIII, successor to Pius XII, to paint a picture of Catholicism which was inconsistent neither with the times nor the experiences of 20th century Americans of all faiths living in an age of rapid social change. The election of John F. Kennedy '40 to the presidency in 1961 did not so much prove that a Catholic could be president as show how little being a Catholic had to do with being president at all. These developments raised the nation's consciousness and provided the context in which the present visit of the Pope to Boston must be understood.

Neither the visit nor the Pope are without their complications even today. The Pope, adored in the streets and hailed as a media phenomenon, is scarcely the slicked-down, "with-it" Pontiff one might think the 20th century requires. Indeed, he has been called by some social critics within his own church a throwback to the frosty Pius XII. His pronouncements, shaped by the rigors of his Eastern Catholicism and his perception of a world in moral drift, have served to defend the eroding frontiers of faith and practice. He is both personable and tough-- a difficult combination to defeat, and, in these soft days, to understand.

Those who see beyond the Toyota-led processions in the courtyard of St. Peter's and the quotable remarks made in half a dozen languages at his thronged weekday audiences may well find that the present occupant of the Chair of St. Peter has fully as much in common with Gregory VII and Boniface VIII as with Leo XIII and John XXIII. His coming to Boston has stimulated a debate, not so much about the Pope or his church but rather over who will foot the bill for his visit. (Presumably when Billy Graham blows into town someone other than the Commonwealth picks up the tab.)

A strict constructionist interpreting the Constitution would argue that it is a Roman Catholic event and the Archdiocese should foot the bill. Others argue that it is a "state" event of enormous civic importance, and therefore the city and Commonwealth should assume financial responsibility as they would for any visiting dignitary. Still others argue that it compromises the always precarious doctrine of the separation of Church and state, and therefore even more care than usual must be exercised. The problem is particularly acute because Boston's political and civil establishment is in the hands of Catholics, none of whom wished to be accused of impropriety, and all of whom wish to vindicate the honor of their ancestors and their church.

It will be instructive for the Pope to experience at first hand these realities of American life, and instructive for Bostonians as well as they seek an equitable resolution of the matter. However it is managed, it will be an extraordinary scene: the Supreme Pontiff in the Hub of the Universe: how Mayor Curley would have loved it!

Peter J. Gomes is Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and a minister in Memorial Church.

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