Dr. H. P. Bianchi is an assistant professor of history at a local community college, where he teaches courses on Western Civilization and Asian history. He received his master’s degree in modern German history from the University of Connecticut and his doctorate from The Catholic University of America. His research focuses on the question of secularization in Britain and the United States.

Dr. Bianchi is happily married and the father of two boys. When not working, you might find him perusing one of his interests in gardening, disc golf, hiking, cooking and traveling.


November 2014
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Recent Comments

1) These are a private buildings purchased or built using freely given private contributions. Unlike, say, Gracie Mansion or the White House. 2) How much are the homes of Fareed Zakaria or Wolf Blitzer worth? Or is that irrelevant because those are private homes paid for out of their own salaries? 3) Who elected the MSM as enforcers of church discipline? First the priest scandal, reported by an institution that doesn't actually think what the priests did was wrong, and now media moguls deciding that someone else is living too large for what exactly? Acording to whose standards? I expect to see (less and less) subtle insinuations over the next several years that Church properties should be seized by state, local or federal governments. For the common good, of course.


Thanks for your thoughtful reply but I stand by both comments. The 1996 cost to build Casa Santa Marta adjusted for inflation in over $30 million and that's not the assessed value, which would include the value of the land. It inconceivable to think it's worth less than $30 million. Furthermore the fact that it is a guesthouse is my point exactly. Comparing residences by assessed value does not make sense. If Archbishop Dolan's residence was in upstate NY, it might be less than a million. You rightfully point out that the article does not claim that Archbishop Lori purchased the residence. I think the distinction that is missing throughout the whole article in a different one. It is two different questions: should bishops sell an old residence (which the article seems to encourage and I disagree) or should bishops build modest new homes (on this point, I agree), and Burke seems to group both in the same category. I think the case of Archbishop Myers' retirement house is scandalous, but it should not fall in the same article/category as Archbishop's Lori's residence. I hope this clears up some points.



Catholic Church celebrities Faith Family parenting Politics Religion saints trends
Fertile Soil

Why do you go to church?

Periodically, I hear about people who left the Catholic Church because they did not like their parish priest. In other cases, they left because they did not like the music or it wasn’t a welcoming parish or a myriad of other reasons.

Why do you go to church? Think about it for moment. Why do you get up on Sunday morning and go to Mass? Is it for the music? Is it for the fellowship? Is it for entertainment purposes? Is it for the homilies?

I hope not, because you won’t be going there for long. If you are looking for good music, you might be tempted to go to a concert instead of Mass. Certainly, the BSO provides better music than your parish choir.

If you’re attending church to be entertained, you’ll soon find something else that is more entertaining. From the sheer number of people wearing football jerseys at church, I feel many people view Mass as a warm up for the “real” entertainment of Sunday – the Ravens’ game. If Mass conflicts with a football game, I wonder which one people will attend? If they are looking to be entertained, it’s probably the football game.  

I have heard my share of homilies, running the gamut from life changing to not so life changing, to be charitable. If you’re looking for a great homily every Sunday, you’re going to be disappointed.  

Religion has a lot of competition. Many of the elements that churches try to emphasize - social justice, fellowship, enjoyment, a welcoming atmosphere – secular institutions do quite well. I would even contend that they do it better than a Catholic church.

Catholicism has a trump card. One point that no secular institution has: the promise of salvation. We should go to church to receive the Bread of Everlasting Life. As Jesus said, “Amen, amen I say unto you: Except you who eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eat my flesh, and drink my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:54-55)

Receiving Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is why we get up every Sunday morning, and if we truly believe it, we would never skip Mass or go to another church, no matter how bad the music or how bland the homily or how unwelcoming the church. We go to receive Jesus, and the value of these other elements is only in how they aid or diminish that key fact.

There is a lot of rhetoric about evangelization, especially the “new” evangelization. The recent synod that has been all over the news was called: Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization. The previous synod in 2012 was entitled: The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.

It might be advantageous to return back to the basics in terms of evangelization, which means emphasizing the one item that Catholicism has to offer – a promise of salvation through Jesus Christ. It can be done in novel ways and using new technology but the message must hinge on this point.

Next time you go to Mass, try not to get worked up about the music or the homily. Turn your attention to the one aspect that really matters, receiving Jesus.

November 13, 2014 03:47
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi

CNN is wrong about the archbishop’s residence

I have a brilliant idea. Let’s sell the White House to help pay off the debt. It’s valued at more than $300 million and that would make a significant contribution. The Obamas could move into a nice townhouse, probably in the $300,000 range, within commuting distance of Washington, D.C.

I suppose some complications would arise from this plan. For security purposes, they would probably have to buy the surrounding houses or even the whole block. The president’s entourage would likely back up traffic as he is commuting downtown every day. They would also have to purchase new office space for his personal staff, and a large hall for hosting foreign dignitaries and holding functions. It also would be a shame to sell the White House to a private citizen because of its historical significance as the house and its artifacts should belong to the people of this country.

On further thought, my brilliant idea is pretty stupid. It would not even be a significant contribution, since it’s only worth .000000017 of the national debt. I am glad I did not write about this idea, and I’m really glad I did not send it to CNN to be published. Daniel Burke is not so fortunate.

In a recent article, he blasted the archbishops for not following the example of Pope Francis in living in a more humble setting. I completely agree with Burke’s main point. It would be great if our church leaders chose to live in simple houses close to the people. Moreover, a few bishops have done great harm to the church by their extravagant spending, most famously German Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst.

In Burke’s article, Archbishop William Lori is mentioned because his residence is valued at $1.24 million. In this case, Burke fails to make some important distinctions. The archbishop’s house was not purchased by Archbishop Lori; it first served as the archbishop’s residence in 1832. In other words, Archbishop Lori paid nothing for it. It’s a free building for the church. It would, however, cost money if the spiritual shepherd of the Archdiocese of Baltimore wanted to buy a smaller, more humble residence.

