Fifty years ago, Edwin O'Connor's novel, The Last Hurrah, was released as a film, coining a popular expression, spotlighting Boston Irish culture, and bringing recognition to one of the most significant of America's Catholic writers.
There are dozens of well-known American authors who might be characterized as Catholic by baptism, by adherence, by theme, or by sensibility. This summary focuses on those who were most prominent in their day and who are widely recognized as Catholic in their beliefs and perspective.
Despite its relative paucity of Catholic population, the South has produced a large share of the faith’s best writers. Father Abram Ryan was a Confederate army chaplain from Virginia who composed the famous poem, “Conquered Banner.” James Ryder Randall, originally of Baltimore, taught in New Orleans, where he wrote verse celebrating the Confederacy, such as “Maryland, My Maryland.” He became known as the “Poet Laureate of the Lost Cause.” Georgian Joel Chandler Harris, author of African-American folk tales featuring Uncle Remus, converted to Catholicism late in life.
The problems of the Old South permeated the pages of later southern writers as well. Allen Tate, a convert-poet, was a figure in the celebrated Southern Agrarians, who struck a critical stance toward the modernizing of American culture. Tate was married for a time to novelist Caroline Gordon, who preceded him into the Church. Later southern Catholic writers displayed less sympathy for the Old South, but struck many of the same themes of faith, race, and rural life. Flannery O’Connor, perhaps the most acclaimed Catholic writer of the twentieth century, produced a series of short stories and novels, and Walker Percy’s Catholic sensibility salted his tales of lust, disillusionment, and death.
Outside the South, Catholic novelists flourished in New England, where Mary Agnes Tincker wrote a series of well-received stories in the 1870s and 1880s; and in the Midwest, where John F. Powers published short stories and novels on Catholic parish life, most notably the 1963 National Book Award winner, Morte d’Urban [Powers taught at St. John's in Collegeville]. John Boyle O’Reilly, editor of the Boston Pilot, also wrote novels; as did the first woman to edit the Pilot, Katherine Conway. Bostonian Edwin O'Connor fictionalized Irish-American life with great success: he won a Pulitzer Prize for his Edge of Sadness (1961)
Another center of Catholic literary activity, unsurprisingly, was New York, where Mary Sadlier hosted salons for the city’s Irish writers in the 1860s, and where Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Phyllis McGinley wrote her verse a hundred years later. Two other Catholic poets were women religious: Carmelite Jessica Powers of Wisconsin and Holy Cross Sister Madeleva Wolff at St. Mary’s College in Indiana.
Another Pulitzer winner was Paul Horgan, who won two for his popular histories of the American Southwest. Philadelphian Agnes Repplier authored historical biographies of significant American Catholics such as Jacques Marquette and Junípero Serra.
As in other areas of intellectual life, converts were major figures in Catholic fiction and non-fiction writing. Besides Tincker, Harris, Tate, and Gordon, there was Anne Dorsey, a novelist in Washington, D.C. Conversion was a subject for Thomas Merton, whose celebrated autobiography, Seven Story Mountain, won both critical acclaim and attention for the Church and its monastic tradition—a way of life strange to most Americans.
Catholic writers have contributed immensely to the richness of American literature by focusing on subjects and by bringing perspectives that were absent or underappreciated. The trend continues to the present—for example in Santa Clara University’s Ron Hansen, whose 1992 bestseller Mariette in Ecstasy creatively explored the inner life of a cloistered French nun. Contemporary American Catholic writers work within a long and distinguished tradition.
©2008 CatholicHistory.net. Posted November 29, 2008.
Sources and Further Reading
Una M. Cadegan, "U.S. Catholic Literature."
Ross Labrie, The Catholic Imagination in American Literature
Farrell O'Gorman, Peculiar Crossroads: Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, and Catholic Vision in Postwar Southern Fiction
Arnold Sparr, To Promote, Defend, and Redeem: The Catholic Literary Revival and the Cultural Transformation of American Catholicism, 1920-1960
I have a somewhat tangential question.
