A frequent comment by leaders of American congregations is how difficult it is for local churches and synagogues to stay focused on a single project. Multitaskers before the word was invented, congregations teem with countless agendas, projects, and causes. Their calendars are crammed, devoid of white space. So congregations focus on what’s next, whatever that is.

What they often fail to see in the midst of all their sprinting is the long marathon they also are running. Congregations are bearers of great religious traditions, entities that live and move, often, but not always, glacially. And in ways that are often unfathomable, these traditions shape and resist the latest priority of what comedian Flip Wilson once named “the church of what’s happening now.” We ignore them at our peril.

The power, beauty, and elusiveness of long traditions comes into sharper view in James Carroll’s latest book, Practicing Catholic (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). A memoir that is also a major argument about the current state of Roman Catholicism, it begins with the author’s vivid memories of thumped chests and “mea culpas” in the pews of an Irish Catholic parish on Chicago’s south side. The snug subculture of the Catholic parish that he grew up in exploded in the 1960s. Catholicism’s external environment changed dramatically as Catholics exchanged their urban tenements for suburban houses and climbed to the highest professional and economic rungs of America’s status ladder. The 1960 election of John F. Kennedy, the nation’s first Catholic president, announced that it was a new day. Inside their parishes, dramatic changes took place—liturgies were done in English rather than Latin, priests faced the worshipers rather than a high altar, nuns exchanged their distinctive habits for conventional street clothes, and laypeople took on new roles in worship and on parish councils.

Carroll’s vocational odyssey rode the waves of Catholicism’s sea change. From his pious Catholic home he journeyed to seminary, became ordained, and then—reflecting the seismic shifts taking place in his country and church—he left the priesthood for life as a writer and public intellectual. Most of us think traditions change only when great events—like the Second Vatican Council—happen. But as Carroll tells his story it becomes clear that traditions also change biography by biography, congregation by congregation.

For many of us the events of the sixties now seem like ancient history. But consider what happened in Carroll’s vocational pilgrimage. Over centuries his church had developed powerful traditions—worship in Latin, papal infallibility, priestly celibacy, claims that it alone was the route to salvation, to name just a few. Suddenly a movement of reform questioned everything. Seminarians were asked to think what had once seemed unthinkable—that the liturgies of the church and the scriptures themselves may have been tainted by anti-Semitism, that democratic patterns of governance were gifts from God rather than threats to the established hierarchical order, that science (notwithstanding the condemnation of Galileo centuries previously) was a source of truth, that other faiths were more than collections of falsehoods, that their church’s quest for worldly power often compromised its core witness. In short, their infallible church had been wrong about a whole lot.
After several years of campus ministry to draft resisters at Boston College during the Vietnam War and feeling the contradictions of both his nation and his church, Carroll took off his stole and picked up his pen. Now, looking back after more than forty years, he concludes that in the to and fro of his priestly ministry and in the deep questioning of the people in his pews something very big was going on. He ends his memoir with a passage from the opening address to the Second Vatican Council by John XXIII, the pope who was supposed to be a caretaker and ended up reorienting an entire tradition: “In the daily exercise of our pastoral ministry, and much to our sorrow, we sometimes listen to those who, consumed with zeal, have scant judgment or balance. To such ones the modern world is nothing but betrayal and ruin. They claim that this age is far worse than previous ages…. Today, rather, Providence is guiding us toward a new order of human relationships, which, thanks to human effort and yet far surpassing human hopes, will bring us to realization of still higher and undreamed of human experiences.”

Carroll has lived long enough and watched the daily life of Catholics from the Vatican to the local parish closely enough to discern the ways his tradition surged forward and then ebbed backward into a season of retrenchment. In retrospect, it is clear that he was a participant in the long, slow unfolding of a tradition. Practicing Catholic is his testimony to how important that long, slow work is, how it is a life-and-death matter. As Americans gear up for another round of congregational mad dashes, we need to find time to follow Carroll’s lead and ask about the deeper ebbs and flows that go on beneath the surface of our daily lives.