Archbishop Lori's residence. (Tom McCarthy Jr. | CR Staff)

Second, it is not just a home for the archbishop. The article states that the rector of the Basilica and secretary of the archbishop also live there. It also has work spaces for them, meeting rooms, a place for receptions and a chapel. It is a functional building for ordinary Catholics to use in addition to the archbishop. If you want to meet the rector to plan a wedding in the Basilica, that’s where you’ll go. If there’s a small reception after a Mass at the Basilica, that’s where you’ll have it.

According to the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the basilica deed prohibits the sale of the residence. Even if it could be sold, it’s a historical building with limited appeal outside of the church. Moreover, it is attached to the Basilica. Think of all the expensive renovations to separate the house from the church. It would make zero economic sense to sell it and buy another property.

Lastly, the building has a deep spiritual legacy. It was the cradle of Catholicism in the United States. According to the current rector, “In this house the Bishops of the United States met to commission the writing of the Baltimore Catechism, opened the Catholic School System and established the Catholic University of America. The Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the chapel and through the years the Archbishops of Baltimore have welcomed guests to the chapel including Blessed John Paul II and Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.”

Think of all the saints who have come through its doors and prayed in that house. Its history is too rich to give it away.

Of all of the church leaders cited in the CNN article, guess who lives in the most expensive residence? Surprise, it’s Pope Francis. Of course, Burke misses this point. His “residence” cost $20 million to build in the 1990s. However, it is a massive dormitory with over a 100 rooms; clearly it’s not used just for him. Citing straight numbers without an explanation, you see, can be confusing.    

As I said, I am glad the press is holding the church accountable. I am grateful that they have uncovered bishops who have spent money donated by the people for expensive and unfulfilling projects. However, I do not approve of sloppy journalism that makes generalizations about the archbishops of the United States, completely ignoring the nuances of the matter. Burke seems more intent on insulting Catholics than holding bishops accountable.   

I believe that Archbishop Lori’s residence is free, highly-functional and a home with a unique spiritual legacy. As a local Catholic who makes a weekly financial contribution to the church, I am pleased that he has access to it, and I would protest any movement that tries to pressure him to vacate it.    

This blog was updated with new information Aug. 8 at 6:18 p.m.

August 08, 2014 04:02
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi

Lessons from Sarah

Life is short. I was reminded of this simple truth this past week after the wife and unborn baby of a college friend passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. Our society tries to hide death, old-age and sickness, but, eventually, we will all be called. Hopefully, we will be ready. The story of Sarah and Cecilia Harkins is tragic and painful, but it offers a powerful message. We need to live our lives with the purpose of being ready to meet God at any time.  

Sarah Harkins was in her backyard, when she disturbed a wasp’s nest and was stung. She had an allergic reaction to the sting, and struggled to make it back to her house. While her husband, Eric, called 911, she fell unconscious, never to awake again. Medics were able to revive her, and she was put on life support. Doctors later discovered that the shock triggered an aneurysm in her brain to burst, and at that point, there was little hope for a recovery. The unborn baby, Cecilia passed first, and then, the family made the difficult decision to take Sarah off life support.

Sarah left behind her husband and four surviving children: Liam (7), Analee (5), Jude (3) and Mary Faustina (1), who was born with Down Syndrome.

As news spread of her story, one of the recurring themes was that people could not stop thinking about her. Complete strangers, who found out about her through friends, Facebook, or various news stories, were drawn to her. Many confessed that they could not stop crying, even though they did not know her.

When I heard that she was in the hospital and the situation was bad, I texted my family asking for prayers. One of my sisters, who had never met her before, felt an instant connection. She Googled her name and came across her blog. She later emailed me, “Wow, she seems like a special person. Been thinking there is something that God wants us to notice when a young pregnant mother dies even though people are praying for a miracle. We have to pay attention because there HAS to be a reason.” When I followed up with a phone call, she revealed that Sarah had been on her mind the past few days, and she was amazed how much Sarah inspired her by reading just a few of her blog posts.  

My sister is hardly alone. The world, yes the world, has been moved by Sarah. There are over a 1,000 new articles on her, with major papers like the Daily Mail and NY Daily Post picking up the story. On fundraising sites to help Eric and children, almost 3,000 people have contributed over a combined $200,000, and contributions have come from France, Germany, Japan and many other places. Moreover, the reporting, even in the secular press, has emphasized the profound faith of Sarah.

We are left to wonder: why did God not heal Sarah? Perhaps, God did not perform a miracle because she did not need a miracle. That is, she was on her way to eternal glory. The wasp’s sting was not part of God’s plan, but I believe God can take good even from the most horrible of events. In Sarah’s case, God maybe wanted to teach us something through this special person.

Sarah was best known for her profound devotion to the rosary. She started making rosaries when she was 15, and eventually, she started a business selling her handcrafted clay rosaries. She said this about her business: “I have come to grow in my faith and my devotion to Mary through rosary making and the people that I've encountered because of my work. I believe this is what God wants me to do and I hope that I am spreading the Gospel through my work.” According to one article, she would get up early with her daughter Faustina praying the rosary with her, and then pray it again with the other children and husband later in the day.

Quite fittingly, her last blog post was about making a bead to symbolize hope.  She wrote, “I love the symbol of the anchor for hope. It is very powerful.  Hope is the virtue of having confidence in God's mercy that we will be in heaven with Him someday.  When we have that hope, nothing in life can move us. We are anchored in God.  Now that is something I need to pray for every day and I hope you are inspired and reminded by this bead to pray, too.” This inspiring and beautiful quote has appeared in the television coverage, newspapers, and numerous blogs. Now, even a jewelry company has created the Sarah Harkins Memory Anchor based on the quote as a way to raise money for the family and spread the message of her blog post. 