Are there any regulations regarding a priest hearing confession and granting absolution over the phone?
[It is FORBIDDEN and INVALID to give sacramental absolution over the phone.]Comment by Bill Haley — 25 November 2008 @ 3:59
One of the good things about living near or working in a downtown of a major city is access to so-called “commuter churches”. These churches typically make priests available to hear confessions before and after work and during lunch hours. In my experience, there is usually a line at these hours as well as at churches that hear confessions prior to Sunday Mass. The only time I don’t find a line for the confessional seems to be at the typical “Sat. 4:00-4:45pm or by appointment” churches.
I know that in rural or even suburban areas daily confession and even Sunday confession is not always feasible. Still, I have no doubt if the days and times for confession were increased, along with an emphasis on the sacrament from the pulpit, there would also be an increase in confessions heard. It seems that if churches in a given geographical area could coordinate their schedules, confession could be made more widely available without increasing the workload of often overworked priests.Comment by David D. — 25 November 2008 @ 5:03 pm
For Father and any other priestly readers:
I have a very hard time speaking due to my disability. In my parish, we have confessionals that allow both kneeling behind a screen and face-to-face, so I just scribble down things on a notepad and let Father read it and then gasp out an act of contrition after he gives me my penance.
Are there any general guidelines for mutes or almost-mutes as far as how to communicate with the priest?Comment by Jacob — 25 November 2008 @ 5:56 pm
Jacob: I would only say that care should be taken so that a) no one overhear your confession or b) the paper is destroyed.Comment by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf — 25 November 2008 @ 8:18 pm
Comment by A Random Friar — 25 November 2008 @ 6:59 pm
I have one serious comment to make.
While one can only welcome His Grace’s clear statement that the general absolution is forbidden, in practice there will be priests who would disobey; and what His Grace fails to say is that those opportunists, or mislead people who do not have intention to confess their sins as soon as possible, do not receive the Sacrament validly, i.e. that their sins are nor forgiven by such an absolution.Comment by Michael — 25 November 2008 @ 6:06 pm
Randy usefully provided a link to the bulletin of, what in charity, might be called a recalcitrant priest. Some interesting excerpts:
“In May, Archbishop Nienstedt will become our new bishop. He too comes to us from another place. He has given a very clear “no,” or can I say, “nein,” to the continued use of Form 3. This is very sad.”
“Our celebrations of Form 3 have been very well planned and include participation of our choirs and specially prepared liturgies and homilies.” (I love the phrase “specially prepared liturgies”.) [That’s like saying “Please come to our previously scheduled emergency.”]
“In the future with the new episcopal regime [sounds sinister] we will have changes. We could continue to have communal penance services without the words of absolution but trusting in the words of the Lord that his merciful presence is there when we gather in his name. At this time I would also like to send in a petition along with any of your own personal comments to our bishops. To serve is to listen. I have heard the voice of the faithful and believe that our bishops should also listen. The petitions and response forms will be available at the communal reconciliation services tomorrow.” [I think that if I were the Archbishop in question, I wouldn’t have appreciated that priest’s manipulation of his flock in this manner for the sake of his own personal position.]Comment by Andrew, UK and sometimes Canada — 25 November 2008 @ 6:55 pm
Archbishop Nienstedt conducted the penance practicum when he was rector at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit back in the early ‘90’s, when I was a seminarian there. I remember very clearly his catechesis on the sacrament and his insights into each “confession” we had in the class. The manner in which I hear confessions now has been shaped largely by him, and I am grateful for that formation. The people of his archdiocese would do well to pay close attention to his catechesis.Comment by Fr. Brian Stanley — 25 November 2008 @ 8:11 pm
sekman: Is a priest allowed to hear confessions outside of his diocese without permission of the local ordinary? I have heard this before however have seen visiting priests hear confession in my diocese along with my priest hear confessions while outside of his diocese.
Yes. If he has faculties in his own diocese or religious institute or order, he can hear confessions anywhere. However, if he is going to be in a place for more than just a short period, he should also be given faculties by the local bishop.
