American Pilgrimage: A Historical Journey Through Catholic Life in a New World
By Christopher Shannon.
Augustine Institute and Ignatius Press, 2022.  
Hardback, 580 pages, $34.95.

Reviewed by Rev. Anthony D. Andreassi.

In anticipation of its fiftieth anniversary in 1986, Life magazine asked David McCullough to write an essay to summarize the important world events of the last half-century and to do so in just five thousand words. Despite its enormity, McCullough accepted the challenge and more than met it. In American Pilgrimage, historian Christopher Shannon takes on a similarly gargantuan task in attempting to tell the story of Catholic life in North America over the last five centuries in little more than five hundred pages. The results are equally impressive thanks to Shannon’s command of the historiography as well as his ability to weave an engaging narrative with just the right amount of detail that does not overwhelm.

In the introduction, Shannon wisely lays out his goal: he clearly states that he does not plan to offer another comprehensive history of Catholic life in North America. In fact, two very fine ones have been published recently: Leslie Woodcock Tentler’s American Catholics: A History (2020) and Kevin Starr’s Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America (2016). Shannon relies heavily on this latter book as well as the older but still quite valuable narrative of Jay P. Dolan, The American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present (1985). Rather, Shannon proceeds as a pilgrim who must choose what places he wants to visit (and those he thus cannot) on the way to his final destination. While it is true that no pilgrimage nor comprehensive history can stop at every place or touch on every topic, Shannon may undersell himself a bit, for as he leads us on this journey, he impressively explores a vast and appropriately chosen array of topics while rarely rushing or dawdling in the time spent with each.  

Shannon divides his book into three creatively named parts, each of which is further divided into three chapters. In the first part, “Seeds,” we are introduced to the three major European colonizers of North America: Spain, France, and England. In his discussion of each, he gives due consideration to the Europeans’ interactions with and effects on the Native peoples. He begins, of course, with Christopher Columbus. In his treatment of El Almirante, Shannon neither canonizes nor vilifies him; rather he expends a good bit of effort to understand Columbus and those who followed in their context while not whitewashing over atrocities. Though evangelization was a primary motive for Columbus, there is no evidence that he brought any priests with him on his first voyage. 

But they eventually did come, including Friar Ramon Pane, who came on the second voyage in 1493. While some men of God are sadly remembered for their inhuman treatment of Native peoples, this lay brother was decidedly different. A creative and courageous man, Pane was not afraid to push beyond the limits of the Spanish forts to meet the Native peoples of Hispaniola and introduce them to the Christian faith. To do this effectively, Pane learned their language and culture; he eventually wrote his landmark Account of their customs and legends in 1498. More importantly, two years earlier he won his first convert among the Tainos in the person of Guaticabanu, who was baptized “Juan Mateo.” Sadly, Juan Mateo’s life in the faith was short: in the summer of 1497 he and several other newly-baptized converts were victims of a revenge killing by some of his own people who were now waging war against the Spanish.  True to Tertullian’s dictum that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, after his martyrdom Juan Mateo’s mother, who had earlier resisted the missionaries’ efforts, followed in the footsteps of her son and was baptized.  

The rest of Part I is divided between an examination of the faith’s first beginnings in the French and English colonies. Beginning with the former, after the valiant but ultimately failed attempts at evangelization by the Franciscan Recollects, King Louis XIII (under the influence of Cardinal Richelieu) turned next to the Jesuits, who not only led the way in establishing a local church but also wound up wielding a strong hand in the affairs of state for a time. It was their mission to the Huron and Iroquois peoples that would come to be known as a golden age for the Jesuit evangelization of New France. Between 1642-1649, their missionary labors would ultimately result in the martyrdom (and eventual canonization in 1930) of eight French Jesuits as well as the conversion of a young girl, Kateri Tekakwitha, whose exemplary holiness of life led to her canonization in 2012.  