A photo of anchor beads from theclayrosarygirl.blogspot.com

There are many other aspects of life which can inspire us. She was an active parishioner at St. Mary Catholic Church in Fredericksburg, starting a women's Bible study for the parish homeschool mothers. She home schooled her own children, and created a Montessori-style preschool program for the local home schooling co-op. She volunteered at Mary's Shelter crisis pregnancy center, and they recently announced that their next home to open in August will be called the “The Sarah and Cecilia Harkins Home.” And, the list goes on.

What is the lesson of Sarah’s life? We have to realize that life is short. We are a wasp sting, a car accident, a heart attack away from leaving this world. What are we doing? Are we preparing to meet God? Are we in good standing with our spouse and children? What would be our legacy?

We could start by emulating Sarah’s virtue of hope that we will live with God for all eternity, her devotion to a strong prayer life, especially the rosary, and dedication to family life, education, and the church.

Please pray for the soul of Sarah and Cecilia, pray for strength and comfort for Eric, the children, extended family and friends, and pray that her life will inspire many to better love and serve God.

(If you want to donate, please go to gofundme.com or youcaring.com.)


August 06, 2014 02:13
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi

The Anglican question

In a widely praised move, the Church of England recently voted to allow for female bishops. It would seem to follow that the church’s shift toward popular opinion would result in an influx of new members. If one, however, looks at the American branch of the Anglican community, the Episcopalian Church, the predicated impact of the vote is quite the opposite.

The Episcopalian Church is far more progressive than its sister church in England. The American church consecrated Barbara Harris as its first female bishop in 1989, and in 2006, Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected as the head of the Episcopalian Church, the first female head of a national church.

Women priests in in York, England, react after the General Synod of the Church of England voted July 14 to authorize the ordination of women as bishops. The decision overturns centuries of tradition in a church that has been deeply divided on the issue. (CNS photo/Nigel Roddis, Reuters) 

The Episcopalian Church is proudly and unabashedly a modern church with its approval of contraception as a matter of private conscience, legal abortion, same-sex blessings, married clergy, and openly gay priests and bishops. It is a church that emphasizes a message of diversity, love, and acceptance. It should be thriving it the modern world, poised for a major revival, yet it is dying.

According to their data, weekly church attendance dropped from 856,579 to 657,831 between 2000 and 2010, a drop of 23.2 percent. In addition to a decline in church attendance, the Episcopalian community has been torn apart. Dioceses, parishes, and individuals have all splintered off to form their own communities or to join other denominations.  

I am not at this moment interested in the merits or lack of merits of female bishops, nor do I want to simply draw attention to the decline of mainline Protestant denominations. Rather, I'm intrigued by the phenomenon that a community so aligned with current trends seems to be declining the most in the modern world. Moreover, counter-cultural churches, such an Evangelicals and Catholics, are holding steady or increasing in size. 

A strange disconnect exists between what people want in a church and what church they actually remain members of or join. To put it another way, if typical Americans made up their own religion based on their personal beliefs, they most likely would not join it. For example, 77 percent of Catholics support the use of birth control, 72 percent want married priests, 68 percent support women priests, and 50 percent support same sex marriages. Millions of Catholics would, therefore, find their views correlate better with the Episcopalian Church than the Catholic Church, yet the vast majority have not and will not leave the Catholic Church.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Catholic Church experienced a similar occurrence to what is unfolding in the Episcopalian Church. That is, young progressives initiated numerous reforms into the church, and oddly, after getting many of the changes they desired, they stopped attending church or left the Catholic Church completely. Consequently, church attendance dropped from the 1950s to 1970s in an unprecedented fashion.

Trends in religion are counterintuitive; the more in align a religious denomination is with popular opinion, the more it declines. As Pope Francis and the world’s bishops prepare to review church policies, they should take a hard look at the recent experiences of the Anglican community. Earlier this year, Catholics were asked their opinion on a range of issues in preparation for the upcoming Synod on the Family. If church leaders think there is a simple correlation between Catholics disagreeing with church teachings and declining church attendance and that the easy remedy is to modernize the church’s teaching, they have no understanding of Catholic Church history nor have they studied what has happened to other faith communities in the last decade.   


July 28, 2014 11:21
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi

Who is St. George?

St. George might be the world’s most popular saint. Really, you might ask, what about St. Francis or St. Joseph? You’re probably not alone in your skepticism, but have you ever heard of the story of a knight saving a princess from a dragon? Well, that’s the legend of St. George. I suppose everyone who has seen a Disney film “knows” about St. George.

His appeal, though, goes far beyond the most famous chivalrous tale. He’s not only venerated by Catholics, but also by Protestants, especially Anglicans. Furthermore, he’s one of the most popular saints in the Orthodox tradition, and even more surprisingly, many Muslims honor him as Al-Khader. It’s hard to find an individual with a more universal religious appeal, outside of Jesus and Mary.

How many saints have a country named after them? St. George has Georgia, and that’s pretty cool. He is additionally claimed as patron of many other regions and countries such as: Aragon, Armenia, Catalonia, England, Ethiopia, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Palestine, Portugal and Russia. He is the protector of many cities, including Antioch, Barcelona, Beirut, Genoa, Milan and Moscow.

He is also the patron of armorers, butchers, farmers, knights, scouts and soldiers, and he is said to heal those suffering from leprosy, skin diseases and syphilis.

What makes this list even more impressive is that it is far from complete.

Given his past prestige as a preeminent saint, his image has suffered from numerous attacks in the modern era. Many individuals now claim that he never existed. Undeniably, fundamental problems exist with the historical evidence associated with St. George.

(CR file photo)

The oldest accounts of his life are not reliable, focusing exclusively on seven years of torture in which he was killed three times, each time rising from the dead, before his fourth and final death.

More problematic is Pope Gelasius’ declaration in 494, Decretum Gelasianum, advising the faithful not to read the Passion of St. George because it was likely written by heretics.

Related to the papal document, some scholars believe the “real” St. George was George of Cappadocia, a fourth-century Arian bishop of Alexandria, a theory popularized by Edward Gibbon in the eighteenth century.