Before the new Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church in 1983 things were a bit more strict. I don’t know how the Code for the Eastern Churches handles this.Comment by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf — 25 November 2008 @ 8:16 pm
There is a priest in my diocese who for a penance tells penitents to “go to Holy Communion.” It seems odd, but I don’t question him. [Hmmm… that doesn’t sound like it falls into the category of “doing penance”.]Comment by Geoffrey — 25 November 2008 @ 8:59 pm
Since I’ve started attending the TLM at our parish, I’ve been confessing more often right before that Mass, instead of driving downtown Saturday evening. I’ve noticed that the TLM Massgoers spend a very long time in the confessional, and frankly it’s making me nervous that I’m confessing less completely than I should be. I do try to search my conscience thoroughly, but as a homeschooling housewife, my constricted life makes my sins limited (though not at all infrequent). I generally have the same sins, which don’t take long to confess, and I’m out of the confessional in less than half the time of those in line in front of me.
The Saturday penitents are likewise brief. What are the TLM penitents doing that the rest of us are neglecting?Comment by o.h. — 25 November 2008 @ 9:20 pm
Not to be mean-spirited—but there are also the Confessional HOGS…full aware that there may be only an hour or so available for Confession (and one priest) yet take up the entire time. That was a common occurance at one parish that I would stop by occasionally. This one individual would park right by the door starting at around 9:30 am ( Confession was at 3:30) so she could be the FIRST in line…She would then proceed to WEEP and wail LOUDLY ( you try to practice custody of the ears but you could still hear her clear across the church.)..meanwhile the line would grow long and longer…. the priest would finally get her to leave with about 30 seconds left for Confession. That sure drove alot of folks away. Can’t priests recommend to those folks that they arrange for a private appointment?? When I went through RCIA that was recommended to me as I had a rather lengthy First Confession set up.
On the other hand—in the military in deployed areas we had what what we called “drive-by confessions.” About one step above general absolution I guess..we would form a line and one at a time we would say “Bless me Father for I have sinned.. I have committed # Mortal sins and for that I am truely sorry.” Real quick absolution and usually Penance was 1 Our Father and 1 Hail Mary. ...of course these were in places were chapels were not readily available. You were done in about 15 seconds. God Bless our military chaplains though..they really helped me through a bunch..Comment by Sara — 25 November 2008 @ 10:14 pm
In the old days Confession for adults was offered on Saturday evening beginning at about 7:30. It was an ideal time. All the Saturday errands had been run, the evening meal eaten, the encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist the next morning was looming larger in the mind. There was nothing standing in the way of going to Confession.
What an ideal ambience for the confession of sins! The end of the day was reminiscent of the end of life itself. The Church was in semi-darkness, which is just where unconfessed sinners want to be. Coming into the Church one could immediately find anonymity in the darkness to kneel and examine his conscience. It was an atmosphere very conducive to remorse and repentance. Far away in the gloom the flickering sanctuary lamp reminded us of the loving presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
The line typically had 8 or 9 people in it, with everyone subdued and prayerful. After confession one could walk up to the communion rail and say his penance and then stay some time in the holy presence of Christ. There was time to be prayerful. There was no rush to get groceries or to the soccer game or the cleaners…
Confession situated in this time slot made it a very easy habit to keep week after week. The very arrival of Saturday evening carried an implicit question, “Do you need to go to Confession?” Everything else had been taken care of- except one’s soul.
A very positive corollary to this frequenting of auricular Confession by so many Catholics ( the priests made it easy for us by situating it on Saturday evening) was that it made great preachers of our priests. They knew where their people were. They knew what had to be addressed- and they addressed it in no uncertain terms.
