Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Two Books Look At Generations Of Faith

By PATRICK HAYES, Book Reviewer | Published September 6, 2007

“PARISH THE THOUGHT: An Inspirational Memoir of Growing Up Catholic in the 1960s; by John Bernard Ruane. Roswell Press (Roswell, Ga., 2007). 296 pp., $19.69.

“IN THE COURSE OF A LIFETIME: Tracing Religious Belief, Practice and Change; by Michele Dillon and Paul Wink. University of California Press (Berkeley, Calif., 2007). 282 pp., $24.95.

My father-in-law, John Barrett, a newspaperman with The Hartford Courant for more than 35 years, recently died at age 76. John was a committed Catholic who learned his catechism in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood and who tuned into “The Catholic Hour” broadcasts regularly before work, marriage and family took him to Connecticut. He was always intellectually curious and gradually over the years he grew to be more and more progressive, even liberal, in his attitudes toward the church.

In looking back over a life well lived, how might one account for John’s understanding of Catholicism and his place within it? What makes a person form the kinds of sympathies that lean toward the gritty Catholicism of social justice causes and to shy away from, say, daily recitation of the rosary? Surely his is a story that is typical for many of his generation. The kind of religious grounding that many Catholics experienced in big-city America is in part reflected in two new and very different books.

John Bernard Ruane’s “Parish the Thought: An Inspirational Memoir of Growing Up Catholic in the 1960s” is a homespun tale of Catholic life as he experienced it in St. Bede’s Parish in Chicago’s “Back of the Yards” neighborhood. For Ruane the inescapable presence of his church and its Catholic school permeated every corner of social, cultural and familial relations. He imbibed willingly. This was a refuge in time of trouble and a stage upon which some very happy memories were created.

Ruane speaks with trepidation about and reverence for “the holy Father Griffin,” the builder and first pastor of St. Bede’s. He writes of his halting Latin at Mass as an altar server, devotion to the Infant of Prague and his sixth-grade CYO basketball team. The narrative is vivid and unusually precise—as if he is reliving each particular moment. Although the book is privately printed by the author, and the text falters occasionally with typographical errors, readers will find themselves on an interesting trip down memory lane with an observant Chicago Catholic.

If memoir is one way of getting at the context for how we become religiously socialized, another useful genre is the sociological study. An important new example of this has been undertaken by sociologist Michele Dillon and psychologist Paul Wink in the book “In the Course of a Lifetime: Tracing Religious Belief, Practice and Change.” They have made use of a long-term study—the Institute for Human Development Study—of individuals born in Berkeley, Calif., in the 1920s.

With interviews in the 1950s, 1970s, 1980s and late 1990s, this remarkable longitudinal research into the life stories of nearly 200 participants has yielded numerous other books. The present volume focuses on the religious attitudes of participants over the life span.

The authors examine both Protestant and Catholic religiosity, which offers an opportunity for a comparison of these groups. For Catholics, much of the change in attitude toward authority in the church, the embrace of certain pious practices, attendance at Sunday Mass and other identifiably Catholic characteristics, can be attributed to living through the twin crucible of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the teaching of “Humanae Vitae” (1968). For the vast majority of Catholic participants in this study, theirs is a mixed religiosity of measured acceptance of some but not all ecclesial behaviors and perspectives.

The authors’ findings tend to support an adage about the church’s future generations, namely, “we will get what we are.” In fact, there is hope on this score because a key finding is that “the more religiously invested individuals are in a particular religious tradition, the less likely they are to decrease their investment.” As part of “the greatest generation,” people like John Barrett have bequeathed a promising legacy for the church in America.


Hayes teaches theology at St. John’s University in New York.