George, the Arian bishop, rose in prominence as a corrupt contractor, selling bacon to the Roman army, and then after accepting Arianism, he was appointed bishop of Alexandria. His rule was marked by avarice and corruption, and eventually, he was killed by a disgruntled mob. Needless to say, the two claims of St. George being either a mythical figure or a corrupt heretic have hurt his following.

After studying St. George for about 10 years, I am confident that he existed. Skeptics overlook surviving church inscriptions, some of the best evidence for a real St. George. According to tradition, he was martyred around 300, and numerous sixth-century inscriptions that mention St. George still exist, including one at a monastery at Ezra (Zorava) from 515, another at a church in Horvath Hesheq in northern Israel dated to 519, and one more at a church in Shakka in Syria from 535.

Besides these examples of direct evidence of a church dedication, abundant secondary evidence exists for other sixth-century churches dedicated to St. George; including monasteries in Jerusalem, Dorylleon, and Jericho, and churches in Bizani, Constantinople, Edessa and Cairo. It’s unlikely that that a non-existent individual would have produced such a widespread cult in 200 years.

Many people cite Eusebius of Caesarea’s Historia Ecclesiastica as the first reference to St. George. Eusebius recorded the story of a man who tore the imperial edict of Diocletian into pieces and was then martyred in Nicomedia. This silver bullet for the existence of St. George is flawed, however, because the martyr is unnamed. Furthermore, the edict was issued on February 24, making St. Euethius the likely martyr because he was martyred on February 24, 303, at Nicomedia.  

The oldest Passion of St. George is a fifth-century manuscript composed in Greek and preserved in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, of which only fragments survive. The Greek Passion served as the basis of Syriac versions, and the oldest Syriac manuscript, written around 600, is at the British Library. While Passions in this tradition are full of fantastic elements, prompting the condemnation by Pope Gelasius, they describe a completely different person than the Arian bishop and portray him as a real individual.

After the condemnation by Pope Gelasius, a canonical version of the story appeared, accepted and promoted by the church, but the apocryphal version remained significant, most notably in the Western tradition. The canonical version started circulating in the sixth century, and the oldest surviving version is in the encomium composed by Andrea, Archbishop of Crete, from the seventh century.

Andrea’s version takes place during the persecution of Diocletian. According to this account, St. George lived in Palestine, but was born of Cappadocian parents. At court, the saint sees the harm done to Christians, and he is moved to give his possessions away and proclaim his faith in God. He then faces numerous forms of torture such as being placed on a wheel with knives, kept in a kiln for three days, and forced to wear heated iron boots, but he is not harmed. The guards and empress are converted by his miraculous resistance to punishment.

St. George then battles with the magician Athanasius, and the saint drinks poison provided by the magician without harm. He also raises a dead man back to life. Athanasius converts to Christianity, and he and the resurrected man are executed. On St. George’s last night on earth, he receives a vision foretelling his death, and he performs numerous miracles for those who visit him.

On his last day, Diocletian tries to persuade St. George to renounce Christianity and offers him half of his kingdom. St. George surprisingly declares he is ready to worship the Roman gods. When he enters the temple and makes the sign of the cross, the idols proclaim that St. George worships the true God, and the statues fall to the ground, breaking into pieces.

The empress then proclaims her secret faith in Christ and is executed. Finally, St. George is beheaded, which marks the end of the Passion.

Though his background and dates vary in nearly every account, they all recount that he was in the Roman army, defied the emperor’s order to persecute Christians, and thus, was tortured and martyred. The widespread collaboration of these basic facts from different traditions of Passions and church inscriptions point to a real St. George as the origin of the saint’s story.

What about the dragon story? For eight hundred years, St. George had no dragon, and most likely, the dragon developed from the emperor who killed St. George. In the first Passions of St. George, the emperor who martyred St. George was called a dragon. Moreover, in early depictions of the saint, found in present-day Georgia, he was killing a man, not a dragon.

From this point, the image shifted from the emperor, a very specific image of evil, to a dragon, a more general image of the devil and evil. Artists probably drew on older traditions of St. Michael, St. Theodore, and other saints who were depicted killing a dragon-like devil.

The first image of St. George killing a dragon dates from the early eleventh century and is located in the Church of St. Barbara, Soganli Valley, Cappadocia. A coin from the reign of Roger I, prince of Antioch from 1112 to 1119, also depicts St. George on horseback attacking a dragon, providing the first evidence of Crusader knowledge of St. George as a dragon-slayer.

From the visual presentation, the dragon story developed, borrowing from ancient pagan stories. Of all the ancient legends, St. George is most often associated with the Greek legend of Perseus and Andromeda.

In that story, Poseidon sends a sea monster to attack the kingdom of Ethiopia. To pacify the monster, Andromeda, the king’s daughter, is offered as a sacrifice. Perseus kills the sea monster, saves Andromeda, and then marries her.

The similarities between St. George and Perseus are numerous with both killing a monster terrorizing society and saving a princess. The two legends are also connected geographically. St. George’s cult was centered at Lydda, not far from the traditional place where Perseus battled with the monster at modern day Jaffa.

To claim St. George is only a Christianized version of these ancient myths would be a gross overstatement. The gap of eight hundred years between the martyr St. George and the dragon-slayer St. George suggests that the saint was more than a mythical figure adopted by Christians, but some elements of St. George’s battle with the dragon might have been borrowed from pagan legends.

The earliest written account of the dragon story is an eleventh-century Georgian manuscript. The story was popularized, however, when the dragon story was included in the medieval bestseller, Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea, written around 1266. From that point forward, St. George had a dragon in the public imagination. Next time, you come across the story of a knight saving a princess from a dragon remember the real martyr who inspired that story and how he stood up to an emperor for his faith and was martyred as a result.

