Leslie Schull, the religion correspondent for CNN, found herself back in Helena six weeks after she had caught the argument on the steps of St. Helena Cathedral. The filming for the special report she had been preparing had been interrupted by the news cycle that followed the showing around the country of her crew’s video clips of the Bishop yelling at the young girl. After some gentle prodding negotiations, the Bishop had been convinced that her report on the great cathedrals of the West would bring positive recognition back to him and to the Church. So she and her crew had spent several early hours on a beautiful Montana Sunday morning setting up the cameras to film the Cathedral’s Sunday liturgy. Several people had stopped by to check on them to make sure that the camera’s were concealed and that the filming would not interrupt the Sunday services.
This special report was important to Leslie because she had grown up in Helena and had been raised a few blocks from the Cathedral. She had been in grade school when Vatican II had opened and she was in high school when the spirited renewal had begun in the Diocese. She remembered the hope of those days with longing. 30 years later in the American Catholic Church hope was a rare grace.
Leslie had been a key figure in reporting the terrible scandals and struggles of the past decade especially the past two years. She watched and commented on the struggles of a church hierarchy operating from fear and defensiveness, attempting to explain their need to control people’s faith from an old-fashioned centralized authority. This experience was in sharp contrast to the experience of being an adolescent girl meeting with the Bishop who had just returned from Rome energized and imbued with a powerful conviction that the Church was renewing itself beyond expectation and beyond historical precedent. She felt invited into the renewal, key to its accomplishment. Her faith had been molded in this great time and she had never abandoned her own belief and hope that the Church’s renewal would be completed within her lifetime.
She hadn’t lost faith during the years of struggle after Vatican II when everything changed and the loss of vocations altered the American Church and its work. She remained committed to the work of being a lay woman defining her own ministry in a Church that didn’t always value her point of view. In college, a priest historian had given a class on Vatican II and said the Council’s changes would not be completed until at least 30 years after it’s closing ceremony. As she had watched the counter-renewal, the entrenchment of hardened judgmental conservatives around the hierarchy often depressed her. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she held onto a belief that it was to be expected and that history was on her side.
Now she wasn’t so sure. The faces of hardened church authorities that she filmed from one end of the country to other seemed to be the face of the Church now, yesterday and forever. She often thought of the silent movie, The Passion of St. Joan, as she watched the news stories about American bishops. In that powerful film, close-ups of smart, cunning, shrewdly compassionate hierarchical faces surrounded St. Joan looking down on her eventually breaking her will.
Leslie’s will was not broken, but her faith in the 30-year completion of Vatican II’s renewal had been shaken as the anniversary approached. Things were not right with the Church and the power of the conservative forces in Rome had created an American college of Bishop’s both unsure of its own power and arrogant in its absolutism.
As she watched during the filming of the Bishop’s mass on this Sunday morning, she had to laugh at the up and down hesitancy of a congregation not sure when to stand and when to sit. She had noticed it all over the country. The week before in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, she had watched people standing during the Consecration, looking around, self consciously standing or slipping to their knees.
When she was a girl in high school, the congregation had been invited to stand at the Great Amen at the end of the Prayer of Consecration. She was told that it was a sign of all the faithful’s active role in the Consecration and in the priesthood. Currently this idea was one of the changes that the conservative community wished to roll back. It was an error to encourage the laity especially woman to believe that they had a changing role in the redefinition of the Church. It was one of the mistakes that had led the laity to believe they could counter the expressed will of the hierarchy. It was one of the reasons that the American laity had fallen into the misconception that their conscience when formed in the crucible of sacramental wisdom and understanding had authority.
It was now almost comical to see people standing, sitting, kneeling at different times, some with conviction, some unsure what to do, some glaring at people who dared stay standing. She had to laugh that the great debate of her Church now reminded her of the child’s gopher game in pizza parlors and carnivals: Who dared pop up and who with malice was ready to hammer the pop ups back into their hole.
Almost as if reading her mind the Bishop stood up after communion to make a proclamation. He announced that in line with the universal practice of the Church, the congregation would stay kneeling until after the Great Amen. He reassured people that they had not been committing a sin by standing, but now they would know better and should remain kneeling.
Leslie was taken aback like the rest of the congregation when an altar girl emerged from the back row of the servers and challenged the Bishop. Ironically she recognized the girl as the one the Bishop had been caught yelling at six weeks earlier.
“Bishop,” the little girl said, “you aren’t telling the whole truth.”
The Bishop was also startled. This was unprecedented for a bishop to be challenged openly atMass. The look on his face showed that he couldn’t believe it was happening.
“You said it,” she continued, “like there was no other option but to kneel and do what you say. “That isn’t true, is it?”
The Bishop started to prepare to leave and to ignore the challenge.
“Isn’t that the problem. You said in your sermon that the bishops were having a hard time. Isn’t that the problem? They want to do it their way and to convince us that it is the only choice. I guess I can do it your way, although I like to stand up and add my big Amen. If I feel I have to stand I promise I’ll do it behind one of the pillars.”
This produced a loud laugh from many of the people in the church. “Standers all,” Leslie thought to herself.
The laugh however tipped the Bishop over the edge.
“You can’t tell me what’s right,” he pronounced. “I’m a bishop. You’re a little girl.”
Forgetting that all of this was being videoed, his statement and the subsequent laugh from the congregation and the little girl’s mischievous expression were all caught on tape.