Church still important influence

A New York Times/CBS News poll released last week found that 58 percent of Roman Catholics in the United States are unhappy with how the pope and Vatican have handled the most recent reports of sexual abuse by priests.

I'm among them. Every time I read another story of abuse, it infuriates me anew, regardless of when it occurred.

But I'm also part of the 60 percent of U.S. Catholics who, at the same time, believe parish priests are in touch with their parishioners' needs. Believers here are "estranged" from Rome, the Times reported, but largely trust their own kids with their parish priest.

What explains those seemingly divergent findings? The element that's largely been missing from the recent headlines and commentary: any recognition of the ongoing positive role the church plays in so many lives.

I bore witness to that role again last weekend. My family celebrated the confirmation of our middle son, an important rite of passage in Catholicism. For us, watching him participate in this ritual was a great reminder of all that remains right with the church.

Confirmation is one of three sacraments of initiation into the church. Those being confirmed choose a sponsor and adopt the name of a saint with whom they feel an affinity. Prior to confirmation, each candidate participates in a 25-hour community-service project.

So when the day finally arrives, it's an emotional one for families. The kids are understandably nervous. The parents are a bit melancholy.

Our suburban church, St. John Vianney, is a beautiful stone building with high, timbered ceilings. The altar is formal but not overdone. The pews were packed for the ceremony. We arrived 15 minutes before it started and were nevertheless resigned to the second-to-last row.

The service began with the opening notes of Pachelbel's Canon in D major. I acted as if I needed to fumble around to make my iPhone work in taking a picture because I needed to hide my moistened eyes. That music could bring an atheist to his knees.

Our pastor, Msgr. Donald Leighton, then led the procession of boys and girls about to mark young adulthood in the church; each of whom was wearing a red robe. Following not far behind was the local bishop, the Most Rev. Robert P. Maginnis, guiding his young flock with his crosier.

A full Mass then ensued, full of pomp and circumstance and punctuated with lessons with which few could quarrel. It featured a greeting by Leighton, an opening prayer, readings, and the presentation of the group of 28 confirmand. Then Maginnis delivered the homily.

Maginnis acknowledged the contemporary competition faced by the church in the form of TVs, cell phones, BlackBerrys, iPods, and laptops. He pointed out that each new form of cultural stimulus brings the prospect of yet another negative influence.

When the bishop described society with the word frenetic, his choice of vocabulary made it obvious that he was speaking not only to the 12-year-old celebrants but to their parents as well.

He posed questions to the confirmand. He explained the purpose of the sacraments. He reviewed certain of the Ten Commandments. He stressed the need to attend Mass on a regular basis. At the conclusion of the homily, there was a renewal of baptismal promises. The bishop anointed each of the confirmand with chrism oil, which represented the coming of the Holy Spirit.

The bishop's remarks were offered in a conversational tone, in stark contrast to the formality with which the remainder of the Mass was conducted. That's a formality borne of centuries of traditions, teachings, responses, songs and incense, all of which provide fodder for late-night comedians and critics who seek to use any negative headline to weaken the church.

But at the same time, it provides a sense of continuity so desired by individuals trying to make sense of a fast-paced world. Against vigorous cultural competition, the church does what it can to school our kids in maintaining faith, loving thy neighbor, not stealing or killing, holding parents on a pedestal, and remaining faithful to loved ones.

Too few families are intact for children to get that message from a mother and father. No longer do extended family members live on the same block. Too many teachers are too busy meeting standardized-test benchmarks or playing social worker and counselor to adequately impart these lessons. No wonder our society grows coarser with every passing day.

But there stands the church, steadfast, preaching a timeless conviction about treating others as you would wish to be treated.

Contact Smerconish, a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist, via www.mastalk.com.