(I have spent the last 10 years studying St. George in the English tradition with particular attention to how his feast day became a nationalistic holiday, and here’s a shameless plug … I recently released a book based on my findings. If you’re interesting in medieval religious history (first two-thirds of the book) or English nationalism (last third of the book), you might want to check it out. It’s an academic work based on my dissertation and heavily footnoted, but accessible to the average reader. It’s available as a paperback and a kindle edition. If you have Amazon Prime and a kindle device, you can borrow it for FREE through Amazon’s lending library.)


April 23, 2014 10:43
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi

The reform that no one wanted: Communion in the hand

Within Catholic circles, the Second Vatican Council is a flashpoint for debate, but there is one point that all Catholics – traditionalists, progressives, liberals, conservatives – agree on: the unprecedented level of change. Consequently, most scholars would argue that the council was the defining event of the modern church, and that nothing had a greater impact on the church since the Reformation.

As an historian of religious rituals, I have been fascinated on how this religious revolution played out on the parish level and how Catholics in the 1960s and beyond reacted to it. There is no shortage of institutional histories of the council, focusing both on the events in Rome and the implementation in the United States. These works, however, concentrate on the hierarchy and their actions in developing and executing changes following the council. Even works that promise a history of the council “from below” emphasize parish priests or records composed by clerics about the laity. The voice of the majority of Catholics seems lost in the historical literature of the modern church.

My initial thought was to do an oral history of the post-conciliar church, interviewing people who lived in the 1960s and 1970s. This approach is limited, however, by the small number of people that could be sampled and also by the lack of accuracy when dealing with distant memories.

In reading about the history of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, I began seeing references to the GIFT (Growth in Faith Together) program and an extensive survey that was part of the program. I discovered that upon returning from Rome, Cardinal Shehan developed a plan to visit every parish (either himself or an auxiliary bishop) in the diocese to discuss the changes that were taking place in the late 1960s. The meetings were contentious, and he described a heightened sense of “anxiety and confusion” in the parishes. He tasked the senate of priests to construct a program to address these issues, and the GIFT program was the result of their efforts.

It was a three stage program, including research, reflection, and response.  In the research phase, the entire parish would take a 60 question survey, and then in the reflection period, the parish would break
up into small groups to discuss the results of the survey and pick a few topics to learn more about. Lastly, in the response time, experts would come in and deliver lectures on topics selected by the parish during the small groups phase.

The program was piloted in two parishes in the fall of 1970, and then the senate of priests voted to implement the program in all the parishes. A thorough reading of the GIFT program reveals that it increased tension, rather than diminished it. The response sessions turning into debates, and the Catholic Review saw an eruption of heated letters to the editor in favor and in opposition of the program. Furthermore, the senate of priests’ vote was close with 115 priests voting in favor of expanding the program and 101 voting against it, highlighting the divergent opinions of the program.

The GIFT program lasted from 1970 to 1975 and 21 parishes took part. An impressive 13,796 Catholics responded, and though I am not an expert in statistics, such a high number should provide enough data to make a definitive statement concerning the laity’s reactions to the changes following Vatican II.

Over the winter break, I spent several days shifting through the survey results in the diocese’s archive, located in the basement of St. Mary’s Seminary (It is a closed box and not accessible to the general public). The survey results could provide evidence for many articles, even books, but I was initially only interested in questions dealing with the liturgy.

The simple answer to the laity’s reception of the liturgical changes can be found in question 19: “Changes in the Mass have harmed rather than helped me to worship” and 27% agreed and 68% disagreed (with 5% not answering). These results confirm the standard narrative that the majority of Catholics preferred the new Mass with its use of English and more community oriented worship. Yet, a sizable minority, nearly a third, desired to go back to the old Mass. The traditional percentage is much higher than the often cited numbers compiled by Andrew Greeley, which claim that 85-87% preferred the new Mass. To this point, I was not overly surprised by the results.

What piqued my interest was question 23. This question, unlike the other questions, changed several times, and I have not determined the reason behind the shift. Its three versions with survey results are: I like to participate actively at mass: 75% agree and 24% disagree; There should be more lay participation in Sunday Mass: 35% agree and 64% disagree; I would prefer to take Communion in my hands: 17% agree and 82% disagreed. The first two versions reveal that people wanted to be part of the Mass, but not front and center.

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York distributes Communion at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York June 21, 2013.(CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz) 

The version relating to the reception of Communion in the hand is perplexing for a variety of reasons. First, the 1970s were not a traditional era. As seen above, most people approved of the main liturgical changes, and when it came to social issues, they were exceedingly liberal, with 68% disagreeing with the church’s teaching of contraception. Second, it is also curious that there has been nearly a universal switch. I have no statistics about current practices, but from my own personal experiences, almost everyone receives Communion in the hand.

Communion in the hand was not authorized by Vatican II; though in some countries, like Germany and the Netherlands, the practice became more commonplace after the council. To address the question, Paul VI surveyed the world’s bishops on the topic, and released a document, Memoriale Domini, to explain the church’s position. Below are the questions sent to the world’s bishops and their responses.

1. Do you think that attention should be paid to the desire that, over and above the traditional manner, the rite of receiving holy communion on the hand should be admitted?

Yes: 597 No: 1,233 Yes, but with reservations: 315 Invalid votes: 20

2. Is it your wish that this new rite be first tried in small communities, with the consent of the bishop?

Yes: 751 No: 1,215 Invalid votes, 70

3. Do you think that the faithful will receive this new rite gladly, after a proper catechetical preparation?

Yes: 835 No: 1,185 Invalid votes: 128

Since the majority of bishops opposed the vote, the pope issued a clear and poignant statement on Communion in the hand. “The Apostolic See therefore emphatically urges bishops, priests and laity to obey carefully the law which is still valid and which has again been confirmed. It urges them to take account of the judgment given by the majority of Catholic bishops, of the rite now in use in the liturgy, of the common good of the Church.” He, however, left open the option of a local conference to continue the tradition of receiving Communion in the hand, if the practice was already in place.