After these forays among the Spanish and French colonies, Shannon next leads us to the middle region of the Atlantic seacoast and the first English settlements. Since the Maryland colony was the beginning and center of a Catholic presence in the original colonies, we are introduced to the Calvert family, who first planted the colony in 1634 and then led it for a brief time. However, since the Calverts and most other Catholics lost their place in society thanks to the Glorious Revolution of 1689, most Catholics tried to keep a low profile while earning their bread and staying faithful to their faith in the face of new restrictions placed on them by England’s new Protestant monarchs. John Henry Cardinal Newman would later refer to English Catholics who had to endure even harsher conditions during what became known as the “penal times” as a gens lucifuga

With the coming of the American Revolution, the fortunes of Catholics in the colonies (which soon became states) improved dramatically. Much of this was due to the support members of the Catholic community gave to the patriot cause as well as the prudent maneuverings of people such as members of the Carroll family, a few of whom became de facto leaders of the Catholic community. While John Carroll, the first American bishop, is still well remembered for his role in helping to build the first institutional structures of the American church, also worth remembering (and not only for laudatory reasons) is his cousin, Charles Carroll. Numbered among the Founding Fathers, he was likely the wealthiest man in the nation, largely thanks to being a major holder of slaves which numbered almost 400 at the time of his death in 1832. By way of comparison, around this time the Jesuits in Maryland held about 192 human persons in bondage. It was not until 1838 that they divested themselves of their human chattel by selling (not manumitting) their remaining 272 slaves and did this in contravention to several stipulations set by the Superior General, including that families not be separated.  

Though far less beleaguered than before, in the early years of the new republic the Catholic community was still relatively small and scattered, numbering about 25,000 and centered mostly in Maryland and Pennsylvania. And as immigration from Europe grew throughout the nineteenth century, the size of the Catholic population expanded greatly too. However, this growth undid much of the previous goodwill Catholics had won from their Protestant neighbors, as the latter soon felt threatened by the growing number of these new arrivals with their suspect religion, traditions, and foreign language. Interestingly, many of these Catholic immigrants came to America with little religious training or commitment to regular practice of the faith. Priests working with newly arrived Irish immigrants to New York City found that many of them could not even make the Sign of the Cross. Thus the American bishops had their work cut out for them in providing the necessary catechesis for these immigrants and their children as well as meeting their material needs.  

To help on both fronts, at both the behest of bishops and acting on their own initiative, women religious (nuns) soon set to work (as their numbers continued to grow) establishing a whole network of schools, hospitals, and charitable institutions, first in the east but then expanding to the west as the nation’s borders ultimately reached to the Pacific. For example, the First Plenary Council of Baltimore (1852) decreed that schools be established in connection with all parishes. With the hard work of the nuns and the incredible generosity of the poor they were serving, the number of Catholic schools rose dramatically, as the church in Pennsylvania could attest. In 1850 there were 14 parochial schools educating a few hundred students across the Keystone state; by 1880 that number had grown to 169 enrolling more than forty thousand children.  

Over the course of this century and into the twentieth, the proliferation of Catholic schools would become particularly threatening to some as they feared that these institutions would not turn their students into patriotic citizens because of Catholics’ “dual allegiance.” Not only did nativists make sure that there would never be public funding for religious schools (unlike for hospitals and other charitable institutions), but by 1922 Oregon had passed a law that effectively abolished Catholic schools by mandating that all children in the state attend a public school. This blatant act of anti-Catholicism galvanized Catholics around the nation who quickly set to work to overturn the statue, which was eventually done when in 1925 the Supreme Court unanimously ruled the law unconstitutional in its landmark Pierce vs. Society of Sisters decision. This legal battle was just one example of how Catholics in the nation had begun to organize themselves effectively on a national level both to fight for their equal rights as well as work to build up the church.  

