Loss of Faith, and Indifferentism

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XXVIII (11) start of chapter

Any speculation as to the number of those who lost the faith would be as idle as profitless. It would require the labour of one of our Royal Commissions, powers well nigh inquisitorial, and a dozen years spent in journeying to and fro, to arrive at anything like an approach to the real number of those who yielded to the force of circumstances, and of those who resisted their influences. The belief of every thoughtful Catholic in the United States with whom I conversed on this subject is, that the loss has been monstrously exaggerated, the statements to that effect partaking more of the nature of an oratorical flourish than of the remotest approach to statistical accuracy—resting upon nothing more solid than a paragraph in a well-meant letter of warning, or a full-swelling passage in a terror-striking discourse. The motive in which these statements had their origin was good, but the language has been sadly reckless. From individual localities, or exceptional circumstances, results sweeping and general have been deduced. Whatever the loss—and it is altogether a thing of the past rather than of the present—there can be no delusion more monstrous, or indeed more unjust to a people or a Church, than that the Irish become, if not actual infidels, at least indifferent, the moment they land in America. Now, were not the character of the Irish—the most retentive and tenacious of all races of the world—a sufficient answer to this absurdity, the proof to the contrary is the present position of the Catholic Church of America. On this head nothing need be added to the force and authority of the passage I have just quoted from a writer so careful and cautious as Dr. White.

Neither is it true that indifferentism, though the all-pervading religious disease of America, is one of the characteristics of Catholicity in that country. The magnitude of the work done, of the vast and splendid things accomplished, is altogether inconsistent with indifferentism. There is as much active zeal, as enthusiastic fervour, as profound piety, in America as even in Ireland; and in many places the organisation for all Church purposes and every spiritual object is more complete than it is in the old country. The ceremonies are conducted with solemnity and dignity, and the congregations are collected and devotional in air and manner; and whenever the Church makes a special appeal to the piety of her children, the religious enthusiasm is fervent and intense. There is one, and that a marked difference between congregations in Catholic churches in America and in Ireland or England; and the difference is too honouring to the American character to be overlooked. In America there is most frequently in Catholic churches a considerable proportion of Protestants —who do not either idly gape about, or exhibit weariness or impatience; but who listen gravely, and conduct themselves with scrupulous decorum. I have been in many of the Catholic churches of America, and I never witnessed on the part of Protestants anything which was not respectful to the place and creditable to them.

Now, at any rate, there is no fear of loss. The day for that is gone. Wherever the axe of the pioneer clears the path in the forest, or the plough of the settler turns up the virgin soil of the prairie, the Church soon follows and erects the Cross; and no sooner does the village begin to assume the outlines of the city than the Religious Orders, those noble standard-bearers and soldiers of the Faith, push on to protect and defend the rising youth of the race and religion of Catholic Ireland. The losses of the past are to be deplored, though they have been exaggerated; but the America of the past is not the America of to-day.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

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