As an historian, I have two questions related to Communion in the hand. First, why was this reform the one that no group wanted? The pope and bishops, who a few years before passed sweeping liturgical reforms, came down on the opposite side on this issue. The laity also favored the majority of the liturgical changes, but not this one. What made the traditional practice of receiving communion, kneeling at a communion rail and on the tongue, so popular even with a progressive generation?

Secondly, how did the shift happen so rapidly? My first memories of going to Mass come from the mid-1980s, only 15 years after Memorial Domini, and Communion in the hand had already become the norm. How did a practice go from being unpopular to the universal practice in 15 years or less?

Of course, these questions on the reception of Communion touch on more than one aspect of the liturgy. Its significance relates to the meaning of Communion, the role of laity, the changing of the liturgy in general, and much more. I am interested in hearing your thoughts, especially if you lived through these events in 1970s.    



April 10, 2014 04:13
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi

The Non-Revolution

Are you ready for a crazy statistic? Pope Francis, who just completed his first year as pope, had a favorability rating of 79 percent midway through his reign. Surprisingly, Pope Benedict XVl about halfway through his reign in April 2008 had a favorability rating of 83 percent. It’s shocking that the pope demonized and held to be unpopular by almost everyone in the media had a higher approval rating at one point than the pope celebrated daily in the news.

Least, I seem dishonest. Benedict’s average for his entire reign was around 74 percent and Francis’s average over the entire year was 83 percent. Pope John Paul II was higher than both, averaging in the low 90s.

I am the last person to argue that approval ratings matter in religion, but I find these statistics useful because they complicate the standard narrative of the past year. Benedict was backwards looking and thus unpopular, and Francis is forward looking and therefore popular. That’s just not true.

This blog is not intended as an attack on Francis or a defensive of Benedict. Quite the opposite. My target is the imagined tension between the two popes, and the prevalent view that change is the key to success in the church.

Pope Francis greets people as he arrives for Mass at the parish of Santa Maria dell'Orazione on the outskirts of Rome March 16. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

Undeniably, the current pope has made a huge impact in his first year. I have often used him as a source of inspiration for many blogs, and according to recent surveys, the majority of Catholics think the church is heading in the right direction and Catholics are more excited. The “Francis Effect” however has not materialized into concrete changes in practice. There has been no noticeable change in the number of Americans that claim to be Catholic or in church attendance, and less Catholics have reportedly gone to confession in the last year.

What is the pope’s role in the renewal of the church? I think he said it best in a recent interview: “I don’t like the ideological interpretations, a certain ‘mythology of Pope Francis’. If I’m not wrong, Sigmund Freud said that in every idealization there is an aggression. Depicting the Pope to be a sort of superman, a type of star, seems offensive to me. The Pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps calmly and has friends like everyone. A normal person.”

Catholics are often accused of worshiping saints and the pope. To many, they seem like our versions of celebrities or stars, but there is the huge difference. Celebrities are an end in themselves. The pope finds it offensive that he has been made an end unto himself; rather, he can lead us to the true end, the One who has already saved us.

As a historian, I believe the success of the church was not due to the leadership of great members of the clergy, but almost, in spite of them. In the above quote, the pope is highlighting that people looking for a pope-superman that will save the church might be disappointed. You’ll find a normal person.

Moreover, the beauty of the church is its timelessness in the face of change. Different popes come and go but the church remains the same. Every pope has a different personality. Some have been holy men and others have been great sinners. It’s the doctrines that remain constant which ground the church and keep its identity intact, which leads us back to the statistic I cited at the beginning of the article.

Don’t let popular columnists and pundits frame the narrative: Catholics want a revolution, the pope is leading a revolution, and therefore, he is popular and viewed as a superman or star. This does not correspond to the approval ratings of John Paul or Benedict, who were not revolutionary minded.

Instead, the narrative should read: Catholics want to encounter Jesus through the church, John Paul, Benedict, and Francis all accomplished this in a variety of ways (but with different styles), and that’s why they are loved by the faithful.  


March 18, 2014 10:16
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi

Challenge your friend, be generous to your foe: Part one of a series on cultural dialogue

The cultural chasm between religious individuals and American society is swelling. On a personal level, I feel distant from the current trends in politics, television, movies, and music. It’s becoming harder for individuals with Catholic sensibilities, for instance, to tune into the Grammys or scan across Yahoo’s headlines without feeling lost.

Amidst the vast difference between my own beliefs and the accepted principles of secular culture, I have been contemplating how we can dialogue with people on the other side. How do we avoid hiding in our own little clique of likeminded individuals? How do we cut through all the angst and biases? How do we share the message of Jesus with others when our basic premises are so different? Over my next three blogs, I am going to share some my thoughts on this daunting task and also critique what I see as a failed approach used by many well-intending Catholics.

I often find myself losing several hours hopping from one blog to the next, and the predominate trend is that authors praise the actions of their target audience and sham members of the opposing side. These types of articles are popular, and the success of online media is measured in clicks. I know that I get a huge boost when I write an article condemning the liberal policies of Obama, the biases of the media, or the crazy antics of Miley Cyrus. Additionally, stories that praise people in our inner circle, such as a feel good story about a Catholic athlete, do just as well.  

People like, no love, these types of blogs. There is nothing inherently wrong with them, and looking back, I tend to write in this style pretty frequently. Yet, it’s a problem if this is the ONLY type of content that is generated.

Reading the Gospels, it’s obvious that Jesus did not follow the approach of the modern blogger, but took the opposite approach. He did not confine his message to the religious elite of his own Jewish community and heap accolades on its leaders. In fact, he was harshest towards them. Conversely, he was nearly silent on the Romans, which were the “other” that many Jews wished the Messiah to attack. He also moved freely within taboo communities – tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans – which I imagine ancient bloggers would have attacked without relent. If Jesus went after these groups, he would have been a local hero instead of hung on a cross, but he would not have saved the world.

Pope Francis is a contemporary example of an individual following the example of Jesus. He has been generous and welcoming to groups typically cast aside by the Catholic community, and he has been hard on faithful, orthodox Catholics.