With the entrance of the U.S. into World War I in 1917, the American bishops created the National Catholic War Council (NCWC) to attend to the spiritual needs of Catholic soldiers. Thanks to its success, after the war the bishops decided that it seemed advisable to continue to work collaboratively on issues that touched on them equally, so with a slight name change (War to Welfare), this body expanded the issues it would work on. (The current U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is the NCWC’s direct descendant.) In general, at this time those pushing for episcopal collaboration could be described as inhabiting the more progressive (or “Americanist”) wing of American Catholicism and included figures such as James Cardinal Gibbons and Msgr. John A. Ryan. A son of Irish immigrants and raised on a farm in rural Minnesota (a rarity of sorts since the Irish tended to settle in cities), after ordination Ryan studied moral theology at the Catholic University of America, ultimately writing his dissertation on the “living wage.” This soon led him to devise a whole program of social and economic reform that included advocating for a progressive income tax, unemployment insurance, and a minimum wage. Greatly influenced by Ryan’s thought, in 1919 the NCWC released the pastoral letter, “Bishops’ Program on Social Reconstruction,” which Ryan had drafted. While there is no evidence that this pastoral letter directly influenced Franklin Roosevelt, his New Deal reflected many of the letter’s values and programs which had preceded it by more than a decade. In fact, the infamous Father Charles Coughlin (described by one biographer as “the Father of Hate Radio”) and eventually a leading opponent of FDR derisively referred to Ryan as that “Right-Reverend New Dealer.”   

For the last two chapters, Shannon leads us through the post-World War II era of the American church and its rise to full stature. Comprising 25% of the total U.S. population in 1960, Catholics made a statement that year with the election of the nation’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy. Raw data from this post-war era also tells the story of a community and its institutions whose growth and expansion seemed limitless. To offer a few figures, by the mid-1960s the church in the U.S. had more than 180,000 nuns and over 800 hospitals. In New York City alone, there were just shy of 450,000 students in K-12 Catholic schools. The Catholic community was changing racially too. By 1959 the black Catholic population had reached 600,000, which was still only 3% of the total black population in the nation, but this was double what it had been three decades earlier. Finally, on the cultural front, in the mid-1950s one of the most watched television programs was hosted by a Catholic bishop, Fulton J. Sheen. But like all “golden ages,” it was not to last, and its decline came far more quickly than most anyone could have imagined.

While historians will surely continue to debate the leading causes for the decline, what is not in dispute is how rapidly the wider world was changing by the late 1960s through the civil rights movement, feminism, the escalation of the Vietnam War, youth culture, and the legalization of abortion in 1973, to name just a few. Events and social movements such as these were having an increasing impact on how American Catholics both understood and practiced their faith. Within the church’s own walls, the implementation of the reforms of the Second Vatican and the promulgation of Humanae Vitae (1968) proved to be equally dislocating and divisive for American Catholics, particularly insiders such as priests and religious, many of whom voted with their feet in response to these changes and the general atmosphere of questioning, if not rejecting, authority and tradition. For example, between 1966 and 1985, roughly one-fifth of all diocesan priests left the active ministry.  

1985 was also significant in the life of the American church, as this was the first time the press gave serious attestation to the sexual molestation of children by priests in its coverage of a serial priest-abuser in the Diocese of Lafayette. Before this, generally when crimes like this came to light, bishops tended to cover up the abuse and hush up victims, at times with the tacit approval if not collaboration of civil authorities. But this was to be the beginning of the end of that practice, as more allegations came to light around the country, ultimately reaching a crescendo in 2002 with the Boston Globe’s exposé of clerical abuse and ecclesiastical cover-up in the Boston Archdiocese. The press coverage of the decades-old scandal in Boston soon prompted Pope John Paul II to summon leading American bishops to a meeting in Rome; the resignation of the leader of the church in Boston, Bernard Cardinal Law, followed shortly thereafter. It will take future historians to assess the ultimate impact of these revelations (which continue to the present day) on the American Catholic community, but suffice it to say that for now, they have had devastating effects on the faith of American Catholics and have been used as fodder for some enemies of the church to settle old scores or push forth new ones. 

While the church in America today faces historic challenges, Shannon concludes our pilgrimage not with doom and gloom, but with some sober context. For example, while certainly the number of active priests in the U.S. is far below historic levels, the priest-parishioner ratio in the U.S. (1 to 1,700) is still much better than in Africa (1 to 5,000) where the faith is alive and growing. But the vibrancy of the faith in any land, Shannon notes, cannot simply be measured in charts and tables. The real extent of the pilgrim’s progress is found in his joy upon reaching his destination.

Rev. Anthony D. Andreassi, Ph.D., is the author of Teach Me to Be Generous: The First Century of Regis High School in New York City.

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