Our pastor was like Moses newly descended from the mountain, but he did not need Aaron to speak for him. “We do not get our religion from the Chicago Tribune!” he thundered. Yes, there was a lot of thunder and lightning from that pulpit, from accumulated shocks in the confessional I would guess. It was all good, all grist for the mill, from a great priest who was salt and light for his congregation- probably in large part because he faithfully heard their confessions.Comment by Lee Gilbert — 26 November 2008 @ 12:29 am
Today I was at the Cathedral of Saint Paul in Archbishop Nienstedt’s qrchdiocese. There was already a long line for the confessional an hour before Mass. I counted around 25 people who were in the line. This is good news…Comment by T-mac — 26 November 2008 @ 12:44 am
Christa: During our last penitence service (before Easter) our senior priest made a point of saying that we only needed to confess things we had DONE. Having bad thoughts, he said, were temptations and if we didn’t act on them they weren’t sins…. Are we not to confess bad thoughts?
In a sense thinking is doing. If you have a thought of some sort, and you know it is wrong, and fight it or strive to put it out of your head or try to turn you mind and correct yourself, you have done well and needn’t be overly concerned. We get into trouble when, having that thought, we make the choice to harbor it, foster it, give consent of will to it and truly make it our own in a deeper sense.
Those are the sorts of things we need to confess.
It is true that not all bad thoughts are mortal sins, but they are not good and they are tricky moments. We can indeed sin mortally in thought, as well as word and deed and omission. Thinking is a human act, a thing we do.
But a simple tendency or passing thought which we shove aside or correct, while something to be wary of, is more than likely not a mortal sin. Winning by struggling against a tendency is a good thing! You can confess it as a venial sin, of course and you should examine your conscience regularly to make sure that you are not just fooling yourself… for God cannot be fooled. But I wouldn’t make fleeting thoughts into more than what they are, especially if you do the good thing and successfully fend them off and correct yourself.Comment by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf — 26 November 2008 @ 1:09 am
I’ll be putting news of this initiative and a link to this discussion up at mine very shortly. In the meantime, a few observations:
1. With regard to the question of thoughts vs. deeds, the prayer of the Church is confiteor Deo omnipotenti…quia nimis peccavi COGITATIONE verbo opere et omissione. [I confess to Almighty God...my sins of thoughts, words, deeds and omissions...] The priest who gave you that advice was probably acting out of a misguided but legitimate pastoral sensitivity, but his counsel was bad and wrong.
2. To Fr. Zuhlsdorf, re. passing thoughts, etc.: I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard a priest say something to the effect of, “you don’t need to confess that.” It is not as bad as “that’s not a sin anymore,” but it is still bad. Of course, one may obtain forgiveness for venial sins by a sincere act of prayerful contrition: one cannot obtain SACRAMENTAL forgiveness. It is in the SACRAMENT that we ORDINARILY obtain saving grace.Comment by Chris Altieri — 26 November 2008 @ 3:42 am
I haven’t read all the comments so I’m not sure if this has been said yet or not, but I’ve seen a lot of comments about how there are not enough times available for confession. I don’t think this is the real problem. I can’t make it to confession on Saturday evenings, which is when confession is at my church, so I make an appointment with the priest in a church near work and see him for confession on my lunch hour. Of course, you have to confess face to face, but after doing this more and more it has become less and less difficult, or embarrasing I guess you could say (I know we should be embarrased Father Z, but it can be). Anyways, if people really want to go to confession, they can, the problem is that people don’t realize the importance of it anymore. I can’t tell you how much better I feel after I started going regularly 4 years ago. People need to be catechised better.Comment by Mark — 26 November 2008 @ 6:42 am
The issue is not comfort. The issue is one of penitents’ rights. Christians have a right to the grill.Comment by Chris Altieri — 26 November 2008 @ 6:50 am
So do priests, as one wise in the ways of Canon Law reminds me.Comment by Chris Altieri — 26 November 2008 @ 6:54 am
You don’t need to confess face to face when you make an appointment. The priests at our parish just tell us that they will be in the box at the appointment time.Comment by Marie — 26 November 2008 @ 7:25 am
The only snag with that is that, sometimes, someone else in church will see the green light on and pop in before you arrive….