An orange hat rests on the popemobile as Pope Francis greets the crowd during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Jan. 15.  (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

While the former and predominate approach is popular within the community, the tactics used by Jesus and Pope Francis can be unsettling. It’s confusing that the pope has been selected as Advocate’s Man of Year and that he received a thank you note from NARAL Pro-Choice America, and at the same time, loyal Catholics have been chastised in his interviews and homilies.

Even in this state of confusion, the approach of Jesus and now lived out by the pope is vastly superior to the more popular approach seen in many Catholic blogs. What’s the point of dialogue? What’s the reason for writing a religious blog? The author should aim to change people’s hearts. More specifically, one should want their readers to move closer to Jesus.

The first approach I described focuses on blaming others and heaping accolades on those that think similar to the author. No one changes after reading an article using this style. The writer will be praised by his fans, but it will not impart a change of heart because they’ll think they're perfect and that other people are to blame. Additionally, those holding the opposing view will not be open to the message of the article because they’ll be turned off by the language and refuse to listen. No hearts will be touched. No one improves. Largely, this happens because the purpose of the author was not to further conversion but to win an argument or to feel good about their side of the cultural struggle.

The first key to dialogue is to get people to listen, especially people typically opposed to the religious message. Jesus was able to get people to listen. Pope Francis is making people listen, too. The message of Catholicism is not for a select few but for everyone. Thus, we need to dialogue with this in mind.

The second point is to challenge everyone that is listening. This aspect is far more important than the first principle, but it is often overlooked, especially by more progressive individuals. Jesus did not just approach people with different beliefs, embrace them, and say everything is okay. He listened to them, and then asked them to change. Let’s not confuse association with condoning a behavior. If you spend time with someone, it does not imply that you agree with all their choices. On this point, many people have misread Jesus’ actions, and more recently, Pope Francis’ gestures. Jesus urged everyone he encountered to live a life of greater faith and to sin no more.

The expected change should be different for everyone, depending on their stage in life. It’s appropriate, for example, for a priest to challenge people attending a daily mass to do fifteen minutes of daily mental prayer and spiritual reading, but in a discussion with an atheist, he might challenge that individual to do a charitable act.

One brief clarification before we end. I equated the pope’s method with the style of Jesus in the Gospels. I should note the content carries different weight. Jesus’ words in the Bible are the pinnacle of our understanding of the faith, while the pope’s tweets are inspirational, they don’t carry the same theological authority. So, I was paralleling the method more than giving equal weight to their content.

What are our conversations like? Do we always focus on others as the problem? “Look how bad those people are… they’re destroying our country.” That’s a dead-end exchange, which produces no good. Instead, our dialogue needs to be accessible to all and challenging to everyone. Push your foes to change their hearts, push your friends to amend their lives even more, but push yourself the most.

Finally, dialogue needs to be rooted in love, and I’ll explore this point in more detail in the next blog.


February 21, 2014 05:05
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi

The growing elitism of Catholic education

One of the hot topics during our family’s Christmas gathering was Catholic education. My oldest niece is a senior in high school, and as with everyone her age, she is consumed with selecting a college. Her parents are allowing her some freedom, but prefer that she attends a college with a good, Catholic environment.

They were all impressed with The Catholic University of America. For my sister and brother-in-law, it was local and had a good religious atmosphere, and for my niece, it had solid academic programs and quick access to the city.

I spent many years at CUA, earning my doctorate, and my sister asked my opinion of the school. I enjoyed my time there, and heartily approved. Then, I heard the price - $52,852. (I had my tuition covered through a teaching assistantship).

Having spent a lot of time in higher education, I know that tuition costs have escalated across the board, but there is something wrong with charging a teenager $52,852 for one year of college. Indebting a young adult with $211,000 in loans is not Catholic, and borders on being immoral.

After recovering from the shock, I reviewed a lot of other Catholic colleges. While many are cheaper than CUA, it pains me that all the schools were over six figures for four years of education. In good conscience, I could not recommend these schools to my niece unless she received a substantial scholarship.  

My own family is at the opposite end of the spectrum, with my son entering kindergarten in the fall. I desperately want to send him to our parish school, and if we made some sacrifices, we could afford to send him there. Cutting out money budgeted for cable TV, going out to eat, and vacations would get us halfway there, and teaching extra classes would cover the other half. Here’s the problem. We have another son, and we would like to have more children. Since our parish has no family discount, what will we do in the future?

Over the Christmas break, I also spoke with my brother-in-law’s brother, who has six children in Catholic elementary and high schools. He spends over $50,000 a year on tuition. That’s not cable and Starbuck’s. That’s our entire post-taxes income.

Here’s the crux of the issue. Unless you have one or maybe two children or you’re incredibly wealthy, Catholic education is out of reach. That’s saddens me greatly. As a teacher, I understand the importance of education. Outside of the family, school is the most importance influence on a child.

Why is Catholic education so expensive? First, it is not going to the teachers. For a short time, I taught at a Catholic school. My mother, two siblings, and countless friends have also taught at Catholic schools, and the pay is, well, not very good. Catholic school teachers work just as hard but are paid far less than their public school counterparts, and they deserve our gratitude.

From a historical perspective, I see two main causes in the increase of tuition costs at Catholic schools from fifty years ago. First, the number of nuns, brothers and priests teaching at Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Baltimore dropped from 2,122 in 1964 to 1,328 in 1974, and lay teachers, who required a salary, increased from 605 to 1530. In the same era, the number of parochial schools dropped from 108 to 87. I assume as a result of increased costs. The second cause, for which I don’t have any data, is the drop in parish contributions. Suffice it to say, fifty years ago, a lot of people threw a dollar in the collection basket, and today, a lot people still throw just a dollar in.

