Your Excellency:

My schedule this past summer gave me the opportunity to attend daily Mass.  Nearly every noon found me seated in the pews, garnering the gifts—fewer distractions, the bare-bones order of worship, the solace of quiet prayer—often missing on crowded Sundays.  Those 40 minutes of reflection in the middle of a hectic day allowed me to recharge some spiritual batteries.

There were, of course, minor glitches in my attempts to focus on prayer and charge the engines of my soul.  One of our priests read the Gospel in both Spanish and English, despite the fact that few or no Hispanics were present.  The same priest several times lambasted bishops for holding to certain teachings and practices of the Church.  Both good priests, I noticed, launched a homily against the legalists in our midst, traditional Catholics whom the priests regard as Pharisees, but neither priest has ever, to the best of my knowledge, spoken a word from the pulpit about Catholics who dissent from Church teaching.

Part of me was inclined to mark these practices as trifles.  Like so many Americans, I am infected by the go-along get-along commandments now institutional in this country.  Tolerance is king, with a sticky love of mankind for queen.  I am certain you know what I mean, Your Excellency.  Judging by what I read in your diocesan newspaper, you, like the rest of us, are adept in the language of mealy-mouth.

Then came a minor revelation.  After each daily Mass, I would light a candle in the Marian chapel and offer up prayers for friends, the dead, and my family.  One Thursday afternoon a stout female parishioner entered the chapel ahead of me and began lighting candles herself.  One, two, three, four candles, then more and more candles, until she had created a bonfire of twenty or more in that dark place.  She then extinguished the wooden stick that bore the flame and left the chapel.

This woman had not paid a dime for the candles.  When the same event transpired a few days later—this time, the woman’s teenage son added to the conflagration—I approached a parishioner who is as much a fixture in the church as the statues, one of those women who lead the rosary before Mass, act as lectors, dote on the priest, and generally behave as if they own the place.  “She didn’t pay, you say?” No, I answered.  “Well, it’s probably best not to say anything,” she went on.  “She’ll probably stop after a while.”

Two weeks later, the requested contribution for these small candles rose from 25 cents to 75.  Too weak to address even so minor a misdeed, the church had punished all by levying higher prices on its candles.

At that point came my revelation.  I understood that, one, I would light my candles at home from now on; two, the woman would continue to fire up free candles no matter what the donation asked by the church; and three, the “broken windows” theory, that idea advanced by James Q. Wilson and others stating that crime in major cities could be reduced by attention to small details—fixing the broken windows in a neighborhood, cleaning up litter, banning beggary—might be equally applicable to the Church.

Fifty years ago, certain commentators touted Vatican II as the end to the Catholic “ghetto.”  By opening her doors and embracing the times, the Church, they predicted, would bring change to a fallen world.  Do away with the Latin Mass and special devotions, soften the rigidity of certain doctrines, preach love rather than law, and the teaching of the Church would illumine the darkness.

What has happened instead, metaphorically speaking, is that the Church has become a real ghetto, a vast neighborhood of broken windows, crabgrass, rutted streets and cracked pavement, panhandlers, junkies, and gangs.  Both the priesthood and religious orders have been crippled by diminished membership and sexual scandals.  In numbers reflecting those of the general population, Catholics engage in premarital sex, divorce, and abortion.  Though deceived in the past by Washington, you bishops continue to issue various pronouncements on healthcare and immigration, dull tools for politicians who bear only contempt for the Church and her leaders.  Perhaps worst of all, catechetical ineptitude has ensured yet another generation ignorant of its faith, meaning that the problems of our ghetto will only worsen.

Your Excellency, a church that can’t admonish a parishioner for petty theft is in trouble.  From the fifth grader who can’t say a Hail Mary to the remarried man who doesn’t trouble with an annulment, from the newlyweds who have never heard of natural family planning to the graybeards and bluehairs who refer to God in the feminine, the Devil is, quite literally, in the details.