What can be done? It seems unfair that individuals who send their children to Catholic schools have to pay twice: once for public schools through taxes and again for Catholic schools through tuition. If a voucher program could be initiated, allowing some of the tax money paid by the individual to go to a Catholic school, it would make Catholic education far more affordable. The power of choice and competition would also improve the whole school system – public and Catholic.

Secondly, Catholic schools could trim their budgets. My greatest pet peeve is massive sports programs at Catholic schools. I am a huge fan of sports, and I think everyone should play sports to increase physical health, discipline, and teamwork. I don’t see the benefit of stadiums and state-of-art workout facilities, and hypercompetitive interscholastic leagues. I wish the fundraising for football teams could go instead to scholarships.     

Thirdly, it takes the whole parish community to lower costs. It can only be done if everyone chips in with their time and money. Everyone needs to help, but I have a special petition for the uber-wealthy Catholic. It might be nice to have a building named after you or to purchase new, flashy technology, like SMART Boards for all the classrooms. Yet, education can be done without any of these exciting products. I suggest endowing a scholarship fund for Catholic schools. It’s not flashy, but if I had money, that’s what I would do with it.

You see many of these principles playing out in home schooling co-ops. They are a community effort, built by volunteers without the frills of some of the more expensive schools. They are affordable and focused on building up the faith.

However, I prefer Catholic schools and want to save them. School administrators have to make a very important choice. Enrollment is declining in many of their schools. How are they going to increase it?

Are Catholic schools going to become schools for the elite with the excessively high tuition pushing away many Catholic families, especially large Catholic families? Are the large donations going to build grand buildings, top sports program, and high tech classrooms? Or, are administrators going to everything they can to lower tuition costs? Both strategies might attract students, but the former will mean more elites, and the later will result in more Catholics.


January 07, 2014 12:05
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi

Let’s not forget the rosary

Pope Francis has proved to be a headline maker. Time’s “Person of the Year” sneezes and the world’s news agencies go crazy. Well, not exactly.

Two weeks ago, the pope revealed, as an aside, that he was a bouncer, and the news seems to be everywhere. On the other hand, the pope joked that he was a pharmacist and handed out rosary beads packaged in what looked like a medicine box, and it received little mention outside of Catholic circles.

A Google news search reveals 10 times more articles were written on the bouncer story than the handing out of rosaries, and both pale in comparison to the coverage of the pope’s recent economic statements.

People forget that the pope is not a politician or economist, but a spiritual leader. After leading the Sunday Angelus, on Nov. 17, he provided sage spiritual advice. Handing out nearly 20,000 boxes containing rosaries, he told the massive audience that the rosary is “spiritual medicine” and “good for the heart.”

Younger Catholics might consider the rosary old fashioned, and a waste of time. Experience, however, reveals that it is a powerful prayer, which can heal and bring one closer to God.

My sister recently passed on a story about a chance encounter and the power of the rosary. She is a member of the Sisters of Life, and during Advent, the Sisters stand outside their convent, singing carols and offering hot drinks to people passing by the convent. My sister recounted a story that began four years ago when they were caroling … .

A woman walking by stopped to take in the sights. Her hair was dyed pink but there was a sad searching in her eyes. I greeted her and asked her name, “Casey,” she responded.

Talking about familiar carols segued into conversation about how much her life had changed since she’d sung those songs as a child. She was working as a “dancer” and shared some of the pain and burdens she was carrying and the lack of confidence she had in herself, in life, and in God. And her eyes spoke further, of her desire to know it could be otherwise.

I was happy to be with someone with such an open and searching soul. It’s a strikingly beautiful thing in this world, and I told her so. I prayed “Dear Lord, love through my eyes, my words, my presence. Help her to know how precious she is!”

We spoke about Christmas and Mary as a mother who always leads us to the baby Jesus. “Do you know that you can talk to her like you’ve talked to me? That she knows your heart and wants to take care of you?” Casey was listening with a smile and glistening eyes. I spoke about praying the Hail Mary and the power of the rosary. She asked if I had one for her. Reaching into my pocket, my heart sank.

Just a few weeks prior, my father had given me his rosary – a beautiful wooden one with a large crucifix. I loved it. Yet in the moment when Casey asked, I knew it was for her. Placing it in her hands, I said, “This belonged to my father, but it is yours now.” Hesitating, she took it, and I invited her to walk with me to the crèche in the little garden next to our convent. We paused, looking at the simple figurines.

“Where is the baby Jesus?” Casey asked. “Oh,” I said, “He’ll arrive in the manger on Christmas day, although it sure feels empty without Him… Jesus may not be in the crèche now, but He lives in our hearts. He desires for Christmas to happen in our hearts. We only need to say, ‘Yes, come Lord!’”

A child in St. Peter's Square holds a figurine of the baby Jesus as Pope Francis leads the Angelus at the Vatican Dec. 15. Children observed an annual tradition by bringing their Nativity figurines for the pope to bless. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

After we spent some time in silence there I thanked Casey for entrusting her story to me and assured her of my prayers, leaving her alone in front of the rustic scene. After a few minutes of quiet she slipped out into the night.

Two weeks later, the doorbell rang; it was Casey. She explained, “A couple of weeks ago I came by, the night you were all singing, and a Sister gave me her rosary. Would you mind telling her… that night I left my job at the strip club, and gave my life to the baby Jesus.”

Four years later, just last week, I was in Manhattan walking near Bryant Park with a group of Sisters when a woman approached looking happy to see us, and asked us to pray for a heart procedure she was about to undergo. As she spoke I recognized her face – and yet she was so changed. I placed my hand on her shoulder and said, “I know you, I know you!” Casey looked at me with a smile and replied, “You gave me the rosary! I still have it and pray it every day. And I know that God loves me.”

So many people are hurting and suffering, and they are seeking help. They seek escape in alcohol or drugs, or try to cure themselves by going to therapists. They forget that they have a mother and father in heaven, waiting to hear from them, waiting to heal them. Perhaps this advent season, it is time to dust off the beads in the drawer and pray the rosary.

December 16, 2013 10:21
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi

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